Lent 3 B March 11, 2012
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”
That is how our collect, or opening prayer for this Sunday started out. That is a peculiarly un-Anglican statement, although it is a statement of completely orthodox Christian theology. It’s like St. Paul: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” It’s like St. Augustine, reflecting that on that passage from Paul: “Who then should deliver me from the body of this death, but your grace only, through Jesus Christ our Lord?” [i]
Augustine devoted much of his writing to refuting the thought of the followers of the British monk, Pelagius, who believed that we did indeed have “the power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Pelagius thought Christians were depending on the grace of God just to get themselves off the hook, to live, as he regarded it, morally irresponsible lives. In modern words, Pelagius would say:
God has given you free will. You can choose to follow the example of Adam, or you can choose to follow the example of Christ. God has given everyone the grace he needs to be good. If you are not good, you simply need to try harder.[ii]
|"Pelagius" is the Latin name |
for the Welsh monk, Morgan
There are many times in my life when I have found this “heresy” of Pelagius far more compelling than the orthodox theology of grace. Pelagianism makes more sense when I am stewing over someone who has really wronged me, over someone who has taken those 10 Commandments and cast them to the wind, put his or her hands up, moaning with cheap repentance, with a shallow restatement of Paul’s “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” line. Grace seems far too cheap for some people – but wait. I’d better stop here, before I persuade you of what really is a central distortion of how we understand how God works in the world. People do sin, and yes, there are consequences, but the first, last and most powerful response of God is grace, love and forgiveness.
So then, why do we need “the law” at all, if grace abounds? The very un-Anglican John Calvin described the law as mirror, fence, and guide. The mirror shows the harsh reality (what we have done, and left undone). The fence restrains bad behavior – remember all of those Puritan “blue laws”? (Don’t buy liquor on Sundays – or else!) Finally, Calvin’s image of the law as a guide for living comes closest to how the faithful Jew understands the law, which, as we sang in Psalm 19, is a delight and a joy. The heart of the law, for a Jew, is the Sabbath, the goal of life is this day of rest, the time when all commerce, all work, stop, when you refrain from doing anything else to change the world God has created.
But the world we live in is very big, where the rules society has us follow are not necessarily determined by God. Some people, and we hear them on that endless news cycle, think we should “go back” to a whole society living by God’s rules. Alas: it was never thus. Go back to those 10 Commandment times: the Jews were a tiny group, living in a big imperial sea. They always had to live as a cell inside a larger and sometimes voracious organism: the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans. The law was something profoundly counter-cultural, something which indeed freed you from the tyranny of all those “-isms.” The law is holiness, yes, but it is also justice. The 10 Commandments make it possible not only for YOU to live the good life, but for your neighbor to live it as well. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says the Sabbath rest, the heart of the law is
… for self, for neighbor, and even for God … the goal and quintessence of life….a kind of 'at-homeness' that precludes hostility, competition, avarice, and insecurity…and anticipates a community of peace, well-being, and joy.[iii]
Which is how we get to Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the Temple. The law of the Lord is perfect – not a place for hostility, competition, avarice and insecurity. The law is the mirror, the fence and the guide: the money changers in the Temple jumped the fence long ago, they have smashed the mirror and have forgotten the guide. Yesterday’s New York Times[iv] ran an article about the national organization of religious congregations taking their money out of banks, like the Bank of America, which profited shamelessly from writing bad mortgages to people they knew could not pay them, banks whose scandalous behavior tipped the economy into disaster with the foreclosure crisis. Throw those money changers out of the Temple, Jesus would say. God’s world was created with enough for everyone, with enough to go around. Part of what happens during the Sabbath rest is that all of those goodies are redistributed, and what Jesus was doing with all that ruckus in the Temple was to announce that God’s true Sabbath was about to begin.
So, despite all those people who have wronged us, and made us really mad, and committed all those crimes and misdemeanors, Pelagius is wrong and Augustine is right. We are all enfolded in God’s grace after all, and before all, and above all, and around all. No, we don’t have to do it ourselves. We can throw the bums out, but there will be enough to go around for them, too. We can forgive people who have wronged us, as we have been forgiven by God, but we don’t have to reconcile with them. We don’t have to be their best friends anymore; God’s grace will take care of that, too. We can be enraged, as Jesus was enraged, but, like Jesus, we can lead Sabbath-filled lives, knowing that there is enough for everyone – even enough grace – to go around.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, from The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant, quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/march-11-2012-third-sunday.html