Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19, 7-end; 1 Cor 1: 17-25; John 2 13-22
Hymns: Take up thy cross; God be in my head; Blest are the pure in heart: Forth in thy name
Last Sunday, in Romans, Paul made clear that union with God is reached only by grace through faith in God, rather than just keeping the Law. Today, Paul takes us further by making clear that faith is not proved through signs or clever treatises which seem to relate to faith, but by accepting Christ’s Cross. Set against that strand, however, we also have Law solemnly set out in Exodus and underscored in the Psalm today: another look at Law and Faith seems necessary.
Some churches are strong on Law. Take a friend, born in 1902, speaking of his struggles with long-dead pastors who ruled with neither kindness nor generosity: ‘They were always saying, “you’ll be wiped out by God if you do certain things.” But my God forgives me and looks after me.’ Reversing that, some nowadays deal with too much Law and too little love with nauseating candy-floss love and optional law, setting aside the demanding death of gentle Jesus on that ‘too-sad cross’ in favour of that navel-gazing which easily touches on narcissism.
Moses received the Commandments after years of shepherding his people hither and thither. Reaching freedom in Israel, they became ground rules for living in right relation to God in justice and peace with each other: ‘Stay true to these commandments,’ says the second commandment, ‘and I, God, will show steadfast love to all who love me.’ It’s a contract, a sacred covenant, and today I’ll focus on the second law, on idols, of which Luther wrote wisely: “Do not make a Moses out of Christ, a book of laws and doctrines out of the Gospel, nor an idol out of doctrine.’
It’s not that Jesus didn’t do law, though he often broke it as in today’s gospel. Buying a plump dove to sacrifice meant changing coins with Caesar’s head on for neutral temple coinage, and that gave a fat profit both for the money-changers and the Roman state, a tax being levied on every transaction. Jesus, knowing God, knew only the seller and the state benefitted from dead doves, for faith is not bought but lived out in a loving relationship to God and our self. No possible idol in this story? Far from it, for any verse, any image, can function as an idol, validating action, when we wish. Jesus whipping the temple workers – actually the sheep and cattle but what a detail – becomes an idol to validate their violence against their wives, according to some Pacific Islanders, just as other texts validate actions elsewhere.
What is an idol? What does Luther mean by making an ‘idol out of doctrine’? An idol is typically a created image or natural object which is reverenced as an end in itself. Given our capacity to see the idol in others’ eyes but not our own, idols are commonly associated with the safe otherness of ‘pagan fetishes:’ but if used as the end point of reverence, often for the selfish benefit of the viewer, and not as a means to think beyond, idols stealthily become entangled in everyday life. We would thus do well to regard the last five commandments in relation to the second.
I came across a neat example of ‘my faith but your fetish’ from a local evangelists’ training day I attended some years ago in rural Borneo. Four Sydney theology students were also there, one of whom repeatedly told us about the neon cross on his church, and the ills of idols. A local girl asked if local Anglicans wearing of a crucifix signified idol worship. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘they are idols, because people think wearing it is enough;’ how clever he was to know what others think! Thankfully, another local man interrupted: ‘Then you should take the blue cross on your church down lest some think looking at it is enough, and do not think beyond, thus making it an idol.’
Anything can become an idol if we focus on it as our object of ultimate value, rather than what it refers to: a person, an attribute, a bank account. Can Law function in this way, blocking the liberating love of Christ? My late friend thought so. The commandments were given to enable people to live in good heart upwards and outwards, not nervously weighed down by clauses and codicils. The too-common idea that ‘Law breaks us down and Gospel builds us up’ too easily stops at step one, with the simplicity of Law our idol and the challenge of Gospel for another day. Can we do without Law? No, for it is our ground, our earthing. But a law which controls through fear prevents Gospel being heard, just as self-loathing would prevent us calmly face our own wrongdoing and thus ready to be open to and act on the offer of light, of life, at the end of Lent.
Law grounds and Gospel enables life in Christ, so Law is for Gospel. Gospel is there to tell the story, to teach us to live in Christ from it – and that excludes making idols to validate our, or society’s, unjust mean-minded actions. Fashioning scripture and doctrine in our own image risks worshipping our idols, not God. The risk then is not just that things may go badly wrong, with our relations with others out of kilter, but that living in faith, hope, justice and love take second place behind following ‘prickly scratchy teaching’, as the eighteenth century phrase put it. Do we toss out doctrine just because it irritates, especially given the common preference for culture over faith, or do we consign Law to the bin in favour of a Gospel with the hard bits set aside? Neither option points to the way of Christ.
Yes, it’s a tough demand, maintaining the tension between Law and Gospel, faith and order, freedom and responsibility. And lest some high-flown ‘process of discernment’ meticulously kept ‘demands of the law’ become a façade for individual or collective idols, let us use the remaining days of Lent to reflect on our contradictory capacities to create and maintain idols, to accept and yet to manipulate the Word, while also loving and receiving God.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg 8th March 2015