Abolishing the Law

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcised’ by those who are called ‘the circumcised’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

I’m going to divulge a long-kept secret this morning—one that I’m not even sure my wife knows. Back in January of 1986, for one evening, I had a modeling career. It only lasted that one night, but for that night I was a model. I modeled bright green and pink Benneton sweaters and scarves.

I had been asked by a friend of my sister-in-law to be part of a fashion show at Schenley Park ice rink in Pittsburgh. I don’t think I was asked so much for my looks as I was for my skating ability. So on that cold evening I went to the ice rink, put on my Benneton clothes, and proceeded to do a skating dance routine in which I skated around with eight girls, ranging from 11 to 14 years old, as we danced to a song called “Crush on You,” by the disco group The Jets. It was a completely embarrassing evening, especially since none of those girls had anything remotely like a crush on me. You could read their embarrassment on their faces as they skated around me. That’s probably why I’ve kept this my little secret until now.

I think that the woman who put me in the show was a bit embarrassed for me, so to make it up to me she invited me out one evening to meet a friend of hers, an artist, who was very, very pretty. So, we met that evening at a restaurant in Shadyside, and were having a good time until somehow the conversation turned to the problem of gangs and whether people naturally know right from wrong and good from evil. She was adamant: “People know right from wrong from birth. So anyone caught doing wrong should be severely punished because its their fault.” Having been trained as a counselor, I took a different tack, telling her that I thought concepts like right and wrong, and good and evil, had to be taught—that how we are raised often determines the extent to which we know the difference. She got very angry with me: “No! We are born knowing right from wrong. Criminals and gang members all know that what they are doing is wrong.” I responded, “But what about the kid who is born to a drug dealer who is taught from childhood that dealing drugs is right?” She hit her hand against the table, BLAM, and said, “No, they know the difference.” Suffice to say that we never really clicked after that.

So what do you think? Do people automatically know right from wrong, good from evil, God’s way from our way? Do we know by birth, or do we have to be taught? I think the answer may be that both are true. We may have a natural ability to tell right from wrong, good from evil, God’s way from our way, but it also needs to shaped and brought out of us. In fact, teaching right from wrong, good from evil, God’s way from our way is a large part of both parenting and churching.

If you are, or have been, a parent, think about what a significant part of your parenting consists of: “No, you can’t do that. It’s wrong! No! You can’t push your brother down the stairs! Stop that! It’s not right to steal toys from your sister. You need to behave when we go to Grandma’s house. Stop fighting! Stop hitting! Stop yelling!” Do you recognize these sentences? Have you uttered them yourselves? They are part of our parental task of teaching children right from wrong, good from evil, God’s way from our way. Our churches have a similar task. A lot of what we do is to teach the differences between right and wrong, good and evil, God’s way from our way.

One of Paul’s points from this morning’s passage is that we have to learn to cultivate this ability to distinguish between how God wants us to live and how we want to live. And his main point in our passage is that in the process of learning to distinguish between the two, the old ways of following the law had failed

Listen again to what Paul said: “[Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.” Do you recognize how radical a statement that is? What Paul said goes completely against what many, many Christians believe. Think about it for a moment. What do many Christians say that we base our faith on, other than faith in Christ? What are the rules of our faith? The Ten Commandments? If you said that, you’d be right. Many Christians say that following the law is one of our major duties in obeying Christ. Why else do these Christians care so much about the issue of whether or not the Ten Commandments should be posted in courthouses? To them Christianity is based on the law. So, what do you make of the fact of Paul saying that Jesus had abolished the law? What does he mean that Jesus has abolished the law?

Now, if you are a particularly astute Bible reader, you also are now forming another question: “Isn’t what Paul said in direct contrast to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17?” Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

We’ve got a biblical problem here. Paul and Jesus seem to be at odds. In this corner is Paul, saying that Jesus has gotten rid of the law. In the other corner we have Jesus, who tells us that he has come not to abolish, but to fulfill, the law. Do we just assume that because Jesus is a greater authority that he wins this fight?

Actually, I think both Jesus and Paul were trying to get across the same message, but they were speaking from different sides of the same coin. Both were saying that when left to our own devices, we do not live the way God wants us to live. We do not follow the law properly, and as a result we do not live the way God wants us to live. Jesus is saying that the law was meant to unite us with God in a way that God’s life flows through us, but that the people’s following the law had failed to do that. He had come to fulfill the purpose of the law, which was to unite humans and God. Paul went further. He was saying that the law had actually become an impediment to this union because through the law the Jews had lost their connection with God. They had become so obsessed with figuring out how to apply the law to the minutiae of life that they had forgotten God. Modern Christians do this, too. We can become so obsessed with running to the Bible for guidance that we forget to look to God for guidance. We can become so biblically focused that we lose sight of God. Both Paul and Jesus were trying to say that there was another way, a way modeled by Jesus and taught by Paul.

This way is the way of listening to the voice of Christ within us, and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit all around us. Think about how Jesus lived. Although he periodically quoted scripture, he most often acted after having discerned the Father’s will in prayer. He even said that the law was made for humans, not humans for the law. What he meant is that too many Jews were turning the law into a false god, and as a result were no longer allowing the law to guide them to the real God. He wanted us to have a direct connection with God so that this living relationship could guide us. He was guiding people to prayer, and to listen to God’s voice within, which always acts in accordance with the ultimate purposes of the law.

The Quaker writer, Thomas Kelly, wrote about following the voice of God when he said, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.” What he is saying here is very close to what I believe Paul was getting at. We no longer need the law because through Christ’s incarnation in our hearts the law becomes written on our hearts. The law isn’t done away with. The law is fulfilled even more deeply as we connect with God.

That does not mean that we get rid of the law or don’t need to learn it. What it means is that we are now able to pay attention to Christ speaking within us, and the Spirit speaking around us, to gain a sense of what is right and wrong, good and evil, God’s way versus our way.

Today many people see religion as being just a collection of moral dos and don’ts, all with the purpose of getting us into heaven. They like rules and law, as well as the clarity that they bring, so they try to turn Christianity into a religion of either following the law of scripture or the rules of the church. But that’s not the faith that Paul or Jesus taught. They taught a faith in which we attune ourselves to God, much like a radio, in which our task is to tune ourselves in to God’s frequency, and live out of that. Under this idea, our main task is to allow our lives to be filled with God’s Spirit so that we can live according to God’s will in everything.

Let me close by giving you an example of what I mean. During the week after the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, a small unit of American soldiers pushed through the French countryside. They were an advance team tasked with discovering the whereabouts of the German lines, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. As they pushed forward, they got into a small skirmish, and one of their members was killed.

Knowing that they had to push forward quickly, they looked for somewhere to bury him. Eventually they found a church with a graveyard, and asked the priest if they could bury their comrade there. The priest said yes, but then asked whether the soldier had been baptized a Roman Catholic. The soldiers didn’t know. The priest then said, “I’m sorry, but unless he was Catholic, we can’t bury him in our graveyard.”

Not knowing what else to do, the dejected soldiers asked if they could bury him on the other side of the fence surrounding the graveyard. The priest told them that they could. So they spent the evening burying their friend, leaving a small dirt mound on top. They then walked a short ways away to find a safe place to sleep.

The next morning they got up early in order to push forward, but before doing so they walked to the graveyard to say good-bye to their fallen comrade. When they got there, they couldn’t find the grave. As hard as they looked all they could see was smooth grass. It was as though no grave had never even been dug. What happened to their friend’s grave? Was this some sort of miracle? Were they in the wrong place?

As they stood perplexed, the priest walked out to join them. They asked the priest what had happened to their friend’s grave. He said, “I struggled all night with my decision to keep him out of our cemetery. It bothered me, and I couldn’t sleep. How could I keep out a man who had given his life to release all of us from the German evil? I knew that I didn’t have the strength to uncover his body, move it, and then dig a new grave, so I did the next best thing. I spent the night digging out and moving the fence so that your friend could now be in the cemetery.

This is a priest who was tuned into God. He had at first followed the rules—good rules if you are a Catholic. But he recognized that these were not God’s rules. So, he fulfilled the rules by changing the them. He listened to God, to the voice of Christ within, and that made all the difference.

To abolish the law doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t learn it. What it means is that there is another way to access what the law was intended to do, but couldn’t. We discover the meaning of the law when we become people of prayer who seek and follow the voice of Christ in our hearts, minds, and souls.