Laws and Limits to Autonomy. Yeah, that's the Gospel, Oh My
When you think of laws, what usually comes to mind for you? I tend to think of laws as rules that help order and govern a group of people. Just about every gathering of people has some form of laws that help them not just make decisions, but also provide evidence and justification for why a decision is made the way it has been.
And certainly Israel was really no different to any other group of people in needing laws to help govern their life together. Through Moses, as we hear in our reading from Nehemiah, God provides 613 laws to Israel, which you find in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. You can identify the laws because they usually begin with this sort of wording: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying ...” (Exodus 25:1). Technically, the ten commandments are distinct from the law of Moses because God gave those commandments directly to the people rather than providing them through Moses; but they are generally considered a summary of those 613 laws; summarized once again by Jesus who says, “but I say to you, you must love God and love your neighbour, who may also be your enemy.”
I want to set the scene for you in Nehemiah. You see at the time this passage was written, about 100 years had passed since Israel had been given up to the Babylonians by God and they were still experiencing tremendous opposition and affliction from their enemies. It was precisely in these trials that Israel recognized how fragile they were as a people and as individuals, and so how utterly dependent they were on God. They demonstrate this by coming together as one gathered body to one location and requested Ezra, the priest and scribe, to bring out the law of Moses, which God had given to Israel (Neh. 8:1). Unlike what we hear in so many texts, it was the people who requested that the Scriptures be read to them.
Now here is an odd thing, how many of you, when reading a law, fall down with your faces to the ground so that someone must tell you not to mourn? Clearly these Isrealites recognized in the reading of the Law both who God is and how far they were, so far they could not even approach God. Yet Ezra, the scribe and priest says to them, “do not mourn or weep, this day is holy to the Lord your God.” In other words, God sees your desperate need, the fact that you finally recognize you need God, and he will come to you.
Psalm 19 elaborates this promise: “the heavens and earth testify to God himself; one cannot look at them and not see God himself in their very being.” In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. We know these words and the images that come to mind cannot help but point us to the life of God: the Son of God, the true bridegroom as we heard last week, Jesus, emerges from his mother and runs the course of his life all the way to the final wedding banquet where he gathers his people to himself as his bride. How can one not look at the sunrise, or at a wedding , or at the heavens, or at a runner, or at the lifespan of any plant or animal, ‘running the course of their lives’ and not think of these images God provides us as pointers to who he is and what he is doing with us, coming for us, gathering us, through all the particulars of our lives. The Son comes down from heaven, living out one life that is the life into which every other human being is drawn, so it is his life that is the circuit the way for all of us to follow. And as we know, nothing is hid from the Son’s heat. The judgment of God. Indeed, as Psalm 19 continues: “the law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes.
And we get back again to this law. God’s law is perfect. Why? Because God’s laws come from him, the very perfection of relationship, in his case, between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of course you and I are not God. We do not have the perfect relationship that the Father, Son and Spirit do, simply by existing. So then for us, his creation, his laws provide a way of living together with those people and things God made. Laws that press us to giving and receiving love so that all have enough to eat, to wear, to shelter, to pass on to a next generation; laws that press and pull us to live in ways that allow others to see God through HOW we live with one another.
That is the heart of all of God’s laws: the demand to live together in perfect love for one another. Yet only one person fulfills that law: Jesus Christ. I have come not to abolish God’s law, but to fulfill it he says. For I am the law. What is the law? It is the perfection of relationships between distinct persons. This is what love is. God is love, the perfection of relationship. Since God is love, love is the perfection of being. The one who loves God, neighbour and enemy, is the one who remains. For that love, as Paul puts it, is all that remains. It is everything.
When Jesus walks into that synagogue and unrolls the scroll of Isaiah to read it out loud, he is replicating the act of Ezra: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." God has sent me to run this course of life, to live it fully so that when the time is fulfilled, you all who are captive to sin, blind to God’s grace, oppressed and enslaved by the cultures from which you have come, might see in the light of Jesus the Son, the fullness of God’s love for you.
And when you know that you are loved, by the perfection of love, Paul says to the Corinthians and so also to us then, remember that you are in one Spirit baptized into one body, the body of perfect love. Rejoice in that grace. Let it fill your heart and mind so that you can build one another up in acts that show your love for each other and for God. This is God’s command. It is his law fulfilled in Jesus.
Therefore, live gently with one another. Care for one another, seek to build the other up and not tear them down. Do not abandon. Do not be jealous or envious or harsh in your judgment. You may need to sacrifice your desires and your comfort. You may need to do things you do not like. To love is to take the love you received in Christ and to bear the challenges, the restrictions, the difficulties, the people whom you may not like, to remain with them and pray for them, not simply to affirm, but to also be willing to challenge them with gentleness and self control.
God loved you not for unfettered freedom but to free you to follow him. To follow him is to learn his law, to know it, to abide it, to share it; but to do so with gentleness, always seeking not to chastise and cut down, but to draw the other person to Jesus Christ for him to transform. For you stand in the one body Christ has joined to himself and so to God, only through forgiveness and grace, not on the basis of your own righteousness. Love one another as you have been loved by love’s very perfection. AMEN.