An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Growing Up and Becoming Lawless

A sermon on Galatians 3: 23-29 by Nathan Nettleton

The message that Jesus brought about the nature of God and the nature of life as God would have us live it is so radical and unprecedented that it scares us half to death. Even for the majority of Christians down through the ages, it has seemed too risky and too frightening, and so we have tended to distort it back into something more understandable and manageable. The thing is that human society has relied on religion to be something that maintains order and keeps us all safe. We have kept people in line by keeping them in fear of an all-knowing big-brother God from whose angry punishments no law-breaker can escape. And since not everyone is going to believe in God or fear God, we have patterned our legal systems on the same model so that those who can’t be kept in line by the fear of God might at least be kept in line by the fear of those to whom the task of dispensing God’s laws and punishments has been delegated in this life. And the natural fear is that if we were to suddenly believe Jesus and start saying God is not like that and that no amount of good or bad behaviour will make any difference to God’s love for you or acceptance of you, then it would be like just unlocking all the jails and hoping for the best. All bets would be off and everyone would be completely out of control. We fear that it would be like suddenly removing all the fences and walls at the zoo in the name of animal freedom. There’d be freedom alright, but also a lot of screaming and blood and gore.

So a fear of lawlessness, understood as violent chaos, makes it more attractive to maintain the idea that Christianity is just another legal-code religion, only perhaps a more refined version. The need to keep the chaos under control keeps such religions attractive because it gives them a familiar social function. And the underlying assumption is that wrongdoing is so attractive that only fear can stop everybody rushing into it. You can even see this expressed in some of the panicked statements coming from conservative Christians in their opposition to any relaxing of the laws around homosexuality. On a number of occasions I’ve heard them say that decriminalising and normalising homosexuality will make more people stray into it. It’s quite absurd when you stop to think about it. The increasing acceptance of gay people has not made the thought of actually going to bed with a man even the least bit more attractive to me. In fact, I’m sure that both psychologists and theologians would usually agree that the forbidden fruit syndrome ensures the exact opposite effect. It is outlawing things that is more likely to rouse curious experimentation.

In the reading we heard tonight from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the Apostle describes the law of Moses as being the disciplinarian we needed until the Messiah came. The paraphrase we heard translated this disciplinarian as a “zealous parole officer” trying to keep offenders on the straight and narrow, but that translation misses something that may be important. Tom Wright translates it as a “babysitter”, because the original word refers to a slave who was a kind of nanny or au pair for the family’s children. And what is important about that is the implication that this job of keeping them out of trouble is understood as only being necessary because they are too immature to be able to take responsibility for their own behaviour and safety. The laws and commandments are like that, says the Apostle, something we needed when we were childishly selfish and out of control, before Jesus came and raised us up to new life and maturity so that we could live freely and responsibly and graciously. And among the reasons we don’t just ditch that old part of the Bible now Jesus has come are that we need to know what we have been freed from and that there will always be children and some immature selfish adults who are still needing the clear constraints of a set of rules while they grow into their freedom.

But one of the problems with continuing to acknowledge the value of the law, even just as in interim measure is the ever-present danger of mistaking it for the real thing; of thinking that it is God’s main plan. Apart from anything else, when we give too much weight to the law, we tend to completely misunderstand God. We begin to see compliance with the law as the thing God is most concerned about, and so we begin to imagine God as someone who is watching us disapprovingly, counting up our mistakes and holding them against us. And of course, this thinking is cyclic, because the more we think of God that way, the more important compliance with every jot and tittle of the law seems to become, and life is reduced to avoiding mistakes. After the World Cup qualification the other night, the Socceroos captain spoke of the importance of keeping a clean sheet in their games; that is, not conceding any goals. They say the same in AFL football: defence wins matches. If you can avoid conceding any goals, it doesn’t matter how few you score. And it is true if winning is all that matters, but it makes for rather boring football to watch. And living under the watch of the law and a law obsessed god can be like that. We imagine that getting on the right side of God’s tally sheet involves just scoring one more goal than we concede, just balancing out our sins with good deeds and at least one more, and our focus falls on defence, on maintaining the clean sheet. So the law becomes our defence strategy so that by scrupulous compliance we can make sure sin never scores against us and it remains reasonably easy to get ahead. But that’s no way to live. That’s not what God is like and that’s not even remotely how God wants us to live. God is not going to be overjoyed by queues of people at the pearly gates saying “I didn’t do anything wrong”. God would be shaking his head sadly as he let them in and muttering under his breath, “That’s because you didn’t do anything at all. Your life was the most boringly defensive football match I’ve seen in all eternity.” So the law may have a useful role to play in keeping us out of trouble until we “get it” and are ready to really live, and it may even play a role in helping to point in the direction of real life, but it is not the real thing itself. The law can help keep us out of trouble, but it cannot get us in to life in all its fullness. In fact it stifles it. You can see glimpses of that in the categorisation of people that Paul speaks of. So much of the law was about establishing frameworks of holiness in which everybody had their place and was constrained by the limitations of their place. Men here, women there, Jews here, gentiles there, slaves here, free citizens there. Everyone in their place and with the limits of their life and their access to God defined by their place and the rules that applied to their place. But all that is no longer, says the Apostle. It is now a level playing field in Christ.

Actually, if I push the football metaphor a bit further, it is like changing teams and beginning to play with a team who have a whole different game plan. Paul reminds us that in baptism we have been clothed in Christ. We’ve ditched the colours of one team and pulled on the jumpers of a new team with an entirely different approach to the game. No longer is it all about miserly defence. Now it is about a joyous and generous and enthusiastic approach. Now it is about living life to the full, rather than avoiding mistakes by avoiding life altogether.

The truth is that the law is usually pretty powerless where it is most needed anyway. As a pastor, I’m part of a profession that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent decades, with scandal after scandal. These scandals are truly awful and they need to be dealt with thoroughly, but one of the unfortunate side-effects has been an increasing and often futile emphasis on risk management and constant professional development workshops on ethics and boundaries. And of course, one of the paradoxes and frustrations of them is that the people who keep turning up to them are in the least need of them, and the people who are really a danger either don’t come or come but don’t get it. And no amount of law is going to change that. Think too of how most parents relate to their own children. Making a law that parents should love and protect their own children is not going to change anything much. Most parents love and protect their own children instinctively and fiercely and have no need to be told. And the few parents who abuse and prey upon their own children are not concerned about what the law says about it. The law can determine how offenders are treated if caught, but it is powerless to prevent concealed abuse from happening.

Jesus’s attitude to the law was quite clear. He was frequently accused of breaking it, but he mostly didn’t speak against it. He just regarded it as a very inadequate basis for understanding God and what God wanted of us in our living of life. On one occasion when questioned about a point of law, he rather dismissively described the particular law as something Moses had given “because you were so hard-hearted” and not because it said anything good about how life should be lived (Matt 19:8). It was just a minimum requirement, a crude fence for those who could not stay even vaguely on track without it. Of other laws he said things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you”, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. The best the old law could do was put some limits on people’s tendency to retaliate in the hope that it wouldn’t escalate and get out of control. What Jesus pointed us to was something very different – a world in which retaliation was replaced by radical resilient love.

As you know, I’m a dog trainer in one of my other lives, and in dog training we have a thing we call “training incompatible behaviours.” What it means is that if a dog is repeatedly doing something you don’t want, like jumping up on people to get attention, instead of punishing it or even just trying to get it to stop, you train it to respond to the same situation by doing something else that is incompatible with the unwanted behaviour. Liking sitting, for example. A dog can’t sit and jump up at the same time, so if you teach it to sit eagerly in front of people when it wants their attention, the jumping up will disappear. I reckon what Jesus is hoping for with us is a lot like that. “If I can just inspire and liberate them to love their enemies, then I won’t have to keep making laws to stop them from killing them.” Incompatible behaviours. Loving your enemies is incompatible with punching them in the face. Doing good to those who hate you is incompatible with seeking to humiliate them. Blessing those who curse you is incompatible with insulting and slandering them. And yes, ultimately, loving as Jesus loved — generously, resiliently and universally — is incompatible with everything the law sought to prohibit, and so that’s why the law becomes irrelevant and unnecessary for those who are truly in Christ. That’s why both Jesus and Paul said that all the law and the prophets hang on the “commands” to love God and to love others, friend and enemy alike.

If we are followers of Jesus, then we are followers of someone who was never known for the things he refrained from. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, and a party-goer who ignored all those usual categories of who was and wasn’t appropriate company. But I can’t think of a single story where Jesus is described by anyone in terms of the behaviours he scrupulously avoided. I’m not saying for a moment that there were no limits to his behaviour, just that his behaviour was not dictated and thus known for its limits, but for its focus. He was not known for his defensive game, but for the joyous exuberance of his love and mercy and acceptance. And this is precisely the Christ that Paul reminds us that we have clothed ourselves in at our baptisms. We have been set free, for, as Paul puts it, “now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian (or was that the nanny?), for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. When we are saved in Christ from the compulsive need to continue the hate-fuelled cycles of an-eye-for-an-eye, we are saved into a life that is not defined by law; in fact, a life in which the law has become as obsolete and irrelevant as the need to tell a loving parent to care for their child. Jesus certainly showed us how tough and costly such love-in-the-face-of-hostility can be in a world that still clings to law as its best risk management despite its ongoing failure. But Jesus also showed us how free and joyous and abundant such a life can be. Clearly he thought that saving us into such a life was something worth dying for. And if he thought it was worth dying for, then surely it is something worth us really embracing and living for.


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