On Living Christianly
- 1 November 2023
- Bruce Kaye
ON LIVING CHRISTIANLY
I was born just two months before Hitler invaded Poland and set in train the second world war. I was protected by my parents from the privations of the war but we had to move to Melbourne because of my father’s war related work for the Commonwealth government. In my teens the Cold War was a much more disturbing and puzzling thing. Like my peers I found some consolation in the distractions of Bill Hayley and the Comets with their rock and roll music, not so much with the more threatening tones of Elvis Presley. In the end I opted for Peter Tchaikovsky and Jean Sibelius for some respite from the confusion of the puzzling world in which I found myself. I became a christian in my late teens which gave me a clear point of reference. But even this did not deal with the puzzles, it only changed them. If anything, it made things more puzzling – indeed a puzzlement in itself.
I thought this was just my private personal journey. But in the late 1970s when I was working in Durham University in England I was sitting in a staff meeting when a colleague looked across the room and said in the hearing of all – ‘Hello Bruce, here you again, peering out through your glasses at the world, looking quite puzzled.’
In 2023 we live in an angry and violent world. Even the atmosphere of the planet knows that as a species we are reaching plague proportions. The planet itself is showing the effects of our presence in the degradation of its life.
Not only so, but the tacit assumptions that sustain our social lives are changing. Values are being changed and priorities relocated. Groups are re-configuring and older certainties don’t seem to hold so much. Churches are not significant as they once were because they were churches. Now its mainly because they do something that is socially useful like providing social welfare services supported with government money.
Such changes mean challenges and puzzlement about how we are to live as christians. The old certainties are drifting away.
JESUS THE JEWISH RABBI WAS A REFORMER NOT A REVOLUTIONARY
Here is the thing. Jesus appeared in Palestine as a reforming Jewish Rabbi. The gospel reading today reports a part of a series of debates between Jesus and the leading groups in the Judaism of his day.
- Herodians on paying tax
- The Sadducees, on life in the resurrection
- Pharisees – what is the greatest commandment in the law
In his account Mark includes a reference to a scribe – not a professional theologian like the others – who affirms Jesus’ answer and adds that loving God and the neighbour is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. Seeing that he answered wisely Jesus responds to this man – ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’
This remarkable commendation from Jesus points to a long running temptation in Israel’s religion. Israel was chosen by God to be his people. Israel belonged to God.
The law pointed to this essential belonging. It provided the framework that could sustain that relationship between God and Israel.
But the law was not the fundamental reality. The prophets in Israel constantly pointed to this truth, but often without much success.
It is a curiosity about our human condition that the visible and tangible can so easily overshadow the intangible and fundamental.
The Pharisees focussed on the signpost, and lost sight of the destiny to which the signpost pointed. That is what the scribe saw and why Jesus said he was not far from the kingdom of God.
Jesus, in his teaching was mostly a reforming Rabbi. Some things he said pointed beyond this role but they were rarely noticed or understood.
When Jesus asked his inner circle of disciples who they thought he was, Peter was the first to speak, probably not understanding the whole significance of what he blurted out ‘You are the Christ the son of the living God.’
Nonetheless these words were the beginning of the great transformation effected in the life, death and resurrection of Christ which the first generation of Christians found to be so puzzling.
THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION IN CHRIST
When the author of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament introduced his long explanation of christian faith he declared the foundation, not in terms of law as Moses had done, but in terms of a person.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
The early christians quickly realised that this personal revelation of God changed the whole pattern of the social life of God’s people from what pertained in Israel under the law.
It is not surprising that this move from the visibly institutional to the essentially personal was hard to grasp. It was puzzling to the first generation of christians.
But it is truth that underlies every document in the New Testament
HOW THEN TO BE A CHRISTIAN
Paul provides our most extensive evidence for this question.
He tries different images to convey this belonging to God in Christ.
Some are drawn from Jewish sources, some from Roman cultural elements
- A reconciled relationship with Christ an image with background associations of accounting
- Justified on the basis of Jesus death and resurrection an image with associations with legal change
- Adoption and necessarily inheritance an image taken from Roman law
- Being personally called by God perhaps an allusion to the prophets in Ancient Israel
- Deliverance / freedom as in slavery
- Dying and rising with Christ in a moral sense of dying to sin and living to God
These images are drawn from a variety of sources chosen to illustrate some aspect of the great new truth of the presence of God in Jesus Christ.
Other documents in the New Testament use other images but all these images, one way or another, point to the central and defining criterion – these are Jesus’ people, they are christians, they belong body and soul to Jesus Christ.
Paul’s personal testimony of being christian
In writing from prison to the Philippian christians Paul explains how he sees his life in relation to Christ.
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.
HOW TO L IVE IN THE SAME WORLD BUT WITH A NEW AND PUZZLING IDENTITY
These were people whose existence, identity, their very lives, had been so changed by belonging to Jesus Christ.
Yet they continued to live in the same town or city, the same social and political and economic context.
This great transformation created a new challenge for the first christians.
How then were they to shape their lives and manage their conduct with their radically changed identity as christians.
It is this issue that fills the pages of the letters in the New Testament. They are not so much concerned to elucidate doctrine, but to shape the lives of the communities and individuals to whom they were written.
The letters are filled with advice about how to live christianly. How to retrieve wrong paths and create constructive ways to proceed with their lives.
These letters show in multiple ways how Paul and the others were struggling to express how to live christianly. He does not have a specific idea of the model christian life that might be set up in contrast to the life of a Roman citizen. Rather in the ordinary acts of living he wants them to be able to work things out themselves how they might know what is best in the circumstances.
It is quite striking how often they focus on figuring things out.
Paul to the Philippians
as with when I am with you, so now when I am absent, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’
This insistence is also reflected in Paul’s prayers for his readers which begin most of his letters.
Typical of these prayers is in Philippians 1.3-11
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The first christian communities were learning environments. In the complications of the Roman world, they had to find ways of living christianly, to discover “what is best”, that is, what, in my actual present circumstances is the best way to live christianly.
LIVING CHRISTIANLY IN A CHANGING AND PUZZLING WORLD
The first generation of christians found themselves with a new and different personal identity. They had to figure out what that meant in the existing social context.
For us, here in this church this morning we come to this question with two thousand years of christian history and an Anglican tradition that is one and half thousand years old. One of our challenges is the historical baggage of a jaded and compromised institutional identity and in our own day the alienation of christian faith and practice from the mainstream of social life and attitudes.
The force of our contemporary culture means that it is not easy for us to see how the personal images that define our christianity can reasonably be related to the institutional and organisational aspects of society that so shape the circumstances of our lives.
There are some things we might learn from the puzzlement of the first generation of christians.
- Their communities were engaged learning places
- They did not have a correct answer for their challenges. They strove for what was best.
- They recognised their failures
- Pervasive themes in the first two centuries were humility and patience
- Paul made love preeminent and love, he said, was :
patient, kind, not envious or boastful, arrogant or rude. Does not insist on its own way, is not irritable, does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth, bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
In this context love was not an emotional disposition. It is a pattern of behaviour. These people were not violent revolutionaries. They were patient witnesses to the crucified Christ.
In difficult times it is easy to seek security by defending predecessor social values and habits. But following Christ invites us to rise from our challenges into a more confident hope that is more genuinely living christianly.
I recall that young academic observed fifty years ago peering out through his glasses, puzzled by what he saw. I still peer out through my glasses and I am often puzzled. Sometimes, of course, I am simply cruising through each day and it all seems so normal and familiar. But when I pause and pay more close attention to what is actually going on around me, below the surface, then it becomes deeply puzzling and, as a christian, seriously challenging.
On this day I offer you the example of the first generation of christians who had to learn how to live christianly in puzzling circumstances. They set themselves to learn how to live christianly. To live as people who belong to Jesus Christ.
In our circumstances today we could do a lot worse than follow their example as they tried to live christianly in their puzzling and challenging circumstances. They formed engaged communities to figure out how to live christianly. How to live as people who belonged to Jesus.
My word today is the same as that given by Paul to the christians in Colossae:
For this reason, since the day we heard of your love in the Spirit, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
May God give us grace and courage to find ways to live christianly in the midst of our puzzling and changing society.