So last week after we finished up here Meghan and I went out for lunch. The restaurant had a fountain drink machine, and on the machine was sign that read, “if you get soda in a clear cup you will PAY!!” All caps, underlined twice, three exclamation points coming after it, PAY!!! Apparently, they are having or have had an issue with people asking for water, getting it for free, and then filling their clear water cup with soda. What I especially liked was that the sign didn’t say “you will be charged,” or “you will be asked to leave,” or anything specific like that. No, it said “you will PAY,” like it’s the beginning of a movie where the hero accidentally wrongs the villain in some way and they vow revenge. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, Meghan accused me of that, but I’m picturing a much more sinister threat than just having to pay the extra dollar twenty-five and being shamed. I’m picturing real consequences for stealing soda, like mob style consequences – breaking of thumbs, baseball bats to the knee, horse head in your bed kind of stuff. You’re not going to forget the time you filled your plastic cup with soda, this is going to be a lesson that leaves scars, you will PAY!!! for this breach of restaurant edict.
So I’m probably a little further in the woods with this sign than it deserves, I even got up and took a picture of it right there in front of people, but for some reason it captivated me. Not the sign itself so much, but the reality it revealed. Not only will people claim they’re getting water and then get soda but enough people are doing it in this specific restaurant that its worth putting a sign up. I don’t know, I guess that reveals something about me, I’m a rule follower. I would be scared to death to put soda in a water cup and sit there drinking it like there’s nothing wrong. I’m definitely not calm and confident enough to pull something like that off, and the guilt would definitely overwhelm me.
I come by that naturally I think. My dad tells a story about the one time he shoplifted. There was a convenience store up the block from his house and all the neighborhood kids would gather there and by candy stuff, and at some point, I can’t remember how old he was, but he got dared to steal something. Peer pressure won out, and he snuck a candy bar into his pocket. Got back home, opened it, put a piece in his mouth, something wasn’t right. He immediately threw the rest away. He ran back to the store and tried to casually leave money on the counter – wasn’t smooth enough (again, Corleys are not cut out to be rebels and rule breakers, we don’t have the smoothness necessary to pull it off). The owner of the store asked him about the money, he stuttered through some sort of excuse about getting too much change the previous day and went running out. Some of us are just never going to be rebels and rule breakers, we don’t have it in us. The first time I saw Grease was a high school drama department production and sat there after the curtain closed waiting for the scene where Sandy comes to her senses, abandons those criminals, and puts her hoop skirt back on. I’m just a rule follower, I can’t help it.
And that’s a good thing, right? I mean we live in a society with rules, without them the order crumbles and we descend into Lord of the Flies, fighting over a sea shell and killing the kid with glasses. We need to follow rules. Except when we don’t, right? What if the rules are wrong. This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King day and the history and importance of civil disobedience in the face of rules that make society worse, not better. I’m currently reading a book with daily devotionals from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis for being part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Rules are important, following rules is a good thing, but if we’re not careful we can become so obsessed with following rules that we lose sight of something bigger.
Judaism in Paul’s day was built on rules. And it was built on rules for a good reason, at the core of the faith was the belief that following the rules of their faith was the best way to demonstrate their faith. They believed that by doing the right things, by taking part in the right rituals, by eating the right food, by worshipping in the right places, by following the rules they showed their faith in and their faithfulness to God. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that idea. But what happened is that over time that idea got corrupted, over time the understanding shifted, it was no longer that they followed the rules to show their faith in God it became a matter of following rules in place of faith in God. Faith wasn’t what mattered anymore, the actions were. And that mindset found its way into early Christianity and became the big fight of the apostle Paul’s career, what was the relationship between faith and works, between what was believed and what was done? What must we do, to quote the rich young ruler who came up to Jesus one day, to be saved, to experience newness? What steps need to be take, what signs to we need to show, what rules do we have to follow? And on one hand you had the group that believed in rules. They thought that some of the “rules” of Judaism stilled applied – things like festival days and food laws and particularly in the issue facing the Galatians, circumcision. After all, without rules society crumbles. And standing against that was Paul. Because Paul was apparently smart enough and aware enough of his history to understand that even if the rules are just a symbol at first, they don’t stay that way. He realized that eventually the symbols become requirements and we’ll be tempted to give the credit to ourselves for what a good job we’ve done following them. They make Christ have no value, according to Paul, because we begin to convince ourselves that its our ability to do the right things, state the right beliefs, and be the right kind of people that matters in life, that somehow we are working our way towards or earning our salvation.
I think, and lots of much smarter people then me have made this connection before, that that mindset is especially tempting in America. We all grew up with this idea of the “American Dream” floating around in our heads, that idea that if we work hard enough we can accomplish anything we want. And that’s great as means to inspire us to try to be better, achieve more, and build up our communities, but it is completely incompatible to the gospel of grace. No amount of hard work makes us more or less deserving of grace, no amount of hard work earns us more or less grace, we cannot just follow the rules and assume that that will be enough to save us, the rules don’t apply when it comes to grace.
And therein lies a problem, right? Particularly for someone like me because there have to be rules! And what we know about Paul’s background shows that he liked to follow rules too so I think he felt my pain, and he threw out a bone to people like me: “those old rules don’t matter,” he said, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” The only “rule” that matters is faith expressing itself through love. It parallels what Jesus said himself “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” Seeking out this principle of faith expressing itself through love will help us out, whether we’re like me and are so desperate for rules that we become legalist or if we’re complete anarchists who want to be able to whatever we want, measuring our actions by the standard of faith expressing itself through love will guide us to a good place it will bring us to a balance between what we believe and what we do.
That standard will help us first because it will change how we view God. It will open our eyes to what we really think about God and how it dictates our actions. Are we doing something because of faith in God showing itself in a love of God, or are we doing it because we’re attempting to work out some sort of exchange or bargain with God? Are we acting out of a love for God or a fear of punishment? Do we come to worship because we desire a better connection with God or because we’re afraid heaven has an attendance sheet? If we judge what we’re doing based on the idea of faith expressing itself through love it will either change or reveal how we view God.
Faith expressing itself through love will change how we view God, it will also change how we view and treat other people. If we’re expressing our faith through love then there’s no room for judgement. There’s no room for stopping and considering whether someone deserves our help or our aid or our love. There’s no room for saying “well once they change this that and the other about themselves I’ll help them.” Faith expressing itself through love means giving: giving our time, giving our money, giving our prayers, giving whatever we can regardless of whether we believe people have earned it or not. Charity isn’t about other people deserving help, charity is about us recognizing that we don’t deserve grace but we receive it anyway and finding a way to replicate that exchange. If we’re expressing our faith through love there’s no room for hate. There’s no room for dividing people up by race or gender or socio-economic level or anything else and saying this group is deserving and this group isn’t. Faith expressing itself through love changes how we see people because when we realize we didn’t earn anything from God we can’t expect other people to earn anything from us.
In Christ, we find the offer of a new life. That new life brings with it a new hope, a hope that death has been defeated and that God reigns supreme. That new hope leads to a new joy, a joy that come from the fact that God has declared us worthy of life, not because of who we are or what we’ve done but because of who God is and what God has done. And that joy, living in that joy, means accepting new rules. It means changing how we view God, how we view others, and how we view ourselves. It means stop trying to earn anything from God but instead letting the faith that God has done all that is required already flow out of us. The only thing that matters, according to Paul, is faith expressing itself through love. John wrote in his letter that “we love because he first loved us.” In Jesus we see the purest vision of faith expressing itself through love. Faith in what God was doing and love for what God had created moved him to give all he had, even accepting death, to show that love in action. Jesus shows us how to express faith through love, and he also present us with our task. After so many of his moments of teaching Jesus would call on his listeners to “go and do likewise.” In the life of Christ, we have seen what faith expressing itself through love looks like. Go and do likewise.