Sailing Lessons for the Super Religious and Irreligious

“Since God loves us so much, we ought to be super-religious, zealous for learning and keeping all the rules!” Or, “Since God loves us so much, we can be irreligious. It does not matter what we do!” Which is it? What kind of impact does the love of God through Jesus have on our lives?

Paul helps us sort this out in his letter to the Galatians. Paul discovered that the Galatians had become super-religious, expecting non-Jewish people to become Jewish in order to become Christian. That is, all Christians should keep all the Old Testament commandments right down to the strict dietary restrictions. Most Christians today regularly disregard such laws. Should we start worrying about all those rules? Should we become super observant of the Old Covenant laws? What do we learn from Galatians? Here is where the sailing lessons begin . . .

We are no longer one-design racing. This summer we bought a sailboat that happens to be a “one-design” racing boat. It has all the bells and whistles of a racing boat. It is also built to exact specifications. Should I show up for a one-design race, everything would be checked out to ensure that my boat still fits the exact specifications. Should we fail to meet even one of the rules, we will be disqualified. We will be stuck on the beach.

This is like relating to God through the Old Covenant. Should even one law be broken, then the covenant is broken. You are disqualified, stuck on the beach. Problem is, no one could ever race! Everyone was stuck on the beach. Through the Old Covenant, God was teaching His people their need for His grace. He was pointing to Jesus:

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. Galatians 3:23-26

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. Galatians 4:4-5

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1

We no longer relate to God through the Old Covenant. Now we relate to God through the New Covenant, through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It is like my boat which is now retired from one-design racing. I need not be concerned that I will be stuck on the beach because of the rules. I am free to sail! We are not under the Old Covenant, we are not fearful of disqualification, being stuck on the beach for breaking a rule. We are free to sail!

So this means that we can do anything? There are no rules at all? Not so fast! We might not be one-design racing with all the rules and regulations, but we are sailing. A sailboat has sails, a rudder, a centreboard and all such things required for sailing. A sailboat has different equipment from a powerboat. A sailboat sounds and feels different out on the water than a powerboat. We can think of it this way; while we are free from all the rules and regulations of one-design racing, we are called to go sailing with God rather than continue power-boating alone. The early Christians had learned that non-Jews did not need to become Jews on their way to becoming Christians. But neither could they remain “typical Romans” either. Paul explains:

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. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

We are not to live by the law, but we are to love, we are to live by the Spirit:

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Galatians 5:16-18

While the non-Jews were not called to become Jews on the way to Jesus, they were called to be different from what they were. We can think of them as being called from a life of power-boating to a life of sailing, only they are not required to enter a one-design race. In being called to follow Jesus, we are not called to just stay as we are, we are called to live by the Spirit, not the rules.

Sailing is best enjoyed under full sail. My first sailboat had a lot of character. That is a nice way of saying it was old and in rough shape. In our first summer of sailing part of the deck ripped away making it impossible to use one of the two sails. I could have kept sailing without that sail and a section of the deck for the years I owned the boat, but it was much better sailing once fixed. The Christian life is like that. We can keep living with brokenness in our lives, with blind spots to our sin. But the Christian life is so much better under full sail. What does that look like?

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25

Is your deck broken? Is your sailing hampered by sin and brokenness? Perhaps you are not as loving as you think? Or patient? Or kind? Or generous? Or gentle? The fruit of the Spirit is a good place to look when we are checking our boats over for needed repairs.

As for my boat, I didn’t fix it. My Dad did! We should note that the fruit of the Spirit is precisely that. It is not the fruit of our labours. It is not the fruit of our efforts at keeping the law. It is the fruit of God’s work in our lives. Our heavenly Father does the repairs.

Are we to be super-religious or irreligious? Are we to be bound by religious rules or are we free to do anything and everything? Neither, rather we are to experience relationship with God through Jesus, being moved and changed by His Holy Spirit. Let us conclude by noting that the words for Spirit in both the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible also are the words for ‘wind.’ Happy sailing!

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

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Was the Flood of Genesis a Hate Crime?

Was the flood in the days of Noah a hate crime?

Imagine you are alive sometime between Noah and Moses but you are not part of the Hebrew people of Moses. There are stories of a great flood being passed down from generation to generation. How do you suppose people accounted for the reason behind this flood? You might think of a god or several gods hating people.

Indeed there were stories of a flood being passed down in those days which were quite similar to the Biblical account. One such story is called the “Epic of Gilgamesh”. According to it, the people of the earth were so noisy that they were disturbing the peace of the gods. Extermination would fix that! These are the kinds of things people came up with as they tried to make sense of life’s experiences in a prescience and very superstitious time and place. However, the Bible was coming into existence. The Biblical account of the flood, though being very similar to other flood accounts in some ways, is very different in others. It sets the record straight.

In setting the record straight, the reason for the flood is given:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. Genesis 6:5-6

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Genesis 6:11-13 (emphasis added)

The evil of humankind was the reason for the flood, and a very specific kind of evil; violence. Indeed, upon leaving the ark, violence is addressed as being of first importance:

For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.
6 Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind. Genesis 9:5-6

The very first ethic given to Noah and his family for dwelling on the earth is an ethic of flourishing in a world of non-violence. The flood was to be a new beginning for humanity, a new beginning without the violence of the past.

The Biblical flood account of the flood continues to set the record straight in our day. Did God flood the earth because He hates people? Was this a hate crime?

What God hated was the violence people committed against one another. Had he hated people we would just be talking about the flood, and not Noah’s ark. Of course we would not be talking at all for humanity would have ceased then and there! God would have acted in complete justice to end all life at that flood.

. . . the wages of sin is death. Romans 6:23

But instead there was a new beginning, and a promise of mercy. This is not a story of God hating people, but of God heading down the road of loving and loyal relationship.

Most translations have “bow” where we expect “rainbow”. This is on purpose for the Hebrew word behind “bow” literally is the kind of bow used to fire arrows. The bow is a weapon. Some Bible teachers have pointed out that when God puts the bow in the sky, it is symbolic of how He is hanging up his weapon. God is refusing to use a weapon to bring about justice. He is giving mercy rather than letting His perfect justice roll.

A rainbow is a very fitting symbol for God’s love and mercy. To have a rainbow you need just the right amount of light and moisture. To have the existence of life itself requires just the right amounts of light and moisture. God commits to keep providing both. Jesus speaks of light and moisture when He teaches about love:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Matthew 5:43-45

God has been keeping His promise. He has been holding back the immediate execution of His justice. He has been merciful to every generation.

As Bible teachers have pointed out, if mercy is not being treated as we deserve, then grace is being treated as we do not deserve. The Biblical account of the flood is a prelude to grace. God hung up His bow, His weapon, and called for humanity to do the same. But then God came to us in Jesus and we hung Him up on our weapon of choice for violent execution. God Himself was the One to suffer human violence in Jesus. If ever a worldwide flood was appropriate it was as Jesus hung on a cross. But instead of letting justice roll, God let forgiveness flow:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

If the flood account in Genesis is setting the record straight as to what God is like, how much more is Jesus Christ setting the record straight as to what God is like.

“God is love” 1 John 4:16

Far too many people think they are rejecting God when they are rejecting an image of God created in their own minds or in the minds of others. Let God speak for Himself. Let Scripture set the record straight. Let Jesus set the record straight. Let us not create an image of God according to our own way of thinking, but look to God to set the record straight on His Justice, His mercy, and His grace. The Biblical account of the flood sets the record straight on these things, Jesus Christ does even more so.

Was the flood a hate crime? It was the justice of God rolled out upon a hate filled world. The fact that humanity is still around speaks of God’s mercy. The offer of eternal life in Jesus speaks of God’s amazing grace.

A Step Backwards at the End of Esther? Does the Bible Promote Violence and Sexism?

Are we not supposed to be peacemakers? Yet in the closing chapters of the Book of Esther we find a near gloating over how many people the Jews kill:

So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. . . . Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces . . . killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them . . . and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness. Esther 9:5,16-17

Is the book of Esther not about Esther? Yet we find Mordecai, not Esther, being exalted in the final verses:

All the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? 3 For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants. Esther 10:2-3

Esther is a true heroine in the story and yet she is not even mentioned in the final chapter. Instead Mordecai takes the spotlight. Must a man always have more glory than a woman in the end?

Critics say that the Bible takes us backwards into a more violent and sexist kind of world. Seeing how the Book of Esther ends we may wonder if they are correct. Let us take a look:

On the violence in Esther:

First, the violence is self defence. Only those who attacked would be killed. This is clear in the edict written in the name of the king:

11 By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods . . . Esther 8:11 (emphasis added)

In the days of Esther, it was kill or be killed. There were no Canadian peace-keepers to call upon to be buffers between enemies. We might think there ought to have been some sort of diplomatic solution sought, but we cannot impose our ideals of diplomacy on the past.

One would have hoped the peoples within the Persian empire would have realized the danger of attacking the Jews now that they were allowed to defend themselves. But, as has always been the case, the Jews had their enemies who were not about to let go of an opportunity to attack. Had they not attacked, they would not have been killed.

Second, God’s people in Persia were ethical in their warfare. The original edict called for the genocide of the Jews plus the plundering of all their resources. The second edict allowed the Jews to defend themselves plus plunder the attacking enemies. The Jews did not take advantage of the opportunity to plunder. This fact is repeated three times for emphasis (9:10,15,16). Their warfare was motivated by self defence rather than greed. Just as the plunder was left alone, it is likely the women and children of the enemy were left alone also despite the edict allowing for violence against them.

The Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to violence. For example, the borders of the ancient world were in constant flux as empires rose and fell with the aspirations of people bent on gaining the resources of other lands and people. Israel was given the land of Canaan, the Promised land, but no more. The aspiration was of a safe home marked by righteousness, not a vast empire marked by constant expansion and plundering.

If the Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to violence, Jesus takes us a leap forward. For example:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48

On the sexism in Esther:

First, the Book of Esther portrays the reality or the Persian empire, not the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Persian Empire was sexist and patriarchal as most empires are. Therefore we should not be surprised that Mordecai seems to be more highly honoured than Esther. The queen in such an empire was basically a concubine with perks. Mordecai received greater honour than Esther, not because this is a Biblical ideal, but because that is what happens in an empire like the Persian empire.

Second, the Book of Esther is not called the Book of Mordecai. Mordecai may have been more highly honoured by the Persian empire, but Esther is honoured by Scripture and by the many people of God who have kept the Scriptures safe.

The Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to sexism. Women were to be more highly esteemed. For example, in the Creation story a woman was created from Adam’s rib. In other words, a woman is not different and ‘less than’ like an animal, but the same, on equal footing.

If the Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to sexism, Jesus takes us a leap forward. For example:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

We have become so used to better societal norms today that we easily miss just how astonishing and liberating the response of Jesus is here. “Mary has chosen the better part”, that is, a part not allowed in that day! Women were not allowed to learn from rabbis. The times they are a changin’!

When it comes to violence and sexism, we want to step forward into the Kingdom of Jesus rather than backwards into old empires. We want to take steps toward peacemaking and reconciliation, rather than toward violence. Jesus himself shows us the way in how he loves us and gives us the opportunity for reconciliation. We want to honour women and recognize equality rather than institute some kind of male superiority. Jesus again shows the way in how he honours women.

The Book of Esther was written in a time of violence and sexism, but it points forward to what we are praying for when we pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  Let us step forward into Christ’s Kingdom, not backwards into old empires.

(All Scripture quotations are taken from the NRSV)