Tag Archives: importance

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.

A Great Commandment

The Great Commandment (which we read in Mark 12:28-34) can be analysed in several ways:

Some will point out that the two parts each quote the Old Testament – Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and ask with the scholars whether Jesus was the first teacher to bring them together in this way – it seems likely that it is.

Others will find it helpful to set this story in the sequence of questioning of Jesus after the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. There is the parable of the Vineyard, the hostile questions about taxes, and the resurrection, and then this more friendly scribe.

I want to ask a more fundamental question: What does it mean to do it? What would loving God and neighbour in this way look like in today’s world? There is a single-mindedness about it – something we find difficult in a diverted and distracted world. Interestingly Mark (not Matthew and Luke, who deal with the story in different ways – perhaps reflecting different occasions when Jesus used the summary?) quotes Deuteronomy 6:4 “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” The force of that may be clearer in CEV “’People of Israel, you have only one Lord and God.” Because there is one God, and not a choice, a wholehearted response is necessary. This is most important – more than personal inclination, comfort, even wealth and career.

What then? Clearly we are put in our place, and it is not at the centre of the universe! That might offend our selfishness, but it can also be a relief. We do not have to invent a meaning to life, a reason for our existence or anything else – someone else has done that. If for a time we lose our way, and find it hard to see pleasure, let alone purpose, this is a personal malaise, not the end of the world! God knows, God plans, God is, and our responsibility is to him first. There is a relief in letting him be in charge!

Strangely, the second thing about being put in our place is that we are not free to disparage ourselves – or indeed other people. If we are made and loved by God, we are not unwanted, useless, or rubbish. We do not have to justify our existence by exceptional achievement.

I do not matter because I am clever, successful, or professionally competent – but because God made me, loves me, and saves me. That is true today, and will be tomorrow if I am suddenly confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak or do anything much at all.

You are not free to think badly of yourself – that can be a temptation, to be recognised as such. You are to love the Lord your God – and his evaluation of you, and of others.

Loving your neighbour is a consequence of this. Yes, you may have the worst possible set of neighbours, but God still cares for them. You may be the means of bringing them to faith, and so to heaven (which is about as important as anything could be!)

You don’t love your neighbour when you can find a nice one. You don’t love your neighbour to be thought well of, to be praised for your charity. You don’t love your neighbour to convince yourself that you aren’t such a bad person really. You love your neighbour because you know that God, who is the most important person in all the Universe, loves you and loves them as well. You are told to love them; it may even have a part in God’s plans for you both. So you do it.

But first . .

Procrastination – displacement activity. It’s a wonderful way of avoiding doing what is necessary or important by – doing something else. I suspect most of us have done it, and know a good deal about how it feels. Mark (Mark 9:30-37) tells us that Jesus is trying to teach the disciples about (9.31) his betrayal, death and resurrection.  But it is not going in. Instead, they talk about who is most important. Actually, they argue. I suppose it did have some importance – in a difficult situation, who would be the leader? (But the answer is Jesus).

Instead, this is surely what James was talking about. (You may read James 3:13-4:8 as an additional reading.  This is 3.16: “Where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is also disorder and every kind of evil.” It is a case of fights and quarrels rather than good lives showing good deeds, humility and wisdom.

Jesus needs to make a point, and takes a child. Remember that in New Testament times children were not idolised, spoiled and pampered. They were unimportant. So Jesus teaches that the concern for status, rank and recognition has to go in those who would be his disciples. Their reaction is not recorded. Did they understand? Did they agree? It would be fascinating to know – and would distract us nicely from asking if we have understood, and agreed.

I wonder what you think is the greatest single problem faced by Christians today? Militant atheism, political marginalisation, too little money, too few clergy or too many buildings? I don’t think it is any of these things. I suggest that the greatest problem for Christians today is exactly what the disciples had difficulty with in that reading. Jesus was trying to teach them something important, but they couldn’t hear that, and found other things to argue about. We find it difficult to learn, we easily get distracted and make too much of personalities.

The Church has plenty of people, leaders, money, resources – it is the problem of using them to meet the needs (as God sees them, now). You may find it easier to hear from James, whose first readers may have been tempted to revolution as a means of being most important. James is clear that conflict driven by jealousy or a desire for “position” is out; good deeds and humility are the wise – and Godly – way. Or look again at Jesus, becoming a rather lonely figure as the gospel moves on. He will not be distracted from the road to Jerusalem and the Cross. Of course there are thousands of other things he could do – sort out the discples for a start. But he is clear what is important, he has heard, and will go humbly to do what is needed.

I’d like to do the same, but first . .