In one of my former congregations, I had a member who used to refer to people as “Old Testament Christians.” At first I didn’t see any problem with this. The people believed in Christ; that was a good thing. They paid attention to the Old Testament; that seemed like a good thing, too. I really didn’t think too much about it. But the guy who made this comment was a smart man; he wasn’t the type who would just say something off hand. For him to name a group of people, “Old Testament Christians” probably meant that there was something more to it.
So once, when I was talking with the guy, I asked him what he meant when he called someone an “Old Testament Christian?” He responded by asking me a question: “Have you ever met someone who claims to be a Christian but whenever they are confronted with a problem, they jump back to the laws of the Old Testament?” I replied, “Yes.” He said, “Those are the people I am talking about. They are all about grace when it is black and white or when it fits their understanding of the world. But as soon as things start to get gray, they move away from grace and go right to law. They have difficulty dealing with the ambiguity of the world and dealing with things they don’t necessarily agree with. So instead of staying in the conversation and learning and growing, they jump right to the LAW and say that that settles it. Those would be the ‘Old Testament Christians.’”
Once I started to think about it, the concept made me kind of sad. All of these people who could be living in the light of Christ’s love are being stuck in the judgment of the law. To many people, it may seem like the law is the way we earn our salvation. We have to do everything “good enough” and then we will “earn” our salvation. But this is not the way. The Law provides us something that looks like a way to be assured that we are going to make it to heaven, but all that the Law does is points out our flaws. All that the Law does is holds us captive. The Law just points out how we have fallen short of the mark; and when I say, “we,” I mean all of us. If, in order to achieve salvation, we have to keep all the Law, we can never do that. None of us has ever kept all of the Ten Commandments, let alone the other 603 that are in the Old Testament that we usually don’t talk about. Did you know that? In the Old Testament there is 613 laws!
We cannot keep the Law. Period. If the Law is how we attain salvation, then we are all are always going to fall short. Our reading from Galatians says, “no one will be justified by the works of the law.” We cannot get our salvation from the Law, no matter how much we try.
But we have a hard time moving beyond the Law. Why is that? I would like to think that we pay attention to the law because it gives us a way to exist as a community. We get along better if we don’t kill each other. We can survive as a community if we are not stealing from each other. And our families stay intact if we remain faithful. Law is God’s way of providing us a guide for better living. And when all are following the Law, we have to admit that life is pretty nice.
It would be nice if we followed the law because we all existed better together. But, unfortunately, we usually use the law as a way of keeping score. “We” keep the law better than “They” do, so therefore “We” are better and therefore more deserving. That other person, “They” don’t keep the Law, and therefore do not deserve anything.
This is what we see in the gospel reading for today. The woman was seen as bad. She was a bad woman and didn’t keep the Law. Therefore she didn’t deserve Jesus’ care and compassion. The Pharisees thought that they were all deserving of the attention that they received because they kept the law. (Or so they wanted others to believe.) And I am sure that if there was any way they didn’t keep the law, they has some kind of justification for it. But now this woman, it was known that she broke the law and was not a good person. She did not deserve any kind of love or care.
That is the thing about grace, and that is what we are talking about here today, is that it is there for us. It is there for us when we deserve it, but, especially, it is there when we don’t deserve it. And probably the time that we most appreciate grace is when we DON’T deserve it. When we are following the Law and we receive blessings, we tend to assume that these are just the rewards of our good behavior. But when good things happen to us, when we are blessed even when we know we have not been keeping the Law, when we know we haven’t been exemplary and still God sees fit to bring blessing into our life; that is when we truly feel God’s grace.
The unfortunate thing is, when we most feel God’s grace, it is at that moment that the world finds it the most offensive. I have heard of congregations keeping Youth Directors on who have embezzled from the checking accounts. I have heard of spouses keeping in a marriage even after finding out that the other spouse has flaunted the marriage vows. In the Bible we have Ananias, a Christian, taking in Saul, someone who was known for killing the Christians. In these situations, most of us would find the actions of these people questionable at best, and in most cases, we would find them very offensive. The world tells us that someone who steals should be fired, someone who cheats should be thrown out. And, of course, if the person is killing Christians, well that person does not deserve any kind of kindness.
But the way of God, the way of Christ, is not the way of the world. In the gospel reading, Jesus should have pushed the woman away. By the logic of the world, he should have been offended. But Jesus wasn’t. Jesus allowed the woman to express her gratitude and Jesus gave her his blessing. To the world, to the Pharisees, this was offensive. But Jesus took it in stride. The way of Jesus was not the way of the world.
I read a quote, I don’t know who said it, but it really opened my eyes to the way of Christ. It said, “Perhaps God’s grace is always offensive unless you are the one receiving it, in which case you might take down your hair and weep and kiss someone’s feet.” It would be wonderful if the whole world could celebrate with the woman who received God’s grace. It would be wonderful if we could always see God’s grace as a reason to rejoice. It would be wonderful if we could always see the world as God sees it. Unfortunately, we can not.
But the great thing is, even if it doesn’t make sense to us, it does make sense to God. God will be present and God’s grace will be present.
We have been given the law to help us to live together, but we have also been given grace so that when we do fall short of the law, we are still loved and accepted. The law is there to help us to be community, but Grace is there to give us the strength to carry on.
The Old Testament Christian, does make sense. By following the Law, we can exist better, together. But it is only when we have the love and grace of Christ that we can grow together as communities of love. We are not just law, we have more, we have Christ’s love! The love the world may find objectionable, but the love the world needs.