Rules in life are really important!
There are all sorts of rules, aren’t there?
There are rules about how to eat and how to talk and who to talk to and who not to talk to.
There are rules for playing games of various codes – Union, League, AFL and Soccer – just mention various approaches to football.
Of course there are rules that help us work out who are the winners and who are the losers – not just in games, but in all sorts of spheres of life – and we all want to be winners.
In a way it isn’t any wonder that most of the religious systems in the world have as a very big part of them some kind of rules that most people think it is best to keep.
The Jewish religion certainly was full of rules.
They had rules about what to eat and how it should be cooked.
They had rules about what kind of fabric was permitted in your clothing.
They had rules about cleanliness both literal and ritual.
And they had a whole lot of rules about what you had to do to be friends with God again if you had done bad stuff – remembering that some bad things could only be remedied by you being stoned to death.
There were a whole lot of moral sins that could get you stoned but also:
Being a stubborn and rebellious son (or daughter?)
Cursing one of your parents.
Violating the Sabbath.
Now this last one was a beauty because the Pharisees had worked a million and one things that would be violating the Sabbath if you did them between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.
An idea that was at the heart of this was the thing we call a COVENANT.
There are various kinds of COVENANT in the Bible but the most common is a reciprocal or conditional covenant by which two parties agree with each other “If you do this, I will do that!”
When we put this into a religious context we get something that looks in its simplest form like “If we do all the right things, our all-powerful God will really look after us.” The term we most commonly use is “bless us!”
We all like the idea of getting good things if we do the right thing.
All this is okay so long as we understand how it all works and everything goes according to the rules.
Which brings me to this season of LENT which we have nearly completed – next week is Palm Sunday.
We have a special term for what kind of Season Lent is – PENITENTIAL – SOLEMN – SAD!
Psalm 51 speaks right into the sentiment of this season:
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
in your enduring goodness:
according to the fullness of your compassion
blot out my offences.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness:
and cleanse me from my sin.
If you have a Bible or prayer book look it up.
Some of you will be familiar with musical settings for the Mass that use Latin terms for their names – Sanctus, Benedictus, Kyrie.
They did the same things for the Psalms which were often set to music. They used the first Latin word in the Psalm for the name of the setting. The Setting of Psalm 51 is called Miserere – “Lord Have Mercy on Me.” Gregorio Allegri wrote in the early 1600s one of the most loved musical settings of this Psalm that lasts about 15 minutes – it really is like listening to angels and a great hi-fi in here would make it sound wonderful. I am sure.
But the Miserere and the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei all seem to focus especially at this time of year on our miserable lot in life because we can’t do it – we can’t keep all the rules.
Actually that seems to me to be the point of it all – the Gospel, that is.
Have you ever been disappointed when you thought you did everything right and you still got it in the neck in some way or another?
Have you ever felt resentful about that person who lives down the road from you who has broken all the rules in life and yet they seem to have everything?
I want to suggest that God started trying to tell the people of Israel a long time before Jesus came along that keeping the rules was not all it was cracked up to be by the Pharisees.
In the part of Jeremiah we read today we have those famous words that God wanted a new covenant, one that God would:
“write on their hearts;
And I will be their God
and they shall be my people.”
This was to be an unconditional Covenant.
I WILL BE THEIR GOD
THEY WILL BE MY PEOPLE
God was saying that the rules couldn't work – the old covenant didn’t work.
There is nothing we will ever be able to do to deserve God’s goodness, and it is God’s will that none should be condemned.
So God introduced us to this amazing word – GRACE.
This is the word that makes the life and death of Jesus make sense for me.
So often Jesus broke all the rules – he healed on the Sabbath, he touched lepers and unclean women, he let his disciples gather food from the roadside on a Sabbath.
That Hebrews reading we had has some interesting things to say about how this new Covenant works – especially because of who Jesus was. Yes, the imagery is all about the temple sacrificial system, but this High Priest is effective, not because his blood satisfied some divine law, but because he discovered that deep wisdom that we all find life in losing it.
That is what Jesus is talking about when he tells us this amazingly short parable:-
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, but those who yield up their life in this world will discover what eternal life is.”
We are so strongly wedded to our sacrificial imagery in understanding what happened when Jesus died – it’s imbedded in our theology and liturgy, and of course it is thoroughly Biblical – but this deep wisdom we find in John’s Gospel today helps many people come into new and meaningful understandings of the kind of relationship God wants to have with them.
This is not one based on Rules.
It is a deep personal relationship with God based on God’s commitment to be our God no matter what and in which we can relax about those rules because God’s grace means that the relationship is no longer based on the rules, but rather a commitment to be in relationship – giving up our life to be in God.
The Lord be with you.