Looking Beyond Ourselves

‘We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them; and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow; similarly, when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in their turn are rooms we hep to fill.’

C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 (30 November 1954)

Freedom in the Holy Spirit (a sermon on Galatians 5.1, 13-25)

Some of you here today are old enough to remember a song that began with these lines:

I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In an octopus’ garden in the shade.

And then a bit later on in the song came these lines which sum up so much of what the sixties were all about:

We would be so happy, you and me,
With no one there to tell us what to do.

‘No one there to tell us what to do’! What a congenial line for our modern ideas about freedom. Slavery means having to do what someone else tells you. Freedom means being able to do exactly what you want. This was the idea that fired up the sixties generation. Cast off the restrains of the past! No one gets to define you except you! Make your own choices, follow your feelings, follow your heart.

Of course, that didn’t always go well for people, even in the sixties. Another very famous song from that era includes the line ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ That songwriter was a little soured on the ideals of the counter-culture, I think! A lot of people who cast off all constraints and did whatever their instincts told them discovered after a while that instincts can make a pretty tyrannical slave-driver. People schooled in the ways of unbridled self-indulgence too often ended up in chronic substance abuse and addiction, and some of the wreckage from that is with us to this day.

So what actually is freedom? Freedom from what? Freedom forwhat? And how do we achieve it? What does the New Testament have to say about freedom, and how we can experience it?

To answer this question, I want to talk to you today about four words and what we mean by them. You can find them all in the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we read this morning. The four words are ‘freedom’, ‘flesh’, ‘law’, and ‘Spirit’.

So let’s kick things off with the word ‘freedom’. In Galatians 5:1 Paul says, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’

Paul didn’t come up with this idea of Christian freedom by himself; he got it from the teaching of Jesus. In John chapter 8 Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (v.31). His hearers are confused; they’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so what can Jesus mean by “You will be made free”? Jesus explains:

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (vv.34-36).

So now we can see what we need to be set free from. Jesus wasn’t talking about a literal slavery with a human slave-owner. He was talking about the inner slavery we experience when we’re under the power of sin. Sin can exert a powerful control over us; we like to think we’re free, but along comes temptation, and with hardly any struggle at all, we give in to it. We get into the habitof giving in to it. Habits are like deep ruts worn in our brains, and every time we travel those ruts, we make them deeper. Once made, they’re very hard to break. Sin takes advantage of that, and it makes us slaves.

I need to say again that I’m not just talking about obvious, spectacular sins like murder or theft or adultery or anything like that. Sin is primarily selfishness or self-centredness. Instead of making God the centre of our lives, we claim that spot for ourselves. But the trouble is, we aren’t very good at ruling our own lives. We have the human propensity to mess things up. We spoil relationships, we spoil good intentions and shining dreams, we mess things up for others and for ourselves. Human history is a long, sad record of how good, well-meaning people screwed things up, for themselves and for others, over and over again.

The word Paul uses for this tendency is ‘the flesh.’ When he uses that phrase, he doesn’t mean what we mean today by the old-fashioned phrase ‘sins of the flesh’. That’s clear in the list he gives in our reading from Galatians; some of the sins he mentions are connected with the body, and they include sexual sins, but some of them are to do with our inner attitudes, too. The list is found in verses 19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

It’s obvious that if we live lives like that, real human community is going to be impossible for us, because human community depends on a willingness to put others ahead of ourselves. And that’s why the Octopus’ Garden definition of freedom will never work. “We would be so happy, you and me, with no one there to tell us what to do.” Well, that sounds fine, but what if what I want to do infringes on the well-being of others? Human history gives us the answer to that question, and maybe our own history does, too. Lasting relationships can’t be built on a foundation of selfishness and self-centredness.

How do we respond to this? How can we be set free from the power of the flesh so we can experience true freedom? Jewish people in the time of Paul would have had a ready answer to that question: we’re set free by obedience to the Law of Moses, which was given by God on Mount Sinai to guide the life of his people.

The Law of Moses included not only the Ten Commandments and other moral laws, but also detailed instructions about how they were to worship God. They were to circumcise their sons as a sign that they were part of God’s people. They were to keep the sabbath day and do no work on it, and observe all the special holy days in the Jewish calendar. They were to stay away from unclean food—there was a great long list of all the foods considered ‘unclean’—and cook the clean food in specific ways, being especially careful not to eat meat with any blood in it. They were to offer all the prescribed sacrifices of animals and grains. And so the list went on.

In the time of Jesus some people had become very legalistic about this. The Pharisees believed that if all Israel obeyed the Law perfectly, God would reward them by sending the Messiah to set his people free. So they worked hard to strictly enforce the Law. And it is hard work! There are 613 commands in the Law of Moses; it’s hard enough to remember them all, let alone obey them!

Paul was convinced that this was a dead end. It wasn’t that the Law was a bad idea; it was just that the flesh was so powerful that it made it impossible for people to obey the Law perfectly. You and I have experienced this; we probably experience it every day. We start the day with good intentions, but it doesn’t take us long to mess up. No external Law can make us good; we need internal change for that to happen.

Today there are religious people who forget about that, and become legalists. Some of them are moral legalists: they try to live up to strict standards—usually about sex—and look down on others who don’t measure up. Actually, deep down inside they know they’re not measuring up too, and this terrifies them. Their idea of God is the angry schoolteacher with the big stick, standing over them, waiting to punish them for every single failure. God is a vindictive perfectionist.

Some religious people are ritual legalists. In Paul’s day they were sticklers for circumcision and keeping the sabbath and the food laws and observing all the prescribed rituals of Judaism. And today people can be obsessed with how exactly to follow the church year and the details of liturgy and worship, and neglect the more important parts of the teaching of Jesus.

Let’s step back for a minute. We’ve seen that freedom is what God made us for, but that freedom has been severely impacted by what Paul calls ‘the flesh’—our human propensity to mess things up. Some people try to address this issue through legalism: just give me some commandments to obey, and I’ll work hard, grit my teeth, pull myself up by my own collar, and make myself a better person! ‘Good luck with that!’ says Paul. ‘I tried that, and it didn’t work!’ So what’s the answer?

Paul does two things here: he clarifies the goal, and he tells us how to reach it.

In verses 13-14 he says, ‘For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ This is what we were designed for: to love one another, not just a feeling, but a decision to do good for others, to serve others, to be a blessing to others, whether we feel like it or not, whether they deserve it or not.

This is what we were designed for. A railway train is never more free than when it’s running on tracks. That’s what it was designed for, so in running on tracks it’s being true to its own nature. If the train had free will, it might get frustrated by this and decide to attempt to jump the tracks and run across a field. But as soon as it tried that, we know what would happen! A train wasn’t designed to run across a field. Freedom is doing what you were designed for, living in harmony with the nature God gave you.

So we will find true freedom by giving ourselves to others in love. But the flesh doesn’t like this. The flesh is selfish and self-centred, and we’ve discovered just how strong it is. How do we overcome it? Paul give us the answer: God helps us overcome the power of the flesh by giving us access to a greater power, the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. Look at verses 22-25:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the one who breathes God’s life into us. In John chapter 3 Jesus tells us that we are born again by water and by the Spirit. We can’t control the Spirit, Jesus says: the wind blows where it will, and that’s the way it is with the Spirit of God. But you can pray for the gift of the Spirit, and God loves to give that gift. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit came on the church with power; Jesus called it being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’. The same experience appears several times in the pages of the book of Acts, and in his letters Paul encourages us to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Jesus says, “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11.13)

So we need to pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we then need to ‘live by the Spirit’. I actually love the way the NIV translates verse 25 of today’s reading: ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ And if we do that, the Holy Spirit will gradually grow in us the fruit of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (vv.22-23).

But he won’t do this by magic. He’ll do it in the school of hard knocks. Let me tell you how this works. You’re driving home from work, and you find yourself stuck in heavy traffic. The flesh gets upset; all those drivers are in my way! How dare they slow me down! So when we live by the flesh, we’re going to get angry and swear at them. We know the Law of Moses doesn’t approve, but the Law’s no help in restraining our bad temper.

So what do we do, as Spirit-filled Christians? We pray that God will fill us with the Holy Spirit and help us be patient, and then we fix our minds on God and take advantage of the opportunity for a bit of enforced leisure time! Maybe the Spirit whispers in our ear, “Hey, you’re always saying you don’t have enough time to pray. Well, you’ve got a few minutes here, and God’s listening!” And as we keep in step with the Spirit, day in and day out, we find the Spirit growing in us his fruit of patience. That’s how it works.

Today we baptize Malachi and Josephine, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will bring them to new birth in the family of God and mark them as God’s children. We pray that the Holy Spirit will fill them and help them grow as followers of Jesus. When they face struggles and difficulties, we pray that the Holy Spirit will guide them and help them become more like Jesus day by day. We pray that the Spirit will teach them that being a Christian isn’t just about obeying rules and hoping we’ve done enough to avoid God’s punishment. The Christian life is about having the breath of God in us, the Spirit of God, the power greater than ourselves and greater than the flesh. In John’s Gospel Jesus breathes on his disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Today, we pray that he will breathe on Malachi and Josephine, not just now, but every day as they grow and learn to follow Jesus.

But what about us? Are we living in that freedom that Jesus promised us? This is the reason we became Christians. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ says Paul in verse 1. So let’s pray every day for the Holy Spirit to fill us. Let’s turn to him for help when we struggle with our human propensity to mess things up. Let’s ask him to grow his fruit in us and then co-operate with him as he answers that prayer. And as we do this we’ll experience a growing sense of true freedom: not freedom to do whatever we want, but freedom to do what we were designed to do—to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. May this be so for you and me as we keep in step with the Spirit.

Wisdom

‘The child (Jesus) grew big and strong and full of wisdom; and God’s favour was upon him.’ (Luke 2.36 REB)

‘As Jesus grew he advanced in wisdom and in favour with God and men.’ (Luke 2.52 REB)

As I get older, I find that wisdom is a gift I prize more and more highly. Wisdom means knowing how to live and what to do in all the situations life throws at us. Heavenly wisdom is informed and shaped by faith in God and God’s will for us. Several Old Testament texts tell us that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (fear, not in the sense of terror, but in the sense of a proper awe and reverence for God as our Creator).

Lord Jesus, as you were guided by your Father, so guide us today in the way of wisdom. Amen.

Godly Sorrow

Seven-and-Neelix-seven-of-nine-30912665-500-382For your Monday morning edification: pastoral theology with Seven of Nine. (‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Season 6 Episode 14 ‘Memorial”)

NEELIX: Seven? When you were a Borg, you were involved in some unpleasant activities.

SEVEN: I helped to assimilate millions.

NEELIX: I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever feel shame about what you did?

SEVEN: Frequently.

NEELIX: How to you manage to keep going, knowing that you’ve done such horrible things?

SEVEN: I have no choice.

NEELIX: Guilt is irrelevant?

SEVEN: On the contrary. My feelings of remorse help me remember what I did, and prevent me from taking similar actions in the future. Guilt can be a difficult, but useful, emotion.

I have been reflecting on this dialogue ever since Marci and I watched it on Saturday night. I have thought for a long time that much popular Christian spirituality has been heavily influenced by pop psychology from the sixties, that sees guilt as entirely negative. And indeed false guilt can be negative and manipulative. But not all guilt is false. Paul talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. I should not try to escape from that guilt. I should listen to it, and fix what needs to be fixed.

Listen to Jesus (a sermon on Mark 9:2-9)

I want to begin my sermon today by asking you this question: who do you listen to? Why do you listen to them? And what might cause you to stop listening to them?

Currently, a lot of people are listening to Donald J. Trump. I checked on Twitter and it says he has 47.5 million people following him. Of course, not all of them are actually listening to him, in the sense of seeing him as a reliable guide; in fact, I’d guess that a good number of those people are doing quite the opposite; they’re following his every tweet so they can catch him out when he says ridiculous things. But nevertheless, 47.5 million is a lot of people. It’s a lot more than the people Trump himself is listening to. Do you know how many people he follows on Twitter? Forty-five!

Sometimes we listen to people we’d be well-advised not to take too seriously, and sometimes we listen to people for the wrong reasons. But most of us have also made some very good choices about who we listen to. We’ve got friends we respect and trust, and we know they’ll give us good and thoughtful advice. We’d got spiritual leaders and mentors, maybe some favourite writers who have guided us well in the past. When we’re asking big questions about the direction we’re taking in our lives, it’s natural that we should consult them. Two of the authors I really look up to and respect are C.S. Lewis and Eugene Peterson; I don’t agree with them on absolutely everything, but I see them as wise and reliable spiritual guides and I take their advice very, very seriously.

In the time of Jesus, it would have been natural for Peter and James and John to look on Moses and Elijah in this way. Moses was the great founding leader of the nation of Israel. Moses was the one who had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through their forty-year desert pilgrimage to the edge of their promised land. God had spoken to the Israelites through him, and through him had come the Torah, the Law, which later grew into what are now sometimes called the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – which are pretty much the constitution of the people of Israel. It would be very hard for the first disciples of Jesus to imagine that anyone could be greater than Moses.

Elijah came hundreds of years later; he was the first great prophet of the kingdom of Israel. He was the one who stood up against the wicked Queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab and all the prophets of the false god Baal. Many prophets had since followed in Elijah’s footsteps but he was widely regarded in the time of Jesus as the greatest of the prophets, and people said that before the Day of the Lord came God would send Elijah back to them again. So yes: he was right up there with Moses. It would be natural for people to ‘listen to him’.

That’s part of the background to our gospel reading today. But we also need to read it in context of the passage that comes immediately before it. In the first sentence of today’s gospel Mark directs us back to what came before; he says, ‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves’ (Mark 9:2). Mark very rarely gives us time references in his gospel, and so when he does, we can be sure they’re significant. So the first question we should ask ourselves is ‘six days after what?’ The obvious answer is, six days after the events of the previous passage.

In Mark 8:27 – 9:1, we have a body of teaching that Jesus gives his disciples near the town of Caesarea Philippi. It begins with him asking the question, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You’re the Messiah” – in other words, “You’re the King God has sent to set us free, the one like David, the one who will make our nation great again”.

In the tradition of the day, the coming Messiah was seen as a glorious figure, a conquering hero like David. But what Jesus says next completely rewrites that script. He says that the Son of Man – another title for the Messiah – must suffer and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then after three days rise again. Peter, the very one who has just had a moment of revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus in his turn rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” he says, “for your mind is on human things, not the things of God”. He then calls the crowd and his disciples together and says, “If any want to be my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. If anyone tries to hang onto their life, they’ll lose it, but if they give it up for me and the gospel, they’ll save it”.

This is a hard word, and obviously causes Peter to rethink whether or not he wants to ‘listen to Jesus’. I think today we often misunderstand this passage. We think that ‘taking up the cross’ refers to going through suffering in general, so whatever my suffering might be, that’s my cross: it could be my difficult friend, my incurable illness, or even my domineering mother-in-law!

But that’s not what it meant in the time of Jesus. A person carrying a cross was a person who was going out to be crucified, and crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans used for rebels against the empire. Jesus was saying to his disciples, “I know you think I’m going to conquer the Romans, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Romans are going to conquer me! And if you want to follow me, you’ve got to be prepared be seen as a dangerous rebel, and to carry the cross as I’m going to carry it, and let the Romans conquer you as well!” In other words, instead of killing his enemies, Jesus was going to love his enemies to the point of death, and he was calling his disciples to walk the same road with him.

So this is the background to today’s passage. Can you imagine the confusion in the minds of the disciples? They’ve gradually come to understand that Jesus is more than just a wise human teacher or a prophet; he’s the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But now he seems to them to be taking a disastrous course. How could he be the Messiah if he was planning to be killed by his enemies? It couldn’t possibly be true. But if he was the Messiah, could he be wrong about this? Well, maybe he wasn’t the Messiah after all? Should they be listening to a man who might be a false Messiah? What should they do?

So now Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. When they reached the top, Jesus’ appearance was transformed, or transfigured, before them: his clothes, like Moses’ face, became dazzling bright – Mark adds the little detail that it was ‘brighter than any laundry you can imagine could ever bleach them!’ And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared there, talking with Jesus.

The disciples, of course, were terrified, as you would be if you saw a friend of yours suddenly transformed into a figure of dazzling light and talking with two people you knew to be dead! Peter blurted out the first thing that came into his mind: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” Mark comments that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’.

And then comes another Old Testament resonance. In the story of Moses going up the mountain to meet God, God himself came down on the mountain in a cloud; later, when God led his people through the desert to the promised land, we read that he travelled with them as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’. Now the cloud comes down over the three figures, including the one that looks like a pillar of fire, and they hear a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the cloud fades away, and the disciples see that Moses and Elijah are gone, and only Jesus is there with them.

So what did these three disciples get out of this amazing experience? And what is Mark trying to tell his readers?

Many scholars believe that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome, in the mid-sixties of the first century A.D. During that time Nero was the Roman emperor, and he was the one who launched the first great persecution of Christians. It happened after the great fire of Rome; the rumour went around that Nero had started the fire for his own amusement, and he needed a convenient scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians. “You know those Christians”, he said; “They’re always telling us that the world is going to end in fire! They’re the ones who did it!” And so began a terrible time for the church in Rome. Christians were hung on poles, covered in pitch and set on fire as torches to light Nero’s processions. They were crucified, as Jesus had been crucified. They were thrown into the arena to be torn apart by lions. It seems likely that Peter and Paul both died in this persecution.

Mark wrote his gospel in the context of this time of great suffering. Part of his job in writing the story of Jesus must have been to make sense of what the Christians were going through. We can be sure that many of them were tempted to lose their faith. Why was God letting the Romans do this to them? Was Jesus really Lord, or was he powerless to help them? And shouldn’t they take up the sword and defend themselves?

You can be sure that when Mark reminded his first readers of the words of Jesus about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus, he had their suffering in mind. He knew that many of them were in danger of losing their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. He was reminding them that Jesus walked the way of the Cross, the way of loving your enemies, and he had called his followers to do the same thing, because we believe in a God who loves his enemies and causes the sun and rain to fall on the good and bad alike.

So what is this story teaching us about who Jesus is, and what he is asking of us who follow him?

Here we have Moses and Elijah, these two revered figures from Israel’s past, standing on the mountain with Jesus. These disciples loved their Master, but I’m pretty sure that until now it had never entered their mind that he could possibly be greater than Moses and Elijah. To put it another way, they would not have expected the voice from heaven to say, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, but rather, ‘Here are the Law and the Prophets; listen to them!’

Nonetheless, the voice from heaven points not to Moses and Elijah, but to Jesus. Mark wants us to understand that he is the one the Law and the Prophets have been pointing to. In his life and teaching he fulfils the Law, and the Prophets foretold his coming. The Old Testament scriptures told the story of God’s people, and he is the climax the story has been leading to. So honour Moses and Elijah, yes, and the scriptures they represent, but ‘listen to him’ – listen to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

We Christians believe that Jesus is not just one great religious leader among many. We believe that he is the incarnate Son of God – that in him God has come among us in a unique way. We don’t believe that every other religious figure in the world is wrong about everything – in fact, we believe that God has spoken in many and various ways to people down through the ages. But we do believe that because Jesus is the unique Son of God, he is God’s highest and most accurate Word to us. Above all other, we should ‘Listen to him’.

We believe this in theory, but here’s the million-dollar question: Do we in fact ‘listen to him’?

For us today, we don’t very often hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us in an audible way. A few individuals do have this experience, and I’m sure it’s a very wonderful thing, but most of us don’t. Some people find that a problem. I had a woman ask me once, “So now I’ve given my life to Jesus, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do next!”

Fortunately for us, ninety percent of the will of God for us is the same for everyone. Jesus has come among us and spoken his word. He’s explained the Old Testament scriptures to us and applied them to our lives. He’s given us a clear picture of what God is like, and he’s also given us a clear picture of God’s will for us as human beings.

You don’t need me to tell you what that’s all about; you hear the gospels read every week, and I hope you read them for yourselves too. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, to forgive those who sin against us, even as much as seventy times seven. He told us not to accumulate possessions but to live simply and give to the poor. He told us that when we have something against a brother or sister we’re not to gossip about them but to go straight to them and talk it over. He told us that when we give a dinner party we shouldn’t only invite our friends and rich neighbours, but the poor and needy as well.

And it’s not just Jesus’ words; it’s his actions as well. The Book of Common Prayer tells us to bring the ‘teaching and example of Christ into our everyday life’. I think about the way he treated women and children as his equals. I think about the way he ignored barriers telling him who he should spend time with and who he shouldn’t. I think about the way he made prayer the centre of his life, sometimes even taking whole nights in prayer with his heavenly Father, and being willing to go on long fasts as he as seeking God’s guidance.

My friends, I don’t need a special, private word from Jesus telling me what to do. I could spend the rest of my life working on the things he’s already told us, and never get to the end of it!

I must admit – because I’m a sinner like anyone else – that there are times when I’m tempted to stop listening to Jesus. If you have two coats, give one of them away to someone who doesn’t have one. Does that apply to my two cars? My two very nice guitars? And how do I sell my possessions and give to the poor in a freezing cold province like Alberta? So it’s not always easy to know how to apply Jesus’ teaching, and this is where we really do need to pray and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit – which will often come as we talk these things out together.

This Lent we’re going to try very hard to listen to Jesus as a parish. I’ve sent out a list of Bible readings, five days a week, that will take us through the Gospel of Mark in the season of Lent and the first part of Easter. Along with the list of readings, I’ve given some suggestions as to how we might spend a daily time of Bible reading in such a way that we don’t just skim through the text, but really take time to listen to what God might be saying to us in it. I hope that, if you don’t already have a daily discipline of Bible reading, you might join us in this journey through Mark. If your email address is on our parish list you would have received the list of readings a few days ago, and there are some paper copies on the table in the foyer.

‘Listen to him’. But sometimes, sadly, it’s true that (in the words of Paul Simon) ‘A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’. I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that there are times when I’ve treated the words of Jesus in that way: I’ve heard what I wanted to hear and disregarded the rest.

So this Lent, I’m going to try to remind myself who Jesus is: ‘the word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). I’m going to ask him to help me really listen to him, with my whole heart, and to put into practice the things that I hear. I hope you’ll do the same.

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Low-Key Religious Experience

1Religious experience doesn’t have to be dramatic to change your life. I know that, because my life was changed by a low-key religious experience.

I gave my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. This was part of a series of events that had been going on for some time.

I had been confirmed a year or so beforehand. Some of the confirmation candidates had stayed together as a youth group, and one of the people in that group was an older girl whose faith impressed me. Also, my dad had been lending me Christian books, and I’d read Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning, describing his early experiences in what we now call the ‘charismatic renewal’. Healings, speaking in tongues, works of knowledge and wisdom, baptism in the Holy Spirit – it was all very dramatic. And I found it very attractive (and a lot more exciting than the staid Anglican worship I was experiencing at the time).

But my night of commitment to Christ was the opposite of dramatic. At a youth group meeting, my dad (the vicar) said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” After the meeting, I went to my room, sat down on my bed and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. That was it.

I realized as I was thinking about it this morning that I actually have no memory of that event. I think I do, because I’ve told the outline of the story so many times. But I don’t remember why I did it. I don’t remember what the thought processes were that led me from Dad’s study to sitting on my bed praying the prayer. And I don’t remember how I felt, before, during, or after.

I must have been at least considering the possibility of something dramatic happening. Think of what I had been reading at the time – the spiritual experiences of charismatic Anglican (Dennis Bennett) and Pentecostal (David Wilkerson) Christians (yes, I’d read The Cross and the Switchblade too). Those folks didn’t exactly major in low-key religious experiences! But I have no memory of anything dramatic – no powerful sense of God’s presence, no speaking in tongues, visions, or voices from heaven. No memory at all. Whatever happened, I’ve forgotten it.

However, something happened, because that day set the course of the rest of my life. Very quickly, Christ and following Christ moved into the centre of my life and became my number one priority. I was an enthusiastic Jesus-freak almost from day one! Dad taught me to pray and read the Bible and I made it a habit, a habit I’ve maintained to this day. I plunged into Christian fellowship, small group worship and study times, and I read voraciously. And four years later I enrolled in a two-year training course to become an evangelist. Later on, I was ordained a deacon and a priest.

But all this began with something so low-key that I can barely remember it!

So don’t feel second-class if your religious experience is low key. God is still at work, at a far deeper level than your emotions. As my friend Harold Percy says, God doesn’t write boring stories; all God’s stories are interesting stories. Including yours and mine.

Everyone’s story is unique. There is no template. There are no standardized conversions. Every conversion described in the Book of Acts is different, except for this one thing: they all describe a process by which person’s life is reorientated toward the God who Jesus revealed to us.

And that’s the most important issue. Not ‘Did I feel Jesus enter my heart?’ or ‘Did I see a vision of God?’ or ‘Did I pray the right prayer?’ The important issue is ‘Today, as I go into my day, is my face toward the God who Jesus revealed to us?’

Everything else is optional.