Are rules the way to grace?
Imagine if it was your job to make rules for humanity by which to live. The whole of humanity depends on you to come up with a set of rules to ensure that humanity prospers, stays safe, and protects the environment.
Where would you start? Perhaps you would start with the biggies, such as “don't murder anyone” or, “respect your parents”. But things get complicated very quickly.
I mean … take those two rules, for example. What if someone else is not living by the same rules and they are murdering whole communities? If you have the power to stop them by murdering them surely that would be permissible? And what if your parents are disrespectful or abusive? Under such circumstances, are you to respect them? Or, what if it is not your parents but someone else being abusive?
Law gets very complex very quickly and it involves morality, ethics, family, society, politics and just about every facet of life as we know it. Also, law is constantly evolving as new technologies are developed and new situations arise.
For the Jewish people living in first-century Palestine, there was the religious law and the Roman law and, although on occasion the two came into conflict, a good Jewish person would try adhere to the religious law as best they could.
They inherited the written law of Moses but it quickly became apparent that this did not cover every situation and circumstance and so they developed, alongside the written law, the spoken or oral law. Both together, provided a prescriptive way of living and were passed down from generation to generation until the oral law was codified (written down) in about 200AD to form the Talmud containing the law (Mishnah) and eventually also a commentary (Gemara).
But here is a reality; a truth. No one has ever managed to perfectly uphold the law. Think about it for one second. Put the law to one side for a moment and instead think of your own standards, your own “internal” law, if you will. Have you ever lived up to your own standards. let alone anyone else’s? The answer is, no, you have not, and if you think you have, well, then you are deceived or possibly God – in which case we need to have an urgent chat!
Seriously, the same is true in my own life. I doubt I have lived for even a single day and been obedient to my own standards, let alone the standards of a written religious or secular law – and certainly not God’s law!
Yes, believe it or not, us ministers do not always have pure thoughts! And if you think about this logically, then this inability to live up to our own standards is a remarkable and disconcerting thing. Does it mean that, in some way, all humanity is broken?
Over the centuries, people have wrestled with this uncomfortable disconnect, and have tried all sorts of things to purify themselves: self-isolation through becoming a hermit, strict orders for living in religious communities, self-flagellation and punishment and so on, however none of them have worked.
At its worst we have pointed the finger at others and inflicted pain and punishment rather than come face-to-face with our own brokenness. Trying to squeeze all the failures out of our own lives or the lives of others is a fruitless exercise. It appears we are unable to change ourselves or anyone else. If obedience to the law – any law – worked, then the world would be a better place would it not? Humanity would prosper, it would be safer, and the environment would be protected.
But, what if there was another way? What if that way recognised that we need laws and rules for living but also our inability to stick to them. What if it somehow embraced and subsumed the law into a better and bigger solution? What if that way sets us free from being bogged down by or chained to legalism? What would that look like?
It would look like the person of Jesus Christ and would be called something called “grace”.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ sets us free from the law such that God's law can be written on our hearts. God’s Holy Spirit can fill us, and instead of us trying to become better people from the outside in by being obedient to the law, the Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit of love – transforms us from the inside out. It is not by our own merit. It is not through us trying harder to achieve that which is fruitless in our own strength. The initiative was and is God’s. It is God’s free gift to us, and to accept it, all we have to do is have faith.
If this is true then it is life-changing and life transforming. It might even offer real hope for humanity. No wonder Christians get happy-clappy! It is not just good news but incredible news – in fact it is the best news ever!
This concept of grace is difficult for us to accept because, despite it being freely available, the widely accepted narrative is still that we become better and holier people by trying harder. The idea that grace comes through Jesus Christ means we have to let go of ourselves, our own ability, and confidence in our own strength – something that is not easy for us to do. Yet, the pathway to redemption begins with remembering that we cannot live up to our own standards, and certainly not God’s – not even for a single day.
So, today, may we recognise our own failings and turn to the one that truly sets us free. May we allow God to embrace us, welcome us, accept us, and include us with his love. Now and for ever. Amen.
• The Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm