Tag Archives: obedience

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.

Wisdom for Christians

If you are continuing the reading of Ephesians this week (with Ephesians 5:15-20 – though it is interesting to see that the lectionary misses out sections on avoiding immorality and on the mutual submission of husband and wife!), Paul has some practical wisdom. We need it, because now as then there are plenty of ways to get life wrong. You know that – don’t worry about the details, and don’t waste time pointing at the people who have made a mess of things. Get it right, and then you can offer encouragement; live wisely, using your opportunities, and you will be an advertisement, and be in a secure place to offer help and support.

It’s not just a question of keeping out of trouble. What does God want you to do? Sometimes that involves patience, and waiting which is difficult. Often it involves being of service – something undervalued. Always it involves obedience; and that is never easy. Life as a Christian is not just up to you; it is for God to direct you to where you may be useful.

So we need to be filled, not with the latest alcopop, but with God’s spirit. There is some similarity – remember how the onlookers on the day of Pentecost said the Spirit-filled disciples were drunk? They were confident, joyful, unafraid – and sober. I suspect that many of those who cannot party without large quantities of alcohol are actually looking for the freedom and joy which comes from another Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given to Christians – but not in bottles, and not automatically. We need to ask, and be ready to receive him, and to go on doing that.

Verses 19,20 remind us that early Christian worship involved the Psalms of the Old Testament, and the hymns and songs of the New Testament and later. And why? So that

  • the congregation was instructed
  • God was praised (and heard to be, by overhearers)
  • and life lived with thankfulness to God.

Are we doing that? It will be good to return to singing together again in Church soon – but remember you need to sing (loud enough to be heard, soft enough to hear), and to sing gladly and confidently. But even without song, how are we to live as Christians?

  • Wisely, in times when it is easy to go wrong;
  • Looking for what God is calling us to do, relying on the Spirit’s power and guidance,
  • and with thanksgiving, in music, and in daily life – living it as we sing it, with a bit of energy and some confidence, even when we have to work at both.

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.

Do we need a Priest?

If you follow that calendar, this is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and thoughts turn to Jesus death. But how are we to understand the Cross, the whole strange process of Jesus going willingly to death? The problem is that it is unique. It is much easier to explain things that repeat, especially when they are familiar. The New Testament uses various complementary descriptions, each important, but part of the whole truth.

So today, one of those descriptions of what is happening in and through Jesus death is from the letter to Hebrews. It centres around the idea of High Priest – familiar to Jewish first Century Christians, and not entirely foreign to us. We read Hebrews 5:1-10, which explains three things about a High Priest, and shows how they fit Jesus (and him better than others!)

The third thing Hebrews says (you’ll understand my order in a minute) from Hebrews 5:4-6: A High Priest is not self-appointed! (You can guess why!). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (as a descendant of David), not the priestly tribe of Levi – so how can he be a priest? Because he is not only recognised as Son of God (Psalm 2:7 is quoted at his Baptism and Transfiguration), but also by Psalm 110:4 as a priest for ever (Hebrews 5:6) in the order of Melchizedek.

The second thing Hebrews says 5:2,3: any earthly High Priest was weak, sympathising with sinners and offering sacrifice for them and for himself. 5:8 notes that, while sinless Jesus needs no sacrifice for himself, his earthly life shows suffering and obedience. Once again, Jesus is qualified for this role in a way we can appreciate and be grateful for.

Our third point, Hebrews first (5:1): a High Priest is chosen as an intermediary between God and humans. The Jewish High Priest offered sacrifice, in a daily and annual cycle. (Hebrews will focus on the ritual from Leviticus 16, for the Day of Atonement, but the detail is not vital). Jesus offers a perfect sacrifice – himself – once for all time. 5:9,10 – the source of eternal salvation. He bridges the gap, and unlike the generations of Temple priests, permanently. This is why some Christians dislike “priest” as a title for minister – Jesus is the High Priest for ever, and we shouldn’t confuse the roles.

How are we to understand the Cross, the death of Jesus? Following the New Testament in its variety of pictures and explanations. One of those is Jesus as High Priest. He is appointed by God, familiar and sympathetic with our life and problems, and by a unique act effective for ever in bringing us to God. I hope you begin to understand why the death of an innocent man by torture came to be the centre of Good News.

Normal

You might think it strange that the Sunday after Christmas we read of Jesus as a 12 year old. (Luke 2:41-52), but it makes clear that Christmas is no “baby story”. The baby grows to a normal youngster, here on the edge of adult status.

There is a play on words when Mary and Joseph catch up with Jesus in the temple. His mother speaks of her anxious search with “your father” – as Joseph was in many ways. Yet Jesus speaks of “my father’s house”, meaning the temple, and God. Jesus has come to know who he is, and to recognise God for himself. It does not mean that he rejects his human family, nor the need for obedience to them. Nor was he teaching in the temple – he was listening, though his questions were full of insight.

This is our only glimpse of the story between the visit of the Wise Men and the start of Jesus’ public ministry. It shows a real child, though one in whom there is a growing understanding of a special status and purpose. It reminds us that the one who comes into our world is God, and also fully human.

It is also important in reminding us that the Son of God has, in his perfect humanity, to be obedient, and submit to those who do not understand as he does. If he was hurt by the rubuke and frustrated by their lack of understanding, it is not made the excuse for an argument, still less for abandoning his family. It is not always easy for people who understand to do that.

Obedience

One of the issues not often talked about in Christian discussion is obedience. Who is Jesus, that I should obey!?

The story of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:4-11) gives us some answers. This is the start of the Epiphany season – looking at how Jesus was “shown” to the world: first the Wise Men, then Jesus’ baptism, later miracles, healings, calling disciples . . But let’s go back to obedience. A lot of people will do some religious things – they don’t mind a bit of church, moral teaching, things to think about. That’s all very well for a start, but it isn’t Christian commitment, because that’s about obeying Christ. (Yes, I know there are questions about how your orders are delivered, but the first issue is whether you are going to obey orders, or simply think about them).

What makes you – what would make you – pledge obedience to anyone? For me, it would have to be someone very special, and someone who didn’t have a big head, or a threatening manner, or an urge to manipulate me for his/her profit . .   So look at what Mark tells us about the start of Jesus ministry. Does he burst onto the scene and say “I’m the greatest” “You’ve must look at me, take notice of me, do what I tell you!” – No, he doesn’t. Does he come and say “Follow me or go to hell” “I’m the only one who can save you from eternal punishment” ? No again.

Mark tells us how it starts (missing out the childhood bits). It starts with a messenger of God, preaching in the desert places – and it isn’t Jesus. Only when John has set the scene does Jesus appear. And what happens then? Jesus joins the movement that has already been started. He is baptised, showing his acceptance of what John has been doing, recognising that God is behind it.

And that’s the point. Just as John wasn’t out to make a reputation, so Jesus is not concerned with his “career development” and his “rating in the polls”. He is about what God is doing, and he knows what it means to obey. That’s very important.

If you have any doubt, see how, after he is baptised, (and has the dove and the heavenly voice), he follows the direction of the holy Spirit and goes off into the desert to be tempted / tested. Nobody’s idea of a fun time, no holiday, but Jesus isn’t committed to having fun. He is committed to doing what God wants, even needs, doing. He obeys

What would it take to make you pledge obedience, not just interest, and being influenced, and wanting to hear more. But – obedience? Would it be a saviour who is able to join what someone else has started, who takes orders himself (even when it means struggle and difficulty). Would it be Jesus, who is able to command your life – time, money, relationships, job, spare time activity?  Perhaps you are already there, and just value the reminder. Perhaps you haven’t thought of it like that, and need to look again at this saviour who is being shown to the world. Do – he bears a close examination. But have no doubt that what he asks of you is nothing less than the committed, obedient service – that he himself gave.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is not about self-advertisement or super-stardom. It shows even Jesus being obedient, and so calling for our loyalty.

Forgive – again, and again

(The passage Matthew 18:21-25 is featured in the “Giving in Grace” programme: see http://www.givingingrace.org/Preach-Matthew! and the preaching notes http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf as well as Dr Jane Williams Sermon Reflections at http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

Peter is a good man; in Matthew 18:21-35 he has listened to Jesus, he is committed to him as his disciple, and he realises that forgiveness is important. But he wants to get it right, so he asks a question – a good idea!  He doesn’t ask “Do I have to?”, but he knows its difficult and – he wonders “How many times?” Jesus would be generous about things like that – make a suggestion – make it big. Seven? bit much, but a perfect number – surely that’s enough?

“Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven,”
but don’t get this wrong, Peter, you’ve got to see it like this. And so Jesus tells the story. The story is about a man who owes millions, and his helpless plight draws the pity of his creditor, who lets him off. [Note, by the way, that this is not pretending he wasn’t in debt – he admits it]

What about you – do you have anything that needs forgiving?
Let me see – I did lose my temper last week, and I was late taking my library book back, and I was a bit greedy ..
Get real!
I asked if you had anything that needed forgiving, and that’s not it!
You’re selfish. The one thing you’ll protect at all costs – is you. You’re cruel – maybe you wouldn’t hurt a fly, but what you’ve said about people, what you imagined doing to the bully, the way you’ve treated your rivals.
God made you, gave you life, – and you feel good if you give him a thought for an hour or two a month; you’re not even that fit.

OK, enough, this isn’t meant to make you feel bad – and you need to provide your own answers. But take it from me, you have plenty that needs forgiving, and it isn’t the trivia, it’s the real things you prefer not to think about – great scars of anger, resentment, and refusal to serve & obey.

Where were we? Oh yes, “Do I have to forgive?”
Jesus story makes us annoyed with the man, forgiven so much, who can’t pass on the blessing. Perhaps he’s shaken by the experience, perhaps he want’s to pretend it didn’t really happen.
Do you know people like that? “I know I’m not perfect, of course, but (BUT), compared with them, or them, or the people you read about . .

Get real! Don’t ever go there!
What Jesus explains to Peter is that forgiveness is not about the irritation of people who annoy us, rather it is about seeing other people as God sees us. We’re hopeless, but he won’t give up.  We’re stuck in a selfish, violent, self-pitying hell, until he opens the way to heaven and helps us on the way.  We are foul (if disguised) until he starts cleaning.  We depend on a God who knows all this, and loves and acts to help.

OK! Peter, Andrew, anyone else listening – how should a person like that deal with other people they find less than perfect? Don’t count to 491 and let them have it.  Count to heaven, and let them have that.

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.