Law and grace

28 October 1990
Theme: Epistles, Faith, Spiritual life   Place: London Parish   Period: 1986-1990   Genre: Talk

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. To-day’s Epistle is not clear in every respect, and I think it is worth giving some thought to it.

The first thing which Paul the Apostle, who had been a law-abiding, very strict disciple of the Synagogue, underlines is that simply doing the things which the Law commands does not save us, because salvation does not consist of being righteous, being able to say before God, ‘I have done all that Thou commandest’, but in entering into such communion with God that, again to use St. Paul’s own words, the Law should be within our hearts, within us, be our very nature. Just being the doers of the Law may make us righteous in the sense that we will have done all that was commanded, and yet it will only have brought us to the frontier of life.

This is what he meant when in another place St. Paul says that the Law is like a teacher; we know what the teacher is in our ordinary experience, it is someone who takes us when we are small, who teaches us step by step until we are mature enough to do without him and able to enter, in a mature and responsible way, into life which is before us. Such was the Law of the Old Testament; by disciplining the people of Israel, and beyond them all those who entered under the Law, it prepared all of them to come to the threshold where they would take full respon­sibility for life.

And then, Christ comes; Christ also gives us commandments, but they have another quality. He Himself says that when you will have ful­filled all that I have told — recognise, confess that you are still unworthy servants. Because it is not in the doing but in the becoming, that lies the mystery of salvation, the mystery of freedom and of the Gospel.

One of the ancient writers of Christendom says that there are three ways of being obedient to God: one can obey His will for fear of punishment, one can obey Him because one hopes for a reward, one may be a slave or a hireling. But neither of these conditions makes us close to our Master. There is only one way in which doing the will of God is a manner of communing with Him: it is the attitude of a son who so loves, so reveres his Father that every word of His, every bit of advice, every command, every example is for him a road to maturity, a way of becoming truly himself, by becoming more than he is at any given moment.

That is the way of the commands of Christ. He has brought us the law of freedom; that is, we are no longer slaves or hirelings, we are called to be sons and daughters of the Most-High. This is what Paul means when he says that Christ in a sense does way with the command­ments, the Law of the Old Testament. But He is not a breaker of the Law, He does not sin against it — He transcends it by being the Way, the Truth, the Life which opens before us when we have reached the point when a guide, a human guide, a fallen guide is no longer enough.

What does Paul mean when he says that he does not live himself anymore — that it is Christ Who lives in him? We all know something of it: when we revere someone, when we love someone, we identify with the other person in thought, in heart, in will, in his ways — not that we ape the other person, but we try to emulate him, to be worthy of being like the other person. And this is what he means. He discovered Christ as his God; he discovered Him as the teacher of life, of eternal life that begins already on earth in those who discover Who Christ really is, and who become His messengers on earth, a vanguard of the Kingdom, people whom He sends to bring a message of liberation.

We know it also at times from examples in our life and in the life of others; I remember a person who had come out of a concentration camp where danger of death and continuous suffering was his lot; and he said to me ‘The moment I was freed, I realised that I was born again, that all I had been had died out in the camp, that the new life I was given was a gift, and was not mine, it was God’s, and I had to live in such a way that God should live in me, act through me, that I should be His eyes, and His ears, His compassion and His love, His truth’. It happens also to people who come to the brink of death, knowing that they are about to die, for some inconceivable, humanly speaking reason, are healed; some forget it, but some realise that if they are alive now, it is not by the power of their natural life, it is not the continuation of their life of the past — it is a new life which is given them, and that this new life must be lived on new terms, on terms on which the previous one could not, or would not be lived.

Let us reflect on this, because we all repeat constantly in our litanies, ‘Let us commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life to Christ, our God’. Usually we think of it as though we were saying, ‘Let us look to Him for safety, let us put our lives in His care, let us abandon ourselves to Him counting on Him to save us from all adversity’ — this is not what it means; it means that generously, courageously, whole-heartedly, by an act of will that transcends our very will to do good and our proclivity towards evil, we say to Christ, ‘I don’t want to live my life — I want to live Yours! I do not want to live according to my own standards — I want to live according to Yours!’

This is what Paul perceived when he first met Christ and discovered that the One he was out to persecute, to destroy, was in reality the Son of God become the Son of man. Each of us should have realised this long ago, because we all were baptised into Christ; over each of us was read the passage of the Epistle that said that in Him we die, and in Him we rise again, that we die for everything which is not worthy of our divine vocation; and now, in an act of will and faith that is of surrender and faithfulness, we intend to live the life of Christ so that Christ’s life should pervade us, fill us, unfold itself in us, that we should be, within the limits of our faith, of our faithfulness and courage, His presence and a revelation of Him.

Let us reflect again and again on this confusing passage of the Epistle to the Galatians, to see where we belong; and if we do not be­long where our Christian vocation calls us to be — let us make a deci­sion, take ourselves in hand, and put our whole selves into the hands of God. Amen.

Published: Newsletter № 234 1990 November


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