Tag Archives: discipline

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!

Suffering, Humility and Discipline!

Through the Easter season we have been reading the first letter of Peter, and noticed that he has a good deal to say about Christian suffering. (My computer Bible finds 6 matches for “Suffer” and another 3 for “Sufferings” in the 5 chapters in NRSV). It has come at an appropriate time with the covid 19 lockdown, but perhaps there is never an inappropriate time to remind followers of Jesus that their lives are no more likely than his to be trouble and stress free. Of course it often isn’t fair – but for everybody, life is like that.

Christians get added trouble because of their faith. It comes in many forms – dislike for people who act differently or stand out from the crowd; a reaction of guilt (even without critical comments); or a fear that they might be right! It is something we need to come to terms with.

Usefully, this week’s reading (given as 1 Peter 4. 12-14; 5. 6-11, but it might make more sense to read 1Peter 4:12 – 5:11) has more to say that might help. First is the idea of humility. (1Peter 5:5,6, and throughout). It is important that we have a realistic understanding of ourselves, and our place in the world and the church. That is not the same as saying we are worthless, which is untrue. Every person is made in the image of God, and loved – and so of enormous value. But that is every person, so we have to understand what our particular gifts are, and how they should be used to work in with others. Humility is about being “down to earth”, always remembering that earth is wonderful stuff that enables miracles of growth.

Humility provides some defence against suffering, helping deal with wounded pride and foolish ambition. With it, Peter commands discipline. Again, it is not a fashionable virtue, but one that shows its value in hard times. We have all been advised in lockdown to have a routine, to exercise, and eat and drink sensibly – yes, it’s a discipline. Peter is more concerned that we are alert to temptation, and ready for the service of God. In other texts, Paul talks about the discipline of the athlete in training, or the soldier on active service. We remember that discipline will not earn us God’s love or salvation, but it will enable us to better respond to those things in effective service.

I hope you have found 1 Peter a timely commentary on life after Easter in 2020. Perhaps, as we move towards Pentecost (are you using the Thy Kingdom Come app?) you might like to read the whole letter again?

Natural development – and more

While much of the world has moved from Christmas back to work and dreams of holidays, Christians have, I hope, more to ask. “How did people get to know about Jesus?”, What was the route from “Baby of Bethlehem” to “Saviour of the World”? Perhaps by mapping it out, week by week, we can learn, and apply it for our own faith, and for our sharing faith with other people.

It starts at the Epiphany with the visit of the Wise Men, then goes on to Jesus’ baptism. But Luke 3:15-22 doesn’t say much about the baptism. Why? he was not interested in details (which day, time, how wet, exactly where . .). Luke wants us to understand that (verse 22) the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus; John the Baptist had said (verse 16) “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Now Jesus is baptised, and the Spirit descends on him, as a vital preparation for his ministry. (So in Acts 8:16,17, also read this Sunday, Peter and John expect Christians to receive the Holy Spirit for their Christian life.)

Some versions of faith make the most of the natural. Scripture records God the creator, and expects us to receive and use our “natural” / God given general abilities. There is advice (even commands) about learning, manners, “self development” – some of the things we don’t like: discipline, diligence. – look in the Wisdom tradition, Proverbs, but also eg Ruth. Loyalty, the providence of God (and hard work) feature more than miracles.

Luke is not dismissing or denying that. But he wants to make very clear that Christian life combines both the natural and the supernatural. The Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus is also to give us strength and direction, gifts and fruit.

The story of Jesus will tell of God rescuing us from sin and chaos. But Luke won’t stop there. He will also make clear, from the beginning, the way that humans might join in God’s work. The Holy Spirit is important in both, for the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism was the same Holy Spirit received by the believers Peter and John prayed for – the same Holy Spirit Christians pray for.

Jesus baptism wasn’t important to Luke because of its ritual, but because of the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Ministry. The two go together. As we begin to ask “How did people get to know about Jesus?” The most important part of the answer, then and now, was the role played by the Holy Spirit. We mustn’t neglect our “natural” abilities and skills, but as Christians we need to use them with the power and direction of the Holy Spirit to be fully effective in responding to God’s love by living in his service.

Motivation

When a leader talks of self-sacrifice, it makes all the difference if we know whether he gives it, or expects others to give it.  Jesus is one of the few who lead by example.

This leads us to a great division between two motives for living as a Christian.  Some rely on the fact that the Christian faith is true, that Jesus has the authority of God, and that the promise of heaven and threat of judgement need to be taken seriously.  There is not a lot wrong with that, except that as motivation, it needs a very high level of self-discipline to keep going, and can be a bit – miserable?

I think there is a stronger motive, though I struggle to describe it without using cliches.  The motive is Jesus, who is worth following just because of who he is.  It comes out in John 10:11-18, where he uses the language of shepherding a flock to explain his ministry.  He is true – not because he talks about truth, but by his actions.  He is both justice and mercy, and at the same time.  He is not caught off balance, even when tired or threatened.  I hesitate to use the word love, because it is so often misused, but he defines it.  He gives, but gives only what is good; he never forces, never manipulates.  His love pays the cost, without whining, without announcing the fact or making demands.

You may be a Christian because you hold the faith to be true and accurate and offers the only sure way to heaven, and I shall have no complaint.  But I shall follow Jesus as much for what he is, for the way he gives our salvation, and invites our partnership.

If that provides a great motivation, I am afraid it is not well understood.  It worries me that I meet people who are not ready to serve.  Somehow they haven’t understood that to follow such a Lord comes before all sorts of other (good) things, like family, career, friends and lifestyle choices . . .  Odd! and sad.

All about suffering -?

There is also a Dialogue Sketch on Mark 1:9-15 here

What is done in church should not just be for the enjoyment of those who attend, but should glorify God by building up believers and communicating the gospel to others.  It’s a principle you find in 1 Corinthians 14, but a first look at this morning’s readings might not seem to be encouraging from the point of view of an outsider:

Such negative thoughts are hard, and might suggest doing something else, but that would be a sad mistake. Take 1 Peter 3:18-22, Christ suffered, but “the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is not miserable, negative suffering.  It is part of a battle to set us free. The God that Peter knows is a God who is ready to pay a great price, himself, for our redemption. He tells this to a group of people who obviously are not having an easy life – and it is good news for them, as it is for us.

The God he speaks of is the same God who in Genesis makes a promise – a covenant – to Noah. A promise which is to Noah’s advantage, for his security and reassurance. A promise which he has kept faithfully.

Yes, its the season of Lent. We think of Jesus going into the wilderness, not because he was the sort of person who could not enjoy himself, or who enjoyed suffering, but to get his ministry on the right track – to avoid mistakes and distractions.  If we review our own disciplines and rules of life, it is not for their own sake (as if they had an importance of their own), but to ask if our lives, our service of God, our ministry, is on the right track, avoiding mistakes and distractions.  Perhaps we need to do something more to prevent our life being self-centred?

This is a message of hope – something in short supply, and valuable as most scarce commodities are.  You won’t be thanked for hate, but hope is properly precious. (There is a Lent Study by CTBI, using prisoners’ stories of hope – see the website.)  Our hope is not in human nature, nor the beauty of creation, or the possibility of education.

Our hope is in God, who cares for us enough to plan our rescue, and to follow the plan through. That is not just for you (though it is – and that’s important) but for all.  If an outsider should join my group, or just get to know me, they should find a focus on God, and hope in his love and saving action.

– and that is the reason for us to train ourselves

to advertise and proclaim good news.

Who’s in Charge?

“Who’s in Charge?”  We ask it of politicians, of community leaders – of all sorts of people.  In today’s gospel, (Matthew 21:23-32)  Jesus authority is questioned. We might guess that the authorities are offended by his lack of authorisation — he was not a rabbi, in the sense of having been recognised and ordained. So, finding him teaching in the Temple, they ask “How dare you!” – or rather “What right have you?”

Jesus answers with a question – a common thing at the time. “What authority did John the Baptist have?” It seems a simple question, but verses 25 & 26 show their problem, and they answer “We do not know”. (Perhaps meaning “We think he was a fraud, but haven’t the courage to say so”).

It is not just a debating trick. If the questioners cannot tell the difference between a man of God and a trickster, then they have shown that they are incompetent. If they are not prepared to tell the people what they think is the truth, they cannot lead. So they are not capable of judging Jesus.  Jesus has the authority of God himself, shown by his words and actions. The chief priests and elders, by their inability to recognise John the Baptist, have shown they have no spiritual discernment, no real authority.

It’s tempting to stop there, to say that Jesus has shown the opposition to be rubbish, and won his way out of a difficult situation.  That might miss the point. How many of us are still asking “Who’s in Charge?”.  The answer is not the legitimacy of some official, but our obedience to God, our discipleship.  The inner child is always ready to protest “You can’t make me, it’s my life, I’ll do, or not do, what I want”. What has authority over us – over me? Ambition, desire, selfishness, laziness, pride,.. or is my life a Christian life, where Jesus not only has the right to tell me what to do (and how, and when), but that right is accepted, signed up to, and even celebrated?

We went on the the parable of the two sons. One says yes, and does nothing. The other thinks better of his refusal, and goes and does the work his father has directed him to.  Who’s in charge? Who tells me what to do? Who has the right? There is a theoretical answer – Jesus who created me and gave his life to gain my freedom – but it is not a matter of getting the words right. It means doing the work, using the energy, sorting out the pride, giving the money, sharing the possessions, and not stopping.

Jesus is a hard act to follow.

He asks a great deal.

He has the right.