Thursday, October 5, 2017

Still in kindergarten?

Ask any churchgoing five-year-old, and they’ll tell you what sin is. It’s wrong things we do. Saying bad words, or being mean, or killing people. Stuff like that. 

So when you ask that same child why Jesus died, they’ll say, “To forgive our sins.” 

I used to show a video clip from time to time called, “Is Your Faith Still In Kindergarten?” It showed a 40-something man going through a day in kindergarten class. He looked ridiculous, as you might well imagine. 

Trouble is, most of us have never really explored what the Bible says about sin. So we have never really learned what the Bible says about our “sin problem” or why Jesus died. So we, good kindergarteners all, believe Jesus died to forgive our sin, and we assume that sin means bad things we do. Killing people and stuff. Cheating on your taxes. Spitting out your gum on the sidewalk. Sampling grapes in the produce department without paying for them. 

You know, bad stuff. 

This gets tough, because we’re not good at pulling this out and looking at it. What I want to do here is walk with you through a problem nearly all of us have. We believe sin is bad things we do, so we assume that if we just didn’t do bad things, God would be happier with us. So we set up a list, conscious or unconscious, of rules — principles by which a Good Person should live. And then we try to be Good People and live by our lists of rules. And we spend a lot of time evaluating how we’re doing — how much good we do and how much bad we do.

As soon as we make that move, we have abandoned biblical Christianity. 

I was struck this morning by what Oswald Chambers wrote in his excellent devotional, My Utmost For His Highest. I don’t always track with Chambers, but I read him nearly every morning. His thoughts about following Jesus always challenge me and very often encourage me. This morning his devotional included these words:

“The nature of sin is not immorality and wrongdoing, but the nature of self-realization which leads us to say, ‘I am my own god.’ This may exhibit itself in proper morality or improper immorality, but it always has the common basis of my claim to my right to myself. When our Lord faced either people with all the forces of evil in them, or people who were clean-living, moral and upright, He paid no attention to the moral degradation of the one, nor to the moral attainment of the other. He looked at something we cannot see, namely the nature of man (see john 2:25).”

Really? Jesus paid no attention to the moral uprightness of people? Jesus didn’t pay attention to whether people did good or bad things? Maybe. Or more like, good and bad looked different to Jesus than they usually look to us. To Jesus, being in a close relationship with God was good, and being far from God was bad. And that relationship with God was not necessarily affected the way we think by our “good” or “bad” behavior. In fact, very often Jesus pointed out how our “good” behavior got in the way of having a good relationship with God! (See for example Luke 18:9-14.)

Does this idea come up in the Bible? Oh, yes. It is actually woven all through the Bible, if you start looking. If you remember a story from your kindergarten Sunday School class, it’s probably about the Garden of Eden, where God placed the first people who then sinned, and now we’re all in trouble. But do you remember what was the name of the tree that bore the fruit they were not supposed to eat? It was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It was precisely that obsession with their own behavior, with their own goodness or lack of it, that Adam and Eve were not supposed to pursue. 


I’ve also been reading Isaiah as part of those same morning devotions. Yesterday I read Isaiah 28, where the prophet criticizes the religious establishment of his day — the priests and temple authorities — because they reduce God’s living word to “precept upon precept, line upon line” — in other words, they have made God’s Word into a list of rules they can keep. In the very next chapter, Isaiah 29, God speaks to these people and says, “this people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). Jesus quotes this verse to the religious establishment of his own day in both Matthew 15 and Mark 7. 

Understand, I believe it is better to be moral than immoral, to be good than bad. But when we reduce Jesus and what it means to follow him to a system of rules, we have sided with the scribes and Pharisees rather than with Jesus. That’s why they crucified him, because he was threatening their system of rules and precepts that kept them in some control. 

One more biblical example. The biblical word for this system of precepts, these principles of moral behavior, is “law.” In the last few verses of Galatians 3, Paul says that the law was given by God to be a “guardian.” This is a difficult word to translate from Greek into English. In Greek it’s paidegogeia and it wraps up our ideas of a nanny, a tutor, a guardian, a mentor. In wealthy Roman households, the paidegogeia was responsible to raise the heir as a child until he came of age and could take up his full authority in the household, acting as an adult. Paul says that the law is designed for us when we are spiritually immature, but when we come to Christ, we come into our inheritance, and we are no longer under the law but now we live by faith — by a relationship of trust in Jesus. 
So when we go back to the law, when we make lists of good and bad and focus on people’s behavior, we are, in biblical terms, going back to kindergarten — and not in a good way. 

What, then, is biblical Christianity? 

Simply put, it is a relationship. It is living in love with God by focusing on Jesus, knowing him and trying to follow him. Trusting that in some way you may or may not understand, what he did in his life, death, and resurrection opened up a new way for you to have a relationship with God. 

And if you think Jesus wants you and everybody else to "be good", you should re-read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) or read them for the first time — and then try living like Jesus lived. Love the unlovable people. Focus on building a relationship with God. Care for people your society says should be discarded. Invest in people and help them grow. Get less concerned about rules and more concerned about relationships. 

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