Keeping Jesus’ word, from Old Law to New Law

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6th Sunday of Easter, Year C: May 5, 2013
Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Ps 67; Rev 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29

We hear our Lord Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” What beautiful words! We want that kind of peace so much. In fact, the whole world wants that kind of peace. And our Lord Jesus offers it.

But we also hear him say: “Whoever loves me will keep my word.” Now that’s different, isn’t it? It’s one thing to offer peace; it’s another thing to require obedience. And this isn’t just a fluke, because he says it again and again throughout these two chapters in the Gospel of John:

  • “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (14:15)
  • “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” (14:21)
  • “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (15:14)

Why does he complicate it that way? Doesn’t he want us to have peace and joy and happiness? Or, could it be that there is a connection between obeying his commandments and receiving his peace? We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Our first reading, from the Book of Acts, raises what might seem like a completely different question. What we hear in this reading from chapter 15 happens in about 49 AD, some 16 years after our Lord’s death and resurrection and ascension into heaven; and the Gospel has spread not only among the Jewish people but also beyond them to those not ethnically Jewish, the Gentiles. And this has raised some very serious questions about what it means for these new Gentile Christians. Do they need to be circumcised and to begin to observe the full ritual requirements of the Law of Moses? And we hear that the Council of St. Peter and the apostles and the presbyters there in Jerusalem decides: No, they don’t. How can they decide this? How can they simply set aside these commandments that have been taught and insisted upon for centuries?

And let’s join that question to one that we hear today. For we all know that in our society today, and among those who believe in Christ, both Catholics and among our separated Protestant brothers and sisters, there is a lot of controversy about our moral teaching—especially when it comes to things that touch on issues of sexual morality and life issues and marriage. And in this controversy, similar questions get raised.

  • Thus, perhaps you have heard it said: the Old Testament tells us not to eat shellfish, but we do; and it tells us to stone disobedient children to death, but we don’t. Why then do we have to follow these other teachings? Why can’t we just set them aside as obsolete and mistaken?
  • Or perhaps you have heard: in the Gospels, we don’t hear Jesus ever say a word about homosexuality or about abortion. So these must be just fine, since he said nothing against them.

All of these different questions lead us to the same place. So let us shine a light there and better understand: what was going on with the Council of Jerusalem in 49 AD; what is going on with our moral controversies today; and how do we ever receive that peace that our Lord promised? Because there is no need for us, or for anyone around us, to be confused about what our Lord Jesus asks of us.

When we read the Old Testament, we learn about the Old Covenant, which the Lord made with the People of Israel through Moses, and how that covenant was lived out over many centuries. And that Old Covenant certainly included many commandments—some 613 commandments by one count. Now, our Lord Jesus transformed the Old Covenant, establishing the new and eternal covenant in his blood. He became the one mediator between God and the human race (1 Tim 2:5): he replaced the priesthood with himself, the Temple with himself, the sacrifices with himself. And he transformed the People of God from an earthly nation with physical territory and all that went with it, into his Church, found in every nation, and indeed including persons from every nation, race, people, and tongue (Rev 7:9).

And part of this involved a transformation of the Old Law. For as the Catechism tells us (1963), the Old Law was holy, spiritual, and good, yet still imperfect. Our Lord Jesus did not abolish it; nor did he just keep it the same; rather, he fulfilled and transformed it (Matt 5:17).

But how did he transform it? This is what the Council of Jerusalem, guided by the Holy Spirit, began to discern; and we can state it most clearly as it is laid out by St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, I-II, qq. 99-108) and other theologians. For we see that the commandments of the Old Law fell into three categories:

  • First, there were the ceremonial or liturgical commandments, which had to do with the worship of God. These ceremonial laws our Lord Jesus radically changed. Thus, circumcision was no longer required to become a member of the People of God, but rather baptism; thus, the prohibition on eating shellfish was dropped, along with the other kosher food laws; and so too the ritual purity laws. The ceremonial laws were completely changed.
  • Second, there were the civil or legal or judicial commandments, which were a particular application of the principles of justice within the territory of the Holy Land—including the penalty of stoning. In the New Covenant, it is left to human beings to work out exactly how these essential principles of justice are to be applied in each land.
  • So we see that our Lord Jesus radically changed these first two categories of the commandments. But the third category—the moral commandments—was different. For these tell us what is right and wrong, good and bad. These were not simply limited to the Old Covenant, but rather passed on faithfully what is contained in natural law: what is embedded in human nature, the nature of the universe, and indeed in the nature of God himself. And that cannot change.

When we see more clearly these distinctions between ceremonial law and judicial law and moral law, we see that our Lord Jesus never loosened or lightened the moral commandments; rather, he emphasized them, strengthened them, took them to their root and inside into our minds and hearts.

  • Thus he commanded us to love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength; and to love each other as he loved us.
  • Thus, not only did he forbid murder, but also being wrongly angry or verbally abusive (Matt 5:21-22)
  • Not only did he forbid adultery, but also lusting after another person in your heart (5:27-28)
  • Not only did he forbid false oaths, but he commanded that we be known as people whose “yes” means “yes” and “no,” “no.” (5:33-37)
  • And when it came to marriage, he went back to how it was “from the beginning”: one man and one woman, joined together for life. The Old Law had made exceptions—permitting divorce, and permitting polygamy—but he set these aside, and called every person back to the truth of true love and true human nature, manifested in true marriage as it was from the beginning. (Matt 19:3-9)

He teaches this, he commands this, in order to give us his peace. But how can that be, when each one of us, at different times, will feel some strong desire to do something that is contrary to sexual purity or marriage or life? How can resisting these desires bring us peace? Because he knows that at times we want what is actually bad for us. We see this most clearly in those around us who suffer from addictions or mental illness or deep personal wounds: we see that, in trying to find happiness, they mistakenly choose the wrong path, and choose what actually harms them and others. And so it is with each of us. In a world damaged by original sin, our desires become twisted, our consciences mistaken or deadened.

And so our Lord comes to save us, to give us his peace. He teaches us the moral truth that we sometimes cannot see on our own; and he gives us the grace to live out what we cannot do on our own. He came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). Whoever loves him will keep his word; and he will give us his peace.

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