In the sixth chapter of the Presbyterian Book of Order, a chapter on "The Church and its Officers," there is a section entitled "Elders." I usually read portions of this section whenever it comes time to ordain and install new elders to serve on session. At the end of that section on "Elders" is this statement: "Those duties which all Christians are bound to perform by the law of love are especially incumbent upon elders because of their calling to office and are to be fulfilled by them as official responsibilities." Reading this over earlier this week, I was especially intrigued by the first part of this sentence: "Those duties which all Christians are bound to perform by the law of love . . ." It seemed to me there is a sermon here, a sermon meant not only for elders but for all Christians.
What do you suppose are those "duties" that all Christians are bound to perform by the "law of love"? Perhaps another way to ask this question is, "What makes for a good Christian?" I have a little clipping in my file on this theme of a "good Christian". It goes like this:
I spent some time today with a fellow I admire very much. He doesn't drink alcoholic beverages, nor use tobacco in any form. I never heard him gossip or tell a lie. He doesn't patronize the road houses, or theaters or dance halls. I can't recall him ever resorting to cursing or blasphemy, profanity or obscenity. I never heard of him cheating another in a business deal. By some folks' standards we could call him a "good Christian." But I think you ought to know that I have been describing my dog. Which is all to say that being a "good Christian" involves infinitely more than having a list of things one does not do. [attributed to J. Douthitt]
For several years now the Presbyterian Church has been struggling with the question of standards for ordination to church office. At the center of the struggle has been the matter of human sexuality and sexual behavior. Last year a majority of the Presbyteries approved the addition of a paragraph to our Book of Order that entails a list of things that Christians do not do. This list of things are those actions that the adopted confessions of our Church call sin. According to this new statement in our Book of Order, anyone who acknowledges being involved in some action that is on this list of sins must repent of that action or otherwise being considered ineligible for ordination or installation as deacon, elder, or minister of the church. I confess, however, that neither I nor the session has attempted to discern whether any of our newly elected elders are engaged in any action that would thereby disqualify them for ordination. Nor do I know of any plans to do so.
On the other hand, it is my distinct impression that each of these persons, along with all the rest of you who regularly participate in the worship life of this congregation, regularly "acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God" [proposed Amendment A]. These newly elected elders do so, and you do so, by participation in the prayers, hymns, and sacraments that mark the worship life of this congregation. In the confession of the opening prayer, in the petition for forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer, in the language of many of our hymns, and in the celebration of God's gifts in baptism and the Lord's Supper, as well as in the reading and proclamation of the message of scripture, we regularly and constantly express our conviction that we are profoundly dependent upon the Divine mercy for the healing of our brokenness, the liberation of our spirits from all sorts of bondage, and the restoration of our lives in community with one another and in harmony with all of God's creation.
In thinking further about what the scriptures have to say specifically about elders and their role in the life of the religious community I was led to this morning's Gospel text from the Gospel of John. It is a familiar story, but sometimes familiar stories have the capacity to speak to us in fresh and new and different ways. Here is the story of a woman caught in the act of adultery. She has been detained, arrested, the charges have been filed against her. There is no question about what she has done. Certain of the religious authorities, scribes and Pharisees, bring her to Jesus to inquire of him what should be done with her. It is a ruse. They are not really trying to figure out what to do with her. They know that strictly according to the law of Moses, she is to be stoned to death. There is really a power struggle going on here, and she just happens to be a convenient victim. They really want to get at Jesus, by putting him to the test, "so that they might have some charge to bring against him," as the Gospel reports.
Now, we really do not know quite what happens next, except that Jesus bends down and writes with his finger on the ground. He could be drawing a line in the sand, but what kind of line would this be? Maybe he is writing out a list of sins--other sins besides the one with which this woman has been charged. Maybe he is writing out words like pride, or jealousy, or hardness-of-heart, or pretense, or dishonesty, or the coveting of prestige, or the lust of power. But maybe not. We can only surmise. Jesus makes no accusations. He offers no sermon. He says nothing at all. Only when he is finished does he straighten up and say, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
Jesus is surrounded by leaders of the religious community, scribes, Pharisees, and--we soon discover--elders as well. But not a one of them is a fit candidate to cast the first stone. They have all sinned. They know it of each other, even in they do not know it of themselves. If nothing else, Jesus has just managed to out-maneuver them. Who would dare to cast the first stone under these circumstances? Who would dare to pretend in the presence of colleagues and fellow religious leaders to be without sin?! They all knew better than that.
But then Jesus bends down again and writes on the ground. In some of the ancient manuscripts at this point it says that he wrote out "the sins of each of them." I am inclined to think that Jesus would have done that the first time, and that this second time he is writing out some other words, words like mercy, kindness, integrity, compassion, justice, forgiveness, redemption. It would not have been enough for him to out-maneuver them, to parry their attack. He would have wanted to prick their consciences as well. He would have wanted to remind them of what it meant to be a truly righteous person of religious faith. That required more than a strict and literal adherence to the law. That required the doing of justice, the loving of kindness, and the walking humbly with God.
We can hardly know what Jesus might have written. We are only told what he says. That brings us to the part of the story that first caught my attention. Our text says, "When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders." "Beginning with the elders!" The elders lead the way. I would like to think that it was the elders who understood, first of all, above all, that the first thing they needed to do if they were to exercise their leadership rightly and justly was to acknowledge their own sinfulness, their own need for the grace and mercy of God. In the writing we call the Letter to Titus, attributed to Paul but actually of unknown authorship, the writer says that an elder is to be "someone who is blameless" [1:6]. That is one point of view within our biblical tradition. Our Gospel text, however, has another point of view. One by one, each elder individually acknowledging that he was not blameless, not without sin, walked away. No one was left to condemn, except Jesus. And Jesus says, "Neither do I condemn you." The woman was not to be condemned. That was not what the law, after all, required. At least not as seen through the eyes of Jesus! Sometimes to us the requirements of the law seem pretty cut and dried. Sometimes the scriptures seem to be so clear that they hardly require interpretation. But all looks different when seen through the eyes of Jesus. Jesus tells the woman that he does not condemn her. "Go your way," he says, "and . . . do not sin again."
Of course, the woman would sin again. It might not be adultery. It might be some other sin. Of course, the elders and the scribes and the Pharisees would also sin again. Having acknowledged their sin this one time, we should not suppose that they would henceforth be free of all pride and dishonesty, all self-righteousness and lust for power. Jesus' words should not be taken as a warning: "Sin again and then you will be condemned." Rather, Jesus' command serves as a reminder that divine mercy and forgiveness are not permission to sin. We are not deliberately to sin, that grace may abound! The elevation of mercy and grace as means by which God's people deal with one another does not mean a lowering of the standards we ask and expect of each other. Those duties that all Christians are bound to perform are hardly any less because they are to be performed according to "the law of love."
The greatest difficulty in all of this is to discern what is required by the law of love, and then to do it. At the heart of the difficulty is the fact that the law of love transcends any and all particular laws. It cannot be reduced to any particular set of laws. It cannot be summed up in any statement of laws. Rather, the law of love sums up all other laws. If we rightly understand what love requires, then we understand all that is required. As Paul wrote to the Romans, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet'; and any other commandment are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."
That leaves a lot of particulars unresolved. It leaves a lot of blanks to be filled in. It leaves a lot of room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and for discerning the mind of Christ. Every year I order copies of the latest version of the Book of Order for every new elder coming on the session. The book is filled with rules, with standards, with means by which to judge and govern the actions of the church, its members, its officers, its ministries and mission. But every year the Book of Order is changed in some degree, in part because we are a living Church, in part because we make mistakes that need correction, in part because new occasions create new problems and new duties.
Every community and every society needs some kind of law by which to govern itself, some standards, some rules, some means by which to set limits to behavior and action. Christian faith continues to exist, however, only as it remains a living faith. There is no way for the Christian community to be faithful to its calling without remaining open to the Spirit's guidance and without continuing to seek the mind of Christ. Once we decide that we know whatever God requires, once we conclude that we have determined the law and all that remains is to enforce it, once we think that we have fulfilled that law ourselves, then we most surely have not. The urge is strong if not irresistible to put down in black and white just what it is that God requires of us. It would make life easier to have some set of minimal standards by which to establish what a "good Christian" really is. In particular, it would save a lot of time and trouble to determine once and for all what is prohibited and what is required to be an officer of the church. It would be convenient simply to know who can be counted among God's elect. But Jesus did not put anything down in black and white. And whatever he may have written upon the ground, it would soon have been obliterated by the wind and the rain. The only possible stance for any Christian to take before God is one of humility regarding our knowledge and understanding, and acknowledgment of our continuing need for guidance, for mercy, and for grace.
The first obligation of the Christian community is not to try to enforce its standards, but to try to live up to them. And not only to live up to them, but to live beyond them. The law of love encompasses, and sums up, all other laws that should govern our life together. There is no other law that always applies. If there were, then we would not need the law of love. AMEN.