We’ve all had them, those dreams that make you wake up in a cold sweat because you’re required to do something it’s impossible to do. In one of those dreams, you’re a student and you walk into class to discover to your horror that it’s the day of the final exam and you haven’t cracked a book. Preachers often have a version of it where they walk into the pulpit on a Sunday morning and the wind blows away their notes so they’re left standing in front of hundreds of people with no clue what to say. Dreams like that reflect a conflict that goes on in each of us at some level, that conflict between knowing what we’re supposed to do and realizing we can’t do it.
And not just in our dreams. Even when we try our best to do what’s right, there’s something that keeps us from it. Paul put his finger on that inner conflict when he wrote in Romans 7:21-23, “ I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
Once, when I was at a meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery, I heard a good example of that. A young man was being examined on the floor of presbytery for ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. One of his professors from Pittsburgh Seminary asked him a theoretical question about our need for God continually to renew our lives. The candidate gave a concrete example from his own life. He and his wife wanted to show their Christian solidarity with the poor, so they bought a house in Garfield, one of the more depressed neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. They made that decision about where to live based on deep faith and a desire to follow Jesus’ example of going straight to the heart of human suffering. But after they moved into their house in Garfield, they noticed that they weren’t welcomed as the good-hearted champions of justice they were trying to be. They were met with resentment by neighbors who saw them as forerunners of a wave of outsiders who were going to jack up housing prices, force the poor long-term residents to move out, and uproot their community. Their act of individual goodness became, in the larger context, an indication of a broader injustice.
One way to try and make sure we do what is right is to make more and more rules to guide our behavior. That’s what we Presbyterians did over the years. Every year the General Assembly would send out for approval a booklet of proposed revisions to our constitution spelling out ever more detailed ways to deal with circumstances that might come up in the church, everything from how to call a congregational meeting to how to keep the church rolls. We finally got to the point that we realized that we had been putting energy into keeping the rules that we should have been putting into spreading the gospel, so we did an overhaul the Form of Government and reduced it to less than half of what it was.
Ideally, rules are like the trellises in a rose garden. They provide the support and the structure so that relationships can grow and prosper. Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the Duke University basketball team, says in his book on leadership that he only has two rules for his players. They’re to show up where they’re supposed to be on time, and if they can’t be there when they’re supposed to, they let him know. The way he enforces discipline is by building relationships among the team. A sure sign of a relationship that’s deteriorating is one that keeps focusing on the rules. You see that in marriages. It’s good for a married couple to agree on things they expect from each other – who’s going to do the laundry, who takes out the garbage, who pays the bills. You need those understandings to live together. But once a couple starts keeping score, it’s time to sit down and talk about the relationship.
One of the things that makes it hard for many people to read the Old Testament is all of the rules. Lot’s of people resolve to read the Bible from cover to cover and make it through Genesis and the first 20 chapters of Exodus just fine. There are lots of exciting and sometimes racy stories that grip you. But then they get past the Ten Commandments and enter into a quagmire of rules and regulations. There’s a rule for everything from how to discipline your children to how to cut your hair. God gave those rules so God’s people Israel would know how to live a life that pleased God, and the Jewish people have always delighted in those laws. Psalm 119:111 says, “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” If you’ve ever been to a Sabbath service at a synagogue, you’ve seen the reverence with which the rabbi handles the Torah and how it is kept in a place of honor at the front of the sanctuary. Lots of Christians believe that Jesus did away with all those laws, but he didn’t. Jesus said he didn’t come to do away with one stroke of God’s law but rather to fulfill it. And he did that by showing us just how hard it is to keep the law.
That law is summarized in the Ten Commandments, and on the surface they look easy enough to keep. Few people commit murder, most don’t steal, and we try to limit our lying. But Jesus reminded us that the Commandments have deep implications. He said if anyone hates another person, they’ve committed murder in the heart. If anyone looks on someone with lustful thoughts, they’ve committed adultery in their heart. If we have more than we need while others are starving, then we are committing theft of God’s good creation. The bottom line is: We don’t have it in us to keep the Ten Commandments. No one can follow God’s rules as we should. In fact, they’re so elaborate and complex in order that we can recognize the futility of trying to keep them to perfection. It’s beyond our human capacity.
One way to react to something that’s impossible to do is to disregard it. That’s what’s happened to the fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries we Presbyterians were renowned for being sabbatarians, or those who were zealous about observing the Sabbath. My father’s memories of Sundays as a child were excruciating. The children weren’t allowed to play. They had to get dressed up and sit quietly through boring visits with elderly relatives. Anything that smacked of fun was forbidden. I remember as a child visiting my grandparents on their farm in South Carolina. One Sunday afternoon my cousins and I were playing cards on the front porch. My uncle found us and yelled at us for breaking the Sabbath. He made us stop right away. Now, he loosened up in later years, but there was no joy in that Sabbath. God gave the commandment to free us from having to work and worry for one day out of seven, to revel in God’s generous love without having to do anything all day long, and we managed to take it and make it a burdensome chore. It’s an example of how we can’t help taking something intended for good and twisting it for harm. So as a reaction to that sabbatarianism, nowadays we are more likely to look at Sunday as just like any other day of the week. In fact, people who would be perfectly ashamed of breaking the 6th Commandment, you shall not commit adultery, brag about how busy they are breaking the 4th, you shall remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
God’s laws make us realize that we’re incapable of living as God wants us to live. What we need is a completely new heart and a mind that is renewed. That’s what Jesus gives us. Jesus came from God and took on our human weakness. Paul calls it our flesh. Flesh is something that continually reminds us of our limits. We want to be chaste, but urges from deep within our bodies drive us to do things we regret. We resolve to be sober, but our addictions are stronger than our wills. We long for health, but our bodies fail us in surprising ways. Jesus took on that weakness, and not just that weakness. He took on that distortion of our humanity we call sin, that force in us that is like a cancer. Cancer works its destructive power by invading healthy cells and redirecting them toward uncontrolled growth that tries to take over the body and put it to death. That’s what sin does. It takes our desire to do what is good and perverts it so that we end up doing evil. Jesus takes on that power of sin and puts it to death on the cross. He draws us to himself, his perfect self who fulfills God’s law, so that we’re made right before God. We don’t have to prove ourselves to God or to others or to ourselves. We’re changed, so that instead of trying to over-perform and prove ourselves, we accept God’s forgiveness and open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. A new mind takes root in us so our deepest desire becomes the desire to please God. God’s law becomes for us the trellis upon which we grow and flourish in faith and not a burden that drags us down.
So how do we deal with all those laws in the Old Testament? The Holy Spirit which we receive from Christ helps us read God’s law from the perspective of love and discern which parts were given for certain times and which parts are essential for all times. Like in a family, there are certain rules that never change – you’ll always treat each other with respect and honor, you’ll always speak truthfully in love, you’ll always put each other’s best interests first. And there are some rules that families live by for a while and then no longer need – the children will go to bed at a certain time, you won’t use the dial-up modem to check your email while someone is expecting a phone call on the same line. The Spirit helps us discern which laws are essential, like the Ten Commandments, and which were given for a certain time, such as those that forbid the eating of pork and shellfish or the laws that required a widow to marry her husband’s oldest brother. That’s why the church reconsidered same sex marriages. The Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality was given for a time when homosexuality was equated with promiscuity, a time when committed same sex relationships seemed as unnatural as women pastors. Now we have seen how people of the same sex can have a relationship of love and commitment as strong as any between a man and a woman that models Christ’s love for the church.
As long as we’re alive, we’ll feel that conflict within us between wanting to do what is right, but not being able to do it. We’ll never completely escape the unintended consequences that happen when we try to do right but wind up doing wrong. But we’ve been released from the trap of trying to be perfect human beings. God loves us in our weaknesses and our strengths, loves us enough that God continually renews our minds so our greatest joy comes from pleasing God.
Jesus summed up God’s law like this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that, and the rest will follow.