Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Sermon #204 St. James the Less #111 10/25/20
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Taylor the Roommate
God truly has a sense of humor. I hope you’ve experienced it before.
When I worked in Yellowstone National Park, I lived in a dorm right behind the big dining hall where all the guests would come and have a nice dinner at the end of the day. Our dorms were tucked behind some trees so that the guests couldn’t see them from the big windows that showcased a spectacular sunset every evening.
These dorm rooms were barebones and had not been renovated in forty years or so. We were all assigned a roommate, and in some sort of divine irony, my roommate was an atheist.
Taylor was a nice guy; he was friendly and really not that hard to live with. We would get off of work around the same time after a long shift in the dining hall, and we’d just talk. Nine out of ten times the conversation would end up being theological—to be honest, I’m a lousy conversation partner if we’re not talking about baseball or God.
Taylor had attended church a little bit growing up, but it wasn’t much of a priority in his family. Sometime during high school, he came to the conclusion that Christianity wasn’t for him. The longer he was out of the church, the more questions came to his mind. He read a book or two on philosophy, and like any freshman who has finished taking their first philosophy course, Taylor felt like he was now an expert.
Taylor had a good heart and an inquisitive mind, but we could never agree to some basic ground rules in our conversations. He couldn’t accept that humans were inherently sinful. As a good humanist, he was sure that humanity was not broken or corrupted and that science and philosophy were the crowning jewels of humanity’s potential.
I struggled to make my case for the Christian faith because he couldn’t accept the basic problem that Christians see with the world—that “we have erred and strayed from [God’s] ways like lost sheep, and followed too much the devices and desires of our own heart,” as the Prayer Book says.
Before we can talk about the great problems of the world like wars and disease, we must be willing to name the problem, which is Sin—that the relationship between God and humanity is broken and in need of restoring, and no amount of human potential will adequately rectify the issue.
I don’t blame Taylor for wanting a solution to these problems—we all desire for the global issues of war and famine to end, but I do blame the modern world that we live in that places us—the individual person—as the judge and jury of right and wrong.
Taylor, and those who are like him, are products of the philosopher’s that they read, but all of us swim in the same cultural waters, whether we’ve read Descartes or not. We too have been shaped by this individualistic mentality that claims that we know what is best, in fact, that we are experts of what is good and true.
God in the Dock
C.S. Lewis wrote a short essay on the issues of presenting the Christian faith to modern unbelievers entitled, “God in the Dock.” A “dock” being the waist-high open box that a defendant stood in during trial in Britain.
Lewis wrote, “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. [Humanity] is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, [humanity] is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock” (244).
Lewis knew this mentality from personal experience from the many years he was an atheist. During that time, he made the same accusations that he noted in this writing—how can a loving God allow war, poverty, and disease?
It took years for Lewis to realize that God had been patiently but persistently by his side the whole time, even when he was accusing God of wrongdoing.
A switch finally flipped in his head, but more importantly in his heart, when he realized that the Almighty God’s place was not in the dock but on the Bench, and even though God has the right to condemn us, he nevertheless forgives because of his unceasing love for us.
The Expert in the Law
Again we see God’s divine sense of humor on display in our gospel this morning when a religious lawyer or as some translations say, “an expert in the Law” approaches Jesus.
I can only imagine the amount of time this person studied, year after year, to become an “expert.” The title itself would have been worth working towards. I can only imagine that he dreamed of someone coming up to him for advice because they knew he was an expert, a scholar in the Law of Moses.
I’ve always imagined him as a young man (maybe in his late twenties), brash and confident, and wanting to prove himself to the older, more well-respected Pharisees.
This is his chance to show off his book knowledge and put this rabbi from little ole Nazareth in his place. And so, the young expert asks Jesus a clever question in order to trap him.
His question is about the commandments, something he is very familiar with, and yet he is blind to the irony of his question. He is the supposed expert asking a question to the Author and Giver of the Law and Commandments he’s studied all these years.
He’s so confident in the brilliance of his question, that he has no clue who is truly giving the answer. Yet again, in this passage, humanity is in the judgment seat and God is in the dock. Yet again, humanity is trying to trap God, test him, and see if he slips up.
Jesus’ response is really not a surprise—love God and love your neighbor, it’s there in our Old Testament reading from Leviticus. And yet the divine sense of humor is that when Jesus says, “Love God” to the expert, he might as well have said, “Love me and love your neighbor.”
I believe that in Jesus’ answer, he was trying to help shift the young Pharisee’s perspective. He was trying to make him into an expert in love rather than law. And I believe Jesus is trying to help all of us become experts in love rather than law.
Experts in Love
This is Paul’s great argument in his letter to the Romans, and of all people, he was an expert in the Law, a Pharisee of Pharisees. He said, “For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:5-6).
“The new way of the Spirit” was what Jesus was trying to show the young, brash Pharisee that day. Even from his place in the dock, Jesus was trying to show this human expert, his momentary accuser and judge, the way that God intends the world to really work—a way that is rooted in love and devotion to God and from that flows a love and care for one another.
“They will know we are Christians by our love” is how the old hymn goes. And that love is not cheap, it’s not frilly or fancy, rather it is at its core: sacrificial. The love that God shows us, costs us something, and that’s because it cost him everything.
The ridicule, humiliation, and ultimate suffering and death that Jesus endured on the cross was the ultimate form of love; the greatest display of sacrificial love this world has ever known, and he did it with each of us in mind. He even had that expert in mind.
Back to Taylor
I wish I could tell you that in one of our late-night conversations in the heart of Yellowstone, Taylor became a follower of Jesus and that we ran down to the Yellowstone River and baptized him right then and there, but it didn’t happen.
After saying our final goodbyes at the end of that summer I wondered what I had done wrong. Which points could I have made clearer? Was there a book I could read that would help me with my arguments for Christianity next time a debate came up? I had to know more, be smarter, and more informed.
I felt like I had failed in a prime opportunity to bring someone to Christ.
And then I read the words of an expert who had been transformed by God from the inside out, “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
I had spent so much time debating Taylor that I had forgotten to love him.
Lay aside the law books and the pressure to impress or be perfect in your life and your conversations. Drop the expectations and concerns that distract you from that which is eternal. Let go of all that is holding you back from living fully into God’s grace and freedom.
Strive to live in the new way of the Spirit—an expert in the costly yet beautiful love of God.