Tag Archives: behaviour

Just do it!

Discrimination is Out. Increasingly it’s illegal. You mustn’t make assumptions about people who are a certain colour, a certain age, or who turn up in a wheelchair – and that’s good. Christians should benefit from religious tolerance.

On the other hand, to check your tax return find somebody who can add up; to tackle the hard work in your garden, somebody over 7 stone (50 Kg); to diagnose your illness someone good at medicine, and to cook the meal you eat out, somebody discriminating.

James is talking (we read James 2:1-17) to a community of Jewish Christians where the rich get better treatment than the poor. He won’t have it, for both are Christian neighbours. It seems that while they give the poor a hard time, they also suffer being bullied or persecuted by the rich v6. Is that relevant to us? Our communities vary – but you might like to think how money complicates international Christian relations! Theology can be bent by sponsorship offers.

James goes on talk about the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Then points out that it is no good to be loving in one way while forgetting another. Christian living is not about doing the bits you like and forgetting the rest. It is no use not murdering if you’re a professional thief, being proud of not committing adultery if you regularly lie about other people. It all matters, including how we treat the poor. There’s no “balance” of failure and success – but a great need for mercy, on our part, as well as our judge’s.

Finally, the test of faith. Do they believe, these people James writes to? He doesn’t want words, if they believe, it’ll show. Real faith is not about measuring passion, but about converting into obedience. “Sincerity” is not about a style of self-presentation, or carefully crafted words. To want to do as Jesus did, to live like him and imitate him, needs motivation. Real faith motivates; if we expect to get away with fine sentiments, the faith is fake.

This is no evangelistic letter; James is not going to run through basic Christian beliefs or outline the gospel. What he wants to make sure is that people who live as a Christian community should behave as a Christian community. Not hot air, but hot meals for the hungry, not fine words about Jesus, but the hard work of obeying him and becoming like him. It is a searching test, and too often churches in the past have been marked as failing by the communities in which they live.

Does belief matter?

“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God”

1 John 5:1

That is odd – We tend to separate belief and behaviour. Believe what you like, behave as we tell you – like everyone else. John does not agree, as becomes clear in 1 John 5:1-6. He is very concerned about behaviour – love and keeping God’s commands, but sees belief as key. So – what difference is this belief going to make?

It is not difficult to imagine that seeing and hearing Jesus would have lead John the apostle to admiration, enough to motivate time and attention for learning. Perhaps for many followers now, that’s about it. Others will come to obedience out of fear. God is God, active and real, in charge, and will eventually require an accounting of all of us. I’d better behave, and live as someone whose life will be inspected. I obey because I’m frightened of the consequences of not obeying, here and hereafter. It’s real, it motivates (if not very well), – but it’s not what God intended.

But if Jesus is the Messiah, God is doing something important – and wonderful. Yes, we might admire Jesus, for his dedication, his non-violence, or other qualities. Yes, we might want to give thanks for his achievement. But increasingly we are drawn in, and (if we let it) God changes us. We obey because we want to be part of what God is doing. We prefer his vision to any other. We want to see the victory of Jesus won today. This is a different sort of obedience! Let’s look again at what John is saying:

“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God”

1 John 5:1

because belief has a big effect on behaviour!

“and whoever loves a father loves his child also. This is how we know that we love God’s children: it is by loving God and obeying his commands.”

1 John 5:1b,2

If we really think that God was answering all those promises about a Great King in Jesus, then you have got to love it, and be drawn in to join others who are working with it, to apply it now. We don’t obey so much because we fear the consequences of disobedience, but because we love what God has done and is doing. The way to get things done well, is God’s way (described by his commandments).

every child of God is able to defeat the world. And we win the victory over the world by means of our faith. Who can defeat the world? Only the person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

1 John 5:4b,5

So, are we invincible superheroes? No. But we are taking on the world and winning, as we live by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, and go a different way to many. Belief – belief in Jesus – is the vital ingredient in a life that loves and wins.

Many won’t believe that. But you might.

Loving truly

True love – or perhaps more accurately, the failings of untrue love – has been the subject of more songs and stories than have ever been counted. How are we to judge the true from the false? John has a no-nonsense approach when he says “ This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (The start of this week’s reading, 1 John 3:16-24).

It is hard to deny that this is a compelling demonstration of love and, as the earlier verses of the chapter have argued, one that should provoke a response. Imitation is a form of admiration. What we worship will shape our lives and characters. So we are told that our love should reach out to those in need.

We might want to use the excuse that our offering is so insignificant compared to the needs we see on television news and documentaries. It is easy to forget that the earliest Christians lived closer to hunger and homelessness than we do, yet were known to be generous. If modern communications make us rapidly aware of disasters and shortages on the other side of the world, they also enable an informed and professional response. We do have a responsibility to give, generously and repeatedly, and to do it in the most effective ways we can find. We need to make sure that our giving is a significant proportion of what we have available.

Our response to those in need should never be limited to charitable giving, however. We need to be informed, and to use our votes and our campaigning weight to encourage medium and longer term answers. At the same time, we are faced by a climate emergency. We can lobby, and give, but we also need to change our personal behaviour to reduce our impact on the environment and encourage others by our example to do the same.

Even that isn’t enough. The needs will change from time to time and place to place. At the moment racism is in the spotlight, and needs us to affirm the value of every life. There are issues of housing provision, children denied a secure family upbringing, modern slavery, unemployment – and I will have missed several. We cannot be closely involved with every issue, but need to deal with those closest to us, and to deal with them within the love of God. That does not want to make the wrong suffer, nor to expose people to shame. Rather, it looks for the restoration of a proper order, with relationships restored and life more nearly as it should be. It looks to the Kingdom of God, where God rules, and we are able to enjoy our place and our life within God’s love.

Bug in the system?

Paul has set out for the Roman Church he hopes to visit the need for Christians to live the new life won for them by Jesus, and not to think that forgiveness allows them to indulge every disordered desire. In chapter 7, he begins to ask how this works out – a basic question for Christians in every age and culture.

The Jewish Christians recognise that they are now released from the Law – meaning the commands of the Old Testament (like the 10 commandments of Exodus 20). They know very well that it is one thing to know what is right and good, but another to do it. This is a problem we share. We can say that it would be wonderful if society worked according to our plan, or even if we lived in this way – but we only have to try losing weight, or getting up earlier, or being less grumpy, to discover the difficulty. As we read Romans 7:15-25, we have to admit that wanting to do something, and actually doing it consistently, are two things separated by a problem in ourselves.

Paul identifies the problem as sin. Even when we want to be good, it doesn’t always work out like that. What can we do? Of course, one solution is to change the target – “Be reasonable”, “It doesn’t matter” . . But often it does matter, and the failures cause problems. Education, discipline, harsher punishments have all been suggested, tried, – and none have provided a full solution.

The rescue that Paul has experienced is provided by Jesus. There is a fault in human behaviour (not in the design; it was caused by the refusal to recognise God and do things the way God planned). Humans do not have the ability to do what they want and believe to be right consistently and constantly – so the power of God must be brought to bear.

We shall talk more about life in the Holy Spirit in chapter 8 – next week’s reading. There is one more thing before we leave chapter 7. Is this experience of human weakness experienced by all humans, or do Christians escape?

Certainly all humans contain that flaw that prevents the good they decide on becoming the unfailing behaviour they deliver. Some are more disciplined, some less tempted, but perfection is not an option. Christians have access to the vital missing ingredient – the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in several ways, including providing direction (what should be done), motivation (why bother?), and the power or energy to get on with it. So does that mean that Christians don’t have the problem? Not quite. With the help of the Holy Spirit they can achieve much more, but never in this life become perfect. There is still the problem, now alongside the solution, but lurking to trip us up. Thank God that’s not the end of the story!

Christian Behaviour

It is easy to get confused about what Christian Behaviour should be. There are lots of “things we ought / ought not to do”, but they don’t always agree, and anyway, who says? Of course the Old Testament had commandments which gave a picture of what God was like, and liked. But they could mislead – some thought that just having the commandments made them better than other people, and in any case, they all made mistakes and failed to live perfectly.

Paul taught Christians (Jews or Gentiles) that they would get to heaven because their sin was forgiven by the grace of God, depending on the death of Jesus, and through the faith of the believer. But he then had to face the question (we are reading Romans 6:1-11), “So, why behave? If sins are forgiven, why worry?” Paul’s answer might be paraphrased “No way: Live for yourself, or live for Christ – but you can’t do both!”

I don’t have to tell you about living for yourself – we’ve all done it! It’s selfish, which means that we don’t enjoy the pleasures as much as we might, both because we may have hurt others to get them, and because we are looking over one shoulder to see who may be trying to take them away. It makes a world where you’re on your own, everyone against everyone else and pity help the weak. And if you live for yourself there’s always a problem with guilt and failure. You’re never going to reach God’s standards, and you probably won’t keep up your own, either.

So, what’s the alternative – to live for Christ. That doesn’t make us perfect; you may have noticed that Christians are still sinners. But it is a totally different motivation. As forgiven sinners, we work together with others who share this loyalty. They’re an odd lot, and sometimes it is rubbing along with them that rubs off some of our rough edges. But if we share a Master, we also have a real unity. This is a family which, though it can argue, has a very strong reason for living together.

There’s another benefit. The more we get into this service of Christ, the more like him we become. It’s one of the things the Holy Spirit does to us and with us; you may not notice, but other people will. What are we saying? A lot of people still make the mistake of thinking that Christian Behaviour is “being good” – getting a good score on keeping the commandments. That is a mistake.

Christian behaviour is all about serving Jesus, living for him. (Rather like the line in today’s gospel, Matthew 10:32,33 “If anyone declares publicly that he belongs to me, I will do the same for him before my Father in heaven. But if anyone rejects me publicly, I will reject him before my Father in heaven.” The question is “Who do you belong to?” and there is the same sharp division). Those commandments are still useful – they tell us things what God thinks is important, and warn us of dangers.

If you want to know how you are doing, don’t say “I wonder if 7/10 is a pass mark for keeping the commandments” but ask “How much of today did I live for Jesus, and how much did I really live to get my own way?”

Status – or Grace?

There is a comment on the gospel for Lent 5c here.

What is your standing? Or I might ask, What is your status? Are you important? Are you good? Should people take notice of you? Perhaps its not the sort of question we ask very often – at least, not as bluntly as that. Yet some people do seem to be more important than others, and we all have some idea why we might matter.

It’s significant when we look at our 2nd lesson (Philippians 3:4-14), part of Paul’s letter to a church he was fond of, at Philippi in Greece. While he was on good terms with the church and its leaders, it seems there were other teachers – perhaps travelling ones – wanting to insist that Christians lived fully as Jews, and kept the Old Testament law.

Paul gets quite worked up about it. He, of all people, could claim importance in traditional Jewish terms:
no adult convert, he had been born into Jewish faith, a member of a significant family. More than that, he had kept the tradition in its strictest form, as a Pharisee, and even worked against the Church in his enthusiasm.

But see what he says “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ”.

What makes Paul important? Why should people take notice? Nothing about his background, nor his life achievements. He uses that phrase “confidence in the flesh” – not literally his medical status, but the human point of view, the one which rates people as “important” or “not worth the time of day”. He will have no compromise with these “teachers” who want to boast of their lifelong achievement in Jewish good behaviour. Nor will he let the Christians in Philippi adopt this way of thinking.

What does he say? “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Paul knows that his hope of heaven does not rest on his record of good behaviour, but on forgiveness won by Christ, and on grace – God’s gift. That is so important he will not compromise, or let any forget it.

He goes on to talk about persistence. “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. There should be changes in our lives for the better – but the transformation we have to allow, and continue to allow, is by God’s power through the Holy Spirit. It is not an achievement we can boast of.

I don’t know how you think about yourself, or other members of your community. I do know that Christian faith offers a big challenge to the way most people think. For Christians, lots of achievements others rank highly are really not that important, while faith, and a life of obedient service are vital. The Holy Spirit should be seen working on improving us, but that’s God’s achievement, not ours to boast about.
I wonder what the Philippians made of it all. I wonder if it makes sense to you, and whether you will be able to keep it in mind.