...Their delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night... Psalm 1 v. 2
So, what do we typically hear about laws? ·
And more to the point of this paper, I offer the following about laws, “crimes and punishments:” ·
“...And the Bible warns that if you reject or neglect Jesus Christ today, having heard the Gospel, you may never have another chance. You may never go to heaven, because you’ve rejected Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that everyone outside of Jesus Christ is lost and on the road to hell.” Billy Graham editorial 2004
Dare I take on Billy Graham? Pretty audacious, if I do say!
OK, back to Psalm 1. This didactic, instructional Psalm draws comparisons between the righteous and unrighteous and what could easily be interpreted as adherence to the L-A-W. As in--Break the law; get slammed. But what about when the L-A-W isn’t what we interpret it to mean in our 2022 context? Law in Hebrew is torah. Torah as in the totality of God’s teaching, “particularly as revealed in the scriptures.
God’s teaching is for the sake of abundant life for us and for generations to come.” (Christ in our Home contributor Rob Blezard) Torah = way, or teaching, or law or instruction. When the sacred scrolls would be taken out of the ark in the synagogue in ancient times, it would have likely been paraded around those assembled who may have danced (DANCING in church, what a splendid thought!) in honor of the Torah. How many people do a happy dance when you bring to mind WAC’s or RCW’s today? So, let’s jump to a modern analogy of laws and restrictions.
Current building codes prohibit the use of little skinny wooden sticks rather than steel beams to construct a high rise. Speed limits restrict the velocity at which we can safely hurl ourselves down the road. Inspectors evaluate many of the foods we consume to ensure they are safe and healthful. These three examples keep us safe and help us lead a higher quality life. So, we have the opportunity for abundant life as outlined in the totality of teaching.
Pump the brakes, though, don’t the scripture billboards also tell us that the wages of sin is death?
In Romans, Paul was speaking in imagery to help the Roman church (which he did not found) understand his theological perspectives regarding issues current to that day. Use of the word sin, according to Sumney is the name by which Paul refers to the power of evil. The theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr’s book Engaging God’s World defines sin as “culpable disturbance of shalom.”
Shalom is the peace, wholeness and health God wants for the world and everything in it. Paul acknowledges the pervasiveness of sin (a.k.a. the power of evil) as part of the human condition disrupting shalom, and in the second half of Romans 23 it says “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Upon closer examination, I assert we don’t have a binary choice between sin and death (damnation); we have an opportunity for an abundant existence and steps toward shalom. Right here, right now!
I read that in the New Testament, the Greek word most often translated as "eternal" is aionios. It means unending, but also focuses on the quality or characteristics of that which is age-long or eternal. Combined with the Greek zoe for "life," which indicates not only biological existence but a fullness or genuineness of life, "eternal life" includes both the ideas of quality and quantity of life. Eternal life is not simply life that never ends, but a fullness of life that is unending. “In fact, in many ways, eternal life really has nothing to do with time as it can be experienced apart from time as well as within time.” (Compellingtruth.org)
In “Opening to You; Zen-Inspired translations of the PSALMS,” Norman Fischer offers a different “take” on the first poem in the PSALMS book. It begins as follows: Happy is the one who walks otherwise; Than in the manner of the heedless; Who stands otherwise; Than in the way of the twisted; Who does not sit in the seat of the scornful; But finds delight in the loveliness of things; And lives by that pattern all day and all night--; For this one is like a tree planted near a stream; That gives forth strong fruit in season; And whose leaf doesn’t wither; And whose branches spread wide--; (Does the above not sound like a personal shalom?)
Jesus described eternal life in the present tense. This is not just the puppies-rolling-in-sunny-meadows heavenscape painted in so many minds. It’s NOW. Now, when Russia has invaded Ukraine. Now when cancer is eating Peggy’s insides. Now when homeless are huddled in makeshift warming shelters.
Eternal life is the unfolding realization and living of the Torah to fully LIVE as the unique and special beings each of us has been created to be. It’s a bit of the shalom heaven-on-earth. Not to be confused with the threat of eternal damnation or hell.
Can we focus a bit on this modern notion of hell? Let’s consider what the ancient Psalms hearers thought of hell. Not much, actually. Psalms use the “Sheol” to describe a person’s location after death. But in most instances Sheol is simply a synonym for “tomb” or “grave.” It’s not a place where someone actually goes.
According to Bart D. Ehrman writing for time.com May 8, 2020 “Traditional Israelites did not believe in life after death, only death after death. That is what made death so mournful: nothing could make an afterlife existence sweet, since there was no life at all, and thus no family, friends, conversations, food, drink – no communion even with God. God would forget the person and the person could not even worship. The most one could hope for was a good and particularly long life here and now.” Ehrman goes on to say that thinking evolved over time, and by Jesus’ day, the thinking included acknowledgment of God’s power to usher in a new reality on earth for believers—living and those dead. Non-believers would not enjoy this earthly reality. They would stay dead.
So, think back to the 2004 Billy Graham quote. While shalom disrupters are living a life on a damn bumpy road, I’m not convinced it is leading to the fiery furnaces. Again, Romans 6:23 gives it the larger context. In “What is the Bible” by Rob Bell, he reminds us: “In the Bible, we are not primarily identified as sinners, but as saints. That is important: your primary identity, your true self is found in who you are in Christ, not in the ways you have kept (or not kept the LAW) and disrupted shalom.”
As Lutherans we cling to Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide. Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, and Faith Alone. We cling to the free gift of God’s grace, not to how well we can or cannot follow all the rules. We cling to lessons of the Bible in its entirety. We cling to the gift of Christ. And, who we are in Christ is that we are so much loved beyond our own understanding. It should give us much on which to meditate.
As the steady old How Firm a Foundation hymn goes: “What more can He say than to you He hath said, who unto the Savior for refuge have fled...Fear not, I am with thee O be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.” Now, that’s a law to camp on and to celebrate!