Sunday, October 03, 2010

Trinity 18 Sermon Notes

“Thou art not far from the kingdom of God+

Understanding of and reverence for these Two Great Commandments were obviously greatly esteemed by Jesus, but he did not consider them 'enough' in themselves. Why? Why are those two commandments so important? And why are they not enough?

These commandments summarise the whole duty of man, the whole Law. The Ten Commandments can be divided into two sections. The first few deal with honouring God directly. E.g.: Thou shalt have none other gods. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain. Keep holy the sabbath day (in honour of God). The rest, including the prohibitions of murder, adultery, theft and lying, concern how we treat other people. So, if we love God and love our fellow man, we will naturally not do anything against them, and so the Ten Commandments are taken care of. More than that, while the Ten Commandments are largely though not exclusively about what not to do, the Two Great Commandments are essentially positive in content and imply a pro-active obedience to God. To refrain from stealing is good, to generously help the poor is even better.

However, the greatness of the Great Commandments lies even deeper. For these commandments get right to the core of virtue by addressing motivation. One can, theoretically, obey most of the Ten Commandments outwardly by fear of punishment alone, but this is clearly a lower form of virtue. It may keep society safe, but it will do little to transform proud, greedy, wrathful, lazy or lustful people into better people. But love is not the outwardly morally correct act itself, it is the inward source of the outward act, the mover of the will, and so is more fundamental. And true agape-love is the enemy of pride, greed, hate and so on, because it is the antithesis of selfishness, the desire and choice for the good of the other. (By the way, failure to see this radical truth of morality is the reason that so many modern philosophers of ethics are consequentialist utilitarians, who reduce moral analysis to weighing up the consequences of actions in terms of pleasure and pain. Their moral system cannot differentiate between the person who increases others' happiness or decreases their pain merely due to fear or desire for praise, and the one who acts out of love.)

So why is it not enough? Why does our Lord tell this wise scholar that he is not far from the kingdom of God, rather than telling him he is in it? I see three reasons. Firstly, genuinely appreciating the truth of these Commandments is not the same as obeying them, though it is a first step. Secondly, the problem of disobeying the Two Commandments is not a problem of occasional failures or “scoring less than 100%”, something we can and will remedy by increased effort, it is the presence of a deep fracture in human nature. Thirdly, God's entry into human history as Jesus forces obedience to the Two Great Commandments to take a very particular shape. Allow me to expand upon these points.

Jesus did tell another man that if he obeyed the Commandments he would enter eternal life (Matthew 19:17). But here the scribe is commended not for obeying them but for perceiving clearly how fundamental they are, how much more important than ceremonies (i.e., “better than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices”). How much the scribe had actually followed the way of love was not even in view at this point. Understanding and even loving this holy Law with the mind is necessary, but it is not the same as walking in the way of love. Indeed, in Romans chapter 7 St Paul speaks of the one who knows and even desires and loves the moral Law, wants to obey it, but persistently finds this escapes his grasp, eludes his human efforts. This brings us to the second issue described above.

What is the problem with the human race? It is not just about specific failures. All these moral failures spring from something ingrained and primordial. They spring from a kind of disintegration of human nature that began when we first rejected God. I will let you in on a little “secret”: we were never meant to be simply autonomous (i.e., auto-nomos, self-regulating or self-law-making). Human beings in their presently natural state are not as they were intended to be. Originally, we were designed to be naturally supernatural! That is, the healthy human being was meant to be one in close communion with God, dependent and drawing upon his grace. We were to have free will and make true choices, yet not be limited to merely bodily and instinctive impulsions or even limited to unaided conscience and reason as resources in making those choices. The need for continued access to the Tree of Life and the walks with God in the Garden of Eden in the early chapters of Genesis perhaps symbolise this. By breaking communion with God we unmoored ourselves and became lost. Worse, this disintegration of communion with God also led to inner disintegration, disharmony and degradation of the image of God within. We thus became independent in a negative sense, and addicted to this rebellious and unhealthy independence. This means that even the most sincere attempts to obey conscience and the law of love risk partaking of this fatal flaw. While they remain our attempts to be and do good, while they do not consciously acknowledge and draw upon the Source, while they do not admit our dependence upon God's mercy and goodness, they will always partake somewhat of self-deception. And they will leave us as broken vessels who cannot hold even the grace we have been given. This is what St Paul teaches about the Law and the Gospel in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians in particular (cp. Rom. 7, Ga. 3:21, 5:4, Ph. 3:9).

How, then, is the broken vessel to be healed? How are we to be reconciled to God? How are we to acknowledge our dependence upon and draw upon God's grace, His gift of Himself? The bad news is we cannot do this of ourselves. The good news (the gospel!) is that God has done this in Christ, and has opened the way back to Life. Which brings us to the third issue concerning the Two Great Commandments. A person might hear and agree with everything I have just said yet still ask, why is the person of Jesus so important? Why cannot a person not only love the Law, but acknowledge their dependence on God's grace without reference to Christ? The answer is that, once God has revealed himself to us and showed us the way back to Him, it is pure continuation of rebellion and rejection of Him to ignore the face he has shown us, or to attempt to bypass the path he has provided. It is no good saying that you wish to love God and rely upon Him in a general sense if you then act like you don't need Him when he comes knocking on your door (cp. Rev. 3:20). I said before that we need God's gift of himself to us. Well, we have to accept it on his terms and, more to the point, we have to accept it as it actually exists. St John's Gospel says, just after the famous verse read at every Mass in the Comfortable Words: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:17-19). The light has come. Our response to the light of Christ is in fact our response to God. To love God is to love and follow Christ. It is, therefore, not just a matter of an arbitrary rule God puts down. This is confirmed when we remember that it is what Jesus does for us through the Cross and Empty Tomb that actually reconciles us to his Father and repairs the broken vessel.

Today's Gospel shows that Christ is the missing piece of the puzzle of the Law by going straight from the discussion of the Two Great Commandments to a clever conundrum put forward by Christ. He simply asks an open question about a verse of the OT. How can the scribes say that the Messiah will be the son of David when David himself referred to the Messiah as his Lord in one of his Psalms? It was acknowledged by all in this context that the son could not be lord or master of the father. Notice that Jesus does not deny the Messiah will be the son of David, and at other times accepted being called himself Messiah as well as being called the son of David (e.g., Mark 10:47,48, 14:61,62). He just asks how the Christ or Messiah can be both his son and his lord. Now the passage had been interpreted messianically by a number of the Jewish scholars independently of Christ, so although it does not explicitly present itself as a Messianic prophecy, Jesus' use of it as such was not some manipulative peculiarity of his. The context of the Psalm means it can be interpreted as David writing a Psalm for use by others which refers to himself (as a lord) in the third person (a common enough literary device in Scripture). But the problem with this is that other parts of the Psalm seem mere hyperbole in this case. The reference to an eternal priest (“a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek”) is the key example. That is why both Jesus and the other Jews realised it had a deeper, prophetic meaning, along with a number of other Psalms laden with potent and mysterious images.

The answer to Jesus' pointed question is that the Messiah, which just happens to be him, can be both the son and the lord of David only if he is more than just a promised King, descending from David, who continues and re-establishes his authority. To be the Master of David the King (even from David's own time, as the Psalm shows) as well as his princely heir, he must have two aspects to his person, one of which pre-exists and is superior to David, the other of which derives from David. Thus we have Jesus hinting at his own Divine and Human Natures. At the same time he is challenging the Jewish people to understand the true identity, glory and authority of their Messiah. Only thus can they move from an approach to God's Law which is in reality unhealthy autonomy to an acceptance of the Gospel. For them and for us it is this movement, enabled by God's grace and sustained by faith in Christ, that allows us to live the Two Great Commandments. We must never forget both the necessity of these Commandments and their limitations. They are for us an instruction and inspiration which we would ignore to our peril. But they are also the effect and not the cause of our salvation. Christ is our salvation and our righteousness. He is even our Living Law (Rom. 8:2, Gal. 6:2). As we meditate upon that truth, we will come closer to the joy of what I will call “healthy autonomy”. This is where we have so imbibed the Spirit of Christ that his Law of Love has become truly ours, and we have discovered the “law of liberty” (James 1:25) and are in a sense self-regulated, impelled to goodness from within rather than being bound from without. Thanks be to God . +

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