Lent 1 2008

Parish Communion, St Mary's Church, Barton-on-Humber
Sunday 10 February 2008 at 09:30 (Lent 1)
Written and delivered by the Rev. David Rowett

Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

'Ahmed the Bogeyman' - that's how one bishop summed up the furore about Archbishop Rowan. After all, he said, it is fair that a Jewish couple can be married in a synagogue by their rabbi, and a Christian couple in their Church by their parish priest or minister, but under British law a Muslim couple have to bring in a secular registrar? But what the academic understands by 'Sharia Law' and how it's understood by readers of the popular press have about as much in common as Cheddar cheese and mosquito nets.
But before we start thinking about 'death of a princess' and all that, a name to throw before you: Rousas John Rushdoony. Rushdoony, who died in 2001, was an American who taught that the biblically incorrect (and those of other religious views) are second-class citizens at best. He taught, too, that the stoning of adulterers, homosexuals and the rest were penalties which should be used in the United States. For those who want to know more, google for 'Dominionism' and you'll learn more than you need to know. We Christians, too, have our vindictive lunatic fringe wanting unspeakable things to be done in the name of divine Law, when most of us are reasonably happy with a selection from the Ten Commandments.
When Paul is talking about the rule of the Law, as he does at great and often incomprehensible length in his letter to the Church in Rome - look on Romans as Paul's CV to a church he didn't found - we have to be clear that the Law is a great seething pot of interpretations and arguments not far removed from Muslim Sharia law in our own day, with scholars from different traditions all clamouring to make their opinions heard. The Law is a great deal more than just the Ten Words from Sinai, and there were both hard-line and liberal interpretations on offer.
Paul goes one step beyond the most radical Jewish teachers, though, when he suggests that the Law in all its forms is no longer fit for purpose. Law is a means of controlling the unwilling, enforcing certain conduct standards on a population with other ideas, and this is why at monotonously regular intervals laws need to be overhauled to deal with new situations as a new generation of accountants appear. Law keeps things in check, ensures minimum standards and so on and so forth.
Paul's objection to the Law is complex, and sometimes a bit contradictory - it's a good game to count up how many times Paul argues himself into a corner, asks himself 'but does this mean so-and-so' (and it's clear that it does) - and instead of saying 'Oops', lets out a great cry of 'Of Course Not.' Paul would be a good barrister. But once we understand that Law is about the control of wrongdoing, we can start to see why he's uneasy with it as a pillar of Christian discipleship.
Paul's basic line is unanswerable: if the Law could deal with the reality of human sin, then there's no possible point to the coming of Christ. (Note that Paul, along with most early Christians, doesn't fall into the trap of looking at Christ as another teacher - there are some modern Christian writers could do to remember that!). Whatever Christ is up to, then, it's moving outside the boundaries of Laws and Rules and Restraints.
And this is a way of understanding the Temptation story. All the temptations can be seen as - admittedly perverted - forms of the Law. They coerce. They force. They manipulate. They are sticks and carrots designed to strip away will and herd in the desired direction. Jesus' response is to reject that stick-and-carrot approach to life, and instead talk in terms of grace, of a giving God who doesn't need to be haggled with, persuaded or bounced into doing the right thing. In this he is following an old Jewish tradition where Abraham is out-haggled and undercut by God. If the Gospel is based on the wilderness stories, then whatever Jesus is up to is based on gift and response, not on threat and legal charges. Law is for the unwilling, grace is for the willing God.
The hold of the Law on Christian imagination remains great, especially among children of the Protestant reformation like Rushdoony, who seem to have forgotten that it all began in Luther's rejection of smarming your way round God by being good. When Alabama's Chief Justice put a 2.6-ton granite monument in the state building a few years back, it was carved with the words of the Commandments, not with the words of the Beatitudes: with Law, not Grace. We may find that odd, and it proves that Shariah is alive and well in Christian circles, except we call it Biblical Values instead. We perhaps haven't yet learned from Paul's unease.
The argument about religious law will run and run, at least until the next scandal about political donations and family employees hits the press. But in the meantime, I leave you with a quote from Augustine of Hippo:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour does not understand it at all... (Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 1.35.39-36.40)
And there is our Lenten task in a single line - to let our discipleship lead us deeper into the double love of God and of our neighbour. As an obscure Palestinian Jew once remarked, that IS the Law and the Prophets.

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Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo, trans. intro. and notes: Green, R. P. H. (1997), On Christian Teaching, originally De Doctrina Christiana, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

David Rowett (web page by Adrian Worsfold)