Forget the rules, follow the love
A sermon preached by the Rev. Deacon Jason Burns
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 26 December 2021 [1 Christmas]:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18, Psalm 147.
The apostle Paul is not a very popular guy, and I don’t just mean he wasn’t popular when he was alive, he is not popular among many people today for various reasons, but I like Paul and I like his writing, even when I disagree with it. I like Paul because unlike the authors of the Gospels he gives us a window into a 2000-year-old struggle with faith. His letters were written to specific people to help them understand their faith and figure out what it means to be a follower of Christ Jesus and that is why I want to focus on Paul’s letter today.
You might think that the second half of the passage from Galatians is the logical part to focus on because it talks about the birth of Jesus and we are amidst Christmas celebrations; but I think the first half is the important part, specifically the very first line, which says “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.”
The law Paul is referring to is Temple Law, which was extremely strict and primarily a human invention. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, as we all know, were extreme rule followers and they sparred with Jesus on many occasions, attempting to trap him as a rule breaker, but he always dodged it by flipping the attack on its head and pointing out that their rules were not God’s rules, they are human rules, and he was not there to deal with human rules, he was there to establish a direct path to God. Paul knows this very well, and despite his background as a Pharisee, he embraces the idea that salvation can be achieved through faith, and it is no longer necessary to endure the discipline of the law to achieve salvation, though he still likes his rules because he is still a pharisee at heart. Of course the irony is that the church that is ultimately built on the foundation of scripture, which includes Paul’s writings, is one that creates mountains of rules that reduce salvation to something that is only achieved by the people who admit their guilt for not following the rules; but that is a different conversation and you are probably wondering if I am ever going to talk about the baby Jesus, but I’m not going to.
Paul said that the law was a prison, and I think he is right, because whether we look at Temple Law or Medieval Church Law the focus was not really faith, it was not about cultivating a relationship with God, it was about making sure people followed the rules so that God would not punish them, and it was about ensuring that the power structure of society was maintained. The issue with this system is that the rules replaced God in the equation, instead of the other way around, which is the point of Christ Jesus. Jesus turns the rule book on its head and says “I’m the rule book. Me! If you want to experience God, if you want to achieve salvation, then follow me, the way of love.” Now Jesus is not rejecting “the law”, he is saying the law is not enough and, in some cases, not necessary. Rules are guardrails, they let us know where the boundaries are, but they are not what brings us closer to God; faith, which means complete trust in God does that. We can spend our entire lives staying within the lines of the law, never once straying, and still never experience God. Why? Because following the rules is not faith. Faith is faith! Following the rules is obedience and obedience is not love, which matters because if God is the source of Love, then God requiring obedience doesn’t make any sense; love is rooted in trust and trust is also rooted in faith, it’s in the definition.
Paul talks about the coming of Jesus as the revealing of faith, which I really like because it implies that faith always existed, it was just hidden. John talks about the Word existing from the beginning and that through the Word, life in the form of a light, burst onto the scene and that light shined so bright that the darkness, as much as it tried, could not overshadow it. The darkness is meant to represent a life without faith, a life more concerned with following the rules than trusting the love of God. The light is Jesus Christ, God incarnate acting as a beacon, like the north star. It can seem distant, but it is steady, and nothing will cause it to go out, not even death. Where we run into issues is when we block our own view of the light. We put on our blinders and say to ourselves, well I know that the light is over there, but I am really curious what’s down this really dark rabbit hole off to my right so I’m just going to take a quick trip over here and see what happens and before we realize it we lose sight of the light and eventually forget about it and that my friends is sin; which is a dirty and loaded word because it implies that we have broken the rules; but we haven’t broken the rules we just took a detour. How, then, do we get back on track?
We discerningly return to the Word, which according to John, is the source of life that is the light of all people. The word is the embodiment of God, it was, is, and continues to be Christ Jesus. While the body of Jesus, born two thousand years ago is no longer with us, the word is. And the word is both the source of Love and life in the universe. So, to get back on track we turn to God, and we humbly follow where God takes us; knowing that God will lead us into our full potential as their creation; into a full use of our God given gifts and talents. When we divert from our talents and attempt to do things we aren’t suited for, we are in fact centering our lives on ourselves and not on God and that is the very definition of sin. The rules, or the law as Paul called it, is our, meaning humanities, attempt to make sure we don’t get off track but breaking the rules we made is not the sin. Forgetting about God is the sin and that is why I don’t like that word; it has been corrupted and misunderstood for too long.
If you feel you are off track, that you can’t discern God in your life then perhaps it is time to look for the light in the darkness. If you need to visualize it look at this candle right here, it is called the Christ candle and it represents the light Paul is talking about, it is the light in the darkness, it is the source of life. Life grounded in the Word, which means if you faithfully follow it, you will find life, you will find love, and with God’s grace you will find joy, which is how you will know you are on track. Amen.