BIBLE READING: Genesis 22:1-14 Romans 6:12-23 Matthew 10:40-42
Bob Dylan once sang, “You’ve gotta serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’ve gotta serve somebody.” The Apostle Paul is making a similar point in the reading we heard from his letter to the Romans tonight. He doesn’t mention the devil, but he does say that we will all serve either sin or righteousness, law or grace. He says that we will inevitably be the slaves of one or the other. There is no such thing as sitting on the fence. It is like swimming in a river. If you don’t choose to swim against the flow, then you’ll go with it. You can’t just do nothing and expect not to end up way downstream. “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
The fact that Paul speaks not only of sin versus righteousness, but also of law versus grace should warn us that Bob Dylan was probably making it sound too simple and obvious when he said “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord”. Paul talks of it as law or grace, but we are quite used to talking of the law of God and of the grace of God, aren’t we? So if they are both “of God”, how can they be opposed to one another?
Well, the problem with the law, and the reasons that it can end up operating as a force that opposes the grace of God, lie not so much in the details of the content of its various regulations, but in what we use it for and what we believe about its importance to God. In fact, you might even go so far as to say that God is the problem, if God is understood in particular ways, ways that are actually extremely common. Which brings me to Abraham and Isaac.
The story, usually known as “the binding of Isaac” has always been shocking, but the reasons it shocks us are completely different from the reasons it shocked its ancient hearers, and until we get our heads around that, we won’t be able to make much of it at all. The thing that shocks us is that Abraham was going to stab and burn his son to death as an offering to God. The thing that shocked ancient hearers was that he didn’t go through with it. It is very difficult for us to imagine our way back into an ancient culture that took child sacrifice for granted, but for a few minutes, let’s try to do so.
There have always been at least two main forms of sacrificing someone. In one, you actually kill them. In the other, you drive them away, and leave them to their fate in the wilderness. You might remember that Abraham has already sacrificed one of his two children. He has driven Ishmael off into the wilderness, assuming that he would probably die there, which he nearly did. In this story we see him ready to sacrifice the other one as well. How is this possible?
In the world that Abraham and Sarah lived in, it was completely taken for granted that God was a dangerous and demanding god who would routinely ask for the blood of children. Everyone believed that if God asked for the sacrifice of your child, then to refuse would bring down the wrath of God on the whole community. If you refuse God, you imperil not only yourself, but all your neighbours. The ancient scriptures are full of stories of plagues and famines and major disasters that wiped out thousands of people and were understood to have come upon them because one person had withheld something from God. You don’t mess with an angry, demanding, bloodthirsty god like this. So when Abraham believed that God had called him to head up the mountain to sacrifice his son, none of his neighbours would have been saying, “You’re insane, Abraham. You can’t do that.” Instead they would be trembling in their boots and saying, “Well, you had better go and do it then, Abraham, and quickly before disaster comes upon us.”
So, if you can imagine your way into that scene, you can perhaps imagine what would happen if Abraham comes back down the mountain with his son still alive, and starts trying to tell his neighbours that he went up the mountain and thought he heard a voice telling him that God wanted him to kill a stray sheep instead. “Nice try, Abraham, but you don’t get out of your social responsibilities that easily. Now get back up there and sacrifice the boy before you get us all killed!”
So you can see how a certain understanding of God can make the most horrible violence not only possible, but seemingly the good and right thing to do as a responsible neighbour and a god-fearing person. Now the fact that Abraham survived, and that this story continued to be told shows us that this story came to be understood as the turning point in our understanding of God. This story continued to be told to explain why the descendants of Abraham stopped sacrificing their children and began sacrificing animals instead, in a world where child sacrifice was totally normal, and a religion without child sacrifice was seen as a strange abnormality. And then further on in the story, another thousand years or so, and we have another stage in the development of our understanding of God when a movement of prophets begin saying “God wants mercy, not sacrifice”, and so we have the beginnings of an understanding that can abolish ritual sacrifices altogether. If all those who count Abraham as their Father really grasped the idea that God wants mercy, not sacrifice, we would live in a very different world, but unfortunately we haven’t.
Which brings us back to the law. Sometimes the externals can change but the way people imagine God doesn’t change as much, and it simply begins to express itself in a new way. So if you imagine God as a harsh God who randomly demands that we make sacrifices, then the religious law can easily be imagined as a bit of an arbitrary list of things God demands that we give up as a kind of Abraham-like test to see whether we really fear God as we are supposed to. We still have a God who we need to avoid upsetting so he won’t wipe us out, but now the thing that would upset him would be law-breaking. So law-keeping becomes essential to avoiding bringing down the wrath of God on the whole community, and law-breaking, however arbitrary some of the laws might seem, is a social evil because it puts the whole community at risk. You can probably all think of examples of Christian extremists who have announced that some disaster or another is God’s punishment on a society that has failed to obey God’s laws.
Apart from those lunatics, the image of God has evolved further as we have begun to grasp the teachings of Jesus, and fewer and fewer people are actually believing that God orchestrates famines and plagues to punish entire communities for the wrong doing of one or two individuals, and fewer and fewer have a strong sense of impending rewards and punishments in an afterlife either. Which leads to a problem. If people aren’t afraid of punishments, they might be prone to lawlessness and thinking they can get away with anything, and chaos will break out. It is a danger that Paul seems to have been accused of encouraging, because he seems to be defending himself against it when he exclaims, “Am I saying that we should sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”
What Paul is clearly concerned about is that people are clinging to the law because it has evolved to ensure social order in another way, a way which Paul regards as unhealthy and opposed to the way of Jesus. People are now clinging to the law because it enables them to assure themselves that they are good by giving them a standard with which to identify other people as bad. That continues to be the normal way people shore up their identity as good people today. A system of religious law allows us to identify plenty of people who are not nearly as up-to-the-mark as us, and so by setting ourselves against them, we clearly mark ourselves out to all observers as solidly good people who clearly hate and oppose evil. And thus the law provides a perfect religious rationale for divisive behaviour and hatred and hostility towards those we construct as evil. Just as the religious worldview of Abraham and Sarah made driving Ishmael into the wilderness and slaughtering Isaac on the mountaintop seem like the actions of good god-fearing people, so this later religious worldview with its code of religious law justifies the violent scapegoating of muslims and homosexuals and asylum seekers. As Paul puts it, the law becomes an instrument of wickedness, a slave driver that rules over us and leads us to death-dealing.
Even when this begins to be seen and understood, the most common fear remains that if we let go of an emphasis on law and a fear of punishments, people will all become lawless and feel free to do all sorts of real evil. So this is where Paul comes back to his thing about “you gotta serve somebody”. Turning our backs on the way of law does not mean that we have no direction and no boundaries and a sort of free-for-all freedom. We abandon the law and put ourselves under the ethos of grace. Actually, the law had no capacity at all to turn us into good people. All it could do was deter us from some of the bad things we might have otherwise done, but it doesn’t change our hearts, because it is driven by fear, not love. Jesus’s ethos of grace, on the other hand, sets us free to be gracious, to be loving, to be life-giving, to be truly alive. It renders the law obsolete because those who are truly shaped by God’s grace — and this is a very different God from the harsh and demanding God who Abraham thought was asking for the blood of his son — those who are truly shaped by God’s grace are far more loving and generous and honest than anything the law could have ever codified.
The best that law can ever do is give us some pointers to get us through safely until we learn the way of grace. Paul says elsewhere that the law was like our guardian, herding us around like children until grace came. Young children generally need rules, but the rules are to teach them so that they can grow into grace. I experienced a somewhat trivial example of this on Wednesday morning. My daughter missed the tram that would get her to school on time, so we jumped in the car and headed off to get ahead of the tram so I could get her onto it. As she climbed into the car with her big schoolbag on her back and her hockey bag in her hands, I nearly said, “Don’t worry about your seatbelt, just leave your backpack on so you can get out quickly.” But as I opened my mouth to say it, I realised how horrific that would be if we crashed while pursuing the tram, so I didn’t. And it occurred to me later that I hadn’t thought, “she’d better put her seatbelt on because it is the law and we might get caught.” The law had schooled me to think about consequences, and as a result, I no longer think of it as a law, but as a loving action. If I’d been a parent in the 1960’s it probably wouldn’t have even occurred to me that my child should wear a seatbelt. In fact the car probably wouldn’t have even had seat belts in the back. But the law has done its job of schooling my mind and setting me free to live in the freedom and responsibility of love.
Notice how Paul ended the passage we heard. “The wages of sin is death,” he says, and we all understand wages. You get what you deserve. You do the wrong thing, and you pay the price. The trouble is, that we often carry that assumption into the next line and so we completely mishear it. We think it says, or at least means, “and the wages of righteousness is eternal life.” Again, you get what you deserve, just as the law would demand. But Paul doesn’t say that at all. He says, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Under the rule of sin and law, you get wages; exactly what you deserve, no more and no less. But under grace, you get a free gift of boundless life. A free gift because it is always way above and beyond anything we could ever have earned or deserved. A free gift because God is anything but a harsh and demanding God who restricts us just to test our loyalty and crushes the things we most love just because he can. A free gift because God is totally and utterly for us. When you catch a hold of that vision of a God who wants only the best for you and gives it freely and generously, then a lawless life no longer looks like a threat at all, but like the pathway to true goodness, and turning our backs on any god who sanctions violence and persecution looks like the pathway to true godliness. So let’s exchange those old false gods for a lawless life, lived by grace, and discover the freedom to live and love to the full.
Acknowledgement: Nathan Nettleton