When God’s Law is More than Law…
devotional Thought fo the Day:
9 How can the young keep his way without fault? Only by observing your words. 10 With all my heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments. 11 In my heart I treasure your promise, that I may not sin against you. 12 Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes. 13 With my lips I recite all the judgments you have spoken. 14 I find joy in the way of your testimonies more than in all riches. 15 I will ponder your precepts and consider your paths. 16 In your statutes I take delight; I will never forget your word! Psalm 119:9-16 NAB-RE
The last sentence of his Gospel tells us, for instance, that when the disciples had seen Jesus ascend into heaven, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Lk 24:52). The Acts of the Apostles repeats the theme: “… they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). They went their way after they had seen the Lord ascend into heaven—and their hearts were filled with joy. From a purely human point of view, we would expect their hearts to be “filled with confusion”. But no! One who has seen the Lord not just from the outside; whose heart has been moved by him; who has accepted the Crucified One and, precisely because he has done so, knows the grace of the Resurrection—his heart must be full of joy.
There’s no man living on earth who knows how to distinguish between the law and the gospel. We may think we understand it when we are listening to a sermon, but we’re far from it. Only the Holy Spirit knows this. Even the man Christ was so wanting in understanding when he was in the vineyard that an angel had to console him [John 12:27–29]; though he was a doctor from heaven he was strengthened by the angel. Because I’ve been writing so much and so long about it, you’d think I’d know the distinction, but when a crisis comes I recognize very well that I am far, far from understanding. So God alone should and must be our holy master.”
Part of the duty of those who preach is to determine what Lutheran theologians call the “distinction between law and gospel”. This is what others may call the terms of the covenant and the blessings of the covenant. It is that which convicts us, and causes us to turn to Christ for the only relief that is possible, and the very promise, the guarantee of that relief.
As Luther noted, it isn’t that easy, and towards the end of his life and ministry, he became even more aware of the difficulty doing so created, especially in our times of crisis, as we face trauma, like anxiety, and even the fear of death burdens us more.
Part of the challenge is that in the Old Testament scriptures, there are multiple uses of the words for law, the words that describe God speaking, and forming. For in one place the Law is the entire covenant – the parties, terms (law) and promises (Gospel). But the same words and phrases on another describe the law as in the terms – the way God has planned for us to live, as we live as His beloved.
This confusion is often seen in the Psalms, especially in Psalm 119, which lauds and praises God’s law, commands, precepts, judgments, testimonies, and path. Is this the law that convicts, and gives us the choice of confession o living in guilt and shame? Or is this the incredible law and gospel covenant?
The simpleton in me finds that answer in the joy, both anticipated and known, in this section of the Psalm. That would indicate to me that the psalmist knows the entire schematic, that God’s law convicts us, and drives us in despair to cry out “Lord, Have mercy!”, But it also knows the answer. That God desires, wills and has promised to show us that mercy. That is why the praises and blessings ensue, the glorious revelation of the Love of God, the love that we just want to bask in, explore and know, and yet we know we can’t fully.
It is what ungirds our praises; it drives us to celebrate this and to share it with those around us. As Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict noted, it brings a calmness and joy to the place where there should logically be confusion. It is when we know Christ Jesus, and the power of His resurrection and assured of it, and our place sharing in His glory (Col. 1:27ff)
This is why our church services are celebrations of the Eucharist, why the post communion hymn (for us often the nunc dimitis) should be an incredible song of praise! It is why going up to the house of God should become more and more desired, more and more a place of comfort and release of burdens. And if a church leaves without celebrating the magnificent mystery of the love of God, then Law and Gospel were not kept in tension, and the pastor failed. Celebrating it doesn’t mean necessarily dancing in the streets, it can be a jaw dropping sense of awe, or simply unspeakable joy….
But it is there, the knowledge of God’s love, and the peace that passes all understanding, for that how Christ protects our hearts and minds. This is why making sure that we realise that baptism is not just about the forgiveness of sins and repentance, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is why absolution includes a prayer for strength and comfort to walk in our calling, and why the Lord’Supper is the feast celebrating a new covenant, a new life with God. it is the fullness and fulfillment of the Law – that which Christ commanded we teach all people to guard, to keep, to treasure.
This is our feast, this is our joy, this is God and man, together. This is what God established and made to be His complete law… AMEN!
(1) Ratzinger, J. (1992). Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. (I. Grassl, Ed., M. F. McCarthy & L. Krauth, Trans.) (p. 153). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
(2) Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 54: Table Talk. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 54, p. 127). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Posted on May 7, 2016, in Augsburg and Trent, Devotions, The Small Catechism, Theology in Practice and tagged apostolate, brokenness, Church, Jesus, Ministry, preaching, sin, spirituality, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.