In seminary I vaguely remember taking a course entitled “Law and Gospel”. It was a theology course meaning doctrine and all that stuff, as opposed to pastoral care, or ethics, or Christian education, or even Biblical study. As you might imagine, I don’t remember a lot about it. That stuff never really gripped me. Now, looking back over almost 25 years of pastoral ministry, and especially today as we have just baptized two children, it strikes me that I think I know what that course was about, at least implicitly.
For the most part the Old Testament is about the covenant relationship between Yahweh/God and the people of the Exodus, the Hebrews who were rescued from slavery in Egypt and led into the “promised land” in Canaan. Over the course of hundreds of years the stone tablets bearing the 10 Commandments had been carried in the Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, across the desert, across the Jordan River and finally into the Temple at Jerusalem. They were the foundational guidance for the people of the Covenant. They were the Law.
The royal priests, Pharisees and Sadducees, guarded the Law, which had evolved into more than 100 rules and regulations, rites and rituals, that were taught to the people. These were attempts to guide and direct the daily life of the people and keep them focused on their faith and their God. If one did not follow all the rules, the Law, then one was labeled a ‘sinner’ and was cast out of the Temple community. This made the Law an instrument of judgment and power.
When the people as a whole turned away from the proper worship of God; when they instead began to worship the gods of their neighbors, the Canaanites, God was both sad and angry. More and more the people acted as if they could secure their own security, status and power among the nations through alliances with other powers. It proved disastrous and Jeremiah tried to warn them, but to no avail.
Eventually God sent Jesus to institute a new covenant. Jesus brought the Gospel, the good news of salvation which was to be for all people, even those who were not ‘of the covenant’. This message was not seen by all as ‘good news’ because it upended the power structure that had been built solely upon the Law by those in charge of managing the Law. According to the Gospel everyone is equal in the eyes of God. There are no insiders and outsiders, no sinners who are outcasts. Redemption is available to all who repent and turn again to the Lord.
God’s love and forgiveness took on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus so that we could see more clearly what God intends and to what lengths God goes and will always go to bring us home. Jesus told the people that he came not to destroy or eliminate the Law, but to fulfill it, to live it out among all the people. Compassion, inclusion, healing, teaching, loving, even to the point of sacrifice, were the examples that he left for us to follow. And even as he left, he sent the Holy Spirit to remain with us always. That is the gift of fire at our baptism.
The Law was and is a good thing. It gives guidance for daily living, if we follow it. But knowing that we all fall away, we all blow it from time to time, because we’re all human and fallible, there is the Gospel, the good news of salvation available to us all, no matter what we’ve done and where we’ve gone wrong or how long we’ve been away. God calls us home to live as we were created to live, with kindness, with compassion, with justice and in peace, knowing that we are still on the way and we do not walk alone.