Tag Archives: command

Obey?

(A dialogue sketch on 1 Peter 3:13-22, a reading this Sunday, is available here )

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15 and again “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me;” John 14:21 – both included in this week’s reading of John 14:15-21.  It would seem that obedience is commanded, and indeed that the effective presence of the Holy spirit in a believer is in some way conditional on such obedience. In a past world, that would have seemed pretty straightforward.

But our culture has moved away from obedience, and is unclear whether to see it as a virtue. Perhaps for some it came from the Nuremberg war-crime trials, which established that obedience to superior orders is no defence – we must only do what we judge to be right, even if it means rejecting the orders of others. For others, the civil rights and protest movements will have reduced respect for authority, and psychological studies like the 1961 Milgram experiment (which showed normal volunteers capable of inflicting, as they thought, painful and even fatal electric shocks on people when encouraged to do so by an authority figure) will have strengthened objections.

So, does obedience still have a place in faith? I think so, though I want to take these objections seriously. What Jesus says is not “Do as I tell you”. In fact, what he tells us is not mainly simple instructions like “Pray for 10 minutes twice a day”, but much more complex things like “Love God and love your neighbour” (eg Mark 12:30-31). So these verses do not say “obey” but “keep my commandments” – keep, look after, be mindful of.

This isn’t the mindless obedience of the bayonet charge, doing because you’re told to. Quite the opposite, it is an invitation to value and practise things you know to be good.  This is clearer when we see that the condition is “If you love me, .” If we are familiar with the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, and enthusiastic enough about them, are attracted to them strongly enough, find them to have greater significance and importance than others – then we are going to value them and put them into practise.

So, is there a place for obedience in faith? Yes. Don’t I just mean we do what we think is right? No.  We look at the life, works and teaching of Jesus, and find that important beyond other things. We value and apply his teaching, and in doing that we learn that we never do so perfectly, because of our own weakness, sin, and failure. We also discover – perhaps in other people – that sin affects our judgement. I can be rational, but rational about my own weaknesses – that is much harder.

So, as I think about what is right and what I should do, I apply the teaching of Jesus, the New Testament and the Bible to my situation and culture – AND in those things I find difficult or tempting, I add extra weight to what they say, distrusting (but not discarding) my thoughts when they disagree. In other words, I find it necessary to obey more over things which tempt me, or which have caused me to fail in the past.

What’s in a name? (Naming of Jesus)

(If you want to see how a dialogue sketch works on this theme and passage, go to Dialogue Sketch for the “Naming of Jesus” )

What’s in a name? Perhaps not a lot, in our Western society.  Names seem to be chosen much at random, from the celebrities of the day.  The meaning is something we have to look up – unless you have a “nickname”, which may be more descriptive.  On the other hand, people like me who find it difficult to remember many names quickly find how little people like their names being forgotten or confused.

In the ancient world, names were more important and powerful.  God reveals his name to Moses ( Exodus 3:11-15 ).  We find it hard to interpret “I am who I am”, but for Egyptian slaves, it was a free God, and to those who used magic and idols, perhaps a challenge from a God who created, and was not made by others.  Numbers 6:22-7 tells us to use the name of God in blessing – perhaps because we become like what we admire or worship, and to summarise our becoming more like God, and living in God’s power.

Then there is the name “Jesus”, given by the angel to Mary, and then given in obedience to Jesus at his circumcision ( Luke 1:28-38, Luke 2:21 ).  It means “saviour”, a reminder and summary of Jesus role, and is the same as “Joshua” (in both Hebrew and Greek).  As Jesus’ disciples, we also have a part to play in the saving of the world – a good thought to begin the New Year!

Win – Lose? (Proper 16, Pentecost 14)

Who would complain at someone doing right? Those threatened by it.

Jesus heals a woman bent for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17).  Wonderful, everybody is pleased – aren’t they?  Well, no.  The synagogue official complains that it isn’t right, the Sabbath law is being broken.

Jesus response is first to say that if Sabbath law allows an animal to be freed to be taken to water, it certainly allows a woman to be freed from a worse constraint.  His second point is more severe.  This healing is not “work” so much as setting free from the power of evil.  No one argues with him, at least not immediately, but opposition is growing and this is the last time Luke tells us of Jesus in a synagogue.

So, given this was so long ago, does it matter?  We might look at Christian attitudes to rest, and think how the Devil would bend them:

  • one way to avoid a useful time of refreshment, worship and gaining perspective would be to over-emphasise the rule.  Let it be absolute, but also purposeless, negative, empty, hollow.  That should keep people away from God, and God’s intention in a day of rest.
  • another (more common in my experience) would be to rubbish Sunday observance.  They could tell stories of not being allowed to play on Sundays as children, and forget how others needed rest.  Let people do as they want,  Let people overwork, make sure families have no time together, and make the Church family unable to meet all together at one time.  Make it hardest for the poor, who will not be able to refuse unsocial work hours.

Jesus will do neither.  His first concern is for God, his second for people.  He keeps the Law, but not always as others have been in the habit of doing.  We could learn from that.  Living by rules is never enough (it is what can give religion a bad name!), but refusing all discipline is no answer either. We have to learn Jesus priorities: love and serve God, love and serve other people, don’t reject rules, but never let them be an excuse for avoiding the first two priorities.

” And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” ” (Luke 13:16)  Certainly, yes, she should be released, and we should be finding our own freedom and bringing release to others by the power and grace of God.

Being nice and the gospel (Pentecost 8c, Proper 10c)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, well known, often quoted, easily misunderstood.  Luke 10:25-37 is another trick question, well answered by Jesus.  The questioner, who knows his scripture, seems to want a limit.  It is almost as if he asks, “Who can I tell to get lost, because they don’t qualify for my help?”

It is, of course, the wrong question.  But, like annoying children, we are good at asking the wrong questions – the ones with answers too complicated to understand, the ones which don’t fit our situation, or our need, or are more concerned with making us look good, or others look bad.  “Why is this happening to me?” may be a question like that, but there are plenty of others.

Jesus doesn’t sulk or get angry.  He may know that this question is meant to get him into trouble, but his answer will have grace, combining continued usefulness with a real attempt to let this questioner, and his listeners, understand.  We can imagine that the ordinary people in the crowd enjoyed the criticism of the priest and the Levite.  Of course, important people today are never too preoccupied, frightened, or lazy to offer appropriate help – are they?  A warning there, for those of us who think we might have important things to do.

What is the story really about?  No, it is not being nice to strangers.  No, it is not about race relations.  No, it is not about generosity, or the importance of first aid (not that I am against any of these things!)  What Jesus says is, “Life with God, the good life, the holy life, is never just about keeping within the behaviour not forbidden.  If you want to live for God, the question is not ‘What have I got to do to make the pass mark?’, but ‘What opportunities does God give me to reflect the love, grace, generosity and mercy that show God in action?’

The Samaritan doesn’t “do well enough to go to heaven” – none of us do – but he shows more of God than the religious professionals manage in this story.  Jesus invites us to live a new life, in the forgiveness and love of God, and in that life to look for opportunities to be like Him.

Proper 10, year c

Deserving? (Pentecost 2c)

 

As I get older, I am reminded of the need to know what I am doing. It is too easy to “lose the plot” – a theme which comes up in this week’s readings. Paul (Galatians 1:6-7) seems to think the Church in Galatia may have forgotten the basis of the gospel, and coincidentally Luke seems to record a similar contrast (Luke 7:1-10).

Jesus is in Galilee, in Peter’s home town near the fisherman’s lake. There is a delegation of synagogue leaders, who ask him to heal the slave of a Roman soldier. This is odd. The soldier is not part of the Jewish community, and he works for the occupying army! But it seems that he has built their synagogue. To the Jewish leaders, he deserves Jesus attention and favour.

That’s not too hard to understand. There are still people in Church, and outside the congregation, who think God owes them a favour or two. That is wrong – because God owes nobody. And it has missed the point, which is a great pity.

Now look at the attitude of the Centurion:

  • there is faith. He trusts Jesus, to be able to heal, and to want to heal. He explains that he knows about authority – and recognises that Jesus has it, in a rather different way to the military.
  • But there is also humility, especially, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;” Luke 7:6 Unlike the synagogue leaders, this man knows he does not deserve Jesus favour. He has not “bought” anything with his gifts, except that he now knows where to look for help, and his own real status. And what is his status? He is a child of God, asking the Father’s help and love.

This is the importance of remembering the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus. What is that Good News? That God will give us what we deserve? – No, for nobody is good enough, or up to God’s standard. Nobody (including retired Vicars!) The Good News is that God does not give us what we deserve, but offers love, forgiveness and life for free – because that is the sort of God he is! The centurion had it right. He understood that Jesus might be embarrassed – or criticised – for going to the house of a foreigner, a Pagan, so he does not ask him to come in. He understood that he needed to ask, knowing he depended not on his reputation, but on Jesus’ grace. He understood that trusting Jesus was the way to get what he needed, and more. Some people still like to use his words as a prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Jesus was amazed how well he understood, and Luke records the comment, along with the fact that the slave was healed.

That is the gospel: because of Jesus, God’s love is offered to us, as freedom, forgiveness, healing, new life – all the things we need, (though not always what we think we want!). The synagogue leaders, and some people in Galatia, got that wrong, which was dangerous. It risked losing the benefit – or perhaps even worse, stopping other people enjoying it. It is still important to know what Jesus offered, and how to help people get it!

 

Easter summary (Easter 6c)

Coming near the end of the Easter season, we might ask what we have learned.  John 14:23-29 tells us Jesus words “those who love me will keep my word” (keep my commands in other translations) which raises the question of why we would want to.

Jesus also claims “I do as the Father has commanded me” John 14:31.  There is a clue.

I think the Easter season gives us time to absorb two big ideas.  The first is life beyond what is seen.  Against the constant temptation to limit our interest to what we can see, what is available now, the Resurrection widens our horizons and greatly increases the scale of reality.  Yes, we shall have to give an account of our use or abuse of all God’s gifts – but just as we learn to look at God’s gifts rather than our own abilities, so we grapple with eternity rather than 70 years life, more or less.  The universe is bigger and better than we think.

The second big idea, not denying that the Resurrection of Jesus has all sorts of things to say to us, is simply: “Jesus was right!”.  God endorses, in the strongest way possible, his teaching, his life, his sacrificial death.  At all the points where we might have wondered “Is that the right way?”, “Is God really like that?” or just “You must be joking!”, God says again “This is my Son, listen to him“, as he had at the Transfiguration, and in part at Jesus baptism (Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, quoting Psalm 2:7).  Jesus spells it out to Phillip, when asked “Show us the Father“, he says in effect, “I have” – and in the Resurrection, the Father agrees.

Of course, that is not the end of the story.  We shall have to learn to live with it, and with the Holy Spirit (watch this space  . . ).  It will take much of the rest of the (Church) year to look at details and specifics, but Easter has set the scene:  Life is bigger and has more potential than you thought, and Jesus is right!

Commanded to love (Easter 5c)

It is funny how easily we avoid some of the most important bits of the gospel.  In John 13:31-34 Jesus commands his followers to love as he loves.  Wonderful!  We are to be loved, understood and forgiven – but how easily we forget that we must (yes, must) love, understand and forgive.

CS Lewis usefully made the point that if you try to love someone you don’t like, the best thing is to ask yourself what you would do if you did like them, and see if you can do that.  Sadly, we are good at making it difficult.  The linked passage from Acts 11:1-18 helps explain.  Peter had to face up to great barriers in going to a Gentile (the centurion Cornelius), baptising the family, and staying there.  He has some explaining to do to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem – and the issue will come back.

Not an issue for us without a background in Jewish faith?  But it is.  Every Church sets up barriers to belonging to the core group.  Even when newcomers are welcomed at the door, there are so many things to learn – a new set of words, a unique style of music, strange activities, – we could go on.  Not that we are nasty about it, or even that we understand what it is like for newcomers very often.  But this is a strange way to love the hesitant, or even the needy and hurting.  We need our Christian culture to guide us, and we need to sit lightly to it to love those outside the present group.

We’re stuck.  We can’t say, “I wish Jesus hadn’t commanded us to love”, because we would lose so much that is wonderful.  But to accept the command and try to practise it, is difficult!