When I spend time away from the gospel narratives I form an image of Christ with my third eye’s lens smothered in Vaseline. I consider his kindness to hurting people and his love for broken people; in my mind he’s docile and gentle. I’ll pay lip service to how wild and unsafe he is per Mr. Beaver’s reasoning but my image is more white-tail deer standing majestically in a harvested corn field than prowling lion. But when I reread the gospels I am reminded of Christ’s severity and fierceness.
I read the Gospel of Luke last week. Jesus is kind, hospitable, and loving but he is also divisive, hard, and demanding. There were times as I read where I cowered from what Christ preached. “Take up your cross…,” “Let the dead bury the dead…,” Ah what?
If the Bible offends us the problem isn’t the Bible, and if it doesn’t offend we’re reading it wrong.
Constantly in the gospels Jesus can be found turning up the heat until it is unbearable. It’s easy not to steal, just don’t take someone else’s stuff. But Jesus ups the ante: It’s not just wrong to steal, it’s as egregious of an offense to covet. The best way to not commit adultery? Keep your hands to yourself. But Jesus goes even further, keep your eyes to yourself. In fact, you’d be better off just plucking out your eyes. White lies? Damnable. I never killed nobody, except according to Christ’s standards I’ve got blood stained hands. Jesus at one point commands anyone who will hear to be:
…Perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5.7
And he says all that in the same sermon.
About four years ago the Holy Spirit began me on a path of discovering and learning about a fascinating theological concept: “Law and Gospel.” I’m a novice in my understanding and the following are novice thoughts. So, if I misrepresent or am in error have grace and gently guide me in the right direction.
Let’s define some terms:
Law: The easiest way to understand the law is whenever you come across a command to “Do” or “Be.” The Law has three purposes 1) It is a curse to law-breakers. 2) B.asic I.nstructions B.efore L.eaving E.arth; a good, the best, way to live your life. 3) The ideal standard of righteousness that God accepts.
Gospel: The quickest way to understand the gospel is the word, “Done.” It is Christ’s work on the cross that gives life to those that are dead. The Gospel is unmerited favor.
You and me? We love The Law. We roll up our sleeves and Git ‘Er Done. We’re self made men; we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps; we earned this with our own blood, sweat, and tears; we got dirt underneath our nails; we don’t need no charity; in seven easy steps we can be the best us now.
But let us consider the classic hymn “Slip Slidin’ Away” by Paul Simon:
God only knows, God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man
We’re working our jobs, Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away
In our mundane lives of work and play it’s easy to begin thinking we’re alright. “I’m not so bad,” we tell ourselves, “I don’t smoke, cuss, or chew. And I don’t go with girls that do.” We begin to think we’re doing just fine. As Mr. Simon sings, we think we’re headed in the right direction but we’re not.
The nearer we think we get to fulfilling the law the further away we are from satisfying Christ’s impossible words.
Reading the Gospel of Luke I realized: I’m not ok.
The Law shines a spotlight on my heart and the zipper of the well behaved monster I dress up as shows. I read Jesus’ teaching and am crushed. In light of what Jesus says I am a fraud. I don’t love my enemies, I won’t sell all that I have and give it to the poor, my cross sits in a shed until a more convenient time.
Martin Luther writes:
The Law is a mirror to show a person what he is like, a sinner who is guilty of death, and worthy of everlasting punishment. What is this bruising and beating by the hand of the Law to accomplish? This, that we may find the way to grace. The Law is an usher to lead the way to grace. God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted. It is His nature to exalt the humble, to comfort the sorrowing, to heal the broken-hearted, to justify the sinners, and to save the condemned. The fatuous idea that a person can be holy by himself denies God the pleasure of saving sinners. God must therefore first take the sledge-hammer of the Law in His fists and smash the beast of self-righteousness and its brood of self-confidence, self-wisdom, self-righteousness, and self-help. When the conscience has been thoroughly frightened by the Law it welcomes the Gospel of grace with its message of a Savior who came into the world, not to break the bruised reed, nor to quench the smoking flax, but to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, and to grant forgiveness of sins to all the captives.
And yet, oh the glorious “And yet!” of God, when I am devastated by my inability to meet my own, let alone God’s, standard the Spirit rushes in, lifts my head, and fixes my eyes on the cross. There hanging on the tree Christ says: “It is finished.” He didn’t come to abolish The Law, he fulfills it. On the cross when we’re adulterous, envious shrifts Christ is faithful and generous. When we hate our enemies, Christ dies for his.
The Gospel is not an invitation to try harder. The Gospel is what happens when we come to the end of our trying as failures. Christ didn’t die to make us more decent. He bore our sin and our death instead of us and he rose from the grave conquering all of our lawlessness. And we have been bound to him in death and raised with him to life. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the tomb now dwells in us. Our sins – my sins! – are no longer credited as ours – mine! – instead Christ’s righteousness is.