Sunday, 27 April 2008
Keep my commandments
One of my favourite cities is York, we have great friends there and Jo (my wife) even lived there for a while. So whenever I have the opportunity we go back there, and usually visit the place where Jo worked - a place called the Spurriergate centre – a church that has been converted into a coffee and bookshop, with various fair trade items on sale as well. It’s a Christian Centre which does meals and coffee as well as having the shop and offers befriending, prayer and counselling opportunities for those who drop in.
The last time I visited I noticed, for the first time, as I sat there drinking my fairly traded coffee that painted up on the wall by the entrance were the ten commandments – this piqued my interest so I looked at the details there on the wall next to the commandments, where a small card offered some explanation as to the meaning and purpose of those parts of the church that had been left in situ in this café. I discovered on reading about the building that at some time (I’m not good on dates) it was a requirement for all Churches to have the ten commandments painted on the wall – usually behind the Altar – for all to see. These commandments had been kept as an original feature of the building and I wondered what the shoppers and visitors must have thought to have these ten commandments looming over them as they munched their way through their baked potatoes, carrot cake or whatever.
It seems that the ten commandments have lost a lot of their impact on today’s world. We rarely use them in services as we used to, they are rarely taught about, and though there is a lingering memory of them amongst most people, and they are usually part of the school RE syllabus, the 10 commandments as traditionally known have very little influence on our world today.
Which brings me to Jesus saying at the start of today’s gospel reading. “If you love me, keep my commandments”. Which should lead us to the question – what commandments? The ten commandments? Another set of rules and regulations? All of the commandments in the Old Testament (there are over six hundred apparently).
As a Jew, Jesus would never have thought in terms of there being anything called ‘the ten commandments’. For him, as for any follower of the Hebrew faith, there was the law, the prophets, the histories and wisdom in the Scriptures. And the law was that which every good Jew sought to live by – not any one part of it, but all of it. It wasn’t for the sake of rules and regulations, though some lived by the letter of the law, but the law existed to offer a discipline and guidance in living a life acceptable to God. It was the springboard for a good life, not the whole of it.
That’s why Jesus never refers to the “10 commandments” or offers any teaching on what is known as ‘the decalogue’ specifically – though he refers to ‘the law’ frequently. Jesus didn’t want to offer rules and regulations, but guidance, principles to live by.
And if we search for rules and regulations in the teaching of Jesus we will be sadly disappointed. Most of his teaching is done in stories, and the times he does offer specific teaching he is often responding to a specific question for a particular reason – and even then Jesus doesn’t always give a straight answer… Jesus offers so much more than a list of things we must and must not do.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wish the Bible were a rule book, sometimes I wish I could just open it up and find an exact text to answer each situation. Sometimes it would be an awful lot easier if it were just a long list of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ – with a nice index at the beginning to make looking up the crucial rule for each situation easier.
But the message of the Gospel, I believe, is that rules and regulations are not to be the way of those who follow Jesus. It’s harder work than that, we no longer have tablets of stone with rules engraved upon them, instead, through faith, we are called to allow God’s law to sink into our hearts, and to make decisions based not on commandments but on faith.
This is freedom, freedom from those things which constrain us – but at the same time it is a great responsibility. It means thinking, searching, questioning, praying our way through life. This must be firmly rooted in a life of faith and of reading our Bibles and seeking out the deeper truth therein. To some this approach might seem frightening, but actually it opens us to living as God would truly have us live, rather than in slavish obedience to a book of rules.
This principle isn’t something that is new, that I have made up this morning - St Paul himself says ‘all things are permissible, though not all things are helpful’ – and as we read through his letters we are given not laws to replace the law, but Paul’s own response to questions asked him, to particular difficulties faced by the Churches that wrote to him. Paul does not set down his own words as rules to be obeyed, but as his own interpretation of the principles laid down by Jesus. This is why St Paul is so concerned that we learn to discern for ourselves the will of God, to be open to God’s leading.
Rules and regulations are the province of the ‘religious’ rather than the ‘faithful’. In our reading from Acts we have St Paul addressing the Athenians, explaining that being religious isn’t enough, and pointing to the unknown God made know in Jesus Christ. It is because we have his example that we are called to copy Christ and to have a relationship with him, a relationship of faith, rather trying just to follow rules.
So when Jesus is talking about commandments, he is talking about the principles of faith, of serving God, of loving God and of obeying God’s higher laws – laws of love, of humility, of service, of giving. There are no rules and regulations for this, there is no list of commandments. We gain the principles from studying the Bible and seeing both what Jesus says and does.
And so, we work with the principal of ‘the Golden rule’ – of doing to others as we would have done to us. We work with that wonderful, all embracing summary of the law by which Jesus sets all the standards – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. We remember that Jesus says, just a few verses before today’s reading – a new commandment I give to you, love one another as I have loved you.
But to really learn to live like this we must be open in our faith, open to the work of God’s Spirit in our lives, and willing to study the Bible and learn God’s ways. In some ways the rules and regulations are the easier route, but in the end, allowing God to write his laws in our hearts will open us up to the freedom that comes from knowing and doing God’s will. I pray that for all of us, every day we get a little bit closer to that goal, as we pray ‘Thy will be done’ in each one of our lives. Amen.
Saturday, 26 April 2008
April 20th 2008
Where do you find God?
Where in the last week, or month, have you found God? Or felt God to be with you in a special way? Or seen the hand of God at work?
Perhaps you want to share something? Lets encourage one another with our experiences?
I honestly don’t think we talk enough about where God, and indeed where we have felt God isn’t in our lives. We are encouraged in Scripture to build one another up, Ephesians 4 verse 29Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen
We should share the Good news with one another, not just the Good news of salvation, but the good news of God at work now in our lives and in our hearts. We must, says the Bible, encourage and admonish one another with our actions and our words. Colossians 3 gives a long list of what we should and should not be doing as Christ’s body, those who have been raised from the death of sin to the new life of Jesus Christ…
And when we do this, in meeting together we meet with God. We believe, of course, that God is with us in all of our lives, but there are times when God needs us to listen to him to open ourselves to him – and one of those times is when we give ourselves to him and to one another in worship together.
But to return to my core theme for this evening, I want us to think about where we meet God. In what ways does God speak to us today in our lives.
This morning in the baptism that took place here I talked about finding the way which Jesus offers us through study of our bibles, through prayer and worship. But there are opportunities for God to speak to us in every part of life. Or rather, God will take every opportunity to speak with us that he can!
I don’t usually say things in Latin, but I have found a phrase in reading a book by the late Bishop Hugh Montefiore which says something very profound:
omnis revelation secundum modum recipientis – any translations? Well, Montefiore says this means ‘the mode of divine revelation is always accommodated to the assumptions of those who receive it’. Or perhaps it would be better say – if we are open to it, God will speak to us in a way we understand!
Perhaps even more clearly:
7"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
If we long to meet with God, God will meet with us!
As God’s people we should be open to God’s touch in every part of life, especially, perhaps, in the places where we wouldn’t expect it. If we remember the parable of the sheep and Goats in Matthew 25
34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'God can surprise us, if we let him! If we are living those lives which we are admonished to live by St Paul in the letter to the Colossians chapter 3, or in Chapters 4 & 5 of Ephesians then we will find ourselves receptive to his grace and his touch.
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
I think there is some confusion as to how we expect God to speak to us. When people talk of meeting God we often hear quoted the story of Elijah on the run in 1 Kings 19.9-13 where God appears…
9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
Elijah Meets God at Horeb
11 He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
We do need to still ourselves before God, to take moments of silence. In a busy world full of other voices which clamour for our attention the very act of slowing can often be a physical and spiritual form of turning towards God and allowing him to speak to us. I have to admit that I feel somewhat hypocritical saying this on one of the busiest and most chaotic days I have had for a while, and that, to be honest, as a Clergyperson I don’t tend to model stillness and silence terribly well. Yet I appreciate the value of silence of taking time to pray, and will sometimes make a point, no matter how busy I am of taking time to pray and read and just to be before God. I think our lifestyle in this day mediates against this and the very act of stopping is a counter-cultural statement!
But, and I hope some of you will find this encouraging, silence is not the only way that we meet with God. God will meet us in our singing and worship in Church (yes, I do believe that God is sometimes allowed a part in the life of the Church!), God will meet us as we reach out to the needy in his name and for his sake, God will meet us as we share the Good news of Jesus with friends, neighbours and work colleagues, God will meet us as we exercise, drive, relax, work, play, pray, eat, dance, sing, hold our children or the ones we love, as we think, read, laugh and cry.
But we must have that grounding in Christ in order to do that.
When Philip asks ‘show us the father’ in John 14, which was one of the readings set for this Sunday, we can almost see Jesus rolling his eyes as he responds in verse 9 "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father...
If we are going to meet God we need to do so through the one who is the way to the Father, Jesus Christ our Lord. We need to be grounded in him in order that we may meet God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we look at this passage from John 14 I want to try and answer a question that comes up again and again when people read these words of Jesus. At the end of this passage Jesus says in verse 14 ‘whatever you ask in my name I will do’ – and people often seem to think that this means the prayer for a nice new shiny black leather jacket or a car, or a house or health or wealth will be answered as long as we do this in faith and tag a phrase like ‘in Jesus’ name’ at the end.
When Jesus talks of asking in his name, he means that we adopt his name for ourselves, or that we align himself with his will and his way of doing things. To take on the name of someone in days past meant to completely subjugate oneself to their will. So when in a movie we hear ‘open up in the name of the king’ it is being said by someone who has the absolute authority of the king, authority given to them by virtue of the fact they are acting in place of the king and entirely within the will of the ruler whose name they speak on behalf of.
It’s the same with God, if we want to meet with him and we speak in the name of Jesus, its not about having a magic phrase or formula which can give us what we want. It’s about aligning ourselves with him and his will. It means that when we pray ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ we are opening ourselves up to being a part of that happening. we are giving ourselves to working to the aim of God’s reign coming to earth and his will being foremost on earth just as it is in heaven!
So we come here to meet with God, and we pray in the name of Jesus in order that we may know his will and live his way. If we want to grow in our faith we must give ourselves completely to him, if we want to meet with the father we must ask, and we must seek, and we must knock on the door of heaven. The barriers to God speaking to us aren’t usually put up by God! More often than not they are to do with our own sinfulness, with issues we need to hand over to God and stop holding on to so tightly, with our lack of expectation that God wants to speak and to act within our own lives.
If we want God to speak to us, in this service, in our churches, in our lives, then lets expect him to, and lets give him leave to do so. Lets make time to be with God, lets long for God to speak to us, and lets listen when he tries to, whatever way he might decide to do so. And lets listen to each other, for in hearing how God is working in our lives we can be encouraged and built up in Christ, and knowing where we feel the strain, where we need help we can pray for one another and help one another in Christ’s name.
May God meet with you tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day, and always….