Never on a Sunday


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 3:6-18, Romans 1:(26-27) 28-2:11, John 5:1-18

Do you play by the rules?

In theory we’re all expected to, but in practice they seem to apply to some of us more than others. How frustrating it is when people with wealth or influence can buy their way around the rules or the consequences of breaking them.

Still, most of us try to follow the rules.  Maybe not the same rules, but generally speaking our behaviors fall into patterns that we apply consciously and subconsciously. Some rules are taught to us by our families, some by society, and some by simple observation. Most are created for good reasons, but over time circumstances change and the rationale for many rules—including religious ones—grows distorted.

Rules can become so integral to our identities that breaking them, even when they cease to have meaning, threatens our sense of self. If that happens, we may find ourselves existing to serve the rules, rather than the other way around. When this happens, we begin to observe the technicalities of the rules rather than their spirit. Sometimes this looks like doing the bare minimum, and sometimes it looks like obsessive behavior.

The Sabbath healings of Jesus presented just such a threat to the Pharisees, whose identity depended on rules.

Since Sabbath healings – which were against the rules – appear in all four Gospels, we can assume the message of these stories is important. Rather than judge the Pharisees, let’s learn from their example.

Our expectations of other people’s behavior are often based on the rules we’ve imposed on ourselves. We may become offended when such expectations are not met, regardless of whether or not we’ve made said expectations clear. When this happens, we choose how to react: we can dig in our heels, or we can examine the reason for our offense. We needn’t automatically assume we are wrong, but self-examination never hurt anyone. Like Jesus, we need to consider when rules are appropriate, and when they should be superseded by compassion, justice, or love. In Christ we are a people of love, and not a people of law—even self-imposed law. Is the Sabbath made holier by offering mercy or withholding it?

But Christianity is not a free-for-all! Christ has expectations of his followers. Determining these expectations can be hard work, because “love your neighbor” is not nearly as explicit as a list of forbidden activities. Loving someone doesn’t absolve them – or us – of accountability. Christ didn’t offer formulas for faith, but principles for relationships with our God and our neighbor. Our rule is love, and its accompanying expectations can change with each person we encounter.

Comfort: You are more than the rules you follow.

Challenge: When someone doesn’t meet your expectations, ask yourself whether you made that person aware of them.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me when to be merciful, and when to stand strong. Amen.

Discussion: Has assuming someone should “just know” something ever caused trouble for you?

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Temptation Situation


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 20:1-21, Colossians 1:24-2:7, Matthew 4:1-11

A friend once said no matter how obviously stupid a behavior is, if there’s a law against it someone has tried it. So the Baltimore, Maryland law against taking a lion to the movies really gives one pause. A more sobering example, child labor laws exist because not enough people found it otherwise important not to exploit children. My friend also said if we passed a law against drinking bleach, Clorox speakeasies would pop up everywhere. It can be hard to tell whether rules were made to be broken, or  made for the broken.

After God announced the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the people of Israel fled from the foot of the mountain and begged Moses not to let God speak to them directly. They said they feared hearing God’s voice would kill them, but it probably also shamed them. Indirectly God was saying: “I know what’s in your hearts: murder, adultery, theft. Just don’t.” When Moses said God was trying to put fear into them so they would not sin, he really meant fear. Sometimes it’s all that keeps us in line.

Whether or not we are optimistic about human nature, Jesus demonstrates we can be better. Preceding his ministry, he fasted in the desert for forty days. Afterward, when he was at his weakest, the devil tried to tempt him.

Turn the stones to bread?
Man lives on every word from the mouth of God. 

Prove yourself by leaping off this cliff and letting angels save you?
Don’t test the Lord.

Worship me and rule all you see?
Worship no one but God.

Jesus said these things were written, and they were, but except for the third they weren’t hard and fast rules. There was no law about turning stones to bread, no specific definition of testing the Lord. Christ consistently showed us obedience to the law was only the beginning of being faithful to God. He tells us love is stronger than fear. He invites us to be more than followers of law, but lovers of God and humankind. When love trumps fear, obedience is not a burden but a joy.

Comfort: Everyone is tempted. We can depend on Christ to help us resist.

Challenge: We like to believe willpower should be enough to handle temptation, and can be pretty hard on ourselves when we feel we’ve failed. Read this article on the limitations of willpower and how to make real change.

Prayer: Gracious God, thank you for loving me enough to set rules, and trusting me enough to live beyond them. Teach me to rely on your love to make good and just choices. Amen.

Discussion: How can you implement the principles you read about in the challenge link?

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Breaking the Law


Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Genesis 15:1-11, 17-21, Hebrews 9:1-14, John 5:1-18

The fourth commandment is “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.” For most Christians Sunday is the Sabbath but after church is over it’s not much different than the rest of the week. We are free to go shopping, eat out, and do as we please. Therefore we may underestimate the enormity of Jesus’ decision to perform a healing miracle on the Sabbath. This wasn’t someone declining an opportunity to “take it easy” – it was an act of defiance punishable by death.

For observant Jews, the Sabbath is a day of rest and worship, beginning at sunset on Friday and ending with the appearance of the first three stars on Saturday evening. Sabbath is rich with traditions, prayers, obligations, and rules. One key Sabbath concept is that no work is to be done: even candles must be lit and food prepared in advance. Today it is a strictly religious tradition observed more closely by some Jews than others, but among Jesus’ contemporaries there was no distinction between religious and secular law.

What might have been important enough to Christ to merit this act of disobedience? Mercy.

Could he have waited to heal the ailing man? Possibly. People had walked past and over this lame man for decades. Jesus didn’t break rules just for the sake of breaking them: by choosing mercy over law on the Sabbath, he demonstrated that mercy is always God’s highest priority. No excuse – our own need to be “holy” or even the threat of punishment – justifies withholding it.

For all our claims to be a people freed of legalism, Christians have developed plenty of rules to stand between us and mercy. From baptisms to funerals and everything between, we have our own unclean persons, our own restricted privileges, and our own inviolable traditions. Conscience tells us when mercy is the right response, but fear of breaking the rules and being punished by our social group may keep us from exercising it. When the Spirit prompts us, let’s be brave enough to break a rule or two and touch that “untouchable” person with our hands, hearts, and words.

Comfort: The Lord wants us to love mercy – that means receiving as well as giving.

Challenge: Critically consider whether  rules you have set up for yourself get in th way of being merciful to others.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: What does our willingness (or unwillingness) to show mercy say about our relationship with Christ?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

The Rule of Lawlessness


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?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!