Love and Law

Love and law. . . . and what is the relationship between the two?  Can you command love?  How do we obey God’s law?    I was working on this sermon when I learned of Audrey Watter’s death.  Audrey and her late husband Howard joined Central in 1985 and were active church members who led lives of integrity and purpose.  Audrey’s favorite hymn was Jesus Loves Me, and at the end of her life, found comfort in its simple truth (especially when it was sung by her son Doc accompanying himself on guitar).  So as we consider Jesus’ command to love one another, let us sing it together, both in tribute to our friend, and as witness to the heart of Christian faith.

Jesus loves me, this I know.  For the Bible tells me so.  Little ones to him belong; they are weak but he is strong.  Yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes Jesus loves me.  The Bible tells me so.    [silence for a moment]      Amen.

Love is the heart and soul of our faith.  God’s love for the world and everyone who dwells in it.  God’s love for Jesus.  Jesus’ love for us, at every age and stage; when we are strong and courageous, and when we are weak and vulnerable.  This morning’s Scripture text is once again about love.  Though it’s written as if it were a direct quote from Jesus himself, scholars believe it represents instead the early church’s engagement with his teachings as they sought to integrate them into their practice and beliefs.   A reading from the good news according to John, in the fifteenth chapter, verses nine through seventeen.  Listen for God’s Word.  Yes, Jesus loves us. So now what?   [John 15:9-17]

I rejoiced with United Methodist siblings this week as they removed the official ban on gay clergy and marriage.  It brought back years of Presbyterian Church conflict over these matters that weren’t fully resolved until a little more than a decade ago.  And even after these changes in the Presbyterian constitution were made, hundreds of   congregations left the fold for other denominations or complete independence.  It appears similar actions will be taken by dissenting Methodist congregations as well.  The motivation is telling here: and it’s often characterized as fidelity to God’s Word; in this case, biblical texts that appear to prohibit homosexuality.  The Bible lays down the law, they reason; therefore the ban must be upheld.   Presbyterians (along with Lutherans, Episcopalians, now Methodists and others) believe we are acting in accord with God’s Word, the commandment to love one another.  Law v. love.

What’s at stake goes beyond this particular (and important) application.  It’s often assumed that churches emphasizing God’s unconditional love are “soft on sin,” and don’t fully engage the problem of evil at the level of human behavior.  Does the church hold any standards, and hold people accountable for those standards?  Is obedience to God’s commandments required, or is it elective?  Does it even matter, if God will love us anyway?

Hmmm.  Our Reformed theological forebears thought about this dilemma a lot.  If God is so great and good, why are things on earth so messed up?  If human beings are made in God’s image, in the image and likeness of Love, how can we do the terrible things we do?  They answered these questions to their satisfaction, something along the lines of “original sin;” that is, we were created good but persistently turn away from God, choosing Self over God as the center of the universe. We disobeyed God’s law and betrayed God’s love.

God made provision for this tragic turn of events by sending Jesus who gave his life to save us from ourselves and a hell we cannot escape on our own.  Jesus’ resurrection vindicated the truth that love overcomes even death to raise us to abundant and eternal life.    This is good theology, but it doesn’t mean all our questions are answered.  We’ll keep asking and struggling with the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection for us now.

In this scenario, God’s law is the medium by which we are accused, charged, and tried.  God’s law judges us by our actions and omissions.  God’s law serves to restrain our sinfulness as we seek to obey it.   That’s pretty much how civil law functions in society too.  Live by the rule of law or you’ll face the consequences. The prospect of those consequences can motivate you to stay within the law.  And that’s the primary message dominating some perspectives:  humans are utterly sinful, in need of redemptive change.  It may be that those beloved ancestors were the first originalists, confining law to its role as judge, jury, and prison guard (and in some cases executioner).  Of course they believed that by God’s grace through Jesus we can be forgiven and restored to new life.

That core conviction animates our faith as well.   Love will always prevail, independent of human choices and activities that oppose it.  But somewhere along the way, we’ve drawn a bright line between law and love such that love becomes the reward for obedience and not its antecedent.  And I wonder if the biblical literalists have forgotten about the primacy of love over fear, ignorance, and even wrongdoing in our actions, intentions, beliefs, and aspirations.  Perfect love casts out fear. Jesus’ perfect love for us.  The love the Bible tells us is true.

And cue the lawyer!  Our spiritual forebear, attorney John Calvin, went even further to identify a positive and proactive use of the law:  to encourage obedience because it’s a better way to live.  In our text, Jesus concludes his exhortation to “keep God’s commandments” for the sake of a fruitful and joyous life, not out of fear of condemnation and punishment.

Friends, it’s a false dichotomy to pit law against love.  God’s love is the law of life.  The law of God is first and last, love.  Nothing is more important and there is no greater demonstration of love than laying down one’s life, which Jesus did for us.    Our obedience comes from our trust in that love and the growing knowledge that it doesn’t simply keep us on the straight and narrow, it helps us discover the very essence of life and our irrevocable identity as God’s beloved.  I believe much of the Christian Church came to understand that LGBTQ+ persons made in God’s image are equally able to love and obey God’s law.  Why should we maintain institutional barriers to their full inclusion?

Maybe you saw the Facebook post from Purple Door Coffee celebrating the graduation of a young woman named Sunshine.  Like many in this program, Sunshine had experience with being unhoused and living on the street, anxious and vulnerable.  Her participation in the Work Options Culinary Program imposed some new laws on her life:  staying in recovery, showing up on time, learning the rules and practicing new skills.

Significantly, this program has not only opened new doors for employment for Sunshine, but has also helped her form a new vision of herself.  A self that is beloved and who is loving and capable, someone who can extend herself on behalf of others.   She’s a ray of inspiration and kindness, the post written by staff read, and her unwavering dedication to uplifting others makes a positive impact in their lives.

Law and love.

God’s Word embodied in Jesus, whose life bears witness to the love we all possess. At the Communion Table Word and Flesh come together. We taste and see that Love is real, not imagined.  It is embodied in creation and made known in Jesus Christ and in human companions, including beloved ones who surround us in the great cloud of witnesses.

Yes, Jesus loves us:  just as we are:  strong and weak, full of courage and shaking with fear; hungry and thirsty for answers, for healing, for a way forward, for racial justice and global harmony, for peace.  For peace.

Jesus said, I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.  The spirit of the law bestows all we need… . to love.

Thanks be to God!