George Carlin had a routine that contrasted the personalities of football and baseball.
In football, you march downfield with a punishing ground attack and an aerial assault to break into the opposing team's end zone.
In baseball, the object is to go home, to be safe at home.
I think of that routine when we preach about law and gospel in church.
- The law is about punishment. The Gospel is about forgiveness.
- Law is the stuff we are supposed to do. Gospel is what God has done for us.
- Law is about commandments, rules and discipline. The Gospel is about love, grace and salvation.
- The law imposes demands. The Gospel offers a gift.
Opposites in so many ways, yet both have their place in the pulpit.
The commandments are how God protects all of creation from our selfish, destructive instincts. But those commandments have not prevented more evils than I can name from slipping into the world. So the rules have not accomplished the purpose of preserving God's creation.
That leaves God with a choice: much like the choice that faces the government regarding people whose property has been destroyed by the recent hurricane:
1. Just stay out of it and leave folks to struggle on their own.
2. Foot the enormous bill to clean up the mess and restore the land to life.
The Gospel message is that God chose option 2. It was terribly expensive to restore the world. But love doesn't count the cost. It just does what has to be done.
Those two things, law and gospel, sum up the state of our relationship to God. The giver of laws protects life. The author of love brings new life where the law fails.
We struggle to keep these two concepts in balance. Like trying to adjust the water temperature in an unfamiliar shower. A touch too much to one side and you're doused with the scalding temperatures of the modern day Pharisees, who harbor such a burning obsession with rules that you can hardly breathe around them.
A touch too much to the other side and you get frozen out by cheap grace—anything goes as long as God loves us.
Matthew 18:15-20 deals with troublemakers. Alligators. People within the community of believers who will not listen to reason, who are there only to cause trouble.
How do you deal with these people? The obvious answer is:
The law. The big stick of judgment and punishment. Speak out against the wicked. Enforce the rules. If the offender refuses to listen, let such a one be to you as "a Gentile and a tax collector."
The implication seems clear. Devout Jews of that time did not associate with Gentiles or tax collectors, who were considered unclean, ungodly and corrupt. So the passage here says to cut off any connection with the unfit.
Clearly a law passage.
Except that in this Gospel of Matthew, we twice hear Jesus described as a "friend of tax collectors."
We hear Jesus tell those who rigidly observe the law that "tax collectors will go into the Kingdom of God before you."
In Luke, Jesus is called "a light to the Gentiles."
The Gospel does not kick people out, shun them or avoid them. No matter what the law says or does, God finds way to bring people back in, to restore new life.
Romans 13 makes the startling statement that the specific rules and regulations and priestly restrictions that we think of as the law are not what the law is really about.
Echoing Jesus in Matthew, Paul writes that the entire legal code of the Bible can be summed up in five words: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do that and you are fulfilling all the requirements of the law.
In other words, Law and Gospel not only have the same purpose, but they are built on the same foundation. When Jesus died on the cross, the ultimate expression of God's love, he was not countering the law or overcoming it. He was fulfilling the law by fulfilling the great commandment to love that flows from God's very being.
If love is the fulfillment of the law, then the specific ordinances are secondary. They are an aid to keep order, to move us in the direction of love, peace and life. They are useful only as far as they do that.
If we cannot see the Gospel when applying the law, then the law isn't doing a bit of good.
If we can clearly see the Gospel, the love of God poured out for all people, even the clueless, shining through the law, then the law is doing exactly what God intends.