Monday, December 08, 2008

Countdown to Christmas

It is really incredible to think we are coming up to Christmas and to the end of 2008.  My biggest concern at the moment is preparing my sermons for Christmas.  What is there to say that hasn't been said many times before and far better?  And yet, this is surely one time in the year when we all desperately need reminding of the meaning of the mystery of the incarnation.  So this is the challenge: to express the inexpressible and do so in a away that isn't glib, cliche-ridden, or gimmicky.  It's going to be quite a challenge!

Here is the final talk in my latest series of radio broadcasts!

Talk Five: Different Choices 

‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’, St Paul tells the Christians at Rome.  The way we serve God now is not based on the Law, with its rules and commandments, but on love; love which is given to us by the Holy Spirit as we seek to become like Christ himself. 

In the first place, this is about character, not actions.  Simply because someone does not murder, steal, lie, or commit adultery does not mean that they are like Jesus.  Becoming like Jesus means a whole change in the direction of our lives and its motivation.  Of course, it means, for example, that we won’t murder, but as, Jesus says, it means that we won’t hate as well.  We will want to get our inner attitude right as well as our outward behaviour. 

It is possible to do the right thing and still be wrong.  Getting it right as a Christian in the way we live involves much more that getting it right on certain ethical issues and moral choices.  Doing what God wants is not confined to ticking the right boxes on a moral questionnaire.  Paul tells us that adultery is out for a Christian, but so is quarrelling and jealousy.  We are to be kind, tender-hearted and gentle.  Too much moral discussion in the Church focuses on the difficult ethical issues: homosexuality, war, abortion, and such like as if getting it right on these big issues defines the Christian life.  It doesn’t: it is only when our character is being conformed to the image of Christ that we are living the Christian life irrespective of our position on difficult ethical issues. 

But what about the issues and what happens when Christians disagree?  In chapter 14 of Romans, Paul deals with one ethical issue that was troubling and dividing people in his own day.  Some ate meat and vegetables, others only vegetables!  This is not an argument over vegetarianism!  The Law gave strict regulations about what could and could not be eaten and how food should be prepared and served.  Meat in Rome would often have previously been offered in sacrifice to pagan gods and so would not fulfil the requirements of the Law.  Some felt it was just easier not to eat meat at all.  Others felt that it didn’t matter now.  We were freed from the Law in any case. 

Paul believed this himself and ate meat without worrying about where it came from.  But in Romans he argues that each person needs to be persuaded in their own mind.  The one who eats meat is doing it in service of God and the one who doesn’t eat meat is also doing it in service of God.  Paul doesn’t try to persuade people to his way of thinking.  But what he does say is what matters is not what moral choice you make, but the effect that choice has on another member of the Church. 

If my decision to eat meat hurts another Christian, then I should be prepared to forgo what I consider my right so as not to hurt another Christian.  What matters is not being in the right, but having a right attitude to my brother and sister in Christ for whom he died.  Each one of us will have to give an account of ourselves for our own life and the choices we make, says Paul.  We would do better then, he tells them, not to argue with and judge another person and their behaviour, but to worry more about our own.  As long we as are seeking to honour God in what we do and can offer our actions to God, it is not for anyone to judge us or for us to judge them.  We need to stop worrying about someone else’s behaviour and start worrying about our own.

For some, this all seems too tolerant and permissive.  Are there no moral absolutes?  Is there nothing that we must insist on when it comes to Christian behaviour?  In fact, there is one thing that Jesus does insist on absolutely and on which there can be no moral compromise:  forgiveness.  We are not only not to judge one another; we are to forgive one another.  Instead of arguing, criticising, and condemning, we are to forgive.  Not seven times, but seventy-times seven!  This is what we are doing when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. 

If it can be said of a Church that it is a place where people forgive one another, then we will be well on our way to becoming the sort of moral community God wants us to be.  

However much we may disagree on various headline moral issues. 

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