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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 3 – Year B

Why is Independence Day on the Fourth of July?

After all, the violent Revolution started on April 19, 1775 — shouldn’t that be independence day?

No, because the violence continued until Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781. But shouldn’t that be independence day?

No, because the Revolution wasn’t really over until the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. But shouldn’t that be independence day?

Why is July 4, 1776 the magic day?

Because we declare it to be so.

We say it is, because on that day the foundation of this nation was laid – a foundation of principles.

Thomas Jefferson and his revolutionary band signed their lives away to a document which said: “We are no longer bound by the divine right of kings. But by the divine right of men to be free.”

By their inspired words, our authoritative principle of freedom was consecrated.

And it was not given to us by the old priests of empire — but by a group of second-class provincials in wearing stockings, wigs, and makeup.

Of course the old imperial priesthood laughed at them. But instead of fearing, the founders believed it was better to rise up than lay down.

To the powers and principalities of the British empire, these revolutionary signers were nothing more than troublesome carp — disturbing the order of a small pond somewhere on the Western fringe of civilization.

Indeed, these marginal men of the empire were not unified by region, denomination, education, or social status. Only by a fairly loose set of common principles.

Yet within a generation these founding apostles and prophets of American democracy would produce a defining constitution. A Constitution which was not a definitive set of regulations designed to keep people in line, but rather a liberating set of principles designed to protect the liberty of people.

And to this day, the only thing which really determines whether or not a person is “an American” — is whether or not they declare allegiance to these core constitutional principles.

Which is pretty cool.

And you know – it is something like Christianity.

We Christians are citizens of our own kind of nation. As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are not defined by race, language or earthly nationality – but by whether or not we subscribe to the essential principles of our faith.

On every page the Bible describes the history of our kingdom, our spiritual Israel, and it gives us the essential principles of our constitution. On every page the Bible tells of the struggle it is for us to be God’s people.

Indeed, our very name, Israel, means “He who struggles with God.”

So … what does this all have to do with today?

· Why am I talking about principles versus laws, when Deuteronomy, the Psalm, and 2 Corinthians all say, “Give to the poor.”

· Why am I talking about principles versus laws, when the Gospel declares how Jesus healed a dead girl?

I am talking about principles versus laws, because that is the heart of our Christian faith. The Bible makes it very clear that God’s divine principles do not change – but the laws of God’s people do. They change because as Jesus says, “the letter of the law kills, but the spirit of the law gives life.”

This evolution in “laws” is evident right in our reading from Deuteronomy today. Deuteronomy, which is Greek for “Second Law,” is like a Biblical update of Exodus and Leviticus.

For example, in Exodus 23, the law says: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

This principle beneath this law is divine. God cares for all his people so much, that there really shouldn’t be a such great difference between the rich and the poor. To this end, God establishes an equalizing legal system. As such, Exodus declares every seventh year to be a year of remission, in which the poor will be liberated from debt, and be granted access to private property.

We learn in the history of Israel, however, that in very short order, the principle behind this law would be perverted by the letter of the law.

Prosperous Israelites would follow the law to the letter, and would do nothing for the poor for six straight years. They would then only help them begrudgingly on the seventh year. By literal observance to the letter of God’s law – God’s will was not done. And God became very angry at their legalism and meanness.

So God modified the law in Deuteronomy – saying, “Don’t wait meanly until the seventh year – but give to the poor always.”

Paul picks up on this pattern in his second letter to the Corinthian church. He argues from the truth of spiritual principles, not the power of religious laws. He implores the goodness of his disciples not by command but by inspiration. He doesn’t make the Corinthians give to the poor. He simply reminds them of the divine principle of humble charity as lived by Jesus Christ. He says, “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love.”

Even the Gospel today picks up on the difference between religious laws and divine principles. Indeed, the Gospel of Mark today teaches an explicit revision of an important Old Testament law regarding priests.

According to Leviticus 21, “the priest who is exalted above his fellows, and who is anointed, shall not go where there is a dead body – not even his own father or mother.”

Yet in Mark, Jesus Christ – the Great High Priest – goes right up to the dead girl and takes her hand into his own. Jesus, the anointed one of God, goes right up to the dead girl – declaring that her death is nothing – and he holds her hand, and speaks to her in a tersely worded declaration of independence from the power of death.

As the letter to the Hebrews states – in Christ there is a new priesthood, and a new law.

These days, we face challenging issues of church law and Biblical interpretation.

Just like they did when Jesus was alive. Just like they did when Gentiles wanted acceptance into the Church. Just like they did when black people in Virginia wanted to worship as equals with white people. Just like they did when divorced people wanted to marry again. Just like they did when women felt called to be ordained priests.

You know, I’m a Gentile – and I’m glad Peter, Paul and James ended their debate, and agreed to let me into the Body of Christ.

I’m not black, but I sure am the church stopped supporting slavery, despite the conflicting Biblical laws.

I’m not divorced, but both my parents are remarried after divorces. I have always believed that God blessed them in remarriage, even despite what the Bible says about divorce.

I’m not a woman, but I sure have benefited from the priesthood of women priests. Despite what Paul says about a woman’s authority in the church.

Gee, I guess I must be a heretic. I must be a heretic to serve in a church which permits such things.

Or, just maybe, the founding principles of this Church haven’t changed a bit. I believe we still love God, love our neighbor as our self, and we still show mercy, love justice, and walk humbly by the name of the Risen Christ. Just maybe we are living up to these founding principles even though we have chosen to revise some of our laws.

I believe we are.

I believe that our Christian freedom depends not on when the battle with the Word begins, or ends, or even when a treaty is signed – but on when we declare ourselves to be God’s children. Our Christian freedom begins when we have not fear, but rather belief in Christ.

I believe that we are joined one to another not by letter of Scripture, but by the spiritual Word of God which is Jesus Christ himself.

For we are not saved by the law, if so then Christ would never have come. We are saved instead by the mercy of God, who humbled himself so that we might not be impoverished, but become rich.


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