Where Does Your Loyalty Lie?
Imagine for a moment that you are married, and that your spouse is a domineering person, Mr. or Mrs. Perfection. And it isn’t just that they demand a lot of themselves. They demand a lot of you too. Every morning you awake to a list of things which have to be done both thoroughly and perfectly, without error. You must do them every day. Thinking about doing them isn’t enough. You must actually do them. Perfectly. Thoroughly. Every day. There is no down day. No rest day. No half-attempts are tolerated. No concession to weakness or illness can be made. No excuses or explanations for less than perfection are accepted. They aren’t even sought. No flexibility. No grace at all. Every failure, no matter how great or small, results in your being cursed for ineptitude and incompetence. Every day he or she comes home and asks, “So, how was your day? Did you do what I told you to? Did you make the kids behave? Did you waste any time? Did you complete everything I put on your To Do list?” So many demands and expectations. But no matter how hard you try, you cannot be perfect. We could never satisfy her or him. We forgot things that were important to him. We let the children misbehave. We failed in other ways. That would be a miserable marriage, wouldn’t it? Your spouse always pointed out our failings. And the worst of it was, she or he was always right! But the remedy was always the same: Do better tomorrow. Try harder tomorrow. But you didn’t, because you couldn’t.
Adding insult to injury, your demanding and now enraged spouse actually lives in inflexible adherence to his or her impossible demands. Perfectly. Humiliating you even more. It would be no surprise if a very frustrated and beaten down you, living under that kind of pressure, lashed out in anger and fear, would it?
Sadly, most of us live that way every day. Or most days. We mistakenly believe that we must be perfect, and since no one can be perfect, as close to perfect as we can. At a minimum, the good in us needs to outweigh the bad, or God will at least be disappointed in us, if not outright angry, and he’ll for sure toss us out. We do our best to earn our grace, our forgiveness, by being as good as we are able and doing as much good as we are able so that, when we do mess up, God will be willing to forgive us. Sadly, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know, because we know our thoughts and the mistakes and errors that no one else sees, that the good doesn’t outweigh the bad in most of us. And if it does, it still isn’t perfection. We aren’t morally pure. We aren’t complete. We aren’t perfect, no matter how hard we try. And so we wake up tomorrow and try even harder. It’s a losing game.
We call that attitude, that approach to life in Christ, legalism, and legalism reduces a dynamic, transforming relationship with God to a set of rules, of do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts). We want to look the part, and we want those around us to look the part too, and so long as everyone LOOKS the part, we don’t ask any questions.
And that is the attitude, the approach to life in Christ, that Paul deals with in Romans 7:1-6. We’ve been walking through the middle part of Romans this winter and will continue to do so through the spring, so turn with me to the next passage up – the opening verses of Romans 7.
From the beginning, humanity has tried to reduce a dynamic relationship with God to a list of rules. Just tell me what I CAN do, and what I CAN’T do. Like “Where’s the fence? What are the boundaries?” When I chat with people who are visiting Christ Church, I often answer questions like “What do you say about drinking alcohol?” or “What kind of music is okay to listen to?” Or “What kind of TV and movies are okay to watch?” Or “What about smoking?” “What about divorce?” Stuff like that. And I usually respond with, “Well, that isn’t a can or can’t issue. It’s more about your relationship with alcohol. If you’re an alcoholic working a twelve-step program, don’t. If not, you need to be aware of your relationship to alcohol. How deep is it? Do you drink because you need it or because you enjoy it? Do you consistently drink to the point where it is impacting your relationships, your ability to work, or to the point where you are putting yourself and others in danger?” For many people there’s nothing wrong with having a beer or two in the evening. Or enjoying drinks with friends at a party. For others, it’s the worst possible thing you can do for yourself and everyone around you. But it isn’t a black or white issue. There isn’t a “one size fits all” answer.
Look at V. 5. In the Old Testament and into the time of Christ, the Jewish people had a system of laws, rules, and regulations by which they were expected to live. It started in the Garden of Eden with “You can eat whatever you want, except for the fruit of this tree. Leave that one alone.” And we messed that one up and things went downhill on planet earth pretty quickly. Then, during the time of Moses, God gave the people Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are often viewed as these really high principles, but they aren’t. “Worship only me, remember to rest, don’t kill, and don’t steal your neighbor’s spouse or stuff” isn’t really high moral ground. It’s actually the foundation of what it means to be human. Go below them and we’re really acting like animals. So God was really saying, “For starters, let’s not act like animals folks.”
And then added to that were laws outlining how the people were to worship and atone for their sin individually and as a people Other laws outlined how they were to function culturally, as a people, in ways that were different than the peoples around them, to whom they were supposed to be a light in the darkness. But over time, it became clear that no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t live according to God’s moral law. So groups rose up who believed that if the people didn’t live perfectly according to the law, God would not bless them as a people, and so they added to the rules and regulations to keep the people from getting anywhere near the limits of what God’s law allowed. But the harder they tried to keep the law, and made new laws and rules to the list, the more they broke God’s law. They just couldn’t do it.
Pastor John Ortberg reflects: Conforming to boundary markers too often substitutes for authentic transformation. The church I grew up in had its boundary markers. A prideful or resentful pastor could have kept his job, but if ever the pastor was caught smoking a cigarette, he would’ve been fired. Not because anyone in the church actually thought smoking a worse sin than pride or resentment, but because smoking defined who was in our subculture and who wasn’t – it was a boundary marker.
As I was growing up, having a “quiet time” became a boundary marker, a measure of spiritual growth. If someone had asked me about my spiritual life, I would immediately think, Have I been having regular and lengthy quiet time? My initial thought was not, Am I growing more loving toward God and toward people? Boundary markers change from culture to culture, but the dynamic remains the same. If people do not experience authentic transformation, then their faith will deteriorate into a search for the boundary markers that masquerade as evidence of a changed life.[i]
Now, look up at V. 1. The word translated as “binding” here has the legal sense of “binding force.” It’s something you HAVE to do. Today, speed limits have binding force on us. We have to live by them, and lots of other traffic laws. And if we don’t, we run the risk of getting a ticket. There’s a price to pay for breaking the law. The law is binding on us.
But that’s only true so long as we are alive, right? Once we die, we are no longer bound by the law. When you die, you can speed all you want. It’s almost like Paul is trying to work a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor in here. He probably wasn’t known for being funny. More of a serious dude. But he seems to be making an attempt here. “You only have to keep the law so long as you’re alive.” Well duh. But then he takes his little attempt at a joke and makes a huge point with it. Look at Vv. 4 and 6. Stop trying to reduce your faith, your relationship with God, to a written code, to a list of do’s and don’ts. When you placed your faith in Christ, you died with Christ and were raised to new life with Christ. You are no longer under the law. You are under grace.
And he uses an analogy from marriage to make his point. Look at Vv. 2-3. Now, let me be clear here. Paul is not making an argument against appropriate divorce and remarriage here. These verses have been used to try to do that by those who argue that divorce is never, ever okay, even in instances of abuse or neglect. And that isn’t appropriate. That isn’t what Paul is saying here. He’s simply calling to mind the general commitment of marriage, “Till death do us part,” words that we still use in marriage ceremonies today. His point is, if you’re married, you’re bound by law to your spouse. If you don’t honor that commitment, it’s called cheating, right? And that isn’t a good thing. But pretty much all cultures everywhere recognize that when one spouse dies, that surviving spouse is free to remarry if he or she wishes. And he uses the example of the man dying and the woman remarrying because in that culture, a husband could divorce his wife, but a wife could not divorce her husband. Her only way out was his death. If he died, she was free to remarry.
And that’s the image Paul uses to describe what happens to us when we place our faith in Christ and begin to follow him. Only here, the Law itself, which is the moral law of God, doesn’t die. Jesus himself, in Matthew 5:17-19, said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
God’s moral law remains. What changes is our relationship to it. We no longer have to keep the law to be acceptable to God. Christ has satisfied the requirements of the God’s moral law for us, and his death has become our death and his life has become our life. In 1 Corinthians 6:12 Paul says, “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” I no longer HAVE to live according to God’s moral law in order to be acceptable to God, but I now CAN and should because Christ is alive in me. The Law is no longer my master, but Christ is like my spouse, and I live in ways that please him, ways that we see in God’s moral law. The problem isn’t following God’s commandments. The problem is thinking that only when I do so, and perfectly, will I be acceptable to God. Because the real lesson that God’s law teaches over the millennia is that no matter how hard I try, I can’t. Not perfectly. I need forgiveness. I need grace.
In Christ, God has provided both. But God doesn’t just forgive us and hand us a pass to get into heaven when we die. He wants to transform our life now. We are called to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God now. And he does that not with a list of do’s and don’ts but in the context of a dynamic, transforming relationship with him.
In his book Tell It Slant, author Eugene Peterson uses the short parable in Luke 13:6-9 – a parable about manure, of all things – to talk about our need to practice resurrection in everyday life. In the parable, a man has a fig tree in his vineyard that doesn’t yield any fruit. Frustrated, he says to the man who takes care of the vineyard that after three years, it’s time to cut the thing down. But the caretaker replies, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” Peterson reflects on how this parable challenges us as believers—a challenge worth hearing at Easter, when we celebrate the power of resurrection. He writes:
Instead of goading us into action, [Jesus’ Manure Story] takes us out of action. We have just come across something that offends us, some person who is useless to us or the kingdom of God, “taking up the ground,” and we lose patience and either physically or verbally get rid of him or her. “Chop him down! Chop her down! Chop it down.” We solve kingdom problems by amputation.
Internationally and historically, killing is the predominant method of choice to make the world a better place. It is the easiest, quickest, and most efficient way by far to clear the ground for someone or something with more promise. The Manure Story interrupts our noisy, aggressive problem-solving mission. In a quiet voice the parable says, “Hold on, not so fast. Wait a minute. Give me some more time. Let me put some manure on this tree.” Manure?
Manure is not a quick fix. It has no immediate results – it is going to take a long time to see if it makes any difference. If it’s results that we are after, chopping down a tree is just the thing: we clear the ground and make it ready for a fresh start. We love beginning: birthing a baby, christening a ship, the first day on a new job, starting a war. But spreading manure carries none of that exhilaration. It is not dramatic work, not glamorous work, not work that gets anyone’s admiring attention. Manure is a slow solution. Still, when it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, Jesus is known for his fondness for the minute, the invisible, the quiet, the slow – yeast, salt, seeds, light. And manure.
Manure does not rank high in the world’s economies. It is refuse. Garbage. We organize efficient and sometimes elaborate systems to collect it, haul it away, get it out of sight and smell. But the observant and wise know that this apparently dead and despised waste is teeming with life – enzymes, numerous microorganisms. It’s the stuff of resurrection.[ii] And as God transforms me, he produces his fruit in me. He transforms the way I relate to Him, to myself, and to others. And as my way of relating is transformed, he uses my life to touch those around me too.
I’ve spent most of my adult life working with teenagers in some way. As a therapist, a coach, a youth pastor, a 4H leader. I even lead the youth ministry here at Christ Church right now. And one thing I’ve learned in over 20 years of working with teens is that middle school boys do not smell good. They also need to be reminded and sometimes forced to shower or bathe. And I’m not just talking about at home. I’ve had several “Come to Jesus” meetings with middle school boys about the value of soap mixed with water and also of deodorant and not wearing the same clothes every day. I’ve been on more than one retreat or trip where the stench got pretty bad. But I also know that at some point between the 8th and 9th grades, something changes, usually about the time they notice a cute girl and walk into a wall. Suddenly, they no longer have to be reminded and forced to keep themselves clean and smelling nice. Now they do it all by themselves because they want to. And thank you young ladies for your help in that regard.
That’s what happens to our relationship to God’s moral law when we place our faith in Christ and begin to follow him. We no longer try to obey out of a sense of duty and an attempt to be acceptable to, good enough for, God. Now we obey because we want to please our loving God and the Savior who gave himself for us. Who died in our place. Who took our just punishment upon himself. He died a physical death, he experiences that with us, but he also died a spiritual death, separation from God the Father, and he did that for us. We’ll still experience the one, the physical death, but not the other, the spiritual death. We don’t follow a legalistic list of do’s and don’ts. We’re in a dynamic, transforming relationship with a God who loves us deeply and gave himself on our behalf, and we obey because we now can, and because we love him and want to please him. Let us pray.
[i] John Ortberg, “True (and False) Transformation,” Leadership (Summer 2002), p. 102
[ii] Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant (Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 69–70