But both are thieves. Both lead us away from God s grace and rob us of our joy.

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1 Graceful Christianity: The Law, Legalism, and Love Matthew 22:34-40 A Sermon Preached by Ernest Thompson June 1, 2014 First Presbyterian Church Wilmington, NC Last Sunday we started a new sermon series on Graceful Christianity Christian faith centered on God s grace that we know in Jesus Christ. Our lesson this morning is about God s grace and God s law or God s commandments, and both are important. 34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? 37 Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. One of early church s bishops, Tertullian, said that just as Jesus was crucified with two thieves, there are always two thieves beside us, one on each side. And they try to steal our joy and our faith. One thief is legalism, which wants to reduce faith to a set of rules. Legalism does not have room for grace. It s mostly just the rules. And keeping the rules. And making sure that everyone else is keeping the rules too. Timothy Keller says that many young people today think they have rejected Christianity but what they ve really rejected is some form of Christian legalism. They ve not really heard the good news of God s grace. On the other side there is a libertine view, the view of one who thinks he can ignore the rules.

2 2 Or thinks there are no rules, anything goes. Or thinks he can make up his own rules. So on the one side there is legalism, always calling us to make faith about the rules, and on the other side is the Libertine, who says there are no rules, or that the rules don t apply to us, or that we can make up our own rules. Martin Luther used a slightly different picture. Luther said that we humans are like a drunk man riding a horse, and always falling off on one side or the other. Luther said that when we fall off of one side, as soon as we get back on the horse, we then fall off the other side. So we re always weaving back and forth between a legalistic faith and a libertine faith. There is a little bit of Pharisee in all of us, trying to reduce the faith to a set of rules. Almost all of us are legalists about some things. And at the same time, most of us also have a little Libertine in us too a tendency to ignore the rules, or at least to ignore certain rules. We fall off the horse on both sides. And sometimes we just swing from one side to the other. But both are thieves. Both lead us away from God s grace and rob us of our joy. It s not much fun to be a Legalist. You are always worried about your sin, or about someone else s sin. Legalists are usually not very happy. Being a libertine is more fun, at least for a while. But the fun doesn t last. A life focused on fulfilling our every desire and doing whatever we want to do is actually not very fulfilling. It leaves us empty and depressed. And so we keep upping the stakes, looking for something more, and the more never comes. So finally being a Libertine is not much fun either. It also denies us the joy we are seeking. There are lots of unhappy, depressed libertines in the world. In our Scripture lesson this morning Jesus points to a different way of life way of life that is based not on rules or on the absence of rules, but rather on God s grace and on God s gracious commandments. 1. Our lesson starts with a question from a Pharisee. Jesus has silenced the Sadducees. So now the Pharisee, a lawyer, asks a question to test Jesus.

3 3 Now there is already a problem here. The Pharisee isn t asking a question because he wants to learn from Jesus something about the law, about how he can live according to God s will. The Pharisee already has all the answers, or at least he thinks he does. He asks Jesus a question to test him. And that s what legalists do. They use the law and their interpretation of the law to label and divide and to criticize. Jesus has already raised their suspicious. First Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. But God s law says, Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You shall not do any work. The Pharisees said that healing was a form of work. So they said that Jesus had violated God s law. They thought Jesus was a Libertine who played fast and loose with the law. He d tried to justify his action by asking, Is it legal to do good on the Sabbath? But the Pharisees did not answer. Legalists don t like this kind of question. Then, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, You have heard it said this, but I say to you this. And then Jesus gave a bunch of new teachings. The You ve heard it said was the Old Testament law. So it sounded like Jesus was replacing God s law with his own teaching. It was confusing and unsettling to the Pharisees. If Jesus could question some of the laws, why not question all of them? So, the Pharisee is testing Jesus. He wants to show that Jesus is a dangerous Libertine ready to throw out God s law. And so he asks, Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? 2. But Jesus was not a Libertine who ignores the law and he s not a Legalist who ignores God s grace. Jesus says, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. That is the greatest and the first commandment. Jesus starts, not with the rules, but with a relationship a relationship that will shape and transform us in ways that the rules never can. And that relationship starts, not with our love for God, but with God s love for us. Jesus says, You shall love the Lord your God. Not just any god. Not a god who has never heard of us. We love the Lord our God, the God who knows us by name, the God who created us and who loves us and forgives us. Jesus tell us to love the Lord our God. And that s the grace in this passage that the God we are called to love already loves us. That s part of what we remember every time we baptize an infant that this child already belongs to God.

4 4 The same grace is there in the lesson from Exodus. Before God gives the people of Israelite the Ten Commandments, the great summary of the law, God says, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt. That s the grace. The grace always comes before the law. But the law is still important. Jesus is not a Libertine and he does not dismiss the law. In fact, in that same Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come, not to abolish but to fulfill. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The Pharisees are right to insist on the importance of the law. Jesus says Amen to that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that preaching grace without also preaching discipleship was what he called cheap grace. It s grace without transformation. It s the forgiveness of sin without the transformation of the sinner. It is grace without righteousness. Jesus knows that the law is important and he wants us to fulfill the law. The problem comes when the Pharisees act as if the faith is only about rules. And when they think we can fulfill all the rules by our own efforts. The problem is when they ignore God s grace and preach only law. When we raise our children we certainly want them to know the rules and to follow the rules. The rules are a good thing. But we also know that the rules alone are never enough. You can t have a rule for every possible scenario. And so we want our children to be able to use their judgment. We also want to raise children who have good character. Knowing what is right is not always enough, you still have to do it. And that takes character and virtue. As Christians we need good judgment and we need good character, which means we need God s grace. We need God s grace to guide us and to strengthen us and to inspire us so that we can live the kind of life described in God s teachings. The law always needs grace, and without grace the law leads to legalism. Jesus starts with grace and with love. First God loves us, and then we love God in return. That is the first and the greatest commandment. 3. But Jesus does not stop there. The Pharisee just asked him for one commandment.

5 5 But Jesus adds a second. Jesus says, And a second is like it. You hall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two, hang all the law and the prophets. So the two go together. Love for God always leads us to love our neighbor. In Luke s gospel the lawyer ask for a clarification. He says, But who exactly is my neighbor? That s a good legalist question. He wants to know if he can stop with his next door neighbor. Or does he have to also love the guy three doors down? And how about the really grumpy neighbor who is one block over? Jesus answers by telling a story about a man who is attacked by thieves and left for dead. A priest comes by, and sees the man, and crosses to the other side. And then a Levite comes by, and sees the man, and he also crosses to the other side. And then comes a Samaritan, a foreigner, who also sees the man by the side of the road, and is moved with pity. He cleans the man s wounds and puts him on his donkey and carries him to an inn. He pays for the man and says he will come back and pay whatever else the man needs. And so Jesus says, Who was the neighbor to the man in need? Not, Who obeyed all the rules? But, Who was the neighbor? Our neighbor is not just anyone. Our neighbor is the one who is in our way the one who we come across when we are doing something else. The one who needs our help. And the love is concrete. It involves compassion, but it also means taking action. Hendrikus Berkoff says, In concrete need concrete help is given, driven by the love of Christ, without the slightest ulterior motive, be that ever so noble. The strict matter-of-factness of the help is itself the best witness for Christ. (Christian Faith p.417) Berkoff also says that the more we seek to love our neighbor, the more we will be led back to God. Berkoff says, For man s need and guilt are limitless. The more one gets involved in mercy in the name of Christ, the more one discovers how little one actually accomplishes. To persevere nevertheless, we need the daily comfort and inspiration that come from the belief that God himself has become involved in this hopeless world and will one day bring about its radical renewal. (CF p.371) We love God, and we love our neighbor, and these two things always go together. And on these two, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets. And that means everything. All of Scripture and all of what God intends for us hangs on these two commandments love for God and love for neighbor.

6 6 The Protestant Reformers adopted what they called The Rule of Love in interpreting Scripture. Every interpretation of Scripture they said, should lead us to deeper love for God and deeper love for our neighbor. And any interpretation of Scripture that does not lead us to love God and to love neighbor is a false interpretation of Scripture. We keep all the law and we keep all the prophets. But we always interpret the law and the prophets through the lens of love. Jesus says that we love God and we love our neighbor. And that s what the faith and what all Scripture is about. Too many people today think that Christianity is just a form of legalism that it s just about keeping rules. They haven t seen the real thing. They haven t seen the depth and breadth and the joy of the gospel. And so I think our calling as a church is to live and to share something different, Graceful Christianity faith centered on God s grace in Jesus Christ. As we seek to live out this graceful faith, we stay on our guard against the two thieves the Legalist and the Libertine. And what protects us from both thieves is grace. Grace keeps us from becoming legalists. And grace keeps us from becoming libertines. Grace transforms us into grateful disciples who love God with all our heart and soul and mind, and who love our neighbor as ourselves. And that s what Graceful Christianity looks like. It looks like love.

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