May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
“Love is the fulfilling of the law,” writes Paul to the Romans in our first reading today. I wonder, what are the laws we live by, the rules that govern our way of being together? [ask children for examples of school rules]
We need rules and laws to live together, every community does: every school and country and church. But I wonder where our rules come from, what their purpose is? [apply to school rule examples]
Rules and laws are only helpful if they have a purpose, and Paul is very clear about what that purpose should be: love.
In today’s psalm, the psalmist asks God to show him what God’s laws are, and how he should keep them. “Lead me in the path of your commandments” he prays. And God answers that prayer, for all of us, in the person of Jesus, who is the way God calls us to follow, and who is love. And so Paul can say to the Romans, “love is the fulfilling of the law”. The path of God’s commandments is love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, love incarnate.
In the birth, life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, God changes the world. We are no longer in a world where the written letter of the law is sovereign, but one in which the law, the way, the truth, the word has a name and a face and a body in Jesus. Our laws must now be rooted in the deep, self-giving, infinite love of Christ.
Some rules are for all time: you shall not murder, for example. These rules, as Paul says, are a fulfilment of what Jesus calls “the greatest commandments” – love God, and love your neighbour.
Other rules are for a particular time or place or people. Things which used to make sense as laws seem strange to us today. It used to be the law that if you drove a car at night someone had to walk in front of it with a red flag and a torch – imagine if we still did that now! When that law was invented, it was a sensible way of keeping people safe (which is part of loving our neighbour) but if we did it now it would just be daft.
There are some laws in the Bible which seem pretty strange to us too. For instance, the book of Leviticus includes a rule against touching the skin of a dead animal, which would be a problem for any of us wearing leather, and also a rule against coming before God with unkempt hair, which could be a problem for me!
For the people for whom these rules were written, they made sense as part of how they honoured God, but it would make no sense for us to go on following them today. Incidentally, this is the same list of rules in which we find one of the verses most commonly used against gay people in the church, which might give us pause for thought.
The laws and rules of the world, even the rules of the church, are only God’s laws in so far as they are a manifestation of God’s love. It is up to us, each of us, and us together as a church, to discern the love behind the law, to apply the rules in a spirit of love. And when rules and customs and laws are not rooted in love, we need to be brave enough to challenge and change and discard them in favour of God’s ever-loving way.
God’s law is not about the carrying out of specific instructions, not a tedious set of rules to be kept. It is, or should be, a whole new, radically different, way of living, filled and overflowing with abundant love. This is what Jesus means by “life in all its fullness”.
The great American writer Maya Angelou, who died earlier this year, said this: “Love recognises no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates wall to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
When our rules become barriers which prescribe false limits to love, they are no longer the will of God. When our customs become walls which separate us from our neighbour, they are no longer rooted in God’s love.
So let us examine the rules and customs and laws by which we live our own lives. Let us put aside anything we find there that is not in accordance with God’s law of love. And let us live life in all its fullness as the liberated children of God, filled and overflowing with God’s love.
Readings: Psalm 119.33-40; Romans 13.8-10; Matthew 18.18-20