TRA 2nd June, 2002
Jesus Confronts A Legalist
This week we celebrate two important anniversaries of Wesley Mission. It is the 263rd anniversary of Rev John Wesley's conversion. This week, in 1738, his heart was "strangely warmed and an assurance was given unto me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." He gave rise to the Methodist church. Our congregation was the first of such to be planted in Australia in 1812. It is therefore the 189th anniversary of our ministry in Sydney. There has never been greater urgency than now to recover the great emphasis of John Wesley in the life of the Uniting Church.
The President of the Uniting Church Assembly, one of our most amazing and committed leaders, Rev Prof. James Haire, has warned frequently of the danger of our church becoming over regulated and coldly formal instead of being on fire for the Gospel and committed in care for people. That is exactly the philosophy of Wesley Mission, Sydney. Jesus once made the same point in a powerful encounter He had with a good man. The man was intelligent, understanding all the rituals of religion and regulations of the law. He was proud of his achievements and saw himself as one to keep other people right. He was right and he demanded other people be right. Jesus was to powerfully point out the inadequacy of just being right. Many people cannot cope with that. They respond: "Of course we should be right. We should always be in the right. There is no higher obligation than to be in the right." But being in the right can be an inadequate way of thinking against the spirit of Christ. One of the most famous encounters Jesus had was with a good living man who was always trying to do right.
This man, who knew all the regulations and practised all the rituals of his religion, Luke 10:25-39 "stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' ; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'" You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers…" Jesus then told the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. At the conclusion Jesus asked, "Which of these was neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." Mercy must always temper justice.
Usually we concentrate upon the brilliant parable but tonight concentrate on the man who asked Jesus the question, the man who knew the regulations and the rituals of his religion, but didn't have the spirit of Jesus. He was concerned with getting everything right, but he failed to relate with a neighbour in need. That kind of person still exists today. You find him in every church bureaucrat who is more bureaucrat than Christian. A bureaucrat from the NSW Synod of the Uniting Church wrote to me asking me to have two members of our staff brought before our Mission Council. He direction meant they were humiliated and disciplined for failing to deliver important documents to his office in time.
His letter to me started: "Re: Failure to Observe Regulation - 4.6.3 and 4.7.1 to 4.7.5" He was busy being right. He knows the regulations of the church and the rituals of his religion. But they were not being exercised in a compassionate manner. After all, one of the people concerned parks just near him in our car park, travels in the lift with him, works in the same building as him, and had the documents at all times within 25 metres of his desk. But being right he had to report the trespass, gain Council of Synod Executive support and write a letter concerning the regulations to humiliate these two staff! There is the inadequacy of being right!
That was not the way of Jesus. Jesus taught the regulations and rituals man a lesson on being a neighbour. Jesus never founded a religion of ritual and regulation. Great men of faith leave behind them codes of law, traditions of good deeds, systems of worship, which become established as religion. Buddha, Confucius, and Mahommed left a religion. But not Jesus! Jesus never wrote a book, created a law for living nor a code of behaviour. Neither did He found a religion.
CHRISTIANITY IS NOT A MATTER OF RITUAL.
When religion is mentioned in the New Testament, it is not in connection with anything Jesus advocated. Where it is mentioned, it is as a superstition. In some translations religion Acts 25:19,17:22, actually means superstition. Another Greek word rendered religion in the New Testament indicates the rituals and trappings of ceremonial faiths. Acts 26:5; Col. 2:16; James 1:26-27 Jesus saw religion as the great enemy of Godly faith. More than anything else Jesus attacked the hypocrisy of those people.
They held the externals of religion without possessing an inner life of piety and deeds of compassion for the needy. Religious action without inner personal commitment to God, and deeds of charity to the needy, He regarded as hypocrisy. His most angry responses were to those who held themselves to be religious because they obeyed all the religious practises, but without personal piety and caring deeds.
Jesus challenged the rituals of His day. He castigated the priests and the scribes and overturned the Temple money-changers tables and drove their sacrifices out. He opposed their system, their profiteering, and their insistence on obeying the externals of religion while not responding to the inner meaning. Jesus saw religion is humanity's response to God, but Christianity is God's response to human need. As Paul wrote to Timothy, lovers of ritual are seen 2 Tim 3:5 " having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them." True religion was worshipping God with a true spirit, and in doing deeds to help others. James 1:27 "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
CHRISTIANITY IS NOT A MATTER OF REGULATIONS.
"The Uniting Church in Australia has too many regulations." That was not my statement. It was said by the first President of the Assembly of the Uniting Church, Prof Davis McCaughty. He continued, "We could disposed of half of them, and it wouldn't matter which half!" Religion tries to make people good. Christianity says you cannot make yourself right with God.
Religion promotes goodness denying the New Testament basis of God's grace and our faith. The struggle to be a person always right is the ideology of humanism. People strive to be good humans. Humanism is the current religion of most Australians. Our ultimate praise is "He's a good bloke." The conflict between Christianity and humanism is a conflict of ultimate standards. Christianity evaluates our performance not by national averages nor a lowest common denominator of human behaviour. Goodness is not defined by statistical normalcy. Christianity asserts that a normal person is fallen sinful person. The standard of goodness is found only in the holiness of God, not in human relativity. The problem of relativised standards can be seen vividly in Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler. Luke 18 The young man approaches Jesus with a spirit of enthusiasm asking, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Within the breast of the rich young ruler beats the heart of a thorough-going humanist. His unspoken thought was obviously, "Oh, is that all I have to do? Well, I'm in pretty good shape to inherit eternal life. I'm not bad like other people."
That is what most Australians think. If we do not murder, steal, commit adultery, we think we are good! Jesus' did not argue with the man. Instead Jesus said to him, "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and come, follow Me." Why did Christ change the whole conversation from goodness to giving money to the poor? Because Jesus started with the first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," and put the young man to the test. He could not even pass that test for "when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich." v.23
The issue was not about money but about goodness. The man wanted eternal life on the basis of having spent a life not lying, stealing and murdering, but he did not want to trust in God's grace to gain that inheritance, and demonstrate his faith by acts of charity and love. Many people believe they have lived a life of being right that will be good enough to get them to heaven. Since they have been fairly decent, they assume God will accept them gratefully! So at funerals a list of their good points is read out. But the Bible states that none of us, no matter how good, can stand before God. Romans 3:10,23 "There is no one righteous, not even one; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
The Bible says that no matter how right someone is, no-one is right enough to meet God's standard. For we are not measured by our standards, but God's. We need God's help to become part of God's family. God has provided that help in Jesus. The disciples asked Jesus: John 6:28-29 "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent." We must believe in Christ as God's provision for our salvation. Jesus' death on the cross paid the penalty for our sin. We must accept that sacrifice by faith and express it in care for others. A religion of keeping the regulations without doing good deeds is not enough. It takes belief and God's grace to save us. Christianity is neither a performance of rituals nor the obeying of regulations. Instead Christianity is a relationship. The Old Covenant promise, "I will be your God, you shall be my people" would find complete fulfilment only in the incarnate Christ.
CHRISTIANITY IS A RELATIONSHIP.
It was a movement from God to humanity. Salvation can never be our achievement. We cannot earn or merit or deserve our salvation no matter what rituals we perform or what regulations we obey. All religion is an attempt by humans to get right with God. Jesus never came to establish a religion, because we cannot ever redeem ourselves. "Not the labour of my hands, Can fulfil Thy Law's demands. Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, All for sin could not atone, Thou must save, and Thou alone!" Augustus Toplady
That is the meaning of the coming of Jesus: John 10:10 "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." Life, not religion! Dr W.E.Sangster preached in Westminster Hall, London: "He wrote no book: He formed no creed: He framed no code. This was His method; we have it in the text, 'And He chose twelve, that they might be with Him.' Ah! that is it! 'That they might be with Him.' " Do you live in a relationship with Jesus Christ? Could people say of you as of the Apostles, Acts 4:13 'They took note that they had been with Jesus'? Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it as "religionless Christianity". Worship and beliefs are part of Christianity. But Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with the one true God through your faith in Jesus Christ. Christian faith is not a religion. It is a living, vital relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Claim that friendship now! That is exactly what John Wesley discovered this week in 1738: "my heart was strangely warmed and an assurance was given unto me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
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