Dedicated to the Christian Life
Psalm 119, one stanza of which we just sang, is an acrostic. An acrostic is a poem in which given letters in each line spell something out: in 119, the first of the 22 stanzas begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second with the second, and so on. The first stanza, then, begins with the letter aleph and the word ashre, usually translated as “happy,” though “deeply contented” would be closer, according to scholars. (Let me say that if at any moment this morning I sound especially learned, it is thanks to the online resources of Luther Seminary and to the printed commentaries suggested to me by Pastor McHan.)
So this vast Psalm of wisdom and praise begins like this:
Happy [ashre] are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.
The word “law” is English for torah, God’s instruction for his people so that they may lead a good life: the way they should walk. Variations on this word appear throughout Ps 119’s 176 verses. In our eight-line stanza alone, there are seven variations on the word. Let’s do the first five verses of that stanza again, aloud, together:
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it to the end.
34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
35 Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
36 Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.
“Give me life in your ways”: The theme for this year’s worship is “life together”; my theme this morning will be that there is no other life.
When I was young, there circulated around American Protestant churches the notion that the New Testament had superseded the Old, or more bluntly, that a grumpy god of Israel—quick to anger and abounding in endless rules—had been replaced by a nice god, one who knows that we do our best and will give us a free pass. The unspoken message for the young, I think, was “Be grateful for the New Testament since otherwise you’d be toast.” But that notion distorts the truth: God is one, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. And as Jesus made clear, he came to fulfill torah, the law, not to set it aside.
What strikes me now—looking back at all that time I spent as a Presbyterian child hearing Old Testament stories about the father Abraham, the prophet Moses, the alien Ruth, and king David—is that they are all about relationship: Abraham with his wife and son, Moses with the feckless Israelites in the wilderness, Ruth with Naomi and Boaz, David with Jonathan, Solomon, and so on—and all of them, all the time, with God. These stories were told of and for the people of God, so that those iconic names became for those people—and for us, their heirs—representative of their walk with the God, in faith. Love the Lord with all your heart, they say, and your neighbor as yourself. Every folly in Old Testament story is a turning away from devotion to the other who is also a child of God, and so from God as well.
So when we hear “teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes,” what we hear is not “help me make sure to keep every rule,” but “let me walk in the way of health with you and the whole people of God”: as the Psalmist writes, “give me life in your ways.” The scriptures are speaking here a psychological as well as a moral truth: they seek to lead us into salvation, a word that means health, well being. What they tell us is that there is no health apart from God and neighbor. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, an old and self-indulgent father cuts himself off from those who love him and goes mad: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he cries out in his abandonment. In Dante’s Inferno, the real terror is not the bizarre punishments of the damned but the fact that these lost souls get exactly what they want: to be cut off from God and from human obligation forever.
Some years ago, when I was at meeting in Maryland, I got a call and took off immediately for the Cleveland Clinic. I arrived at night in time to see my father before the surgeons broke into his heart so that they could build a bypass around his arteries. It came over me the next day—surrounded by physicians, aides, my mother and siblings, my cousin who is still a heart surgery nurse there, and on the phone with someone who had been estranged from the family for a time—it came over me that the cherished contemporary notion of radical individuality (that the pinnacle of achievement is complete self-sufficiency) is a lie, and a ruinous one at that. My father was my father in the gloriously complicated intersection of relationships of those who loved him and those who, if you will, following the torah, cared for him, a stranger.
“Owe no one anything,” says Paul to the Christians in Rome, “except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments . . . are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 1Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (my italics). One of the scholars I read for this talk quotes the much-loved American sage Rocky Balboa: “Nobody owes nobody nothin’. You owe yourself.” We cheer for Rocky because of his courage, because he sees a value in his life when others write him off. Okay: we admire fidelity in the face of tough odds. But I’d say to Rocky that he ain’t nothin’ without the people in his corner.
Paul tells a different story, fully in sync with today’s psalm: Owe no one anything—except to love one another. The one who loves the other (the Greek word is heteros, the one who is different) has fulfilled torah, the way of God. And as one commentator notes, love here is not merely or even primarily a feeling, like affection, it is the act of loving the other. This is what God has done in making us and in making us whole. Karl Barth does a wonderful riff on this verse, saying that with that word, except, the scripture “makes a breach in our own wall,” turning us from “not doing” (owe no one anything) to action (love the other). This is the “living sacrifice” that Paul in Romans says we should make of our lives. And again, this is not morality alone: this is the way in which we will be happy, in which we will flourish, the life giving paradox that we become our selves only in the Christ-like act of love.
It is the purpose of Concordia College to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life. Since I arrived here three years ago, there have been some who have urged me to reclaim that final phrase—because they fear that in contemporary pluralism its meaning may be lost—and others who suggest that we drop it—because they fear it will exclude our non-Christian neighbor. But it is right where it belongs, as Eboo Patel, Muslim American and our interfaith partner, affirmed in this Centrum two years ago.
In his 1520 treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther wrote that we are set at liberty by the abundant love of God, revealed in Christ. Luther is keen to say not only what we are freed from (the dread of ruin) but also what we are freed for. The liberated Christian “does not live for himself alone . . . but . . . for all . . . on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself.” Christians care for themselves, Luther declares, so that they may care for the other. It is in this way, to quote Luther once more, that “we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another's burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ. Here is the truly Christian life” (my italics).
We have no life apart. Apart, there is no health. Together, now, at Concordia College, in radical love of the other—the one like us in faith and custom, and the one not—we breach the wall of suffocating self-confinement to find that our lives are saved when we give them away. Teach us, O Lord, the path of such love. Give us life in your ways. Amen.
1 Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Working Preacher For September 7, 2014, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2125.
2 See deClaissé-Walford.
3 See The Shorter Catechism, http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ShorterCatechismwithScriptureProofs.pdf.
5 Elizabeth Shively, Working Preacher for September 7, 2014, at
6 See Leander E. Keck, Romans (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), p. 328.
7 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 492.
8 Text from Project Gutenberg ebook, at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1911/1911-h/1911-h.htm.