Thursday, February 07, 2013

Oh Jesus, help

'Take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness' (Isaiah 58:9)
‘Christians! They do my head in sometimes!’ I was letting off some steam, chatting to my brother recently. ‘Gays! They do my head in sometimes, too!’ he replied (he’s gay). Just goes to show any group we belong to – even, or perhaps especially, those we derive something of our identity from – can be uncomfortable things to belong to.

I write a weekly Bible study for the members of the Jesus Army around the UK. This week I wrote about the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The issues threatening to tear apart Paul’s churches now seem rather remote to us – questions of Jewish law-keeping don’t generally cause too much hand-wringing in British churches today.

But that doesn’t stop Paul’s teaching, especially in this last section of Galatians, from being deeply relevant to us today when we consider some of the issues that do threaten to tear our churches up. So: read Galatians 6, and then, if you like, you’re invited to read what I wrote for the Jesus Army to ponder:

The crisis in Galatia (see Gal.1:6-7) had left the churches there deeply divided. Groups looked down on other groups as less ‘right’, even less Christian, and sneeringly condemned them. Paul has dealt with this at a theological level in the first five chapters of Galatians; now, to close, he deals with practical and heart issues surrounding conflict.

Christians’ dealings with each other should be characterised not by obsession with status or smug self-righteousness, but by a spirit of gentleness (v.1). Their heart should be to bear one another’s burdens (v.2), not to condemn one another. Ironically, self-important people make themselves the least important (v.3). Each person should take responsibility for their own life before seeking to take responsibility for others (v. 4-5, see Mt.7:3-5).

Paul urges a generous approach which focuses not on criticising and pulling down, but on giving and doing good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (v.6-10).

In his handwritten postscript (v.11-18), Paul brings his letter to its powerful conclusion. The true marks of a Christian are not about outward status (v.12-13); they are the marks of suffering love. Paul embodied this lifestyle – so different to the world’s power-hunger – in his own suffering (v.17), as did Jesus at the cross (v.14). Suffering love brings new life (v. 15). True followers of Christ – God’s true people, the Israel of God (v.16) – will take up their cross and live lives of grace (v.18).

Such a passage leaves me asking questions like: What is the difference between having a ‘spirit of gentleness’ and just being timid? How can I show generosity of spirit to those I meet, those I know? Who am I inclined to look down on, and how can I change this? And what does it really mean to have grace flowing from my spirit?

The New Testament isn’t just a book I read; the New Testament reads me. And it invites me to be more like its main character.

Oh Jesus, help.

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