Commandments in context

This is a sermon for the sifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is John 14:15-21.

Culturally, I think we have a bit of a problem with the idea of commandments.  We tend to see the level of demand implied by being “commanded” to do something as too high, unreasonable, and certainly not loving; so we tend to prefer to treat commandments from God as something more like “guidelines” or “suggestions” for living.

The problem here, I think, is not that we reject the idea of the oppressive use of power – we’re right to be suspicious of that – but in our misunderstanding of how commandments from God are supposed to function.

See, the thing is that commandments are only one aspect of a much more complex relationship between us and God; a relationship that the Scriptures talk about as a covenant.  That’s a word which describes a relationship which is binding; where both parties are held together in relationship by their mutual commitment to one another.

The idea of our relationship with God being defined by a covenant is not, of course, an original Christian idea.  It’s something that developed in Jewish understanding first; where covenant is the core idea that underpins the distinctiveness of Jewish religion; the Jews are the children of God by adoption and free decision on both sides.  Through that free decision, ancient Jews saw themselves as bound in relationship with God who makes an exclusive and absolute claim on their loyalty in worship and social life, but in response, God gives himself to them in an exclusive and absolute way, as the one who will have concern for their welfare, and see to it that their society is structured with justice as a guiding principle.  And, as a result of these commitments on both sides, community is formed; the community of people who are bound together with God and with one another by their participation in this covenant.

So a covenant between God and God’s people has different aspects; there is the call from God, inviting us into relationship with Him; there is God’s presence to us, and our mutual belonging to one another (us to God, and God to us); there is an element of public witness; and there is the way the mutual love between us and God plays out in our keeping the commandments.

And this is where this ties into our gospel reading today, where Jesus began by saying to his disciples that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What he is really saying here is not some kind of guilt trip intended to provoke good behaviour, but an appeal to his disciples to live out to the full the reality of the binding relationship between them and Jesus (and, through Jesus, God).  Here “love” expressed in service and obedience is an expression of loyalty; our choices are shaped by our commitment to God, rather than to any other.

In this section of John’s gospel, the account of the last supper, even though Jesus doesn’t use the word “covenant,” (he does in the other gospels), it seems that he is framing his relationship with his disciples as being a mirror or an echo of the Jewish relationship with God.  That’s why we can talk about our own participation in a “new covenant,” one which Jesus created, and the terms of which are spelled out in passages like this.

And this is why the promises in this chapter, are so significant; they are the flip side to our loyalty to Jesus in keeping the commandments; they are Jesus’ (and God’s) loyalty to us expressed in enduring relationship.  So we read here Jesus’ promises that he will enable the disciples to do greater works than his, that he will send the Holy Spirit, that Jesus will return and that the Father and Jesus will make their dwelling among the disciples; that the Holy Spirit will teach them and remind them of everything Jesus taught them, and that they will receive the gift of peace.

These are big promises.  They are – or ought to be – promises which give us a huge amount of comfort and strength to draw on in our pilgrimage together.

These things that I’ve been talking about this morning; God’s choosing us (and our choosing God), intimate abiding relationship between us, God’s presence dwelling in us, keeping God’s commandments, and so forth; these sum up for us John’s idea of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  John shows us that discipleship is a covenant relationship; and it’s a relationship between us and God which mirrors the relationship between Jesus and the Father, in its mutuality, responsiveness, and intimacy.  Ultimately, the disciples are being called here to participate in the dynamic of the relationship at the heart of the Trinity; and this is supposed to give to the new covenant community – the church – our unique identity and distinctiveness from the rest of the world.

The unity the disciples are supposed to share comes from the presence of God dwelling in each of them.  This is, by the way, why the line in the Creed that says “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church,” comes in the section which begins “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s the Holy Spirit, given to each one of us, which makes us part of the Church, and it’s the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each person from baptism, which makes the Church something other than a random bunch of piously-minded people who decided to cooperate.  The Church is bigger than any institution or denomination, and is the network of all people everywhere who have the Spirit living in them.

It seems very likely that John felt the need to include all of this in his gospel as he wrote to a community unsure of their identity, in a world where their belief in Jesus meant they had to reevaluate all their previous religious commitments (whether Jewish or Pagan).  His gospel gave his community a solid footing for forming their own sense of distinctive identity, one which was robust and inspiring enough to strengthen and encourage them as they worked out how to live and worship as Christians in a hostile world.

Although our context is very different, we have the same need to be sure of our shared identity, so that it can give us strength and courage as we work through our very different – but no less challenging – issues.  These themes of covenant relationship, which Jesus presents so carefully to his disciples here, can be an important help to us in that; to be comforted by God’s continuous presence with us, and to respond with loyalty and love which sees us keep his commandments, not as a burden, but as an expression of our mutually loving and enriching relationship with God.

How will you live out your covenant with God, this week?

Freedom

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is 1 Peter 2:11-25.

Freedom!  It’s an ideal that has inspired everything from great works of art to nation-building, and yet for Christians, there’s a lot of tension in how we think about it.

On the one hand, we say that in Christ we are free from sin, free from the law, and ultimately – in an eternal sense – free from suffering.  On the other hand, we say that we are bound to serve God with the totality of our being, that we are bound to love others as we love ourselves, and that we are bound to be part of a movement in which achieving our mission means taking up our cross.

I think, too, for Christians today there is another tension.  We have inherited from the recent past a solid tradition of Christian action which has been about opposing the “powers that be” when they’re unjust; and yet we know that in many times and places, the Church has been one of those powers, or closely allied with them, and has not always been just.  Obedience to authority has long been a spiritual discipline.  The proper attitude to authority – conformity or rebellion or something else – is a matter of hot debate.

Are we confused yet?

And in the middle of this confusion we read today’s passage from 1 Peter, which has some things to say on these issues; but I think for them to be helpful to us, they probably need some unpacking.

So, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,” is where he starts with this train of thought.

Why, “For the Lord’s sake”?  What does it matter to Jesus, whether or not we accept the authority of the government or the various services under its umbrella?

I think we need to remember that this was a community which was already starting to experience official persecution.  Only a little bit later than this record we have historical documents – Roman correspondence from the area – which discusses torturing Christians to find out the truth about what they believed and did.  And the Romans forbade people to gather in groups of more than five, so that it would be hard for anyone to start an uprising.  There are records that in Bithynia – which is in the region this letter is written to – there had been terrible fires which couldn’t be put out, because this law against gathering together meant that even the fire brigade had been disbanded.  In today’s terms, we would say that the government was more than a bit paranoid.

So it seems to me that what Peter is saying here is, “don’t cause any unnecessary trouble.”  We are Christians, we need to live as Christians with integrity, but don’t stir the pot by doing anything unnecessary that’s going to upset the empire.  Don’t bring the wrath of the powers that be down on the church, for the Lord’s sake, because we suffer enough for the things we really do need to do.  Try to do the right thing, and to submit to the empire when we can.  I think it’s important here to realise that the words “as sent by him,” describing the governors, doesn’t mean that the governers are sent by God.  It means we ought, as much as we can, to relate to them as if they were sent by God, even when we know they weren’t; showing deference for the sake of not being treated badly.

While we’re fortunate not to live under the same kind of brutal or paranoid regime, I think there’s an important principle for us here; not to cause trouble about things which are not core issues for Christianity.  I leave it to you to reflect on what that might mean in our own context.

So Peter goes on from there to tell his listeners, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”

And there are a couple of interesting things about this.  I’ve already talked about how the thrust of his earlier comments seems to be, don’t cause unnecessary trouble.  And he seems to be repeating that idea here.  You’re free people, and you should live in that freedom, but don’t let that be an excuse for what our translation here calls evil.  But again, the word used here seems in this context to have the force of something like “social disruption.” The kind of evil Peter is talking about is the kind of evil that is subversive, creating turmoil.  So again, live free, but don’t start a riot.

And then the rest of the letter really goes on to unpack the implications of that principle in the social structures of the day.  Slaves are to be submissive, wives are basically property, and everyone needs to know their place and keep to it so that we don’t get into trouble.  Honour the emperor.

If I’m a little sour about that, I’m sure you can understand why.  Long after the paranoid and oppressive government was gone, this social system was held up as being “the way God wanted things,” partly because of the way Peter wrote here.  But I don’t think it ever was what God wanted; it was the way things were, in which Christians needed to endure.

But there’s one other interesting feature of the way Peter puts things here.  He says, “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”  It’s like a basic list of where the lines of obedience are, in this moment where we need to make sure we present the smallest possible target to the authorities.

God, emperor, “everyone,” – well, that seems to cover all bases.  But in the middle of that, he throws in, “love the family of believers.” And while I’m sure he does want all of his listeners to love one another, I think here in this particular context, he’s saying something a little bit different; esteem the church; be dedicated to it.  In that sense, the family of believers, with its system of leadership already beginning to form, also has a claim on the honour and obedience of each Christian.

Not that I get to tell you what to do; but that I think Peter is here positioning the church community as being owed something by each of us, alongside or perhaps as an expression of the reign of God.  It bears thinking about, what that might mean for us, too.

So freedom, it turns out – at least in Peter’s thought – might mean something a little bit different than “doing whatever I like,” and maybe something more like, “getting to participate to the full in things which are good.”  And that way of looking at things might be helpful, when we think again about the tensions I mentioned at the start; between conformity and rebellion, or freedom from evil and yet being bound in love.

So my challenge to you from this text, something to take away and reflect on, is “What would it look like for you to participate to the full in something good this week?”

Space

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is John 14:1-6.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  We’re not very good at that, are we?  Things change, we are uncertain of what will happen, we feel out of control, and – indeed – we let our hearts be troubled.

Of course, when Jesus was speaking here, he was trying to prepare the disciples for all that was about to follow; his arrest, trial, and execution, and afterwards his leaving in a more permanent way.  They had been so reliant on him, and they were going to have to learn very quickly, and under pressure, how to get on without him.

But most of us have times when God seems far away, and perhaps we wonder if He’s there at all.  Or if he is, why He doesn’t do something to ease the various things which are troubling our hearts.  What’s the use of a God who doesn’t show up when you really need Him?

The flip side of divine absence, though, is one of space.  Jesus talks about going to prepare a place “for you,” and perhaps what he doesn’t say is that the disciples also need to grow before they’re ready for that place.  His absence, and the troubles they experience in the meantime, provide the stimulus to that growth and even creativity, both on our part, and on God’s.

If we look at Jesus’ words here as being about the experience of troubles and distance from God which pushes us into new spaces, that might also cast new light on Jesus’ statement that he is the way, the truth, and the life; perhaps, when God feels far away, we can hear those words as reassurance that despite not feeling the close joy and the reality of God with right now, we can know that we are on the path which will take us to those things, in the place which is being prepared for us, and in the presence of Jesus.

Core business

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Acts 2:42-47.

Some funny things happen when Christians read the book of Acts.  I’m thinking of two trends in particular; one is that people read descriptions of the very early church – like the one we heard today – and assume that because that’s how it was then, that’s exactly how the church should be, always and everywhere and for everyone.  And the other is that people read descriptions of the very early church and see in them exactly what they most value or want in their own church experience.  (Which is why, for example, you can have groups as far apart in their habits as the Orthodox and the Messianic Jews both saying that their own practice today is not far removed from what’s being described here.  For myself, of course, I’m quite certain that the prayers these early believers devoted themselves to, sounded remarkably like something from a Book of Common Prayer…)

Put like that, of course we can see the silliness of reading this book through the filter of our own assumptions.  The truth is, of course, that we simply don’t have enough specifics here to be very certain of the details of what happened; we’re deliberately given a bigger picture to work with.  And that means that justifying our own preferences, or trying to read this text as if it was an instruction manual for church, are not really valid or fruitful things to try to do with this passage.

So what can we do with it?

Let’s start here.  This little summary of the fledgling church’s life comes at the end of the Pentecost story.  The earlier part of chapter 2 tells us about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Peter preaching to a crowd in a way that led to about three thousand baptisms.  And then we get this little bit, which tells us how that new group of believers began to live together.  So this description is being put forward to us as “what happens when the Holy Spirit is poured out on a whole bunch of people.”

And what we see is that that bunch of people – who had nothing in common with one another before the Holy Spirit got hold of them – devote themselves to a number of activities; learning from the apostles, fellowship, breaking bread together and praying together.  And while we don’t know exactly what that looked like for them, what we can recognise is that all of these are things which deepen relationships.  In being devoted to learning together, eating together, praying together, and otherwise sharing a common life – even a form of common property – these early believers expressed their devotion to their relationships with one another and with God.

These acts of devotion are all acts of participation in a community; which here has to be read as something deeper than just getting along in life beside one another, and more like “mutual participation in a shared life.”  The level of sharing happening here – in this group of about three thousand people, remember – is, the historians tell us, unlike anything else in the ancient world.  It most closely resembles the level of unity formed when a couple come together in marriage; (which perhaps sheds new light on Paul’s reflections on the church being one body).

I don’t think we understand, today, how deeply shocking this was.  This was a society where various divisions – men and women, slave and free, Jew and gentile – kept people in separate spheres of life with very limited, and controlled, interaction.  For slaves and free people to share a meal together as equals was unheard of, a scandal.

To give you some idea of how far we’ve come, let me use a story to illustrate.  Now, I wasn’t witness to this, although it was told to me as a true story, so I’m not going to name names just in case facts have been embellished along the way.  But the story goes that, not so long ago, and not very far from here, a bishop in a denomination which doesn’t yet ordain women came out to visit a parish.  The parish priest hosted the bishop for lunch, and invited another key parishioner – a man – to be present.  And while these gentlemen were sitting down at lunch together, the lay pastoral worker in the parish, a woman, ate on her own in the kitchen, since apparently she wasn’t important enough to eat with the bishop.

Today, to us, that’s deeply shocking; not least because we have inherited these stories of the believers sharing meals together since the dawn of Christianity.  But in the ancient world, the opposite was shocking, and everyone sharing in common was felt to be subversive and socially dangerous.  And yet these early Christians did it, and apparently did so with joy and generosity and no social self-consciousness at all (that did creep back in later, as we see reflected in some of the epistles).

So what is it that not only allows, but drives, this level of radical community?  I think there are two key things.  One is trust in God.  These people have had a personal experience of God’s love and joy which is so deep, and so personally significant, that it gives them the courage and resilience to form new ways of life.  And there is hope; these people have seen the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promises, and together they look for those promises to continue to be fulfilled in this new community.  Everything this passage tells us about the depth of relationship these people shared, is only possible because of God’s active and transforming presence in these people, and God’s purpose stimulating them to a shared vision of what their life should be.

The gladness and generosity of this group of people is a reflection of God as they had encountered Him; a generous God, a God who poured Himself out abundantly in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  We become like what we worship; and a generous God shapes a generous community.  And their gladness in it shows us that this was not a burden or an onerous thing for them, but something they experienced as good and life-giving.

So it seems to me that when we read passages like this, the question for us is not how we might most closely mimic exactly what this community did, but, like them, how we might most closely relate to one another in the presence of God, so that we might have the same kind of devotion to our relationships with one another.

I’m not going to suggest that I have definitive answers to that.  I might make some tentative suggestions for you to consider; one is that, when the Bible study “for beginners” finishes in a few weeks, that the group who’ve been meeting for that might continue to meet and learn together, and perhaps invite more people to join them in that.  Another is that we might give thought to how to enrich our shared prayer life beyond our regular services; I’m always happy to make suggestions and provide resources.   And while I’m fascinated to see how Hungry Souls is taking off as a group, I wonder also about other ways to share the fabric of daily life, its ups and downs, its cares and joys, in ways that really build a sense of sharing our lives together.

This passage from Acts doesn’t give us a neat list or a blueprint for exactly how we should be church.  But it does give us a vision of a community of deep relationships, and suggests that whatever else God is up to, our relationships are always part of the Holy Spirit’s core business.