Civil Disobedience

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Proverbs 8:1-21, 2 John 1-13, Matthew 12:1-14


The Gospels contain several examples of Christ breaking the Law to serve a greater good. In today’s reading from Matthew he hits the Pharisees with a double whammy. First, he and his hungry disciples pick heads of grain to eat while they are walking through a field, though the Law forbid harvesting on the Sabbath. Then Jesus heals a man with a withered hand (also work forbidden on the Sabbath) and justifies it by asking his critics if, had they only one sheep and it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, would they lift it out?

As followers of Christ we understand God “desires mercy and not sacrifice” yet many civil and religious laws attempt to bind us to legalism over mercy. When are we called to civil disobedience – that is, disobeying the law out of Christian conscience? Without respect to their merit, some examples include conscientious objectors during wartime, refusal to sign marriage certificates for gay couples, and passing out food to homeless people despite local ordinances forbidding it. Further complicating the matter, Paul tells us in many scriptures to obey the civil authorities because they have been appointed by God.

What can we learn from Jesus’s examples of lawbreaking? Jesus breaks the law to show mercy to others – the sick, the hungry, and the outcast. He doesn’t do it to benefit himself, or to make a show of his piety. To the contrary, his actions compelled religious leaders to seek his destruction. Even when he cleansed the temple by driving out the money changers and livestock dealers, he was confronting a system that was technically legal but exploiting the disadvantaged. That’s the flip side of the coin: pretending our adherence to the law excuses our unmerciful behaviors.

We can’t opt out of society’s laws altogether – that’s simply anarchy – but when the law compels us to do something contrary to God’s desire for mercy, we must stand for God. Like Jesus we must be willing to suffer the consequences of obeying that higher law. And we must do it with the humility of a king whose only crown was thorns.

Comfort: You don’t have to fight every little aspect of society that doesn’t dovetail with your faith…

Challenge: …but you should be willing to stand up in the face of injustice.

Prayer: God of wisdom, teach me when to humbly respect authority, and when to humbly confront it. Amen.

Discussion: Have you broken the law – or the rules – to show mercy?

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Unhappy Medium

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Proverbs 6:1-19, 1 John 5:1-12, Matthew 11:16-24


Let’s face it: personal standards can be pretty arbitrary. Consider safe driving speed. For many, a reckless driver is someone who passes us, and a timid driver is someone we pass. Unless our cruise control is set exactly to the current speed limit (itself often a relatively arbitrary standard), what basis do we have for this judgment?

Jesus faced similar artificial standards from religious leaders. They complained he was a drunkard and glutton who fraternized with sinners. When they confronted him about their concerns, Jesus reminded them that when John the Baptist fasted and abstained, they accused him of being possessed. You just can’t please some people.

“But wait,” you might say, “isn’t there such a thing as a happy medium?” Certainly there was some acceptable range for drink and dining that might have pleased his detractors, but they almost as certainly would not all have agreed on the upper and lower limits of that range. My happy medium is to the left of yours, and to the right of the next person’s. Whatever our rationale for a standard, there is always personal bias involved.

Supreme Court Justices who agree with our interpretation of the constitution are “impartial,” and those who don’t are “activists.” The same goes for scripture: those who aren’t literal about the sames passages we choose to take literally are “cherry picking” (and there’s no one who is literal about all of it). Even within a political party adopting one platform, or a denomination which follows a single creed, your mileage will vary from your neighbor’s. If Jesus announced his return standing in a bar and with a beer in hand, some Christians would cheer and others reject him. And if John the Baptist was… well, John the Baptist, he’d be too holy for some and not enough for others.

If there were only three people on Earth we’d have four religions, so let’s try to overcome the perverse urge to focus on meaningless differences.  Christians are one body; the least we can do is learn to share the road with each other to caravan behind Christ.

Comfort: You don’t have to please other people …

Challenge: … and they don’t have to please you.

Prayer: Lord I thank you for the beautiful diversity of your creation. Please help me to see all things first with love. Amen.

Discussion: Which of your standards have you had to adjust over the years? Which do you refuse to adjust?

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Technical Difficulties

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window): 
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Genesis 42:29-38, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Mark 4:21-34


“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial.

Paul wrote these words to the Corinthian church because its members were twisting his message. They believed they were permitted to sin with abandon because Christ had paid the price to free them from the law, and Corinth was the place to sin big – think New Orleans during Mardi Gras, minus the restraint. Paul had painted himself into a bit of a theological corner; he couldn’t reprimand the people for breaking the law, but would be remiss to let them off on that technicality. So when the Corinthians claimed “all things are lawful” Paul countered with “not all things are beneficial.” If the driving force in our choices is not Christ, we are lost.

We face the same moral perils if we think of salvation in purely personal terms. Right belief does not excuse wrong behavior, even when that behavior is within the law. Throughout history, many legal but immoral things have been practiced by Christians: spousal abuse, genocide, child exploitation, Jim Crow, reparative therapy, etc. We may try to excuse terrible legalities by claiming they were a product of ignorance and era, but Christ’s teachings are timeless. For example, while neither Paul nor Jesus condemned slavery, both spoke against mistreating slaves, who were equally beloved children of God.

And there’s the key: salvation is not just about me, but about Christ’s love for everyone. I may be within my legal rights to exploit a vulnerable person or community. I may call it good business and pat myself on the back for my savvy. I may even sleep soundly in the blanket of my salvation … but have I served Christ as he has commanded me to? Have I willingly sacrificed my own wealth and comfort to serve those who have less than I do – even those I despise? Have I let civil law excuse vice and suppress virtue?

Christ did not have kind words for people who built their faith around legal technicalities. Let’s concentrate on what we can give, and not what we can get away with.

Comfort: Christ has freed us from the law so we can better love.

Challenge: The golden rule is “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” The platinum rule is “Do unto others as they’d have you do unto them.” Let’s follow the priceless rule: “Do unto others as Christ would have you do unto them.”

Prayers: God of grace, thank you for the priceless gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Make me strong enough to live beyond the law, and to love as you have asked me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever gotten away with something on a technicality? How did it feel?

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Barnacle-Free Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 29:1-20, Romans 14:1-23, John 8:47-59


One characteristic of an effective movement, whether religious or secular, is an ability to stay focused. Unfortunately, the older and larger a movement grows, the more likely it is to lose focus. We need look only as far as the church to see a primary example. Early Christians were focused around the idea that Jesus was the savior, and through him all sin was forgiven. They had de facto leaders but no real bureaucracy, and were more focused on freedom than restriction.

Is that what the church looks like today? Can we imagine Peter poring over investment policy revisions, or Paul reading the latest theories on why you should have one third more seats than you do members? These activities aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but if we’re not careful we may start thinking and behaving as if the point of church is to perpetuate church, rather than to serve God.

One of Paul’s purposes in writing to the Roman (and other) churches was to encourage them to stick to the basics of the faith. Like present-day churches, the simple ideas and practices that bound them as a community began to accumulate individual and cultural restrictions. Like barnacles on a ship – sometimes known as fouling organisms – these additions adversely impacted the performance and structure of the church. Paul told the Romans they needed to scrape off “fouling” ideas.

Today’s church can be just as prone to fouling ideas. Most of the time we can recognize them because they separate us from each other or the world around us. Any time we decide someone who professes dedication to Christ is not a “real” Christian because their denomination, practices, or identity don’t fit our mold, we are probably victims of fouled faith. Rifts have developed over everything from whether coffee is allowed in the sanctuary to politically correct language in hymns to the proper order of a liturgy. As Christians, we are called to find ways to rise above such trivialities and unite rather than divide.

Paul adds a wrinkle though: we can’t just write off people with sincerely held belief in more rules than we believe as silly or misguided. In Paul’s example, the “strong” who believed no food was unclean didn’t need to make a show of eating certain foods to the “weak” who clung to prior practices. Relationship with Christ and God is central to faith and community, so causing someone to feel they were undermining that relationship was not “walking in love;” if someone believed something was unclean, it was indeed unclean to them. Your stumbling blocks and someone else’s may differ.

Of course, if it’s our belief-barnacle we will struggle to recognize it as such, and the older and bigger it is, the more difficult it will be to scrape off. Then there’s the danger that in our zeal to tear off the non-essentials we carelessly go too far and scrape away part of the hull; we don’t want to damage or discard what is necessary and true. And there’s the balance of community: learning to respect each other’s sincerely held beliefs and practices without imposing them on each other – and over time stripping away all that is not part of Christ.

Faith is not always simple, but let’s resist the temptation to complicate it unnecessarily. If we focus on winning souls instead of winning arguments, the barnacles on our faith fall away much more easily.

Comfort: Christ is the lens that focuses our faith.

Challenge: What barnacles have you accumulated? Scrape them off.

Prayer: God of Abundance, I will keep my eye on Christ. Amen

Discussion: If you’re not a sailor, barnacles may not mean much to you. What are some other metaphors for religious or spiritual “clutter?”

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The Rule of Lawlessness

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, 2 Samuel 2:1-11, Acts 15:36-16:5, Mark 6:14-29


Today’s passage from Acts introduces Timothy, a young disciple who had a Jewish mother and a Greek father. Paul wanted to take on Timothy as a protégé, but he knew the observant Jews he wanted to reach would never listen to a Jew who followed Greek customs, so he had Timothy circumcised. This may seem contradictory to the stance he’d taken only a little while before, when the leaders of the church decided Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to follow Christ.

Were there rules or weren’t there?

For an evangelist who preached that we are saved by grace and not deeds, Paul had an awful lot to say about how we should behave. What is the proper role of rules in Christian life? Rather than try to create rules about rules (which sounds like a sure way to induce Inception-level brain cramping), let’s consider some context.

Foregoing circumcision for the gentiles was a matter of inclusivity for fellow believers – of not using the same law Israel had failed to uphold as an excuse to exclude. With Timothy, Paul wanted to do whatever was necessary to reach the as-yet-unconvinced Jews. Timothy’s credentials as a believer were already firmly established. He and Paul were motivated not for his salvation, but for the salvation of others.

Perhaps that’s a good guideline for what rules matter. We can’t function as a community – secular or religious – without some commonly understood boundaries. In secular society the rules are mainly about personal rights and property. In Christian community, the rules – which we are each meant to enforce on ourselves, not others – are about embodying love for God and neighbor.  We are to embrace service and reject exploitation. The rules Jesus laid out for us were rarely (never?) quantifiable like a business transaction or a tax, but rather qualitatively transformed how we think about God and each other.

We don’t behave in specific ways to earn love; we behave in ways that express our eternal gratitude for God’s unearned love. The burden is light because it has not been forced upon us, but chosen by us.


Additional Reading:
For more thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Entrance Exams and It’s complementary, my dear Christian.
Read a reflection on today’s scripture from Mark in The Staircase.

Comfort: We are freed from the law and bound by love.

Challenge: No rule today. Create a challenge for yourself – one that you believe will express gratitude to God.

Prayer: Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. (Psalm 85:8)

Discussion: What kinds of rules are important to you? What kinds are not? Why?

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Are we having fun yet?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Jeremiah 30:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 6:1-11


The opening paragraphs of Paul’s letter to the Colossians are nothing short of joyful. He is thankful for the love they show one another. He commends them for the good fruits they bear. He encourages them to continue growing in strength, patience, and all the blessings found in the glory of God. And he celebrates with them the redemption and forgiveness found in Christ.

Contrast this with our passage from Luke. The Pharisees in the temple condemn hungry disciples for simply plucking a few heads of wheat to crush between their fingers and eat, because these actions break the strict interpretation of some Sabbath prohibitions. When, on another Sabbath, a man with a withered hand appears in the temple, Jesus practically dares them to stop him from healing the man. In their midst the miraculous power of God is revealed. How do they keep from shouting in wonder, applauding, or singing praises? Somehow they manage. And what’s more, they resent it so much they further their plot against him.

Faith is joyful, but religion can suck the joy right out of it.

It seems like every church has a person or clique who appoint themselves to the Corrections Committee. The Corrections Committee is sure to tell us when we improperly pass the collection plate, when we volunteer for a duty that belongs to someone else (because it always has), or when we’ve mowed the grass in the wrong pattern. Typical members of the Corrections Committee complain about how they seem to have to do everything themselves, yet refuse to give anything up.

For your own peace of mind and spirit, resist all urges to join the Corrections Committee. It will never lack members waiting to pounce on a misplaced sugar bowl. Instead, seek reasons to find the joy in your faith community. Celebrate the history of the Spirit in your fellowship, but don’t chain it to the past. Most importantly, don’t deny people a place at Christ’s table because they don’t know which fork to use. Life and faith are hard enough. Don’t keep the joy under lock and key.

Comfort: Christ’s burden is light!

Challenge: So don’t make it unnecessarily heavy for yourself or others.

Prayer: God of Grace and Mercy, I will seek the joy you offer. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found yourself serving on the Corrections Committee?

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The Gospel Unleashed

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Zephaniah 2:1-15, Revelation 16:1-11, Luke 13:10-17


A woman, who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit, came to Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Of course he healed her, and of course – as with all his Sabbath healings – the leaders of the synagogue were angry with him. They also scolded the woman for not coming on one of the six other days of the week when such activity was permissible. Jesus replied:

You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

His opponents were shamed, and the crowd rejoiced.

Jesus nailed the hypocrisy. Enforcing laws against things you find sinful is easy when you aren’t affected by them. None of the synagogue leaders suffered a similar affliction, so it didn’t impact them a bit if she had to wait, but they would unlawfully untie a knot for a thirsty beast.

Still today many Christians demand civic laws against sins which don’t impact them. Unsurprisingly, they are less supportive of legislation enforcing Christ’s instructions like inviting the poor into our homes, giving away our second coats to those who have none, and doing good to those who wrong us. We want the government to prohibit gay marriage and abortion (though not all Christians agree on these issues) because we are a “Christian nation” … but when it comes to our money, the government has no business dictating the conscience of individuals. Now excuse me while I untie my ox.

If we need laws to behave, we are not faithful – we are fearful. When we prioritize rules over relationships, we have forgotten that at the end of each legalistic leash is a human being. If our witness for Christ is unpersuasive, the problem lies not in our government, or in our corrupted society, but in us. Let us live as Christ instructed, and the Gospel really will seem like good news.

Comfort: Faith exists regardless of circumstance.

Challenge: When watching or reading the news, be aware of people promoting a civic Christianity at the expense of Christ.

Prayer: Lord of the Gospel, perfect my witness to Christ until it shines like a beacon on a hill. Amen.

Discussion: What is a healthy level of overlap between our faith lives and civic lives?

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