“Stop coveting! Just stop it. Try and stop coveting.” This is the example I gave my students when teaching them about how Lutherans understand Law and Gospel. Invoking the 9th and 10th Commandments and Martin Luther’s explanations of them in his Small Catechism, these words and our attempts to stop desiring more than we need -- especially in an advertising culture that tells us over and over again that we need everything constantly -- show us our inability to keep the Law of Love as God gives it to us. We simply cannot stop coveting or harming others through our coveting.
As we follow Jesus into the 40 days and nights of Lent, we enter into a time of preparation, a time of confession and forgiveness, a time of diving more deeply into our relationships with God, neighbor, and self. Hopefully, through this journey, the Spirit will find us more transformable into the disciples Jesus calls us to be.
Part of our journey through Lent will involve walking in the Word of God, which first and foremost means walking in Jesus himself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” (Jn 1:1, 14)
Jesus is God’s ultimate and intimate Word to us. And for Lutherans listening for that Word, we hear it in the shape of God’s Gospel and Law. Whether you’re reading the Bible, whether you’re hearing God’s Word preached in a sermon, whether you’re meeting Jesus Christ who is the Word of God made flesh, you are experiencing both Gospel and Law.
But what do Lutherans mean by Law and Gospel? The easiest way to describe Gospel and Law is to use English grammar. The Gospel, which means “good news,” is when God is the subject of the sentence and is acting upon us, the recipient. For example, God saves you; God loves you; God heals you; God forgives you. God guides you; God transforms you; God cares for you; God has mercy on you. The Gospel is the life-giving, life-supporting, life-directing Word God is constantly doing in you and for you in Christ; you only have to receive it in faith with an open spirit through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The Law is also God’s Word to us. But the Law happens when God makes us the subject of the sentence and teaches us how to live together in a sin-filled world, including as Christ’s community (the Church). “Love your God; love your neighbor. Don’t bear false witness. Do to others what you’d want done unto you in similar circumstances.” Here we as Christ’s followers are the actors, the subject, expected to act (or not) while God and neighbor are the recipients. That’s the Law: it teaches us how to live with and toward others.
God’s Law is actually experienced in two ways. First, the Law is a gift of love by which God orders our lives so that we can live healthier, happier, more blessed lives in this sinful world. If we actually followed God’s Law of Love, the world would be a better place to live. The problem is we don’t because we can’t.
Take for example the recent reactions in our country to the “threat” of the coronavirus. Rather than loving and caring for people who may be ill, in our fear of this unknown attack on our lives, some have started scapegoating and blaming certain groups of people or hoarding things like masks or expecting to be first to receive any cure or demanding exclusion of possible carriers.
Or take for example the current election rhetoric among candidates and their supporters alike. Luther defined the 8th Commandment as “we are to fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Are the candidates following this basic law of living in community together? Are we as followers of Christ expecting them to? Are we even trying to keep the 8th Commandment ourselves?
This is where the second function of God’s Law enters: as the gift of a mirror, which when it is held up in front of us, reflects God’s expectations for Christ-centered and life-supporting relationships back to us. And when we see our own reflection in that same mirror and our inability to follow the law, and then compare it to how God calls us to live, we feel accused and yes, even guilty. But it is only in this reflection that we truly realize that we can’t keep the law on our own and that only God can save us.
But, even then, lest we fall into hopeless apathy or into angry guilt or helpless shame, here the Gospel enters our lives with its Amazing Grace-filled news: God saves you; God loves you; God heals you; God forgives you. God guides you; God transforms you; God cares for you; God has mercy on you.
Over the next weeks of Lent, we are going to spend some time with God’s Law. We will journey with Christ as he reminds us that he is not here to abolish the law but to fulfill it. (Mt 5:17) We will explore with one another the important role God’s Law of Love plays in following Jesus.
But as we take this journey, cling to and never forget the good news of the gospel of God’s forgiving, loving and accepting grace for yourself AND for your neighbor. For it is only in God’s grace given in Christ that we can hear the law and live together in love.
Blessings to you on your Lenten journey,
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod