Click here to listen to the sermon preached at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd (Olympia, WA).
Text(s): Dueteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I am aware that we have several home-brewing beer drinkers in our community. Has anyone been attending and/or participating in the local brew or beer festivals?
John, my husband, in true German and Lutheran heritage is a consumer of beer with aspirations of beginning to brew his own. Although we attended the Tacoma Beer Festival yesterday, I have been pondering our experience at the Olympia Brew Fest two weeks ago.
John sampled a brew named “Gospel”. He stated that it was true to its name, “good but bitter”. Admittedly, my initial thought was “Huh? What are you talking about? The Gospel is the promised grace of God. Wouldn’t it be sweet?” Yet, I shrugged this off. Why? Simple, this was not the first sample of our Olympia Brew Fest experience.
As contradictory as his statement might have seemed, our lectionary texts might seem as contradictory. Our lectionary text, including the Gospel, have a bitter emphasis on the law
But, what is the law?
The Torah, translated as law or teaching, is a treasured and divine present in Judaism. The Torah is compiled of 613 Mitvots, or laws of strict moral conduct, including the infamous dietary restrictions. These are the ordinances that the Deuteronomy text bluntly states is not be changed through addition or reduction thereof. However, Judaism ‘built a fence’ of expanded prohibitions to further protect the Torah from knowingly or unknowingly being transgressed.
Yet, the gospel text insinuates that beyond the standard criticism of religious leadership that Jesus is seeking the reduction or abolishment of the law; for Jesus states “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come”. The Greek term (κοινός) that is translated as “defile” may be translated as “to make common”. The notion implied is that the transgression of the law, including the extended prohibitions, made one “common” or “unholy”. Therefore hindering the God-Human relationship, yet Jesus poses the question does material uncleanliness make one unholy or is it the evil intentions of our hearts?
Yet, honestly as Christians in the 21st century, perhaps we should pose the question: did Jesus come to abolish the law?
Experience has impressed upon me that the answer is rarely as simplistic or black and white as we may desire. Similarly, the answer is uncovered through the exploration of our history and scriptures.
In Matthew 5: 17-18, Jesus proclaims “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished”. Again Jesus proclaims, “Do NOT think I have come to abolish the law.
Yet, Romans 6:14-15 reads “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace. What then? Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? God forbid!”
The most simplistic answer is: Christ did not abolish the law, Christ transformed the law through the gospel of God’s promised grace.
Ah, but the sweet Gospel. Lutherans have been accused of being drunk on the Gospel.
For the Gospel and the Law are similar to a full flavored, balanced beer. In the process of brewing beer is three essential ingredients: yeast, malt, and hops.
The malts are the grains and wheat, essentially the starches or sugars. The malt is combined with activated yeast in order to begin the process of fermentation. Fermentation is the process that transforms the malt into alcohol, while releasing carbon dioxide to carbonate the beverage. Yet, not all sugar is fermentable. Those that are not simply add to the sweetness of the beer.
Similarly, the promised, but undeserved, grace of God is the Gospel. The Gospel is the expression of the unconditional love that God has for humanity and creation.
As I stated before, Lutherans have been accused of being drunk on the Gospel. Admittedly, the opposing argument is theologically based upon our battle cry of the Protestant Reformation… “justification by grace alone”. The implication exposed and exploited is that because our human merits are invalid towards justification, or having been made just before God, we can be fundamentally curved in on the self.
Yet, the law counters the sweet Gospel. I am not speaking of the 613 Mitzvoth. Remember in our gospel text, Jesus states ‘you have abandoned the commandment of God’! But, what is God’s commandment, or law? According to Mark 12: 30-31, “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’. John 13: 34 furthers the sentiment, for Jesus states “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”.
Thus, Christ may have transformed the commandments or law from prescriptive to non-prescriptive, but he raised the bar. Matthew 25:35-45 claims if you feed, clothe, shelter, comfort, etc. those in need, you have fed, clothed, sheltered, comforted Christ. This is the law of God.
(Rot Roh)… We might be thinking that the 613 Mitzvot are more desirable and/or more realistic. For there are moments when I am unable to love God with all of my heart, my soul, my mind, and my strength. I am aware that I do not always love my neighbor as myself, let alone as Christ first loved his most intimate disciples. And honestly, I suspect that I am not alone.
Although we humans experience this law as bitter, perhaps challenging to swallow. The law is applicable and necessary, for there are three usages of the law:
(1) to curb our desire for sin, which Luther defined as being curved in on one self. Essentially, the first usage is socially motivated to prevent humans from violating or acting violently against one another and to maintain social order.
(2) to be a mirror, such as James stated, to reflect and to remind us of what we are… Sinners. For Romans 3:20 reads: “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed in the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
And (3) to redirect the sinner towards their need for the promised forgiveness and grace of God, which is the Gospel.
Similarly, hops are bitter in taste and are added to beer in order to counter the sweet malt. In fact, the bitterness of the hops are the reason why myself and others are not beer consumers. And arguably, the perception of the law, as demonstrated by organizations similar to the Westboro Baptist Church, may be the reason individuals do not partake in Christianity or organized religion in general.
Therefore, the more I pondered John’s statement that the brew “Gospel” was good but bitter, the more I realized the truth within it.
The malty beers are sweeter in taste and have a tendency to be more rapidly consumed. The scientific truth would be that the quicker rate of consumption can transform a person from sober, to buzzed, to becoming “that drunk guy or girl”. “That drunk guy or girl” quickly becomes curved in on the self and pre-occupied with the satisfaction of their own desires, and are honestly unable to tend to themselves; thus, especially unable to tend to the needs of their neighbor. Similar to the individual who is drunk on the justification promised by the Gospel becomes curved in on themselves, they become blind to and/or unable to tend to their neighbors.
On the other hand, the hoppy beers are bitter. The bitterness has turned a number of people against beer. If the bitterness is accepted, the rate of consumption is frequently slowed curbing the risk of becoming “that drunk guy or girl”. However, it reduces or terminates the amount of pleasure that may be gained from the beer, just as one who focuses on the law is unable to find assurance of justification and full satisfaction in their lives.
Therefore, the sweet malt must be balanced with the bitter hops. Similarly, the Gospel and the Law must be balanced and preached from the pulpit. The Gospel and Law must be balanced in our lives, our congregation, and our communities. Why? In order that we are not discouraged by the bitter bite of the law, but that we are not blinded by the intoxication of the Gospel.
May the home-brews of our lives, as individuals and community, be balanced with the sweet malt of God’s promised grace and the bitter hops of the law. Amen.