(delivered at the Pereaux Baptist Church)
(October 2, 2011 – Exodus 20 (selected verses) Philippians 3:4b-14)
In the St. John’s Anglican Church in the village of Port Williams there is an interesting juxtaposition of symbols. On one side of the altar is a bronze plaque with the Ten Commandments stamped on it while in the middle of the altar is a gold cross.
This clash of symbols leads to an interesting tension which is also reflected in the scripture readings for this morning’s service. The Old Testament lesson for this morning is the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, the heart of the Jewish Law, while our New Testament lesson is Paul’s account of how the righteousness based on the law is inadequate.
On first blush, these two symbols, the cross and the Ten Commandments seem to be incompatible with each other and Paul seems to be saying that the law itself is of no use whatsoever. But we need to be careful. I do not think these symbols are incompatible with other. I do not think that Paul is totally rejecting the law. Indeed, in other passages he writes about how the law functioned as a schoolmaster leading us to faith in Christ. What Paul was rejecting was not the law but “righteousness based on the law.”
The law has its benefits. Most of the legal rules which we live by in Canada were founded upon the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are, whatever, secularists may say, the foundation of western jurisprudence. And this is a good thing because without law societies cannot function.
Think about it. Anytime two or more people gather together there have to be rules and regulations, reinforced by appropriate fines and punishments.
This has always been my beef with the libertarians who have taken over the old Progressive Conservative Party, at least on the federal level. Libertarians claim that we do not need laws, that they simply restrict the able, handicap the creative. Their philosophical guru is Ayn Rand author of the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
In her book Atlas Shrugged, Rand depicts an imaginary society where all the creative and entrepreneurial types abandon the larger American society to go off and build a utopian community based upon freedom and an absence of rules and regulations that simply serve to restrict prosperity.
Although she died in 1982, Ayn Rand’s philosophy continues to influence every one here today since one of her disciples was a man named Alan Greenspan who happened, until very lately, to be chair of the powerful Federal Reserve.
Greenspan, along with a few others is the reason why there are so few rules and regulations governing the financial sector in the United States. He and his cronies also are culpable, in my view at least, for the fact that those of you on pensions have seen those pensions erode and those of you saving towards the future have seen your savings erode. We stand on the edge of economic turmoil, in part because of the libertarian philosophy of Ayn Rand.
I know this is a controversial statement and many would disagree with me. I was talking to a financial analyst the other day and he advanced the argument that if we simply let Greece go down the tubes along with Spain, and I assume various state governments along with our own province of Nova Scotia that we would all be better off in the end. This is the argument which the Tea Party members make in the United States, get rid of the rules and regulations which only serve to help the poor and the lazy and the rest will be better off.
But such a philosophy is based on a mirage. As an example take Republican candidate Rick Perry, one of the darlings of the Tea Party. He regularly attacks the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States as being a “job killer.” The EPA could not resist, then, when Perry was claiming credit for the cleaner air in the state of Texas, drily noting that the reason for that better air quality was due to rules and regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
You see, any society needs rules and regulations and the more advanced a society is the more rules and regulations are needed. Ayn Rand’s fictitious commune would have had to establish rules and regulations as well and pretty soon would have become, in this regard, a mirror of the larger society they were trying to escape.
This is not to claim that all rules and regulations are good. They constantly need to be reviewed to see if they have outlived their usefulness and there is a legitimate debate about how many rules and laws we do need. Much of this discussion centers on the philosophical debate on whether the law can be used to promote goodness or simply restrict evil.
In Canada, we have taken the position that laws can promote goodness not just restrict badness. And even though the current government wants to shift this balance by putting more money into areas where the law restricts evil rather than promoting goodness, nevertheless, the broad consensus seems to be that law has a positive as well as a negative function.
The welfare state, our system of Medicare, public institutions such as the school, are all based on the belief that the law can exert a good influence. The law does not just function restrain the wicked but to help care for the poor, the less fortunate.
The problem is not the law, then. As long as societies exist so will the law. The problem is that the law is limited and when it is pressed into doing what it cannot do, then the law becomes a destructive force.
To begin with, the law cannot change the heart; it is limited to external behavior. When the law is used to try to change people’s beliefs or emotions it becomes tyrannical and dictatorial. As long as you pay your taxes and obey the rules of the road, the respective laws concerning these activities should not care whether you do so cheerfully or begrudgingly.
Only love and grace can change the heart. This is what Paul was getting at in his comments in Philippians where he praises the righteousness of God based on faith. He was looking at the heart, at the inner person. How do we become better people, not just better citizens? The law cannot do it.
Indeed, sometimes the law does the exact opposite. Because I keep the exterior requirement of the law I look down in self righteousness scorn on my neighbour who has screwed up compared to me. My heart rather than becoming purer and more loving becomes scornful and judgmental.
By extension, the law also cannot bring joy. It can bring satisfaction, I will admit, but joy, the wonderful feeling of being one with God, with the world, cannot come about by the law but only by grace, God’s wonderful, matchless grace, freely given to all who will receive.
The apostle Paul experienced this. He kept the law perfectly, with great fervour, but in his heart he had no joy. It wasn’t until he opened his heart to God’s grace that he found, or better put, was found by joy.
Finally, consider this, the law cannot be merciful. We have tried in our Canadian legal system to infuse some mercy into our legal system but it can really only be accomplished by suspending the law for a while, by putting it aside for a moment. And this is an area of great debate today. How much latitude should judges have to suspend the law? Should young people be exempt from the full demands of the law?
The law can only be merciful by failing to be the law! And this is critically important when we consider spiritual matters.
You see, based on earthly comparisons we are all “good” people. We pay our taxes, try to live peaceable lives, obey the laws of this land, but in comparison with perfection how short all of us fall. Every day, we fail to help those in need, or we hurt those we love the most. Every day, we fall short of perfection. Judged by the law, we are without blame. Judged by what we should be, what in our better moments we want to be, we fall short, time and time again.
And so thank goodness we are not judged in the final instance by the law with its inability to show mercy. Instead, we are judged by God’s grace, grace which forgives us, grace which restores us, grace which at the same time helps us to be a little bit better than we were before.
With God’s grace we know we have not gotten away with something, Christ paid the price for all our sins. There is no free lunch with grace. But there is love, love that washes away our sin, our guilt, our vain regrets, washes them away so that we are white as snow.
That is why the law is good only for this life, while grace grows brighter every day. Indeed, as we grow older and come closer to that life which is still to come, it glows brightest yet, leading us like a light in a dark tunnel safely through to the other side. That is why when we have experienced the touch of grace in this life we say that we have experienced a little bit of heaven while still here on earth.
The law is good. Don’t get me wrong. But it is incomplete. Limited. Unable to change the heart. Unable to bring true joy. Unable to show divine mercy. For that only grace will suffice, only the righteousness of God and not human law can bring inner goodness, true joy, and mercy which sets us free to be better than we were, better than we thought we could be.
“Mercy there was great and grace was free. Pardoned there was sanctified for me. There my weary heart found liberty at Calvary.”
“Marvellous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt, yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.”
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. . . . . Through many dangers toils and tares I have already come, t’was grace that led me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”
I think Paul was a little harsh in his comments on the law. The law is good but perhaps he can be forgiven, for on the way to the city of Damascus, Paul experienced the touch of God’s loving grace in light of which the law seemed so weak, so impoverished, so inadequate, that he spent the rest of his life trying to learn more about that grace, trying to live by that grace and, even in the end, being willing to die for that grace.
There is an old, old description of the Apostle Paul which comes from the second century. Malcolm Muggeridge quotes it in his book on the Apostle Paul. In this book, the screen play for a five part BBC television documentary, Muggeridge tells the story, along with his friend Alex Vidler, of retracing Paul’s footsteps.
Muggeridge writes, “one of the synagogues at Bereoea was so ancient, and on the identical site of the one Paul actually held forth in, coming there from Thessalonica, that we almost expected Paul to loom into view (and here Muggeridge uses that second century description) a small bald, bandy-legged man who sometimes had the face of an angel.”
I am convinced that what that ancient writer saw in Paul’s face that made his face shine like an angel was the touch of God’s amazing grace.
And what is really special is that this same grace is offered to you this morning, if you will but open your heart, lay aside your self righteousness, put on the shelf for just a moment your goodness and your pride and, like a little child, accept God’s love for you, accept the forgiveness won for you on the cross of Calvary, accept that grace which is the only thing that can lead you safely home.