Rev’d Jonathan Gale
The Roman Empire lasted from anything between 503 yrs and 1430 years, depending on how you understand it. The point is, both Jesus and St Paul (who was a Roman citizen) lived when Rome was the undisputed ruler of the world.
A young Roman experienced three phases in his life – and we’ll go with the male here for the sake of the illustration.
- A young child of well-to-do parents between birth and 6 pretty much did what he pleased: gave the slaves a hard time and behaved as most toddlers to.
By the age of 5 the Romans believed a child had developed enough rationality to begin taking on responsibilities. This was the first hint that there was more to life than doing your own thing.
- At the age of 7 the second stage was formally entered into. Boys were educated. They were taught either by an educated slave (a tutor) at home or in groups in school. Learning in Roman schools was based on fear. Boys were beaten for the slightest offence as a belief existed that a boy would learn correctly and accurately if he feared being caned if he got something wrong. You could say the norms of Roman civilization were beaten into him.
- This went on until 15 years of age, when a boy would go through a formal process of coming of age and he would be considered an adult who took full responsibility for his life. By now the boy was aware of what was expected of him and his new-found status and freedom as an adult generally resulted in him willingly embracing his new role.
It’s probably a co-incidence, but these three phases (the Toddler, the Pupil and the Adult) coincide with something I have mentioned before and which I’m going to expand on slightly this morning:
That is, the 3 ways in which we can relate to God:
- The Toddler does his own thing. He has Licence – We too can behave that way towards God. i.e. licentiousness or lawlessness, ignoring God altogether and focussed on ourselves
- The Pupil is trained. He comes increasingly and painfully under the Law – We too can behave that way towards God. We can relate to God in terms of obedience because we fear the consequences of not pleasing God.
- The Adult has both freedom and a willingness to engage with society in a way that is mutually beneficial. Society has accepted him. He understands that there is much to be gained from this lifestyle. We too can relate to God like that when we understand Grace – i.e. we can embrace God in loving relationship because we have been embraced by Christ and know him.
These ways of relating to God correspond to 3 phases of biblical history:
- After the Fall – i.e. the separation of humankind from God by sin, humankind pretty much did its own thing. This is summarised in Genesis 6: 5 The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.
- After the Old Testament or Covenant between God and Israel where God made it plain what was required for righteous living and expected Israel to toe the line that was laid out clearly in the Law of Moses.
- After the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which brought about the New Testament or Covenant between God and humankind where God embraces all in a relationship of love.
And it’s not as though we are fixed into any one of these ways of relating to God all the time. While God has made provision for us to have a loving relationship through and with Jesus, if I allow that relationship to grow cold (if I ignore it) I am left with the sense of the demands of God – i.e. I slip into Law/legalism. I live by duty. I move from spiritual adult mode to spiritual pupil mode.
If I continue to ignore God, my conscience is seared and I slip into a state of turning my back on God. I am doing my own thing: or at least I like to think it’s my own thing. I live by fulfilling my selfish desires. I refuse to acknowledge any authority beyond myself. I move into spiritual toddler mode.
If, in my state of licentiousness, I turn to God again I am faced with my sin. In other words I am confronted by the Law and my lack of obedience.
If I continue to reach out to God and repent of my lack of obedience I find the only solution to my problem is the grace of God in Jesus. As I draw close to God my relationship is restored and I find myself in a state of grace.
This morning we read the 10 Commandments: the very essence of the Law. The Law, as we have seen, has a vital function in making us aware of our shortcomings so that we turn to Christ.
Paul summarises this in two verses:
- Romans 7: 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
- Galatians 3: 24 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
That word disciplinarian is interesting. It is the word for the educated slave who, in a Roman household, was the tutor who belted the truth into the sons of the household. In other words, says Paul, the law has a purpose but its effectiveness disappears when you become an adult.
The Law is useful because it makes us aware of our need for forgiveness but if we stop there and try to live lives that please God without handing ourselves over entirely to Christ, we might be Jews, but we are not Christians.
In our New Testament reading from Philippians this morning Paul says,
8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,* the righteousness from God based on faith.
If you’re unsure as to the nature of your relationship then turn to the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading this morning:
43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The ‘you’ here Jesus is referring are the chief priests and the Pharisees, the representatives of Judaism.
In other words all we have to ask ourselves is, “Am I producing the fruits of the kingdom?”
In John 15 Jesus says 15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.*
There it is: remain in me – i.e. remain in relationship with me. A relationship with Jesus that influences how we think and act will see us producing the fruits of the kingdom. It’s all about our relationship with Jesus!
Let’s be honest: when we honestly assess our lives we probably realise we have some way to go in this.
And if I or you hear these words and feel uncomfortable, all we are experiencing is the force of the Law. We have a sense that we are not living up to the expectations of God.
If we don’t feel condemnation we are either so far into licentiousness that our consciences are seared OR our relationship with Jesus is in good condition and we experience no guilt – we are producing the fruits of the Kingdom.
The only job I have, really, is bringing to people’s attention where they might be in relationship to God and in providing experiences in worship, pastoral care and prayer so that they might be assisted in responding to the Spirit’s promptings to do what Paul in our reading this morning described as follows:
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;* but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved,* I do not consider that I have made it my own;* but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly* call of God in Christ Jesus.
In the words of the inimitable Bob Dylan who also happens to be the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature:
Well I’m pressing on
Yes, I’m pressing on
Well I’m pressing on
To the higher calling of my Lord.
Let’s make sure that we are doing so too.
Scriptures for today:
Matthew 21: 33 – 46
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9, 12 – 20