Acts 16:9-15 & John 14:23-29
I’ve just finished reading a novel which took the form of a parable of a man’s journey to faith. This guy is a technology whizz kid, and at one stage he decides that the best way for him to help people follow Jesus is to go through the Bible and draw together all Jesus’ teaching into a computer programme so that anybody facing a difficult decision can load it up, input the details, and the software would tell them what to do, based on all the information from Jesus’ teaching. The angel who is guiding the man doesn’t think that this is such a good idea. He explains that following Jesus isn’t about following a whole series of complicated rules, and much more about knowing and being known, loving and being loved, fighting and dying alongside Jesus so that we can also live in his triumph.
When I was preparing for this sermon, it struck me that if we were going to demonstrate our love for Jesus by obeying his commands, then it would be good to know what they were. So I did a bit of a search on the internet and found lists that people had very helpfully prepared by going through the gospels, and every time Jesus says “I tell you” noting down what he said. Most of the lists had around 50 commands on them.
But as I read them the points that the angel in the book made came back to me. Surely following Jesus isn’t about pinning up a list of rules in church, or on your fridge at home and making sure you stick to them. We know from the whole of the story of the people of God through the Old Testament that maintaining a relationship with God on the basis of rules doesn’t work. People can’t do it. We know that the only way that we can walk with God is by the gift of Jesus, it is only by grace, God’s riches at Christ’s expense, and not by works, not by the things that we do, that we are rescued from the darkness of our own selfishness.
Yet despite all this, we still have to face up to what Jesus said to his disciples, and what he says to us. “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching”. Jesus obviously took obedience very seriously, and if we want to follow him, then we need to as well.
The first thing that I want to point out is that Jesus teaches that obedience flows out of love. That is to say that we are able to follow Jesus’ commands because we are in relationship with him. It is the relationship, made possible by the cross, that frees us to obey. Love comes first and then obedience. The teachings of Jesus are not a test that we have to pass with a 100% pass mark before we are welcomed into his club. It’s not like taking an 11+ to get into Grammar school. It’s not that we obey so that we can be in relationship. It’s because of the relationship that we obey.
The second thing that I want to point out is that we are not on our own in this. The whole of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are on our side, working with us to help us to obey. Jesus gave us the teaching, which came from the Father in the first place. Then, when Jesus returned to the Father, he asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit to be with us and help us. The Holy Spirit helps us by reminding us and teaching us. So If we are to obey then we need to be listening and paying attention to the reminders and the teaching that the Holy Spirit is giving to us. We have got the whole resources of heaven helping us to obey. We have God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit working with us and for us to enable us to obey. And if that isn’t enough, God has also given us a written record of the teaching that we are to obey, that we are to live by. If we are to obey as Jesus says then we need to be spending time getting to know what is in here. Reading it, listening to it, absorbing it.
The third thing that I would like to point out is the outcome of all this. The outcome of all this obeying is peace. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that it is immediately after talking about obedience that Jesus talks about the peace that he leaves with his followers. Now I often find in my life that obedience is more often tied up with conflict than peace. Almost by definition, if I’ve been told to do something then I’m going to want to do something else, even if I can see the sense of what I’ve been told. I just hate being told what to do. I really hate it. So I battle. I battle with the person telling me. I battle with myself to make myself do it. I battle with my anger towards the person telling me. I really hate being obedient, and it is very rarely a peaceful experience. Yet it is only by obeying Jesus, that I have any hope of experiencing real, unshakable, peace. Because Jesus is completely trustworthy, so as I obey his commands I know that I can do so with peace in my heart because they really are for the best. I know that as I obey I will find myself at peace with God, with others and in myself.
So, we obey because we love. We obey the teaching we have passed down to us in the Bible, with the help of the God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As we obey we find peace.
This is all very well in theory, but how does it work in practice?
Maybe a couple of examples might help. You might agree with me about this issue, or you might not. This might be something God wants you to think about, or God might have other issues in your life that need straightening out. The important thing is that this is an example of how God bought something to my attention, so that I could obey.
Recently I’ve been visiting couples preparing for the weddings, or who want to bring their children to baptism and I’ve been struck by how many of them are being robbed of good, family time together by the 24-7 culture that we have developed in this country. We have come to expect that we should be able to buy anything we want at anytime. But it seems to me that this is having a really negative impact on family life. At the same time I was reading my way through the book of Nehemiah, and in chapter 10, verse 31, it says this, “if the peoples of the land bring in merchandise or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy it from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day.” As I reflected on the surrounding culture, and this verse, it seemed to me that I was, in a small way, responsible for the development of these working patterns, unless I choose not to be. I chatted this over with Liz, and we felt that God was calling us to change what we do. So we’ve decided not to shop on Sundays. This might be inconvenient at times, but I do feel more at peace because I know that I am less a part of the problem than I used to be.
Then there’s the story of how Liz and I came to be working here at St Mark’s. When I was at college, training for the ministry, Martin Heath from here started his first year when I was beginning my second year. We invited him and Jen round for dinner, and as we were talking he told me about Keith and the DCC’s vision to have a curate here, who would live in Etruria and reach out into that community. We were excited about the opportunities that provided, but there were some big questions for us. This is not the kind of church we were used to being part of, it would mean going to a part of the country that we didn’t know, and our decision would have a big impact on the lives of our children. Were we going to take them to a church where there were very few children. Wouldn’t we do better to see if I could get a job at a big church, with lots of children and families? Were we going to move to a place which had a poor reputation for its schools?
In the end, having talked to Keith and visited the parish, it became clear that God was calling us here, and all those questions boiled down to one very simple one: Were we going to obey God’s call?
As it turns out, the children have probably got more high quality faith teaching here than they would have done in a packed Sunday school with more children than leaders and the school that they go to has been really good for them. But we didn’t know those things in advance, we had to trust God and obey the call.
But for this to happen, we’re not the only ones who had to be obedient. That vision that I spoke about, for a curate living in Etruria, was born here. It was here that God first planted that idea, and called the people to pray for it, and to pray in and around Etruria. It was people here who went out and prayer walked around the Redrow Estate, and so found a suitable place for our family to live. It was obedience to the call of God by people here that laid the foundations for the work that we are part of now.
So I know that people at St Mark’s understand about the obedience that flows from love, that draws on the resources that heaven gives us, and that leads to peace. Are we willing to build on those foundations and to go further on this journey together, to even more radical obedience as the Holy Spirit reveals more of what God is calling us to?