Monday, 19 September 2016

For Freedom Christ has set us free

The gospel, good news, is liberating

Religion tells us that we need to prove ourselves to God.
We need to make ourselves acceptable to him.
And we do that by following certain rules, laws.
If we keep them then we are OK.

But the gospel is very different.

It sets us free from the need to prove ourselves to God.
It sets us free from trying to make ourselves acceptable to him.

And that is great news, because we could never prove ourselves to God, and we could never make ourselves acceptable to him.

Alongside the good that we see in each of us, there is also deep corruption, deep rottenness in each one of us. And we find that we are trapped.

Thomas Costain tells the story of a 14th-century duke in what is now Belgium known as Raynald III. Raynald was grossly overweight, and was commonly called by his Latin nickname, Crassus, which means fat.
After a violent quarrel, Raynald's younger brother Edward led a successful revolt against him. Edward captured Raynald, but did not kill him. Instead, he built a room around Raynald in the Nieuwkerk castle and promised him he could regain his title and property as soon as he was able to leave the room. This would not have been difficult for most people, since the room had several windows and a door of near-normal size—none of which were locked or barred. The problem was Raynald's size. To regain his freedom, he needed to lose weight.
But Edward knew his older brother. Each day he sent a variety of delicious foods into the room. Instead of dieting his way out of prison, Raynald grew fatter. When Duke Edward was accused of cruelty, he had a ready answer: "My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so wills." Raynald stayed in that room for 10 years and wasn't released until after Edward died in battle. By then his health was so ruined that he died within a year—a prisoner of his own appetite. [Illustration from PreachingToday]

We may not have that particular issue. But we will have our own battles. Gossip. Pornography or sexual immorality. Alcohol. Desperate need to prove ourselves or to please people. Spending more than we have got. It might be anger, or an inability to forgive.
And we are trapped in our room.

But God in his love sent Jesus, and when he died on the cross, he didn’t simply forgive you, or make the doors a little bigger and tell you to try harder. He knocked down the wall, and he came to you where you are.

And God offers us his love, he offers us his forgiveness, he offers us his Holy Spirit so that we can begin to want to change. Our passage speaks of 'the hope of righteousness' (5.5).

And it is all gift

You don't need to make yourself acceptable to God before you receive this gift.
You don't need to become good enough.
You don't need to know enough.
You don't need to be religious enough.

All you need to do is believe God, to trust him that when Jesus died he knocked down the wall, that he is here with us, and that he has given us his Holy Spirit to live in us

That is what these Galatian Christians had realised.

And it was so liberating.

But now people were coming along and telling them that if they really want to be acceptable to God, if they really want to be full and proper and power filled Christians, then they need to keep the law. They spoke specifically about circumcision, but that was only the start. There were a further 247 demands and 365 prohibitions in the Old Testament law.

And Paul is saying three things to them

1.    You are becoming slaves again. 'Don't you realise, if you accept this false teaching that you must be circumcised, then you must accept all the other laws of the Old Testament|? It is the camel's nose. Why just that one? "I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law" (5.3)

2.    If you do that, and think that God will only be really pleased with you if you keep the law, why did Jesus die? You've stopped putting your trust in what Jesus has done for you and you have started to put your trust in your own ability to keep the law. 'You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace' (5.4)

3.    Why am I going round - getting mocked, arrested, beaten, even stoned - telling people about the death of Jesus on the cross, and getting persecuted for it, if I could tell people that they could get right with God by obeying the law and being good people? People can cope with that message because it means they think they are in control. God becomes the genii in the bottle. If you rub the bottle in the right way, and say the right words, then God gives you what they want. 'Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished' (5.11)

Paul is really quite angry about this.

He is angry because he is being misrepresented. It appears that the false teachers are saying that he himself is telling people they need to be circumcised.
But he is even more angry because it is turning people back into slaves - slaves to the law. So he comes out with this rather undiplomatic language: I wish those who were preaching circumcision would take the knife and castrate themselves (5.12)

How does this apply to us?

It is very easy for us to discover the amazing freedom that Jesus brings, and then slip back into old ways

We have become a Christian. We have received the free gift of forgiveness, of the Holy Spirit. We were trapped in the room, and God knocked the wall down. We’re still just as large, we still have the battle to fight, but now we have realised that we don’t need to try and squeeze through the door to get to Jesus – but that he has come to us.

But, perhaps we go through a sticky patch. We mess up badly, or Jesus seems distant, and then people – like these false teachers in Galatia – come along.
And so we start to think: surely I have got to do something to make God really love me? He can’t love me as I am.

God will only really bless me if I pray in a particular way, or if I fast, or if I work hard enough, or if I tithe, or if I'm baptised as an adult, or if I speak in tongues, or if I please certain people, or if I have a half night or full night of prayer. God will only really bless me if I worship right in the right church in the right way.

I think I have spoken of the time when as a young curate, having experienced the pit and found myself unable to pray (whenever I did pray my head went all whizzy) I suddenly realised that if I never prayed another prayer in my life, God would still love me and would still bless the work. It was so liberating. I had turned prayer into a work. It set me free from this deep burden that I had placed on myself- a burden that was so great it had caused me to crash.

BUT, and there is a big but.

It was the charge that the opponents of Paul were levelling against him:
If you are saying that we are free from the law - then you are encouraging people to live self-centred lives.
Our chap in the room. If Jesus is with him, then why shouldn’t he just continue to eat and eat?

To which Paul's answer in 5.13-15 is that when you welcome Jesus, and he comes to you, God gives you his Holy Spirit.
And the Holy Spirit will begin to change you – from the inside. He will prompt you to live in a new way.
The Holy Spirit will put God’s law into you, so that you will begin to want to live in a new way.
The Holy Spirit will begin to work in you so that you begin to see other people in a new way. And you will want to love and you will begin to love: not in the shallow way that the world loves, but in the deep way of God.

And I have seen that so often.
A person becomes a believer, they put their trust in Jesus, and they begin to change. They have a hunger for God’s word – that wasn’t there before.
Their language, for instance, begins to change.
They begin to want to do something about the deeply ingrained rubbish that is in them. They are probably not going to become perfect overnight – and it may continue to be a struggle for the rest of their lives – but now they want to get involved in the struggle.  
They want to meet with God’s people and to worship

Paul writes, ‘Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (5.14)
And so we begin to love not as a way of making God love us, forgive us or bless us, but as a response to the God who has forgiven us, does love us, who has come to us and who has already blessed us.

And even when the desire is not there, yes we do try to do the right thing as duty, but not in order to make God love us, but because we know that God does love us. And yes, it can be a battle and a struggle – but Paul deals with that in the next few verses

So my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are free. The wall of our prison has been broken down and Jesus has come to us. We are children of God. We don’t need to keep any law (whether it is moral, legal or religious) to get God to love us more. But because we know the love of God, we will want to change and we will want to begin to love.

We are free! Free from the outer law, a law that is imposed on us. Free from the need to prove ourselves to ourselves or to God.

But we are not free from the inner law, the law that God has put in our hearts, and that is the law to love.  

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Why should I love Jesus more than the members of my family?

'Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, and even life itself - cannot be my disciple'. Luke 14.26

That is a hard saying! And I would like us to focus on this verse for a few minutes and to see if we can work out what is going on here.

For most of us, our family is our life. It is our family who give us our name, our values and our identity. Even if we have rebelled against our parents, it is our very act of rebellion against them that has given us our identity: we are not them.  
And it is usually our family who we rely on. If everybody else fails us, we turn to them as our last resort. Think of the prodigal son. He had rejected his father and walked out on him, but he makes the decision to go back to his father when everything else had failed.

So it makes sense for Jesus to link our family and our life. Hating your family and hating your life go quite close together.

So what are we to make of this saying?

I do not think that Jesus is telling us to cut ourselves off from our family

That is important, because some Christians in the past have done that.

There are some very hard sayings about families in the stories of the desert fathers and mothers. There is the story of a mother of two monks who comes begging to see her sons. They refuse to see her. She begins to wail. Another the monks comes to Poemen and says, "What shall I do about your mother? She wants to see you." ‘Ask her’, said Poemen, ‘Do you want to see us in this world or the next?’ She said, ‘If I don’t see you in this world, shall I see you in the next, my sons?’ He said, ‘If you don’t insist on seeing us here, you shall see us there.’ So the woman went away happy, saying, ‘If I shall indeed see you there, I don’t want to see you here.’

That is quite harsh.

And we read of the stories of missionaries even of the last century, who left their wives or children back in the UK, sometimes for many years, because they believed that they had been called to work overseas. And while we are on shaky ground when we pass judgement on the saints of former years who lived in a very different society to the one that we live in today, and while we recognise and honour the enormous sacrifices that they made, I certainly would question people who make those sort of decisions today.

I don't think that Jesus is telling us that for his sake we should abandon our families.

Families are good. They are God given.

And Jesus is clearly not telling us to hate our fathers and mothers, partners and children, brothers and sisters in the way that the world understands hate.
After all, the fourth commandment tells us to honour our father and mother. And Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us, so he would not ask us to do anything less for the members of our own families.

And we need to care for our families.

Jesus specifically rebukes those who use an act of religious duty to avoid giving help to their parents. (Mark 7.9-13). He says to them, 'You give a little bit of your money to the temple as a reason for not supporting your parents in need. That is a very strange way to interpret the word of God'.
And as he hangs on the cross, Jesus thinks of his mother: he asks John to support her as his own mother, and he asks her to care for John as her own son.
Later in the New Testament, Paul, building on what Jesus has taught, rebukes those who do not ensure that their families are provided for. "And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever". (1 Tim 5.8)

So quite clearly we are not allowed to use this scripture as an excuse for running out from our family, or avoiding our very special responsibilities to the members of our family.

So what does it mean?

The commentaries on this passage are helpful.
They point out that the Hebrew writers often used exaggeration to make a point. So Jesus says, "If your eye causes you to sin, gauge it out". That is a very dramatic way of saying 'Guard what you look at'. It is not something that we are to do literally.
And they exaggerate to emphasise a contrast. So, when in the Old Testament, we are told that God loved Jacob but hated Esau, many suggest that we need to interpret these words as saying: 'In comparison to my love for Jacob, my love for Esau is as hate'.
And I suspect that is how we are to read these verses:
'In comparison to your love for me, your love for your family should be as hate. I must come first, before your family and - later in this passage - before your possessions' (Luke 14.33)

That is still pretty radical.

It means that in the end it is not our human family identity that is our true identity.
Yes, I am a Rogers, but of far more importance is the fact that as a Christian I bear the name of Jesus Christ. My identity as a Christian takes precedence over my identity as a Rogers. If Rogers have always done it this way, but God's way is different, then I need to do it God's way.

And it is easier for us having lived in a country which has been steeped with gospel values, but as our society moves away from those values it will become harder. There will be very clear distinctions between what our family does and expects and what Jesus would have us do. And when there are those conflicts, we need to be prepared to follow Jesus and not our family.

There are times when, by becoming a Christian, we are seen to be betraying our family

That is why there is such persecution for people who become Christians in cultures dominated by another belief system. It is not so much the fact that they have become a Christian, but rather they are seen as rejecting their family and their upbringing.
Some of you may know this. A brother or sister, a son or daughter has become a strict Muslim. And you feel, whether it is true or not, that they are rejecting you, and that they are rejecting everything that you have stood for. And you feel betrayed.

Nigel Taylor used to run CYM in Ipswich a number years ago. He told of how his father had said that if he became a Christian, he would be turned out of the house. So when he did make the decision to become a Christian, a few days later he came home to find his suitcase had been packed and put by the front door. He had to leave. He was given a choice: his family or Jesus.

But if it is not as dramatic as that, there will be conflict at times.

It happened with Jesus.
On one occasion he is with his followers, and his family come for him. They have heard people say that he has gone mad, and they want to take him away to look after him - especially when they hear that he is not eating properly - that is a mum for you (Mark 3.19-21)!
And that is when Jesus makes a pretty radical and potentially offensive statement to his followers. They tell him, 'Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother".
Jesus is making it very clear that his biological family do not have the first claim on him.

And there will be conflict, because Jesus challenges the way we do things, and how we see people.
He speaks, a few chapters earlier, of how he has come to bring division: division within families - father against son, son against daughter, mother in law against daughter in law (Luke 13.51-53). 
That division should never begin with the one who has become a Christian. We are told, 'as far as it is up to you, live at peace with all people'. But if those who we love force us to make a decision because we are Christ followers, then Jesus is saying that we have no choice. We need to put him first.

And when Jesus calls us to put him before our families, he is also warning us against treating the members of our family as our final security.
Yes, of course, we turn to them when we are in trouble - but they will never be able to be that ultimate ground of our safety.
As a parent, you long to protect your children from all suffering. But you can’t.
And one day that person in whom you have put your love, your trust, your hope will be taken away from you. 

It is possible to put too much of our identity, hope and trust in another person.
We actually prevent them from being the person who God made them to be because we see them only through our eyes, through our need of them.

Augustine wrote that we should love people 'for the sake of God'.
We should love them not as they relate to us, or as we relate to them, but as they relate to God and as God relates to them.
I remember in Holloway speaking with a single mum who was thinking about becoming a Christian. She was doing what the person who built the tower in Jesus' story did not do. She was trying to work out whether she could afford to follow Jesus. And for her the big stumbling block was whether she could love Jesus more she loved her son. 
She moved away, but when she came back two years later, she was a Christian. She told me how she had begun to realise what Jesus meant about loving him more than her child. Because whereas before she had imposed a burden that was far too great on her child - basically she lived for him, and had put all her hopes in him - she now realised that her child was a gift from God, that he belonged to God, and that it was her privilege and responsibility to love him and bring him up for God. Her son was not in the centre of her life, but her Jesus was.

And it is easy for us to put too much of our dependence on another person - to love them for our own sake, when we are called to love them for their own sake and 'for the sake of God'.

God, in his love for us, placed us in human families. It was his way of providing a system through which we can care for each other and love each other. But human families are provisional.

The bible tells us that when you were baptised, you died to your old way of life. You became a new person and you became a member of a new family. That is why baptism is not a biological family thing. It is fundamentally disruptive of the family. It is about how the person who is baptised becomes a member of a new family, a bigger family, a more important family. And this new family, the family of Father God, with Jesus Christ as the older brother, has become your true family.

It is not an excuse for running away from our earthly family, and from avoiding our God-given responsibilities to the members of our family. But this new family is the family to whom you owe your ultimate allegiance. Your biological family will pass away, but this is the family that will last for ever. 

That is why as Christians we are to love Jesus more than our fathers and mothers, more than our husbands or wives, and more even than our children.