Loving the Law?

By Bruce G. Epperly

Date Delivered:  January 20, 2007

Third Sunday After the Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-3. 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

How can the reading of the Law be a source of celebration? For most of us, the law is something that stifles, inspires fear of punishment, and limits our freedom. “Law and order” is often a code word for harassing the homeless, minorities, and undocumented workers. In church, law and order has often been used to stifle the voices of sexual minorities and innovative thinkers, or to oppose to anything that might encourage creativity, pleasure, or happiness. After all, “we’ve always done it this way. And if it works for us, don’t fix it!”

Accordingly, the use of “law” in scripture and tradition must be looked at carefully and critically. Still, I believe that today’s scriptures describe a much deeper meaning of law – God’s law revealed in our lives and communities.

We can get a clue into the positive meaning of the law from theologian Paul Tillich, who spoke three types of law – autonomous(doing it “our way” without regard to the needs and rights of others), heteronomy (the external law, given to us without our consent or input by a government or adult), and theonomous (the inner law of our being, the divine law reflected in our deepest desires). Only theonomy, “the law of our being,” can heal and transform us because it arises from God’s quest for healing and justice for all creation, and in our lives.

Now, law and order isn’t always bad, is it? Think a moment of the positive benefits of law in your personal or family life.CONVERSATION

Law provides a regularity and order essential for experiences of trust and security for adults as well as children. Too much chaos in the social order, in worship, in a family or small group, or in our personal lives, makes creative action a virtual impossibility. From this perspective, law supports and nurtures rather than constricts our freedom. All creativity requires a certain degree of regularity, whether in music, cooking, art work, worship, and writing.

Think of worship as an example of the intersection of evolving divine law and human creativity. Too much ritual and order stifles the creative movements of the spirit. But, too much chaos and novelty makes meaningful worship difficult. Worship, at its best, blends order and chaos, liturgical familiarity with extemporaneous prayer and praise, predictability with surprise, and ancient and future in this holy now.

Nehemiah describes the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. After decades of captivity, the children and grandchildren of those who had been exiled to Babylon return to Jerusalem and a new life. The reading of the law represented a restored world and a sense of security for the newcomers in the same way that a fence or playpen or a hug can be a source of security for a child. The disorder of captivity was now a thing of the past; they could rejoice in the divine order that liberates and transforms. Law meant that healthy order had been returned to their lives, and that now they could plan for a radically different future.

Psalm 19 joins our vision of the world and our experiences of worship. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.”  The order of the universe is beautiful and predictable even amid constant transformation. Without God’s gentle cosmic care, revealed in each new day and in the orderly movements of life, we could not complain about life’s imperfections. There is plenty of pain and evil in the world, and we must do all we can to bring healing to life’s brokenness; but each day, God’s order and beauty spring forth.

Jewish theology describes the relationship between divine and creaturely creatively with the word zimzum. God “withdraws” from the world in order to give space for creaturely creativity. As a metaphor, zimzum affirms that God’s creativity is always joined with our freedom. Order is neither absolute nor perfect, nor should it be!  Divine order is constantly changing in light of ongoing divine-human creativity. God’s aim at order is mated with God’s call to novelty. New forms of order emerge only to be followed by other forms of order, once their time has passed.

I Corinthians 12 describes God’s Spirit moving through the varieties of gifts within the Christian community and, I would add, the world. The body of Christ is a perfectly ordered whole, but its order is grounded in lively variety and diversity rather than uniformity and changelessness. Like the healthy human body, new forms of order constantly emerge and evolve within healthy congregational and planetary life.

Within the body of Christ, everyone matters. Even the “inferior” parts of the body are essential to its survival and well-being. What is obvious may, in fact, be less essential to survival than what is often forgotten. For example, in the human body, the liver or immune system receive little adulation, but apart from their proper functioning we could not appreciate the external beauty of our own bodies or the bodies of others. This is true of the church as well as the human body – what quiet heroes gently go about their work here at DUCC and in our larger communities?

Health of the community, like health of the body, requires the well-being of all its members. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it: if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”  In the intricate garment of relatedness (Martin Luther King), we all need each other.

Luke’s gospel describes Jesus’ first public message. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus proclaims “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to proclaim good news.”  My teacher John Cobb once wrote a book entitled, Can Christ be Good News? Tragically, the telling of the Christian message has been “bad news” to many marginalized, oppressed, and “unimportant” persons – women seeking equality of opportunity and, in some denominations, ordination; gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender persons; and abused spouses. And this leads us to our mission at DUCC, “How do we speak the good news to those

who don’t expect to hear it from the church? How do we, like the heavens, ‘tell the glory of God’ to the marginalized and oppressed, and to silently hurting persons who join us in worship? How do we invite “outsiders” to see the path of discipleship as liberating rather than confining?” Perhaps, one answer is to be found in a word seldom employed by mainstream and progressive Christians, “anointed.”  “Anointed” is a word invoked by Pentecostals and evangelicals to describe the heightening and focusing of God’s spirit in life transforming ways. When God’s spirit “anoints” someone, God touches that person in a special way, giving her or him a special gift for the good of the community.

In light of I Corinthians 12, we can all awaken to God’s anointing power. Like the blood coursing through our body or the air we breathe, God is constantly inspiring, enlivening, and guiding us. We cannot escape God’s guidance, energy, or healing touch. But, sadly, we seldom expect God’s presence to well up within us in surprising, energetic, and life-changing ways. Can we be “anointed” progressives, whose openness to God’s grace allows lively, healing, socially-transforming, energy to flow through us to heal the world?

There is another meaning of the word “anointed,” closely connected with healing and wholeness. As part of many liturgical healing services, persons come forward to be anointed with oil as a sign of God’s healing touch. Anointing soothes, comforts, welcomes, and transforms. Anointed touch restores us to the dynamic health that is the “law” of our body, mind, and spirit. While we may not regularly evidence such gifts as speaking in tongues and ecstatic praise, we can still nurture other important gifts of God’s spirit – such as welcoming presence, healing touch, and liberating voice.

Here, today, law means healthy relationships with God and each other, with strangers, that liberate us to rejoice, heal, welcome, and transform one another. And, the first steps to living in God’s lively, life-changing law involve:

  • Opening to God’s wisdom through scripture, devotional reading, contemplation, Artist’s Way
  • Experiencing holiness in worship that inspires and challenges
  • Praying for each other and for the mission of this congregation
  • Finding angels in the unique persons who worship here and come through our doors
  • Then, turning toward the door at each worship’s close to welcome and bless the world beyond, to live our worship at work, with family, shopping, driving, and playing our roles as justice-seeking citizens

God’s law is here…to bring us joy – all of us joy – as we join with God in healing this good earth.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements. Now retired, he served as co-pastor ofDisciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA, an open and affirmative, progressive and emerging congregation.