“Don’t run.” In college I was a lifeguard and I said that a hundred times a day. Last week, for Spring Break, I spent some time around a pool, and noticed kids running everywhere. It’s a magic formula. Water, bare feet, slippery surfaces, and children just can’t help breaking this rule. They are going to run.
And lest I get accused of picking on children, I don’t believe us adults are much better at following such rules -- especially those that personally slow us down. Just try to drive the speed limit on “I-40” between Conway and Little Rock. I dare you. And I don’t want to hear the justification that it would actually be dangerous to do so because everyone else is speeding. We can always come up with some justification.
When I was in seminary, a couple of times a year I would drive between Little Rock and Durham, NC. It was a 900-mile journey, on I-40 the whole way. And in those days – the mid 80’s – the speed limit was 55 miles an hour. On my first trip – driving to start seminary, remember – I got pulled over. I also, somehow, perhaps inspired by the Holy Spirit, asked the officer a brilliant question. I asked if this ticket would go on my record in Arkansas, and the officer said “no.” At that time, they did not bother transferring this information across state lines. So, from that point on, I just budgeted for a ticket. To heck with the law. I would drive as fast as I wanted to. Now, to be clear, I’m not recommending this. I’m confessing. I am a law breaker.
But maybe you don’t break the law at all, and never have – never drank or smoked something when it was illegal to do so, never took anything you shouldn’t have, never turned in homework that you got from someone else. Maybe you are a rule follower through and through, and maybe you think that God will reward you. Maybe you have earned your way into God’s presence.
In Jesus’ day, following the law was important. God was the giver of the law and his chosen people were called to follow this law. In this environment, rules and regulations multiplied. There were laws for everything. And the faithful paid attention. Most thought of themselves as good, law-abiding citizens. They faithfully upheld their end of the covenant with God and God blessed them for it.
And then Jesus comes along and says things like, “you have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say that God looks upon the heart and even if you are angry with your sister or brother, or insult them, you are liable to the same judgment.” Or, “you have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ but I say if you even look upon another with lust you have already committed adultery in your heart.” (Matt 5:21-30). These are hard sayings from Jesus. Jesus wanted it to be clear that sin is not just a matter of outward disobedience. It is a matter of the heart. And in here (heart), we all fall so short of the law.
We are “poor in spirit,” he says. We do not have the spiritual resources to transform our hearts. On our own we are under the bondage of sin and it will destroy us. So, the law, from our perspective as Wesleyan Christians, is first to reveal God’s hearts – not just God’s rules - and then to show us how short we fall. Our only hope for salvation is in the transforming grace of God.
To continue this thought, and to summarize our second lesson from Romans, in Christ we are free from the “laws of Moses.” Our salvation does not depend on these laws. We are not, however, free from the law of God – the law that illuminates the very heart of God. This law is summary with the word love, the one great commandment of God. This law is reflected in the virtues of humility, kindness, patience, gentleness, temperance. This law is not written on tablets or paper. It is to be written on our hearts.
In this light, we see Jesus actually break some of the rules, in order to “fulfill the law of God.” In our first scripture lesson today, we saw Jesus break some rules about not doing anything on the Sabbath, in order to show and share the love of God and bring healing into the world. That law was written on his heart.
I want to attempt to summarize our understanding of the law as Wesleyan Christians (and, using the reflections for this week on our website, you can read more about the difference between how Wesley defines the law as opposed to other Protestant leaders). Here’s the summary for today: The law cannot save us. We can never earn our way into God’s presence by following the law, because the law of God is so much more than just obeying some rules. It is a matter of the heart. Our hearts are transformed by grace alone, as we open our hearts to God’s love through faith. At this point, as Wesleyan Christians, we do not say that the grace nullifies the law, and that the law doesn’t matter. No, we believe that Christ leads us back to the law. God works within us, transforming us to grow in this law and to “uphold” it, to use Paul’s language. As we walk with Christ, the image of God is renewed within us and we are able to reflect the very law and will of God in the world. So, we strive to live by the law, not to earn God’s blessings, but to reflect God’s love. That is our calling in the world.
So, this week, as you perhaps walk across a street at some other place than a cross walk, or roll through a stop sign, or go over the speed limit, or do something other than worship and rest on the Sabbath, or get angry with someone, or gossip about someone, or objectify someone with lust in your heart, or practice something other than patience and kindness to someone you might think of as an enemy or “different” in some way – then know this, you are alienating yourself from the will of God and from the blessings of God. You are in spiritual danger. You are disrupting the moral order of the universe. That’s what happens when we break the law.
And yet, God, the righteous judge, responds by the same law to which we are called. God comes with mercy, patience, forgiveness, grace, while at the same time, calling us to grow in the same. God’s mercy, for example, comes to us, but not just to let us off the hook; rather, it comes to us to be passed on to others.
This morning we have the opportunity to come to this table of grace where we receive the strength and nourishment we need to establish the law of God in our hearts, in our lives, in our relationships, in our world. Before you come, confess your sin, your falling short, your need. Then Come to receive God’s love, freely given. Be transformed by this love. Then go forth to share it with others. Amen.