Golly I’ve been thinking a lot since yesterday’s sermon. Of course, there were three services yesterday and each time what we shared as preacher and congregation was different but the heart of the question (ha!) was the same: What’s the relationship between the free gift of salvation and the ethical command to love?
It’s a big question for the Apostle Paul and together we wrestled with it. At one point (in at least two of the sermons yesterday) we pulled out the handy-dandy theological method of using verb moods to describe the effects of salvation: The indicative (which guarantees us “freedom from the law” and “eternal life”) and the imperative (which commands us, ironically, to freely love). The first category is a given, a certainty. The second category is a result of the first.
So… our question is, does the fact that we are saved (the indicative) demand a certain ethic (imperative)? (If your brain hurts a little be glad you weren’t with us yesterday). More, does the fact that I cannot, try as I might, always love my neighbor ‘as myself’ mean that I am a liar? Or that I am not saved? (Check out 1 John Chapter 4). Paul might say that those of us who have benefited from the indicative but fail the imperative have not received the spirit (Romans 8). And that’s cheating. The worst kind, in fact. You thought mother nature was bad? Try God!
The number of pages that have been written about the questions posed above are countless (as are the theological categories and maxims related to them – salvation by grace through faith not works, for example). These are only exceeded by the unimaginable number of times the faithful, since the days of the historical Jesus, have asked themselves the same question – How faithful must I be? How much love is commanded of me? Who is my neighbor?
Indeed, the New Testament is replete with responses to the question. I immediately think of the ‘expert’ in Jewish law, who when after asking Jesus how to gain eternal life (the indicative) is told the parable of The Good Samaritan and then is commanded (the imperative) to “Go and do likewise” or the rich young man who departs from Jesus in grief after realizing that obeying Jesus’ imperative to part from his beloved possessions would feel like dying.
Yesterday we talked about how these very tough questions have led some of us to temper the limits of our love with casuistry. To be sure, situational ethics can give those of us who loose sleep over this stuff some theological wiggle room but, alas, Just War theory might still be an oxymoron in God’s eyes. Oddly enough, after telling the story of my own quandary after not helping someone who asked for cash the day before, when I got home after the 5:30 pm service I was stopped by a guy on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building. He asked me, lo and behold, if I could give him a few dollars. I gave him eighteen dollars which was all that I had. I didn’t ask who sent him.
I suppose it’s a good thing to be plagued by the questions that faith asks us – especially the ones we cannot answer – the ones that keep us up at night. All the better when questions like these plague us as the church. Imagine what a church that couldn’t sleep at night might get done! When feeling especially wretched, like I have over the last few days, I often turn to a quote that gives me hope:
The truth is, I am far from being the monk or the cleric that I ought to be.
My life is a great tangle of half-conscious subterfuges to evade grace and duty.
I have done all things badly. I have thrown away great opportunities.
My infidelity to Christ, instead of making me sick with despair,
drives me to throw myself all the more blindly
into the arms of His mercy.
That’s Thomas Merton from his book The Sign of Jonas. More than a simple matter of misery loving company I think the quote helps me for two reasons. The first is that those of us who struggle with our faithfulness do not do so in isolation; even the greatest among us have room to grow in faith and service. The second may be more important. Maybe it’s not until we really experience the depth of God’s mercy (the indicative) that we can walk fully into the imperative to love without weighing the cost. When we do that, we’ll have one true church!
Happy Monday (for a few more hours)!