Tag Archives: law

Take the tablets?

What brings us into relationship with God? How do we connect, and eventually get to heaven? There have been, and still are, a great many answers. Some refuse to believe it is possible – yet the interest in the “spiritual” continues. Some rely on drugs or mind-altering techniques – but that lacks reality, and permanence (though the damage can be lasting!). Some insist that matters of the spirit mean getting away from the material, by changing your view of reality through fasting, meditation, chanting etc . .

The most common alternative to Christianity is the idea that if you are good, you will be rewarded, and if good enough, you will make the grade and “pass”. In some ways, this was the Jewish position. The Law told them what was required, so they studied, set up safeguards against breaking it, and thought themselves separate and superior. Wrong, says Paul. (Today we read Romans 4:1-5 and 4:13-17). Good is good, but you will never be good enough for God. No. Christians come to God as never good enough, but trusting – and that trust or faith is the key to finding God.

What do they trust in? Not themselves, their effort or goodness, but God. We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised. Paul argues in Romans 4 that it is not only Jews, who keep the Old Testament Law, who are in a covenant relationship with God. We can see that it would have been important then – as fury with Christians for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism provoked persecution and the division of the two faiths. But does it matter now? or is it of purely historical and specialist interest?

In fact, arguments about the Law are still current and important, though not in a Jewish-Christian setting. It may help to look at what is being said. In Rom 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law (that is, the Old Testament). As chapter 4 starts, he turns to Abraham, who believed God. Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham, childless, believed God when promised that he would have as many descendants as there were stars in the night sky – and Paul makes the point that this is before the giving of the Law at Sinai, and before the rite of circumcision.

“And he believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6

Abraham didn’t win God’s reward by outstanding action, heroism, or moral excellence. It was his trust, and God’s goodness, that brought them together and gave him hope. Unlikely though it may have seemed that an old couple could have a child, he thought the God who said it reliable, and believed.

What caused a fuss in the first century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way through faith/trust. What causes division in the twenty-first century is that faith, rather than achievement, knowledge or experience is the key. That makes all believers equal – equal in finding God through faith, equal in failure to deserve or earn or require his recognition.

Like a Virus?

Jesus lived a very long time ago, in a different country, culture and speaking a different language. How can his life be relevant to us in in the 21st century? In Romans 5, (today we read Romans 5:12-19), Paul contrasts Christ with Adam (even more remote), but would argue that both are still relevant.

“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin”

Rom 5:12.

Whatever you make of the story of Adam’s rebellious disobedience of God’s instructions in the Garden (it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to do what he was told – he wanted to take over God’s role and be in charge!), there is no doubt that the consequence of death and disaster coincide with our experience. Death is something we don’t talk about much, and don’t deal with very well. Wishful thinking abounds as people tell us what they “like to believe”. Yet we all experience temptation and failure – that is, sin – and know the consequences only too easily lead to death (whether our own or someone else’s). It is just as if Adam had released some deadly virus into the world, and we all now suffer because it cannot be contained.

Paul then goes on, in an aside, to talk about “Law”. The 10 commandments were long after Adam, given when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. But they didn’t introduce or invent Sin. The Old Testament law defined sin, and helped people recognise what it was. They knew it was nothing new, even then.

Today, when awareness of truth and right seem less clear, that Law not only helps to explain what God is like, but to show up how different we are, and how much we need help or transformation. Escaping sin has never been a question of just making a bit more effort – or getting old and less energetic!

“But the free gift is not like the trespass” v15 Now we are coming to Jesus. A world stuck in sin leading to death is pretty miserable, but Paul points us to the far greater power of Christ. Adam unleashed a problem – Jesus pours out the solution. The grace of his death is the answer to both sin and death. His sacrifice brings forgiveness to all who will accept it, his resurrection opens the way to eternal life for the faithful.

Paul wants us to have confidence in the effectiveness of what Jesus has done. We know the bad news; however hard we avoid thinking about it, it is part of our experience and the experience of our world.

Are we equally experienced in the good news? Jesus sets us free from sin, and from the effect of death. It is the offer of a totally different life, to be lived in a new way with new power. But it needs accepting and doing.

Preserving Freedom

Paul has argued through Galatians against a group who wanted to impose full Jewish Law and practice on those who became believers in Jesus from outside the Jewish community. He insists that faith, and not obeying the detailed instructions of the Old Testament Law, is what makes a person free and right with God.

It might sound very remote in the twenty first century, if it were not for the difficulty we have today as Christians understanding how Christian life is supposed to work. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Clearly it would be terrible, having escaped from the life of a slave, to be returned to it again. But what is Christian freedom, and how is it to be used, and indeed preserved?

Today’s reading (Galatians 5:1 and 13-25) jumps from that verse to explain the difference between a selfish life, dominated by the indulgence of human appetites, and a free life powered and directed by the Holy Spirit. We have become expert at justifying what we want, having our own way, and imposing on others – yet know that this seldom ends well. What we have to learn is how thankfulness for a life set free can lead us to love and serve, and to cultivate the “fruit of the Spirit”. These are gifts we cannot obtain by self-discipline, but that God will develop in us as we allow them to grow.

Freedom can be lost! When Paul sounds as if he speaks from experience, we can echo his concerns. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. ” This leads back to the selfish life, enslaved by human desires. The alternative? “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

Independent?

Do you like being supervised? I imagine not. It doesn’t really matter whether we are being formally assessed (at work, in a medical test, even in sport), or just have someone looking critically over our shoulder – it makes for stress, if not resentment.

It should not be too difficult to understand Paul (Galatians 3:23-29), when he speaks of the Old Testament Law as a “guardian”. Yes, the Law tells us what God is like, and how our lives should go to fit God’s intentions and our purpose. But like a schoolteacher, it can limit our freedom, and doesn’t actually make us good at learning. We are reminded that children in the first century were sometimes under the control of a slave, who made sure they behaved and did their lessons, even though the slave had no status himself. The slave was hardly a friend, no matter how properly he did his job.

So, Paul suggests, becoming Christians is like gaining the freedom of family members. No longer subject to strict control, we share with other believers the equal status our faith releases. In this letter, Paul has been concerned to reject the demands of some who claimed that non-Jewish converts to Christ had to observe all the Jewish Law and customs. He insists (as did the Council of Jerusalem, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 15) that while Gentile believers in Christ should be concerned to maintain fellowship with Jewish believers, they do not have to live under Jewish regulations.

The freedom of the Christian is still important, and easily lost to judgmental attitudes or old fashioned habits. Yes, we need to understand how our lives are to be like Jesus’, showing the effect of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Old Testament remains important for us to understand God’s interactions and relationships with humans through the ages. But no, we don’t have to follow endless restrictions and traditions. Getting it right is difficult, but important.

Seeing in a new light.

Jesus’ Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43) is a strange story, even when compared with the miracles and unexpected events of the gospel. What does it mean? What difference does it make?

It does highlight the need to read each part of the gospel in context. Not only does this come in the middle of the gospel, It is in a chapter full of change.

The 12 have been sent out 2 by 2 on mission. Coming back, the crowd interrupted their “time off” with Jesus, and he fed 5,000. Then Jesus asks about what people are saying about him, and Peter recognises the Messiah, the promised King sent by God – but immediately Jesus talks, not of majesty, but of suffering and death.

Then comes this mountaintop experience, perhaps throwing a new light on what is happening. Jesus shows the glory of heaven. Moses, representing the Old Testament leaders, and the Law, is present as a witness, and so is Elijah, not just representing the prophets of the Old Testament, but also the forerunner promised in Malachi 4:5-6. They talk of Jesus “departure” – the Greek word is “Exodus” – which he will “bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem”.

Perhaps you see what is happening. Jesus is taking his mission in an unexpected direction. He will deliberately avoid a revolution to try and make him King, and instead offer himself as a sacrifice. Will the disciples understand? – Will we?

Peter is still thrilled by the experience, and he wants to stay. The heavenly voice has a different priority – “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

The journey of faith will test their loyalty. Jesus will go in directions they did not expect – and did not want. But they continued to learn to listen, trust, and follow.

That’s all very well in the first century. We might think we know better, and set off into Lent with the same routines – choosing something to “give up”. But what we need to do, especially at a time of change, is to consider the cost of Jesus’ rescue, and to “spring clean” our spiritual habits to make sure they fit the needs of faith now.

Yes, society is changing, the Church is changing; perhaps it is a time of uncertainty or transition for you, too. So we all need a new vision of Jesus, which give us confidence and the motivation.

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”  – because that is specially important when things are developing rapidly, and may not be as they seem.

At the bottom of the hill, they have to face a failure to heal. The disciples need of Jesus is again clear. They are learning to reflect God’s glory, to work with the Holy Spirit and follow God’s chosen way. But they have not finished learning, and neither have we. So keep close to the Saviour, and keep listening!

Tradition, and instructions.

You wouldn’t dream of making up instructions, and pretending they came from God? Of course you wouldn’t.  There are warnings in scripture about neither adding, or taking away, what is there as instruction (for example Deuteronomy 4:2, another of this Sunday’s readings).  But be careful!  Culture filters our hearing, and is easily confused with God’s teaching.  How good are we at separating our habits, and the generally accepted ideas among the people we know, from the actual instructions from God we find in the Bible?

That is a key question for Christian living, and the answer needs constant checking with scripture, and dialogue with Christians especially those from other cultures. That is really what comes up in the gospel reading, Mark 7:1-23 (or selected verses from that). Jesus, born a Jew, living under Jewish (Old Testament) Law, questions not the law but the tradition around it. The Pharisees had traditions about washing hands and utensils – but its “tradition”, not Law (that is, the instructions in the Old Testament about God’s way for his people), and Jesus won’t confuse them. Evan a good habit can be broken for reason. Criticised for that attitude, he notes how Tradition is used to break the Law as if it were more important than Law – (you may miss out the verses about “Corban”. which explain a “dodge” to avoid supporting a family member (as the Old Testament requires) by declaring the money dedicated to religious service – a “tradition”)  The detail may be a bit remote – but the principle is vital.

Tradition is never as important as God’s instructions. Sometimes the questions our lives, and the lives of our congregations, face do not have clear answers in scripture. (Should I retrain for a new career, marry a certain person, – you know the sort of thing). Tradition may suggest answers, but be clear that “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t enough for a final decision. What you have to do is to keep reading scripture and asking: What does this mean? What should we do? What needs to change, and how?

It won’t all come clear at once (you wouldn’t like it if it did!) but this is the way of Christian disciples – they follow Jesus, make mistakes and accept forgiveness, learn a bit and go on listening and trying. Tradition – yes, it can be a guide, but it needs to be questioned, and held against the standard regularly.

Weird!

Weird! That’s the only word for this story.  (Mark 9:2-9)

Jesus takes three disciples up a mountain – and glows ?!

Yet it is clearly important. All of the first three gospel writers tell it, after Peter’s key recognition of Jesus as Messiah. But even the disciples don’t seem to understand at the time, and we struggle to make sense of it.

I think it helps our focus.  Jesus has done some amazing things – healings and other miracles. His teaching is sometimes puzzling, but popular. The disciples enjoy some of Jesus fame, busy themselves with crowd control, – and haven’t noticed the change that is coming.

Jesus has started to talk about suffering, coming in Jerusalem. His followers seem unable to hear. They are focussed on senior positions with the new King.

Which is what Paul was speaking of in 2 Cor 4:4 “the god of this world has blinded . . to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ”. The Christians gospel is wonderful news, for all sorts of people – and many fail to hear because it does not lead to fame, celebrity, wealth, or simply getting your own way.

For us, like the disciples, freedom and forgiveness seem less than giving love, service and obedience. It is a very normal temptation.

Jesus’ Transfiguration is weird – or, if you prefer, unexpected and unparallelled. He appears in otherworldly light, with the representatives of the Old Testament Law and prophets, to place the Son of God firmly in the sweep of God’s plan. The voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to Him” underlines the point.

And the disciples need to listen – they have much to learn. Jesus chosen path will per, frighten and test them. They have to know He is the one to follow without hesitation.

And so do we! We read this before Lent. If we think of the cost of Christian faith – what it means to take it seriously, and not just go through the motions – we need confidence Jesus knows what He is doing, and what He asks of us.

Perhaps the Transfiguration was deliberately a weird experience – outside all routine. Perhaps only something strange and bizarre would ready them for a Messiah who also chose to accept the role of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.

There is always more to faith than meets the eye, more to learn, and we still need to go on learning.

Good – but not enough!

Nicodemus deserves credit (John 3:1-17).  He comes to Jesus – yes, at night, which might look embarrassed, but also allows him to ask questions freely.  He already has a life of disciplined goodness.  We suspect Pharisees, and some were guilty of pride and religious red tape, but for others the life meant knowing and living the Old Testament Law in detail.  Perhaps most important, he wants to know more.  That is good.

So, why does Jesus ask him such difficult questions?  We might have thought this polite man an ideal disciple – or church member.  But it seems that he won’t do.  Why?  Jesus refers (v13,14) to his ministry and his coming death.  What Nicodemus knows is not enough – for him, or for other good people.  Christian faith depends on what God does and gives – Jesus and his sacrificial death.  There are real benefits in living a good life, following the commandments, but that is incomplete.

Nicodemus goes away puzzled, but doesn’t give up.  He reappears in the pages of the gospel story at John 7:50, and again at John 19:39.  Sometimes the most important changes come “between events”, as the Holy Spirit works.

Our passage hasn’t finished.  v16 is one of the best known in the gospel, but we should read on.  John 3:16-21 goes on to speak of judgement.  This picture does not see God handing out suffering and pain (a deity we would find it hard to worship!)  It seems that Nicodemus was ready to come into the light.  We have to ask if we are also ready to be examined, and perhaps embarrassed, in order to receive the gift.

Is that better?

“Nice people don’t do things like that”.  I wonder how many of us were brought up to avoid the bad manners of childhood with such words – and grew to apply them to adult crimes.  Murder, adultery, lying for advantage are often spoken against.  Most religions forbid such things in one way or another, and the ten commandments of the Old Testament are no exception.  (See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

In today’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) Jesus seems to want more.  He is not content that we should avoid the action, but reaches further for the underlying motive.  Anger, lust, and self-centredness are the problem, whether or not the opportunity for action is present.  The idea that these (and other) attitudes might be replaced by the love, justice and mercy of God is wonderful, and very demanding.

In other places, Jesus will speak words of hope that murder, adultery, fraud and bitterness (as well as their underlying attitudes) are forgivable.  But he will not suggest that the sins can be combined with the holiness of character which is important to God, and to the life of God’s people.  The disciples he gathers will not all be exemplary characters, but cannot be content with their failures. We find hope in the fact that they continue to need grace and forgiveness, if the patience needed by the community is more difficult.

So how do we hear Jesus words?  We need to deal with our anger and disrespect of other people.  It doesn’t only become offensive if we are able to hurt them physically – the attitude is already a falling short of God’s standard – a sin.  Similarly with dishonorable relationships, whether unfaithful, or simply manipulative; and words which do not tell the truth in love (as in Ephesians 4:14-16).  This is something we shall fail constantly.  Yet this standard helps us remember the difference for those of different family background and life experience.  Christians are not called to be “nice”, but to become like God in our attitudes to all sorts of people and situations.

Rotten?

We seem to find it easy to point out what is going wrong.  Whether it is in the wider world, or locally to us, we know what we don’t like.  We complain, and gather people who make the same sort of complaints, but don’t often do anything positive.

Jesus will not let us get away with that.  “You are the salt of the earth . .” he says at the beginning of today’s gospel (Matthew 5:13-20).  Salt was vital when it preserved food – and Christians are still meant to stop things going rotten. They should, even in small amounts, prevent corruption and decay.  Of course salt is less popular in diets now, as Christian ideas seem to be in some parts of society.  We might want to moan about the cost – in broken families, or lives endangered by addictions, but again, Jesus won’t encourage moaning.  If we are to be salt, we have to preserve what is good.

“You are the light of the world . . ”  It is so much easier to criticise than to live a better way.  But that is our calling.  Be light, show the way, bring hope – not to make a personal reputation or build an ego, but to bring glory to God.  This is not easy reading, but an invitation to be part of the solution.

God has been working on that solution for a long time.  Jesus will build on Old Testament Law and prophecy – but will avoid some of the tradition that has build up around religion.  He is more faithful to God and the promises, yet heavily critical of those confident of their own goodness.  How can we hope to do better than those known for their devotion to “professional religion”? Only by knowing our need of forgiveness and grace.  “Religious observance” is not enough.  We have to let God do what we cannot – forgive, transform our motivation, make us part of the family together bringing light and hope.