THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 95
Law or love?
Law or love?
Most of us wear different hats at different times. There is our business hat, our parental hat, our church hat, our rebel hat, and many more. Most of us wear the good citizen hat part of the time. We pay our taxes, put out our rubbish and try to keep to the speed limit most of the time. Sometimes we are unaware that we change these hats from time to time - and that our life consists of a moving from one scenario to another often without our ever being conscious of our change of approach.
Some of us conform to the standards followed by other Christians and try not to stand out too much in our theology morality or practice. We wear a hat labelled ‘A normal Christian’. Lets question what is going on behind this facade.
What most Christians are doing is trying to live good Christian lives according to the standards and morality we have inherited and adopted. Nothing wrong with that, surely! Would that society generally followed such principles and standards! We try to love our enemies, try to be good and try to follow the precepts of the New Testament. We try to be good Christians, quite unaware that that sort of pattern is what Jesus walked away from. He not only refused to follow the norms of the day, he actually scandalized good people and acquired a bad name for himself among the religious community. He was labelled as someone in revolt.
Revolt is a badge of the young, but this was not revolt for revolt’s sake. It was abandonment of all manmade ordinances in favour of living in the free all-inclusive glorious love of God conveyed through humans to one another.
What does it mean to love in the way advocated by Christ? It means you stop dead every tendency you find in yourself to try to conform to the world’s rules and conventions., You step outside the frame. You say, in effect, I am not going to play any more under the old rules. They may be fine for you, but they don’t work for me any more. I may find it difficult to throw some of them off - so accustomed am I to them. Some of them have become part of me, just like a walking stick sometimes becomes part of an elderly person. But I am abandoning them all for a new way. And this extends to the rules that apply in every area of life - and especially to the rules governed by what we call convention.
Christ calls us to throw off all such constraints because he has something better for us: His rule. And he has said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
What is that yoke? The yoke of Christ is love.
Every parable and every story in the gospels leads us to see that Jesus was calling everyone to a new path. A new way. A new kingdom. New cloth for new garments. Not an improvement on the old way. Not better laws and rules. Not even to a way of being better law keepers.
It is a great sadness today that many churches and church leaders seem to be calling men and women only to an improved old way, not a new way. It is called by various names - living by Christian values, obedience to moral laws, rectitude, a return to traditional ways.
I believe that Christ calls us to be non-conformist - calls us out from the rules and moralities so beloved by the orthodox. Such rules and traditions have become a weight - a burden. Christ calls us to lay down those burdens and to pick up his rule - which is simply the application of love in our hearts towards everyone all the time.
Some people hold up ‘Family values’ as being what society needs - although everyone is vague on what the term means. As if, somehow, by adopting these values we will then be able to run a orderly society without the problems we see so vividly around us in the cities and in rural areas today.
Where have these people been? Where on earth does Christ say ‘follow the rules’? Where on earth does Christ advocate family values? His only contact with his own family was very dubious - especially when they came to put him in the equivalent of a mental home!
No - Christ calls us out from conformity to rules and norms - even ‘Christian’ ones. That way lies disaster because no one can ever achieve it. We all break the rules. Be honest - when did you last exceed the speed limit? We are made to rebel - it is an intrinsic part of our make up to break the rules.
Obeying rules will never work as a principle to live by. It is a bum steer. It will never work because of what is called by some ‘original sin’. The inevitable spoke in the wheel. We all come a cropper when it comes to obeying rules and laws. Its just the way we are.
But Christ does not call us to such a way of life. He shows us in a hundred different ways how we should live - he offers us his yoke and tells us it is easy. We have rules in every area of life - secular, religious, moral. Are these easy to follow? No, they are so difficult as to be impossible.
Instead of rules, Christ offers us his yoke. What is his yoke? It is love. Love must motivate us. Love must permeate us. Love must surround all we do. Love must enable us respond to being forced to do something unpleasant by offering to do it for twice the distance - twice the time.
Only love will enable us to turn our face for the bully to slap the other cheek. Only love will enable us to land ourselves on a cross and still forgive those who revile us.
Our common perversion of the gospel is that, because we cannot obey the rules of whatever sort they are, forgiveness is all we need.
In this scenario we believe that we are meant to live law abiding moral lives and we do try to do that. But we fail. We fail because - it is said by some - our early ancestor consciously sinned. So now we all sin and are sinful. So, with sin and failure as part of our daily life we need forgiveness. This - it is said - has been purchased for us by Christ dying on the cross - so we are forgiven and can start again. Then we go out, refreshed, and we sin again. We come back, ask for forgiveness and, pardoned, move out again etc.
This is a travesty of the gospel. Get hold of a red letter bible and read Christ’s words in the four gospels. What he is declaring is a new covenant. Not one where life consists of trying to follow legal, social and moral laws - trying and failing as every Jew has done since Moses. Rather we are called to open our eyes to see the new Kingdom which is coming to birth all around us. What new Kingdom? Why, the new Kingdom of God where love reigns. Nothing else. Where the Spirit of Christ leads us and fills us and empowers us - that is, fills us with love. God’s love in every person - giving and receiving love. God’s love extending to those who hurt, maim and even try to kill us.
That is the gospel. The good news. That by his birth, life, death and resurrection Christ ushered in the Kingdom of God. A kingdom where we don’t try to follow laws but, instead, open ourselves to receive the freely given love of God, and then let it flow through us to others all around us and especially to our enemies. The Holy Spirit is given to us, not so that we can live perfect lives, conforming to all the moral standards, but so that we can love.
‘Oh, but….’ I hear you say. Have a care! The man who fights against God is onto a loser! Graphic language in the gospels shows us that we are not just dallying with wordy philosophies here. This is real stuff. Real challenge. You cannot just dismiss this, however much you may initially disagree with it or are disturbed by it.
We have to deal seriously with this challenge. Why? Because we know, deep down, that we have far too often and too easily settled for a watered down version of Christ’s message. We have settled for a cross that is just the antidote for our failed attempts to be moral. We have adopted far too easily a compensatory easygoing Christianity. We use the cross when we fail our high moral standards and, feeling guilty, feel also the need for forgiveness. Being forgiven we then start again trying to fulfil the moral standards - and fail again!
If you want to go on, living comfortably in your particular circumstances, being ‘good’ and respectable, supporting Save the Children, trying to follow whatever moral standards your church adheres to, then fine. That may be good enough for you. But be aware - there is another world out there. It is a world where rules and laws and moral codes have very little place. It is a world where the attitude of the heart is all important. It is a world where kindness and love are paramount.
And, really seeing this, you are like someone emerging from a thick tropical forest who comes out onto a wide sunlit plain, stretching as far as the eye can see. Life on the plain is much simpler than trying to struggle through the forest. There you could not see the wood for trees - here, on the plain, life is much clearer. Here you can go in almost any direction, as long as it is forwards. You are walking under a sunny sky without let or hindrance. You are free to take any path that seems best to you and the Holy Spirit. The path you take will lead you to the horizon, where love abounds. On the way your only guide is love - but it will lead you every step of the way.
And along the way you join with other free souls and together you will sing songs of praise and thanksgiving. Royal souls, on the way home to a loving Father, finding your way unerringly across the trackless plain because you are led by the Spirit of Christ.