Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Galatians 4:21-31
John 6:1-14

No more sophomoric a gesture can be made then to try, by measures understandable to the created mind, to discredit the Almighty. We have all heard it, the attempt to bring the idea of omnipotence into question by a foolish question: "Can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?" Well, of course, to raise the question at all only demonstrates the absurdity of measuring infinity by ordinary and mundane things, that is, the One who is Wholly Other from every created nature by things in creation. And, of course, if we reply that such an attempt to ask a hypothetical question has been answered in the Incarnation, our hypothetical sophomore is likely to be terribly confused.

But, we have the answer to a counter question, one that exists on our level as creatures. God has made a stone so heavy that we cannot carry it. In fact two. The two tablets of the Law teach us of our duty to love God and our neighbor. Even without all of the regulations and ordinances of the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah, all of those burdens about everything from Kosher laws to ceremonial laws, just the Moral Law alone is too much for us.

Now, St. Paul, in the Epistle, wants the Galatian Christians to know that the Old Covenant of Sinai will not give to them the freedom that comes from a good conscience, and that faith in Christ does. All too often Christians are short sighted on this subject. Too many have been programed to perceive every reference to a difference, in the two covenants, in purely legal terms. The Jews in the Old Testament were burdened with laws about food, and all sorts of things like that, and we are not. So, they figure, we have less of a burden, fewer laws to worry about.

Well, that may very well be true. But, the difference between the two covenants, in this case the Covenant made when God revealed the Law through Moses and the New Covenant 1 in Christ's blood, is far more significant than simply the fact that they were forbidden to eat pork, or had to be kosher, or had to practice all the ceremonies of the temple that no longer even stands. The difference, in light of today's Gospel, is about whether you are feeding on Christ, the food and drink of eternal life, or receiving the judgment of condemnation. It is the difference between grace and wrath.

Indeed, the tablets of the Law are too heavy to carry. And, those two tablets were just the moral Law alone, without all the regulations and ordinances. Those heavy stones contain the Ten Commandments. Now, recall what you were taught for Confirmation (or should have been taught before receiving that sacrament). Remember, assuming you heard it, that when you look at the Ten Commandments in light of the two Great Commandments we hear in the Summary of the Law, you notice that the first four are about loving God, and the remaining six are about loving your neighbor. The tablets of the Law boil down to those two Great Commandments: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. "On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

Let us consider what those poor Galatians were being taught by the first heretics in Christian history. St. Paul was setting them straight because false teachers had gone out, with no authority from the Apostles, and told converts from among the Gentiles that they had to keep the whole Law of Moses with its six hundred and thirteen commandments, and had to be circumcised, in order to be saved. So, he told them that the children of that covenant were like the children of the bondwoman, not heirs with the true children. They were Ishmael, not Isaac.

But, he does not stop there. He makes the issue of the Law relevant for everybody, even those who had turned to Christ from among the Gentiles, by telling them the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. Indeed, that is part of the same Epistle that today's reading came from. For, with all of the condemnation and fear the Law brings, it is a good thing. As he says in another Epistle: "Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good." 2 In addition to teaching us how to live, it reveals to us that we are sinners, and that we need a Savior.

Frankly, the New Testament gives us the commandments of God in a way that requires us to take them internally. Which is easier, to keep the body from infidelity, or to keep the heart from it? Jesus tells us that the commandments against murder and adultery are broken, by God's absolute and holy standard, whenever we are resentful or lustful. Unjustified anger, or coveting a woman by looking at her with lust, are not just tendencies toward sin, but are sin. Oh yes, the tenth commandment begins to say this, for the law against covetousness gives an order to the heart itself, a commandment about motivation and attitude: "Thou shalt not covet." You see, what the Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount was really the same thing he had taught Moses and the people of Israel centuries earlier by the tenth Commandment.

Is the burden of the Law really easier for us? Well, yes and no. Yes, because we do not have all those many regulations. But, no, because something is happening that is deeper. The nature of the New Covenant, as Jeremiah foretold, is that the Law of God it is written on the heart, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit, who has been active in the Church since the Day of Pentecost. He is the invisible Presence among us that shapes our hearts and minds, which is why true believers inevitably know many things and think alike, that is, with the mind of Christ. But, easier for being less burdensome, it is a closer and more deeply felt reality because it is engraved on the conscience, written on the heart. But, Jeremiah also tells us that the New Covenant comes with the forgiveness of sins, and the promise that we know God.

The same Lord who seemed to make the Law impossible to keep was the one so gracious that he fed the multitude with the loaves and fishes, a miracle of feeding them in the wilderness. He was so gracious that he went on to say that he would give his very self, his flesh for the life of the world. He would be for us the food and drink of eternal life, a saying so hard for many that they never walked with him again, even after seeing his power and the miracles he worked.

Well, he did not merely seem to make the law impossible. In the Sermon on the Mount he was telling us, in fact, that we are sinners.; that the Law is impossible for us to keep perfectly, and it is our schoolmaster. Moses was in diagnostics, and our Lord is the healer. The stone tablets of the Law are too heavy for us to carry. But, instead of coming to destroy us, the Son of God came to save us.

I described for you the first heresy. That heresy was described in the Book of Acts, and it is answered in that same book. It is answered very thoroughly in the Epistle to the Galatians. Often this can be misunderstood. As should be obvious by now, Paul was not finding fault with the Law. He was pointing out that it cannot save you; indeed, it was never meant to save you. The weakness is in the flesh, not in the Law of God. The way that he uses that word, "flesh," is to speak of the weakness inflicted on our nature by sin and death.

In a very real way, the first heresy was repeated in the fourth century by Britain's first heretic, Pelagius. Remember two weeks ago I mentioned this character. He taught that there is no such thing as "Original Sin," and that we can save ourselves just by the mere strength of human effort. We could make ourselves holy without the grace of God. It takes sheer will power, said Palagius. But, this burden is intolerable, to carry all that heavy weight without grace from the Holy Spirit, and all those wonderful promises of the New Covenant.

The feeding of the multitude in the wilderness shows us the goodness of God. This too was a place of weakness, where the people would become too hungry to go on, and would faint. Our condition, weakened by sin and death, is hopeless without grace. The Lord gave them the bread in the wilderness, showing that what Moses had given by the miraculous Manna, was a picture. That bread, and the bread of Christ's miracle, were there to teach them that they must feed on Christ to live forever.

Every day we all break the Law in many ways. Even with the grace of God, we still live also in the weakness of a Fallen nature subject to death. Sinful thoughts and attitudes, with words and deeds, come from us all the time. And yet, even now in this weakened state, the Lord gives himself to us in his Body and his Blood. Even as we live in this fallen state, we also receive his grace each day. When the people were weak through hunger, he fed them by means of a miracle.

He established the New Covenant, mentioning it the night in which he was betrayed, before completing the painful task later that night and most of the next day. He was sold by a friend, delivered to the Gentiles, tried, mocked, scourged, crucified dead and buried. So he took away the sins of the world. Then he rose the third day and appeared to witnesses. The Law diagnosed our need, and Jesus healed us. He has carried the full weight for us.

1. Jeremiah 31:31-34
2. Romans 7:12

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