Those of you who have read previous bloggages of mine may get the impression that I am not the greatest advocate of our current government’s policies and approach. You may well be correct. I did not greet yesterday’s news that Boris Johnson has been elected as leader of the Conservative Party (and hence going to be the new Prime Minister*) with any sense of joy.
And now I am torn. Because although my political views are at odds with our government there is also a strong mandate in the Bible for Christians to pray for those in government and, so far as there is no conflict with my faith, to remain a good citizen of my country, I can do that. Heaven knows that our country is greatly in need of those prayers!
And I have to accept that, however much I disagree with the current government and however much I am astonished or dismayed at the choice of the new Prime Minister, I am supposed to honour them.
1 Peter 2:17: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”
Honour is difficult. It is often something that we feel should be deserved or earnt. But in the Bible it is (usually relating to God, but also to parents and others) something that is due because of who the person is and the role they fulfil.
So if I am meant to honour the emperor, what does that mean? I think it means that I am to honour the office, the role, and the task. It means that I should be respectful of those who have the incredibly difficult job of leading this fractured country, whether or not I support their policies. It means that I should be praying for them, especially if I disagree with them. And it means I will try not to make derogatory comments on social media, or ‘liking them’ no matter how much I may agree with them or find them amusing. To do so dishonours those who are our leaders.
But let’s be clear about this: praying for and honouring does not mean endorsing. Being a good citizen does not mean acquiescing when I believe that something is wrong. Doing those things does not mean that I support the government. It does not mean that I cannot protest against injustice and campaign for the poor and marginalised. It does not mean I can’t write to my MP about issues that concern me (I am not sure whether I am on his blacklist now after all the letters I have written).
So don’t expect me to keep quiet about what I believe is wrong, but do expect me to be respectful, prayerful and honouring in the process.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*Rant warning: please can we remember that Prime Minister is two words. It irritates me no end when it is reduced to Pry-Minister by lazy reporters on the telly. Harrumph.
Doesn’t it strike you as odd? In the midst of one of the most profound and exciting theological documents ever written we find an admission of failure by the author.
I am talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is a theological gold mine, with a rich seam of gold sprinkled with priceless jewels of truth about Jesus.
And then we find this:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!
It’s Romans chapter 7 (NIV). What was it that motivated Paul to write this very personal admission? If you read the preceding verses we see that Paul is talking about our new life in Christ. In that life we are no longer bound by the law (by which he means the codified rules and regulations of the Old Testament and the assorted regulations that had grown up around them) but we live in freedom because of Jesus. Paul is not denigrating the Old Testament law but he recognises that all it could do is bring an awareness that we have fallen short of the standards.
It seems to me that as he was dictating this letter he realised the truth that whilst we have freedom from the effects of sin in Christ and God’s Spirit is at work in us to transform us and make us more and more like Jesus, we are also prone to falling short of God standards (and the law reminds us of that). As a Christian leader, looked up to and perhaps even revered by many people, Paul was perhaps more acutely aware of his own weakness and failure. When people are put on pedestals one of the problems is that they are slightly further out of reach and imperfections and blemishes are less obvious.
Perhaps this is Paul’s attempt at ensuring that people did not put him on a pedestal and an attempt at showing everyone that even Paul struggled with sin in his life. He did not deserve to be put on a pedestal and certainly did not want to be.
If we are honest, especially those of us in Christian leadership, we all have the ability to present a shiny veneer to those around us that suggests we are sorted, close to perfection, super spiritual believers. And if we are really honest we will admit that these verses from Romans 7 resonate with us. All of us are prone to falling short of God standards. Some of us come up with new and original sins, others of us return to the same old sins.
So what’s the antidote? What are we to do about this? Well for one thing I am sure that Paul was not content with the status quo. You can see that in the last verse above where he declares himself to be a wretched man. Sin becomes more of a problem if we become used to it, are content with it, and it doesn’t bother us any more. Wrestling with sin is at least a step in the right direction because it shows that we do not like that aspect of our lives. This is not something we can do on our own, even though we wrestle. This is what Paul continues to say in the verses immediately following those I have quoted above:
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (NIV)
I think the chapter divisions in our Bibles sometimes mask the truth. if we are reading the Bible we can often stop at the end of a chapter that when Paul wrote the letter there were no chapter divisions and his train of thought did not stop at the end of what we call chapter 7. That’s what the therefore is there for. We cannot sort out our propensity to sin and feel condemned by the law on our own. But God has done something about it.
We need not feel condemnation if we are “in Christ Jesus” because he has sorted out the condemnation of sin (the law has been fulfilled, the sentence served, guilt is unnecessary) and he gives us his Spirit to help us to sin less. I believe that the Spirit joins us in our wrestling and helps us by nudging our conscience, reminding us of Scripture, helping us to think about what Jesus might do and so on. But whilst he can help us, he does not take control of us. We still have to make the choice and still act on that decision.
So let’s have a little Romans 7 honesty and recognise that we all wrestle with the sin in our lives, nobody should be put on a pedestal, and pray for one another that we will listen to and receive the help of God’s spirit each day in our wrestling.
So, that one caught us all by surprise didn’t it? I did not hear of anyone who was claiming credit for predicting that the Pope would be resigning yesterday, nor that he would announce his resignation in Latin! I don’t want to get too side-tracked by this, but I wondered what the Latin word for ‘resign’ is… Google Translate tells me it is ‘abdicare’, which makes sense. It certainly sounds better than ‘concludicus’, which was my guess.
As a non-Catholic I watched yesterday’s news reporting about Pope Benedict’s resignation with a certain amount of detachment. When we are told that our country is increasingly a secular society, the resignation of the Pope might be expected to be lower down the running order in the news. According to the BBC website there are apparently about 5 million Catholics in this country, although less than 1 million of them seem to attend Mass regularly – about 1.5% of the population. There are apparently over 1 billion Catholics on the planet, which makes them a much higher percentage of the world population (15% or so) so I guess in terms of the impact of the news on a significant number of people it is newsworthy*.
I first came across the news on social media and I wondered initially whether it was a joke. Then I wondered if the Pope had been tweeting and the predictive text on his phone had sent the wrong message. But it soon became clear that this is indeed happening. In two weeks’ time he will be an Ex-Benedict.
Because this has not happened for hundreds of years there are many questions: will we have to come up with new language to describe him – will he be ‘expontificus’? Will he be like US Presidents and still keep the title even though he is no longer in office? Will he retain the name ‘Benedict’ or revert to Razinger?Where will he be living? What are his plans for retirement (I can’t imagine him playing golf)? And how will his successor cope as pope knowing that it is possible that people will go and ask the former pope what he thinks of any controversial plans?
But I think the thing that was most significant for me was when a reporter told a Catholic woman in the street outside a Catholic Cathedral and she was visibly shocked. It is the ordinary people in the street and the pews who have looked to the Pope for vision and leadership who will perhaps be most affected by this. On a much smaller scale, I imagine it is a bit like when a minister or vicar announces to their church that they are leaving to go to a new church, or retiring unexpectedly. The people in the pew are affected by a change in leadership, but need to be reassured that God’s plan and purpose does not depend on any particular leader.
In our evening services at the moment we are exploring the early chapters of Acts: the beginning of the Church (used in it’s correct sense here); the moments when Peter started to fulfil the commission Jesus gave him (and which Popes claim to receive in direct succession from him as Bishop of Rome). The book title is often ‘The Acts of the Apostles’, which puts a lot of focus on these fallible people who seemed at times to be making it up as they went along. I think that it should be called ‘The Acts of God’, which then reassures us that God had a plan and we can be amused, delighted, impressed and inspired at how God helped the Apostles to work out what he wanted them to do.
The Acts of God are still being written today. Leaders will come and leaders will go, but Jesus remains the same and the Church that bears his name will remain. God’s plan will still be fulfilled through it. Our task as leaders is, with God’s help, to try to help the individual people on the street and in the pew to fulfil their part in God’s mission calling – so that we can all be good free samples of Jesus wherever we are – Colchester, Daventry (not sure where that came from in my subconscious!), Croatia, Vatican City… we all have the same mission calling regardless of what we do and who we are, regardless of whether we are active in employment or have announced that we are abdicandae.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*and yes there was still some sloppy reporting of what was happening to ‘the Church’, assuming that it was all Christians, rather than ‘Roman Catholic Church’. This is something that is commonplace and will probably continue to happen, but I am making a small Reformation-style protest about it here [sfx: sound of hammering a nail into a door].