September 15, 2019
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
(1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10)
Today, as I sometimes do, I am deviating from the readings in my sermon. Given that our branch of Catholicism is on the more liberal branch of things, I get asked questions that sometimes inspires me to write something or create a sermon based on these interactions, and today is one of those days.
Without going into specifics that will make this sermon longer than it already is, I merely want to touch on a little bit of our theology on something that influences our view on more specific topics. Our views on sexuality and birth control as examples. We view these topics with far less restrictions than many churches do – even in these “modern” times.
It’s pretty common these days for people to dismiss Christians in general as inconsistent because “they follow some of the rules in the Bible and ignore others.” The challenge usually sounds something like this: “When the Bible talks about certain sexual behaviors as sin, you quote that; but when it says not to eat shellfish or that you should execute people for breaking the Sabbath, you just ignore it. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what suits you best?”
I’ve had this said, and utterances like it, to me a few times, and truthfully it carries a lot of weight, and not just from non-Christians. Many Christians have a hard time answering it … which is why we just secretly hope it never comes up.
God’s laws were given to help people love God with all their hearts and minds. Throughout Israel’s history, however, these laws had often been misquoted and misapplied. By Jesus’ time, religious leaders had turned the laws into a confusing mass of rules. (Some churches are still doing this.) When Jesus talked about a new way to understand God’s law, he was actually trying to bring people back to its original purpose. Jesus did not speak against the law itself but against the abuses and excesses to which it had been subjected (see John 1:17).
One of the most helpful ways to think about this is to look at the types of laws there are in the Old Testament. The 16th-century Reformer John Calvin saw that the NT seemed to treat the OT laws in three ways. There were Civil Laws, which governed the nation of Israel, encompassing not only behaviors, but also punishments for crimes. There were Ceremonial Laws about “clean” and “unclean” things, about various kinds of sacrifices, and other temple practices. And then there were the Moral Laws, which declared what God deemed right and wrong—the 10 Commandments, for instance.
For OT Israel, all three types of laws blended together. Breaking a civil or a ceremonial law was a moral problem; conversely, breaking a moral law had a civil (and often ceremonial) consequence. But they only went hand-in-hand because Israel was in a unique place historically, as both a nation and a worshiping community. “Separation of church and state” wasn’t one of their core tenets. That’s not the case for the Church today, so the way we view the Law would have to look different.
All of this helps explain what often seems contradictory about the NT view of the Law. On one hand, Jesus said the Law was perfect, that heaven and earth would pass away before the Law would fail (Matt 5:18). On the other hand, the Apostle Paul points out that those who are born again – reborn in the teachings of Christ - are actually released from the Law (Rom 7:1-6; Gal 3:25). As Jesus himself put it, he came to fulfill the Law (Matt 5:17).
What does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the Law? It means that every law pointed to him, and he completed everything they pointed to. Thinking of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we keep some of the OT commands and “ignore” others.
The New Testament says that the Old Testament law was intended “to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). The ritual laws of sacrifice teach us that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22) and point us to Jesus on the cross.
The Civil Laws, for instance, were set up so the nation of Israel could thrive. Jesus actually emerged from this nation, but he started a new Israel—a spiritual Israel, the Church. We’re no longer bound by the civil codes of Leviticus because God doesn’t have a nation-state on earth anymore. Of course, we may wisely look at some of the principles in Israel’s civil laws as we think of our own societal politics (principles about public health, caring for the poor, etc.), but the specific rules were all fulfilled in Jesus. There is no longer a nation-state of Israel. Now there is the kingdom of God.
The Ceremonial Laws illustrate for us God’s holiness, our unholiness, and what God would do about it. The entire sacrificial system should have ingrained into Israel’s minds just how large the gap was between sinful humanity and a perfect God—and just how costly it would be to bridge that gap. And as the book of Hebrews shows us, the sacrifices were all fulfilled in Jesus’ perfect life and death. If we accept Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, we don’t need the lesser sacrifices anymore. In fact, it would actually be offensive to go back to them, because that would communicate that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t sufficient.
The Moral Laws are fulfilled in Jesus as well, in that he kept all of them perfectly, every day, always, for his entire life. But unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, which were more time-bound, these laws reflected God’s assessment of good and evil, right and wrong. They reflect God’s character, and since his character doesn’t change, his views on morality don’t either. In fact, whenever Jesus mentioned the moral laws, he either reaffirmed them or intensified them! To follow Jesus is to love what he loved, including the moral law.
Now, even though we still defend the moral laws of the Old Testament, we have to keep in mind that Jesus fulfilled it all. The Christian is not under obligation to keep the moral law as a way of earning her way to God. Instead, she is changed by the presence of God’s Spirit to desire to keep God’s laws. Because God isn’t just after obedience; he’s after a whole new kind of obedience, an obedience that comes from love and delight in God. Christians keep the moral commands, not because “it’s the law,” but because they love God and want to be like him.
There have always been groups of Christians who believe that in order to honor God’s authority in the Old Testament we must continue to obey the food laws and other ceremonial laws, lest we be found in disobedience. There is a good impulse in this and a profoundly bad impulse in this. The good impulse is the desire to obey God. There’s nothing wrong with that. That belongs to what it means to be a Christian. The bad impulse is the failure to obey Christ who teaches us how to obey God in regard to the Old Testament.
So, the good impulse starts, perhaps, with a text like Matthew 5:17–18. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” And the good impulse puts the emphasis on every dot, every iota of the law standing until the earth passes away. And the bad impulse neglects the words, I have come “to fulfill them,” and the words, “until all is accomplished.”
In other words, the bad impulse fails to see in Jesus the kind of fulfillment and the kind of accomplishment of the Law and the Prophets that God always intended in the Old Testament as the consummation and the end of the ceremonial laws. So, the effort to hold on to the prohibition of eating pork is, in effect, a refusal to submit to God’s plan for the fulfillment of the Law in Jesus.
Let’s be specific now. Take the laws about foods in the Old Testament — unclean foods, which include pork. Jesus said something very specific about this in Mark 7:15–19. He said this:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean. There is acknowledgement, however, that what one person deems “food” and that of another may be different.)
In other words, the prohibition of certain foods as unclean was a temporary part of God’s way of making Israel distant or distinct from the nations of the world. With the coming of Christ, dramatic changes take place in the way God governs his people, because we are no longer a political-ethnic people like the Jews were in Old Testament times, but a global people from every tribe and language and ethnicity and race.
So, the next time someone starts saying that you’re arbitrarily picking and choosing from the Bible, arm yourself with the civil/ceremonial/moral. You aren’t being arbitrary. You’re being faithful. You’re reading the Old Testament how the New Testament teaches you to. So, eat your shrimp without guilt, and don’t throw away your 10 Commandments just yet.
Let us pray.
That Church leaders everywhere will be inspired by today’s Gospel to seek the lost and bring them back into a living relationship with God and the Church. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who have lost loved ones. We pray particularly for those who have lost sons or daughters through death that they be comforted in the belief that they have been received into eternal life by a Father who loves them with an everlasting love. We pray to the Lord.
For peace in our hearts, that we may be motivated to find nonviolent ways to handle discord and disagreement and bring peace to our world and our neighborhoods. We pray to the Lord.
That those who are separated from family because of long-festering disagreements will come to their senses and seek reconciliation. We pray to the Lord.
That all Christians will follow the Golden Rule – the two great Commandments of Christ – that in so doing they fulfill all the requirements of God and the old Law. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who have lost their faith and belief in our God. We pray, Lord, that the Holy Spirit reveal to them the wonder of your creation, the joy of salvation and the hope for eternity that is found only in you. We pray to the Lord.
At this time of turmoil for politicians, we pray that our governments act with care and consideration and give priority to helping those who suffer from poverty, lack of insurance, deprivation, loss of employment, loss of home and loss of hope. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, we often struggle with right and wrong. Your Son came to, not only to show us an easier way, but to offer us salvation on the condition of faith. Help us to follow his commandments to love others and to love you, and to know that when do this, we will fulfill all laws that are pertinent and not concern ourselves with those which are not. God of mercy and love, you have always welcomed your people back no matter how far we have strayed. Listen to our prayers and bless us on our journey as we seek our home in you. We ask this and all our prayers through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ the Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA