Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Summary of the Gospel

A practice I loved at Mass was the reading of the Summary of the Law at the beginning:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these hang all the Law and the Prophets. (From Matthew 22)
These words, spoken by Jesus, tell us what we truly need to know about the Law. The Law's fulfillment comes from living a life of love toward God and neighbor. When St Paul talks about the inability of the Law to justify anyone, he means that even the greatest Christians and Jews alive couldn't keep the Law without messing up. Inevitably we will mess up and love something other than God or love our neighbor or ourselves less than we should. We have the Gospel of Christ, however, to save us. We aren't perfect, but there is still help for us.

The Summary of the Law, then, is intended to guide us and show us our failing. If we weren't sinful people in a fallen creation, we wouldn't need to be told to love God, our neighbor and ourselves. Because we are sinful we need the Law to tell us how we have messed up and what we need to work on.

But what is the Summary of the Gospel? In order to answer that we would have to say what the Gospel itself is.

Frequently we might say something about loving God or something about the cross or something about the blessing of the 'least of these' in order to explain the Gospel. These all touch on some dimension of the Gospel story.

My question: "What does the Gospel say about us and God that couldn't be accomplished by the Law?" We are not 'saved' by the Law. There's nothing we can do to deserve God's love, and our highest duty is to love God and our neighbor. Contrary to popular belief, there's also not a base percentage of loving we have to do in order to get into heaven. (Yes, Lord, I loved people 76% of the time! God's response: ah ha! you didn't love 77% of the time, and that is the base standard for entry. Off to hellfire with you! Too bad, so sad!)

If being a 'good enough' person was enough to get in, then would we try hard? Would we really feel sorry for not loving God, ourselves and our neighbors, just as long as we were 'good enough' overall? We wouldn't. We need a challenge. We were created in the image of God to love God and creation, so behaving like anything less than what we are is a rejection of our true nature.

Love is the foundation of the human nature. Or at least it was meant to be that way. Because of sin (rejection of God, rejection of neighbor, rejection of ourselves) we do not live up to our fundamental human nature. Because the Law commands us to love, it restores our sight. We see more clearly what we should do. The Gospel is the fulfillment of the Law; the Gospel completes what we fail to do through the Law.

So where the Law tell us what to do, the Gospel tells us who we are. We are loved by God and called to love. The Law tell us to do what is already written on our hearts, and we are not anywhere near close to doing that perfectly. We are fundamentally flawed yet loved.

The cross stands in stark contrast to the world. An instrument of torture, shame and oppression has become a sign of our salvation. Our God loves us so much that he became incarnate, he became flesh and blood, to walk with us and love us and teach us and die for us.

We do not believe in a completely 'foreign' God, someone who can't understand our pain and suffering. We believe in a God who left behind so much of his God-ness in order to become a mortal human being. We believe in a human who was not fundamentally flawed- he lived up completely to his true nature as human because only God could do it.

And God in Christ Jesus died on the cross. Died.


What kind of God does this? What kind of God suffers the death of a traitor, what kind of God has the life of a peasant?

God is a God who descends to the depths of human suffering and cruelty to save us. When we close our ears and when we feast upon riches and power, God stands among the poor and the weak and the oppressed. When we sacrifice an innocent to save ourselves, when we make that dark bargain, God is there.

The poor and the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Peter who denied Christ in his suffering. Paul who persecuted Christ's disciples. People who felt so estranged from God and people who walked away from God. All of these people, too, are not abandoned by God.

God can't be chased away by the darkness of the fallen human race. The Law tells us what to do, and it shows us what we do not do. So the Gospel shows who God is: God is a God who will be with us even in darkness.

The essence of the Gospel is thus: We are made for love, and God will not abandon us because we do not love. God will go to the depths to find us and be with us. God will give up everything, even Godhood, to be with us.

The Scripture that sums this up in a way for me is this piece from St Paul's letter to the Romans:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)
We are not abandoned to judgment because we do not love. We are not abandoned to darkness because of the darkness of human hearts, both ours and others. Nothing, nothing, nothing can ever completely separate us from God. Our darkness does not keep God away. No sin, oppression, poverty, pride, despair, political system, and not even death and destruction itself can keep God away. God wants to be with us.

To anybody who is reading this: what do you see as a "Summary of the Gospel"? Any particular piece of Scripture that sums up the Gospel to you?

1 comment:

Ariel said...

Romans 8 is, IMO, the best chapter in the entire canon. Happy face.