Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Perfect Obedience
Mk. 12:28-34[1]
As Christians, we claim to believe that Jesus was more than just an exceptional Jewish Rabbi. We claim to believe that there was something special about him. Through the centuries, scholars have spelled out that something special in terms of what we’ve been discussing over the last few weeks: that Jesus came as one who really and truly shows us what God is like. And he came to show us that God really and truly understands what it is like to be fully human. And he came to show us that God has fully entered our experience and has done all that needs to be done to really and truly redeem us all. As Christians, we claim to believe, and we often recite in worship, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)
We say that’s what we believe, but I think if you looked at what we actually talk about in church as a measure of whether we believe that, we’d come up with some surprising results. We in Christian churches seem to go through the motions of our faith—until somebody disagrees with us on something really important like the d├ęcor in the Sanctuary. You may find it hard to believe, but I would say most religious debates tend to get bogged down in details that are at best tedious and at worst trivial. They essentially boil down to grand adventures in “missing the point.” Now, I think debate can be healthy, and some of the debates in the church have been about important things. Some of the more significant debates in the history of the church include whether the bread and the wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper (isn’t it about experiencing God’s grace?), which text or translation of the Bible is perfect (shouldn’t we be paying more attention to Scripture itself?), and who can and cannot be ministers (is that my place or the Holy Spirit’s?). But it seems to me that even when it comes to debating important issues, our debates still tend to boil down to grand adventures in “missing the point.”
That’s the setting for our Gospel lesson for today. It comes at the end of a debate that the religious leaders have been carrying on with Jesus, hoping to make a fool out of him in front of the people who followed him. One torah scholar asks him a question about the greatest commandment—it may have been a legitimate question because that was the subject of debate among the rabbis of the day.[2] I don’t think it was pure coincidence that Jesus chose love for God and love for neighbor in reply. The “first” commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” came from the Shema, which was and still is the heart of the Jewish faith. And the “second” commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is part of a summary of the Torah in Leviticus called the “holiness code.” It’s called that because its theme is “you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
We usually think of “holiness” in a Jewish context as determined by avoiding certain foods, but there’s much more to Leviticus. Chapter 19, where Jesus gets the “second” commandment, is a restatement of the Ten Commandments some fairly specific ways. For example, in place of “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” Leviticus 19 says, “you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God” (Lev. 19:12). It not only says “you shall not steal,” it also says not to withhold a laborers wages and to honest weights and balances in trading with others. It not only says “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” it also says, “you shall love the stranger as yourself” (Lev. 19:34, RSV)!!!
The point is that Jesus was not breaking any new ground with his identification of the two great commandments. He was expressing the ideal of faith found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s the conviction that we were all created to live in relationship with God, a covenant of trust, devotion, and obedience.[3] God’s original intention for humanity in the first place was to live in relationship with God, loving and serving God by loving and serving others—a life of obedience that creates justice, and freedom, and peace for us all.[4] It is the life that is truly life.
One of the most important truths of the Christian faith is that Jesus came to make that possible for us all by living in constant and perfect obedience to the ideal set forth in Scripture.[5] By his perfect obedience, he opened the way for us all to experience a new reality, a new way of being human that is really a fulfillment what God intended for us in the first place.[6] Paul says it this way: Jesus, by his perfect obedience, completely overturned the effects of sin on humanity. In the place of death and injustice and violence, Jesus’ obedience brought life and justice and peace to all humankind (Rom. 5:12-21).
Unfortunately, if you look around, it’s hard to see many examples of people living that way. It seems that the vast majority of our fellow human beings live as if there is no God, as if there never was a man named Jesus, as if there’s no such thing as a life of freedom and justice and peace. Maybe it’s time for us to quit acting like we have nothing better to do that to squabble with each other over matters that are at best tedious and at worst trivial and realize that we have a job to do. You see, the freedom we have to live a new life in Christ was a gift to all humankind, not just to us.[7] We who have encountered the freedom of this new life, this true life, have this freedom for the purpose of sharing it.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/25/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jay B. Stern, “Jesus’ Citation Of Dt 6,5 And Lv 19,18 In The Light Of Jewish Tradition,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966):312-16.
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:9: “The ordaining of salvation for man and of man for salvation is the original and basic will of God.” Cf. also ibid., 7, 14-15, 19, 23, 37-38, 42-3, 50-51, 53, 56, 83-84, 138
[4] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:54-66, where he maintains that this has always been God’s intention against all efforts to “break up” this “one covenant” of grace into a series of different “covenants.” He disputes the “federal theology” of Johannes Cocceius, whose ideas are probably best known today in the “Dispensationalism” of Tim LaHaye.
[5] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:66: “God keeps faith in time with Himself and with man, with all men in this one man”; cf. also ibid., 19, 34-35, 48, 68, 132, 138, 159, 198.
[6] In our Book of Order, we call it the “new creation, a new beginning for human life” and “the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ.” Cf. The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200, 3.0300(c). Barth defines this “new reality” in light of 2 Cor. 5:19 in terms of becoming “covenant-partners with God who keep the covenant just as faithfully as He Himself [i.e., Jesus] does.” Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:75. Cf. further, ibid., 89-90; cf. esp. 92-122, where he describes this “new being” in some detail in terms of faith, love, and hope.
[7] Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:76-77: therefore we are called to the “ministry of reconciliation.”

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