There is an old saying about philosophy, which I am especially fond of, because it so often applies to theology as well. It serves as a warning to those of us who use religious language or who think about philosophical things.
And the saying is this: "Philosophy is the discipline of saying what everybody knows in terms that nobody can understand." Theologians are often accused of the same thing. Why do they use such complicated language to say the simple truth? "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
I remember a good friend of mine in seminary, who found himself quite often confounded by theology-talk. Suddenly in the midst of the professor's esoteric discussions, he would raise his hand and ask innocently: "What does all this have to do with the baby Jesus?"
I admit that the power of love, the love of Jesus, apprehends us more deeply than words can ever express. But that love also forces us to give expression to it, doesn't it? Love does not remain simple. The love of God actually forces us to enter difficult places, missionary places, and express the love of God there, too. For instance, the love of God urges us to enter the world of language and thought and reflection.
Today's lessons, those of the First Sunday after Christmas, are reflective lessons. Our passages from Galatians and the Gospel of John are written far after the miraculous birth in a Bethlehem stable. A week after the birth of Jesus, people were not going around Israel claiming, "The Word had become flesh! The Word has become flesh!"
No, these lessons from Galatians and John are the writings of philosophical and theological people, people who have taken the time and prayer to reflect on the facts. Christianity needs such reflection and prayer. Our lives are built on the reflections and interpretations of Christians who have gone before us.
St. Paul may have been the first of those Christian thinkers to realize the psychological miracle of what had happened in Jesus Christ. Yes, it was a psychological miracle. It was Paul who claimed that the world lives under a kind of Law--not just the Old Testament Jewish Law, under which he was raised. That Old Testament Law is a symbol of universal Law, and Paul claims that all the world lives under a kind of Law. We all live under a set of standards, often developed by our own inner consciences, and we base our identity, we base our worth, on how successfully or unsuccessfully we live up to those standards.
St. Paul claims that sometimes those standards are good things. The Old Testament Law was, all in all, a good thing; that's why Paul says in Galatians 3 that the Law was our custodian. But the Law was also an occasion for bondage. Trying to live up to psychological standards keeps us attached to things that are cold and impersonal.
St. Paul describes conversion to Christ as a kind of psychological miracle. Conversion to Christ is a justification of our lives which sets us free. Freedom is the key word in Paul's theology. Jesus Christ sets us free from Law, in whatever forms that Law takes.
Law may be the oppressive inner expectations that our parents left with us. Law may be the expectations that our society and our friends have put on us. Law may be that false idealism which we carry inside our fantasy lives. Law may indeed be that religious baggage which we carry from denomination to denomination, looking for something which sets us free; instead, we are handed even more unnecessary baggage to carry along our journey.
I believe most of us know what our oppression is. We know what hinders us from springing into freedom and release. We may never have reflected on it; but, deep down, our souls are aware of it. Law is that eternal oppression which condemns us because we are not measuring up to something, or Law is that false pride that says we have "made it." It is often the miraculous work of therapists who do enable us to face such oppression and pride squarely and honestly.
St. Paul claims that conversion to Christ--which is not a one-time event, by the way; it is ongoing and progressive--conversion to Christ is a way of being justified and accepted no matter what our Law has said. It is a psychological miracle. Jesus Christ loves us, no matter who and what we are.
Love, then, is a living relationship, not an impersonal standard. That's why St. Paul can say: When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"
We are converted from a relationship with Law to a relationship with love when we turn to Jesus Christ. Law can be a good thing, can't it? St. John in his Gospel, said that the law was given through Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. The Law, even the Old Testament Law, described good things, but it is not the grace and truth which comes through a living relationship.
"What does all this have to do with the baby Jesus?" "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Sure, those simple comments are true; but when we know about such things as the psychological Law from which Jesus sets us free, then we know even more deeply about the love of Jesus.
One of the prime forces of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, was a man who reflected deeply on that freedom. His entire conversion is based on this principle of being justified by the grace of God alone. The grace of God measures us, not the Law, not whatever mighty works we might happen to accomplish. The grace of God measures us.
Luther detested the idea that God had established a law between himself and the world. The gospel is grace, pure and simple, he said. "Christianity is not a new Law!" he claimed. Jesus came to set us free, not to bind us with another law.
I understand that this kind of gospel is hard to accept. Are we free to break all the inherited rules and laws of society and culture?
Don't let anyone tell you that it's easy to live by faith. It's a lot easier to live by works; we can set up standards and guidelines and measure each step of our progress--or decline. We do such things, often because we need to. We make rules about love, for instance, because love is so often abused by us. We are not mature enough to handle it. We need a custodian. Living by works is like living under a custodian; it's for children who do not yet have the maturity to live by faith.
But living by faith means being personally responsible. Living by faith means living with a person. It's hard. Even if that person is Jesus Christ. Jesus is always doing unexpected things, like loving you no matter what you do, like showing up in human form, in flesh, in a Bethlehem barn.
The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
It was a simple event, and it expressed a simple reality: God loves us so much that God became what we are. But that simple event reaches deeply into our complicated lives; it forces us think and to reflect: God loves us so much that he redeems us from Law, in whatever forms law takes.
The Law was given through Moses, and countless others in our lives. But grace and truth, grace and truth...come through Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your Incarnate Word. Grant that this light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.