Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost: The Problem of the Law

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla


From the epistle:  He also it is who has made us fit ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit, for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life…. For if there is glory in the ministration that condemned, much more does the ministration that justifies abound in glory. (2 Corinthians 3:6)


St. Paul here once again wrestles with the problem of the Law and the new dispensation of grace in Jesus Christ.  Two Sundays ago, St Paul wrestled with the relationship between justification and good works.  And he arrives at the conclusion that is part of our faith:  that we are justified by our faith in the cross of Jesus Christ and not by good works. But that a faith that is real, that is alive, must manifest itself in good works, and that these good works that come from our faith are pleasing in the sight of God and are a proof, so to speak, to God that our faith is real and living.  


But Paul the Jew, the educated Pharisee, understands the central role of the Law in the faith of the Israelites. The Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, is an integral part of the covenant God has made with his people. The Law is given by God to show explicitly how his chosen people are to live their lives, and this in contradistinction to the pagans surrounding them.  The Law was given to Moses in glory on that mountain, with Moses talking to God face to face, and when Moses came down the mountain his face shone with an intense light, so intense that he had to wear a veil when speaking to the people. But St Paul the Jew understands so clearly that the Law cannot save anyone. In fact, the Law condemns, the Law as the ministration that condemns in St Paul’s words, for all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.  Thus the Law is a two edged sword:  it lays down the basic moral code by which Christians still live.  But it also shows the futility of thinking that one can follow the Law in its entirety, that the fact of human rebellion against the moral law, the fact of our own real sinfulness, does not point to glory in any way but in reality points to condemnation and death. 


Now this does not mean that faith in Christ as Lord and Savior somehow eliminates the need for the Law, the moral Law of God.  It is certainly not the case that faith in the cross of Christ as the only means of freedom from sin and death frees us obeying the moral  Law.  But what St Paul tells us today in the epistle is that the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ is in-formed, literally in-formed by the Spirit of God whose sanctifying grace works within all those with faith in Christ, those who call themselves and are truly followers of Christ, those who by baptism, by water and the Spirit, have been called out of darkness into a great light.   The ministry of the Church is a ministry of glory not founded upon the Law but founded upon the infinite mercy of a God who gave his only begotten Son to die for those imprisoned by the letter of the Law and so to free them to be partakers of the spirit of mercy, compassion and love, and to do this in that new covenant not made on a mountain, not made by the blood of bulls and goats sacrificed every day for the sins of the people: but that covenant made by the one and only Great High Priest who alone could enter the Holy of Holies and offer himself as a victim to his Father.


Now when one understands the radicality of this new covenant, then one sees that the Catholic faith, or Christianity itself, can never be reduced to or thought of in terms of just  another religious system. To do this is to negate the new covenant and to return to the futility of thinking that the Law can save.  But this has always been the temptation of Catholicism: to become a religious blue-print for salvation by following a prescribed path, dictated by the laws of the Church, a path to a sure salvation.  The Church has often forgotten that Christ founded his Church as the locus of his saving presence in the world in the power of the Holy Spirit, as the extension of the Incarnation in time and space,  and not as a religious system that is different from other religious systems only in what she professes in her creeds.  When Catholicism becomes one religion among many, then the Sacraments become either merely ritual acts that have their counterpart in other religions or talismans that border on magic.  The root of the dangerous situation in which we find ourselves today vis a vis the Church in herself and in her relationship with the disbelieving world is at least partly, and I would say a great part, due to the forgetting of who the Church is, what her essence is, and a reversion to just another religion among Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism and a host of world religions.  This is a reversion to a religion that is wedded to the letter of the law and not the spirit, a religion that has forgotten the radical nature of the new covenant forged by God in the person of Jesus Christ.  


The great Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s most famous image is that of the Grand Inquisitor, the one in the Church in charge of seeing to it that heresy is stamped out and that the faith is kept pure. In Dostoevsky’s parable Christ returns to earth and performs some miracles of healing.  The Grand Inquisitor hears of this and orders him to be arrested and taken to him for questioning.  He recognizes Christ, for after all he is the super Catholic in charge of seeing that the Christian faith is not distorted. He recognizes Christ and asks:  "Why did you return?  You are a threat to everything we have built up for so many centuries.  We have finally forgotten who you really are and what you really mean and we have settled down to become a religious system with the law at its heart.  You deserve to die again."


Two weeks ago we celebrated the great feast of St. Lawrence, the deacon of Rome, who understood what faith in Christ meant and what the richness of the Church meant. He was tortured for his faith, he was tortured on that famous grid-iron described in Prudentius’ hymn, and he was killed not for his faith understood as a body of beliefs. He offered himself as a sacrifice in imitation of his Lord and Savior who can never be reduced to a religious figure or symbol.  No one could ever get excited by or give himself over to a watered down and mediocre presentation of the Catholic faith. And no one would ever die for such a faith. And why would anyone die for a faith where everyone goes to heaven as a matter of course if you follow the rules of that Catholic train company guaranteed to get you there, a faith that has little to do with the great intellectual questions and problems that must engage the human spirit. Why would anyone die for a faith that reduces worship to a banal and earthbound reflection of the surrounding culture that can never manifest the Sacrifice that lies at the heart of the God we worship. Why would anyone die for a faith that relies merely on pronouncements from Rome to define what this faith is and then conversely trashes those pronouncements in an existential sense since they appear to be just more arbitrary decisions by those in charge of the law machine of the Church, a faith that sees itself as just one possible reality among many?


The questions are rhetorical and need no answer.  Today let us ask the intercession of St. Lawrence who understood so deeply the radical and real nature of the Christian faith and the necessary willingness to die for that faith,  that the Church  may cleanse Herself of all temptation to reduce faith to laws, that She may refuse reduce the  Apostolic faith to a world religion, that She may heed St Paul’s words about the law and the spirit, and that her ministers may have the courage to preach the gospel of Christ in all of its radicality and wonder and love to a world that is starving itself spiritually to death.