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)

Thank God for Rules

8973254409_430d9524d5_nMany people gather around the traditional turkey dinner on Thanksgiving with a custom of each person sharing something to be thankful for. These can be somewhat predictable, with family, friends, God’s goodness, health and chocolate often on the list. Rarely, if ever, will someone say they are thankful for rules. Why is that? There are three reasons:
  • We value individual liberty and freedom. Rules are seen to push against freedom.
  • We fear judgementalism. Those who do not like rules may feel that those who do are judgemental.
  • We value self-esteem and self-confidence. Consistently being poor at keeping rules can make one feel like a bad person.

Since we do not seem to like rules very much, why are we talking about them on Thanksgiving? Why are we thinking of God’s law, and why are we focusing in on the Ten Commandments? It is partly because I have begun a sermon series on Deuteronomy and didn’t want to leave it for Thanksgiving. However, I was intentional in getting the Ten Commandments to land on this particular weekend. Why? Because the God’s law is something we can be truly grateful for.

While my wife remembers most of our wedding gifts from sixteen plus years ago and can identify items around the house that were gifts, I can identify very few. Typical man perhaps? But one I do remember. A plain black power drill. I can remember it partly because among all the gifts which tended to be quaint items, or kitchen items and the like, the drill stood out like a sore thumb. I remember it because it was from my parents. I also remember it because it is the wedding gift that over the years I have been most grateful for. A strange gift at the time perhaps? Best wedding gift ever in the long run! My parents knew what they were doing. We may think that rules make a strange gift from God. But they are a great gift in the long run. God knew and knows what He is doing in giving them! So in what ways are the rules a gift that we can be grateful for?

As the people of God stand ready to enter the land God has promised to them, Moses reminds them of the ten commandments God had given them earlier. Let’s take a look at the first group of the ten commandments:

6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me.
8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you . . . (Deuteronomy 5:6-12 emphasis mine)
These are rules given to help the people of God honour God. Remember that God is Creator, God is Sovereign. To honour God is truly important. To be given guidance on how to do that is priceless. Such guidance is a wonderful gift.
Let us consider the last group of the ten commandments:
16 Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
17 You shall not murder.
18 Neither shall you commit adultery.
19 Neither shall you steal.
20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour.
21 Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife . . . .
Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Deuteronomy 5:16-21 emphasis mine)
These are commandments that help us to honour one another. Keeping in mind the violence of the world that led to the flood in Noah’s day, and also the violence still in the world in the days of Moses, to be given guidance on how to honour one another is a gift. Indeed the good relationships that would be found among God’s people if they keep the law would be noticed by the neighbouring nations:
5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today. (Deuteronomy 4:5-8 emphasis mine)
Not just the Ten Commandments, but the entire Law was a wonderful gift of God in guiding His people toward good relationships.
So far we have considered God’s law as being a gift to his people as they prepare to enter the promised land. But are rules a gift for Christians today? Some have said that Christians are not about the rules, but only about grace. Let us consider the following:
First, in following Jesus in the way of the cross, the Christian is to live out a wonderful ethic of love. Some see this as contrasting to a way of rules as given in the Old Testament. However, this is not a contrast, as the law and love belong together. Remember the words of Jesus:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
How can we have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees when they were known to be the best at knowing, keeping, and enforcing the rules? By coming at the rules from a place of love and practicing them for the sake of love. The religious leaders were practicing the rules for the sake of religion, but the Christian is to be ethical, living out the rules, as a means of loving God and loving others. God’s law helps the Christian know how to express love. What a gift!
Second, the Christian finds in the Old Testament rules foundational teaching on what pleases and honours God. We are not required to become Jewish in becoming a Jesus follower, and so there are many customs and laws that are not binding, especially with regards to dietary restrictions and the like. However, we do see in the Old Testament law what pleases God and what does not. We still learn from them practical advice on how to honour God and how to honour others. What a gift to have such guidance!
Third, the rules open our eyes to our need for salvation, and our need for a Saviour. I know I am speeding on the #2 highway, not just because of the number the needle my speedometer is pointing to, but because there is a posted limit as to what that needle should be pointing to. We become very aware of our shortcomings in keeping the rules when the rules are posted for us in black and white. As Paul writes: “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7 NRSV). In becoming aware of our lack with regard to the rules, we become aware of our need for grace. In becoming aware of our need for grace we are awakened to the wonderful joy of knowing salvation in Jesus. The Holy Spirit convicts and encourages all along this journey. The rules, in being a part of that journey toward salvation are a real gift!
So when we think of the things we can be grateful for, I hope that we can all thank God for rules!
All scripture references are taken from the NRSV.

The Torah and the Christian. Delighting in the Old Testament Law.

 

photoPreviously we saw from Psalm 1 the importance of God’s law for those who want to be “like trees planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3 NRSV). But the Christian might ask “Why would we take “delight” in a law that we do not even follow much of the time? Or should we start following all those rules and regulations we find in the Old Testament?”

Good questions, the last of which became important to the early church and was the concern of an important church meeting in Acts 15. The final decision was quite short and to the point:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell
(Acts 15:28-29 NRSV)

If only all church meetings could be kept so simple! You will notice that the “essentials” are essentially those matters in which Jewish ethics would be quite contrary to the practice of paganism that new believers were coming out of. So, no you do not need to become a Jew, but yes, you do need to pay attention to the God of the Jew. So how is the Christian of today to relate to the law as found in the Old Testament? Can we “take delight” in it, and so resonate with Psalm 1? Here are four questions to help us think on it.

First, what kind of instruction are we talking about?

Note the temptation to immediately think of law in negative terms as regulations. When you mention “law” I think of rules, and the first rule that comes to mind is that which limits the speed I can legally attain on my motorcycle. Now since downsizing to a 125, the speed I can legally attain is not so different that the speed I can actually attain, but no matter, some rule maker is trying to spoil my fun!

But what if, when we hear the word “law,” we think, not of rules and regulations, but of instruction. Let’s consider the motorcycle example again. If instead of thinking of speed limits and kill-joys, I think instruction, I will think back to my brother instructing me on the basics of operating the controls, changing the gears, and wot not. And I will think of the motorcycle safety training course which was an absolute hoot to be on. As someone learning to ride, the instruction was something I could take delight in, something I naturally wanted to meditate on. Where we tend to think of what fun we might be missing on by thinking of God’s law as rules, we ought instead to think of the joy it leads us into by thinking of it as instruction for life.

And so we can delight in the law of God as found in the Old Testament. Perhaps we will not set up cities of refuge as the law instructs, but we will delight in that example of God’s provision of justice and compassion, and will seek to be just and compassionate ourselves. We may not keep laws on leaving some crops unharvested, but we delight in learning about God’s love for the poor and foreigner those rules point to. We may eat lobster contrary to the Old Testament law, if eating ocean going bugs is your thing, but we will delight in the holiness of God that all those dietary restrictions point us to. Some of the law will not work in our time and place, but all of it will instruct us on who God is and what kind of people He wants us to be.

Second, what kind of a band is this?

Note the change that happens between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament law is like the score that a composer brings to an orchestra to perform. It is very specific, each note of each instrument has been chosen by the composer and if any one musician ditches the score, the piece simply will not work. But when the musicians get it right, it is a thing of beauty.

We must be sure to be thinking straight about this, for there is a temptation to say that the Old Testament law was a bad thing that badly needed replacement. Not so. The law of God found in the Old Testament is a beautiful thing, and had the musicians, Israel, kept to the score better than they normally did, then its beauty would have been much more apparent. It would have been seen as the masterpiece that it is:

5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
(Deuteronomy 4:5-8 NRSV)

But now things are different and since the advent of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit God has been doing a new thing. As a follower of Jesus Christ I am less like the bass player I was in Grade nine music class trying to follow a score provided by the teacher, and more like the bass player I was in my former rock bands working on original songs. We never had musical scores, instead I had freedom to come up with my own bass lines. However, I was never free to do anything I wanted. I had to keep in time, play in the correct key, and come up with lines in a style appropriate to the piece. Likewise as Christians we are free from the law, but we are not free to do whatever we want. We need to keep in step with the songwriter. He is not helping us with our song, we are serving His purposes as He composes His song: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25 ESV)

We are given the wonderful privilege of being invited to make music with our Lord. While we have freedom, we do need to keep in step with the Great Bandleader, so that our part fits in with His masterpiece. But in getting to know our Bandleader, we do well to spend time listening to that great masterpiece He has already provided, the Old Testament law. There is a wonderful “trademark sound” that can be discerned in both the Old and New Testaments. Though we are not required to keep the law in all its rules and regulations, knowing the law helps us know the Lawmaker, the Composer of the greatest masterpiece. And that is something we can take delight in!