Promise and Obligation
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

June 3, 2012

Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

I am coming to understand a new way of looking at our Biblical faith: it is the interwoven strands of God’s promise and our obligation. The promise is that we are loved, unconditionally, without reserve, not because we have earned it, but simply because God loves us. Or as Paul says in Romans this morning, out of the gracious love of God, we are heirs with Christ, inheriting the kingdom of God.

The obligation is that we live a life worthy of such love: in praise and in service, in love and in hope. Paul’s words are “living by the Spirit and not by the flesh.” It is about living as though we are the children of God, with all that this implies, “in debt to the Spirit of God, and not like slaves to fear,” as Paul would say.

When Paul uses speaks of living according to the flesh, he means a life centered only on oneself, being self-serving, or just plain selfish. The opposite, living life according to the Spirit, is not necessarily to be a monastic. It means using the gifts of God for the sake of building up one another, of being neighborly, of loving one another as Christ loves us. To follow the example of Jesus who “did not come to be served, but to serve.”

Nor does Paul describe this as something we do by force of will. We do not will ourselves to be led by the Spirit. We let the Spirit lead us. Willing ourselves to be led by the Spirit is about as useful as willing ourselves to be less willful. It doesn’t work. It is like trying to force your body to relax. It is counterproductive.

The promise is a life where we know that God is providing everything we need. The obligation is to not live like we have to secure it for ourselves at the expense of our neighbor.

Throughout the Bible, promise and obligation are woven together. The obligation of the Ten Commandments only comes as God releases them from captivity and promises to be with them in the journey to freedom. The obligation to love one another as Christ lives us comes with the promise of resurrection. Braided together, promise and obligation are strong enough to support a life well lived, a life of meaning and purpose, a life of hope and healing.

But we like to split them apart, don’t we? We can take some comfort that it is not just us. The church has often done this, all the way back to the book of Acts.

Some become gatekeepers, using the obligation as the gateway to get to the promise. Only after you live up to certain standards of righteousness will we allow you in and claim you as a part of the covenant. The religious folks claim the promise for themselves, and put the obligation on everyone else.

The Pharisees as portrayed in the Gospels come to mind. Jesus criticizes them not for a lack of faith, but for placing burdens upon those around them but not lifting a finger to remove them. Jesus calls them out for claiming the promise for themselves, but weighing down the people with rules and duties that do not serve the covenant. It distorts the promise and makes the obligation unbearable.

More recently, there is a famous church in Kansas that has made a name for itself by protesting funerals. They claim for themselves the promise of God’s grace and condemn the rest of the world for not living up to the obligations.

I have met some people so weighed down by the guilt and shame of not living up to what they see as their obligations. They have no sense that the obligations are not the point of the covenant. They have no understanding that the promises of God’s love and God’s forgiveness are for them as well.

And there are thousands of subtle ways that we split the promise and the obligation: Being judgmental, gossiping, ignoring hospitality.

Churches with a real passion for mission seem to reverse these ideas. They put the obligations upon themselves for the sake of helping other people discover the promise.

Much like the nineteenth century Jewish ethicist Rabbi Israel Salantar said, “Most men worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.”

John says it differently, but it means much the same:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

The problem is that it is so hard to give up our fears, our anxieties, our need to control and secure life. As my sister-in-law pointed out to me last night, it is hard to live into the obligations because we have trouble trusting the promises.

But when we live only for ourselves, we live according to the flesh, and we die with the flesh. When we live by the Spirit, we discover God’s presence. When we serve others, we discover God’s purpose. When we cry to God in our pain, our grief, our hurt, we discover God’s healing.

And as we discover the promise is true, we can better live as God intends. And as we practice our faith, we learn more how the promise is true.

God loves you, warts and all. And God loves them, too; whomever our “them” is.

Let us live like we believe it, and so show ourselves to be children of God.

Thanks be to God.