Fifth Sunday after Pentecost and the Fifth Sunday of Matthew, July 24, 2016
Romans 10:1-10; Matthew 8:28-9:1
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
For Christ is the fulfillment of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
That is Romans 10:4, which we just heard read in the epistle from Paul. In some translations, the word for “fulfillment” is given instead as end, meaning “purpose.” So Christ is both the fulfillment and the purpose of the Law. And why? “For righteousness.”
Paul’s language can be complicated at times to unpack, so I want to zero in today on just this one verse and how it is set in its larger context, specifically the larger context that Paul is addressing in Romans.
One of Paul’s major themes is the relationship between the Law of Moses which governed Jewish life and the coming of Jesus Christ. He talks about this in Romans, and he really discusses it in Galatians, much of which is written in the context of his debate with the chief of the Apostles, Peter, whom he “withstood to his face” (Gal. 2:11) when he came to Antioch.
The practical question that occupied the Apostles when they met in council in Acts 15 was whether Gentiles—that is, people who were not Jewish—had to become Jews before they could become Christians. All of the first Christians had been Jews, after all, so it was a good question. The answer the Apostles gave ultimately vindicated Paul’s position—no, Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to become Christians.
So what Paul is talking about here is one of the closely related questions—what is the relationship of the Law of Moses to the revelation in Jesus Christ? He addresses this is many ways throughout his writings. In this particular verse, he describes Jesus as the “fulfillment” or “purpose” of the law. The Greek word in question is telos, which can mean very simply the end of something, i.e., when it’s over, but also is used to mean the target, the purpose of a thing, its fulfillment, its completion and perfection.
So the point here is that the Law of Moses was never an end to itself. Its whole point was always Jesus Christ.
So if someone seems to be following the Law of Moses but doesn’t have Christ, then he really isn’t following the Law. And if someone has Christ but isn’t getting the Law of Moses right in its details, then he’s actually following the Law because he has arrived at the proper telos of the Law. This is what St. John Chrysostom has to say about this passage. He writes:
For if Christ be ‘the end of the Law,’ he who does not have Christ, even if he seems to have righteousness, does not have it. But he who has Christ, even though he may not have properly fulfilled the Law, has received the whole. (Homily XVII on Romans X)
He goes on to make this analogy:
For the end of the physician’s art is health… He who does not know how to heal, though he may seem to be a follower of the art, comes short of everything: so is it in the case of the Law and of faith. (ibid.)
So someone might look and act like a doctor, but if he’s not actually healing anyone, then he isn’t a doctor. And someone might look and act like he’s following the Law of Moses, but if he doesn’t have faith in Christ, then the whole thing is pointless.
So, having established the basic vector for how the Law of Moses relates to Christ, I’d like us to ask how this applies to us in particular. I don’t think that anyone here is trying to keep the Law of Moses as the Jews did. We’re not eating kosher or following the Jewish purity laws or refraining from work on Saturdays. But there is a greater principle at work here aside from just this historical and theological question of how Judaism relates to Christianity from the Christian viewpoint.
We can also look at the Law here as an analogy. Let’s first think of it as an analogy for any code of behavior, such as the ethics that we live by as Orthodox Christians. Lots of people think that the point of being Christian is to be a “good person,” or they may say that they are a good person, so they don’t need to be a Christian. In both cases, the telos for Christianity is its ethics—the point is to make you ethical, so if you can be ethical without it, no problem.
But that misses what Christianity is about entirely. The point of Christianity is to become intimately united with Christ, to know Him in a personal, authentic way. It is not to become ethical. It is of course true that people can be ethical without Christ. They can follow rules by the force of their will.
But there is also another error in this view, because Christian ethics isn’t just about morality. It’s about the destruction of sin. And what is sin? Sin is anything that gets in the way of perfection in Christ. So even a publicly ethical person is still a sinner. He’s sinning all the time. You can be a fine, moral, upstanding citizen and yet still be a great sinner. Sin isn’t just whether we murder or steal or commit adultery. Sin is even in our thoughts, and every thought we have that does not bring us closer to Christ is in fact sin.
So Christian ethics is like the Law of Moses in that its purpose is to bring us to Christ. Someone could look like he’s obeying the moral commandments of Christianity and even could look like he’s following all the traditions of piety and worship, but if in his heart he is not drawing close to Christ in an intentional, conscious way, then he is neither moral nor pious, because he has avoided the whole point of that morality and piety.
And one more analogy: Let’s talk about the Law as an analogy for your whole life.
In Greek, the word for “law” is nomos, which doesn’t mean only “law” as we think of it today, i.e., a legal code with demands and punishments. Rather, nomos means the “way” things are done. In society at large, nomos is indeed a legal phenomenon, but it is also cultural. We have ways of doing things that aren’t mandated or governed by a legal code. Nomos is essentially the structure in which a community lives its life and finds its meaning.
So if we think of nomos as an analogy for life—for your life—then consider what it means when Paul says that the fulfillment and purpose of the Law (of the nomos) is Christ.
One of my favorite things to do when I meet someone new is to ask them what their story is. What is the story of your life? What has brought you to this point? Where have you been? What does it mean? These are all questions that we ask each other and which we ask ourselves when we examine what it means to be human and what it means to be ourselves in particular.
In following this analogy using Paul’s terms, the answer to the question of where your life is supposed to be going is very simple—the fulfillment of your life is Jesus Christ. And if we interpret this as Chrysostom did, then we also have to say that, even if someone seems to have a “good” life or is successful or even really rich, popular or powerful, if he does not have Jesus Christ, then he does not really have life.
When the Lord gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, He gave it for one purpose—that over the centuries that followed, it would lead the chosen people to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. And when He gave us commandments of morality and piety in worship, He gave them so that we would be led to Jesus Christ. And when He gave us life in our mother’s wombs at that very moment of conception, He gave them so that we might know Him, the only true God.
This is what our lives are for. We can’t miss that. We have to assess everything we say and do according to that one purpose. The telos of our lives is Jesus Christ.
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.