Alvey: A love that breaks all the rules

Published 8:38 pm Wednesday, October 25, 2017

By Jack Alvey | Alvey is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

On Monday, the Episcopal Church recognized St. James of Jerusalem who is considered to be the brother of Jesus. Surprisingly (or not), James did not come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah until after his resurrection.

Nonetheless, scripture and tradition tell us that James was an integral part of the early church and was the Bishop of Jerusalem. According to tradition, James tasted death when he was thrown off the pinnacle of the temple for proclaiming Jesus as Lord.

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Perhaps the most important part of James’ ministry occurred at the Council of Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15. At the time, the early church was quarreling over requirements for salvation.

Some of the Jews insisted that circumcision remain necessary for salvation even to the Gentiles. However, others, including James, rightly observed that Jesus came to establish a New Covenant where there would be no distinction between Jew and Gentile, a covenant rooted in the faith and work of Jesus Christ.

While the issue of circumcision has long since been put to bed, the church has always struggled to separate the free gift of salvation from traditions or laws that no longer have bearing on our salvation. The problem with certain traditions and laws is that they become meaningless or corrupt in the continuance of time.

For example, next Tuesday, Oct. 31 marks 500 years since Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses which effectively began the Protestant Reformation. In short, Luther denounced the practice of selling indulgences. This is just one of many examples where well-meaning traditions, in this case the practice of confession and absolution to a priest, became corrupt in human hands. As I consider the witness of James and Luther, I wonder, “What is the church selling today that has no bearing on our salvation?” Like James and Luther, the church often tries to solve spiritual problems with temporal answers.

As a result, Jesus is often sold like a commodity – like something you can buy at the grocery store. Jesus is often packaged neatly and nicely like something you can buy when you have saved up enough pennies. While the church should offer spiritual disciplines and practices that help us draw closer to the love of God in Christ, these practices cannot be substitutes for the grace freely offered by God in Christ. We must remember that laws and traditions are, at best, broken vehicles on our spiritual journey.

Only God’s love in Christ can deliver the full message of salvation because only then will we recognize that our salvation depends on who God is and not on who we are or are not. In the end, God doesn’t need your piety. You might need it but God doesn’t.

God wants a relationship with you. God wants to make you whole with a love that religion cannot explain or contain, a love that breaks all the rules, a love that works even when your religious traditions are broken.