Two Little Words

An early Friend, Francis Howgill, said it this way: “We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us…. And our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion. And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire—which the Life kindled in us—to serve the Lord while we had our being.

This message, prepared for Sunday, February 13, was not spoken in Meeting for Worship and is made available here for any who might be interested.  There were several other messages shared in Worship by others.  


 Deuteronomy 30:15-20

           In Deuteronomy Moses challenged the people by offering them the choice of life and good, or death and evil. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I give you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by conforming to his ways and by keeping his commandments, statutes, and laws, they you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land…” He went on to say “Choose life and then you and your descendants will live; love the Lord your God, obey him and hold fast to him: that is life for you…” He tells us that “the commandment that I lay on you this day is not too difficult for you, it is not too remote. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to fetch it and tell it to us, so that we can keep it?’ Nor it is beyond the sea, that you should say ‘Who will cross the sea for us to fetch it and tell it to us, so that we can keep it?’ It is a thing very near to you, upon your lips and in your heart ready to be kept.” Just two little words from Deuteronomy 30:19. They sound so simple.  “Choose life!”


The apostle Paul brings his 1st letter to Timothy to a close by telling him to “instruct those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be proud, and not to fix their hopes on so uncertain a thing as money, but upon God, who endows us richly with all things to enjoy. Tell them, he tells Timothy, to do good and to grow rich in noble actions, to be ready to give away and to share, and so acquire a treasure which will form a food foundation for the future. Thus they will grasp the life which is life indeed.” (1 Timothy 6:19). So again the challenge, “Choose life!”.


And then there’s Jesus, who says, “I’ve come that you might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).


An early Friend, Francis Howgill, said it this way: “We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us…. And our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion. And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire—which the Life kindled in us—to serve the Lord while we had our being.

“Choose life.” The prescription sounds so simple, but our experiences as human beings testify to the fact that simple isn’t necessarily easy. In Ecclesiastes, the speaker describes his search for true life. He pursued all the obvious paths — in study, work, every pleasure imaginable, civic projects, even righteousness. In the end, he said, it all felt like chasing after the wind, a meaningless “futility of futilities.”


In 1st Corinthians Paul chides the Christians their for their jealousy and quarrels. Those are signs, says Paul, that they’re living in a “worldly” rather than a “spiritual” manner. They’re acting childishly rather than like grown ups, he says that they are living, “like mere men” (1 Corinthians 3:1–9). But living like “mere men” is precisely what Christians are called to get beyond. Similarly, Jesus observes that there’s nothing unusual about loving those who love you. No one should expect a reward for that sort of behavior: “even the tax collectors do that.” (Matthew 5:46–47).


Jesus contrasts living like a pagan or a tax collector with living life in his kingdom. He gives five examples from the Old Testament: murder, adultery, oaths, retribution, and treatment of your enemies. With each example Matthew repeats the identical refrain: “You have heard it said, … but I say” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). Jesus says that he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, broaden it, deepen it from mere outward ritual or external compliance to a life changing spiritual transformation. But any way you look at it, he’s calling us to a way of life and a way of being radically different from what Paul characterizes as “mere men.”  Instead of living like a pagan (5:47), Jesus demands perfection: “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48).


           Perfection? For mere mortals? For us? That sounds ideal, but is it possible? In our sophisticated culture we’ve come to see the quest for perfection as the voice of our personal censor. Doesn’t perfectionism lead to self-righteousness, a need to be right and to be seen as right? Doesn’t it tempt us to reframe our real selves and instead project a false and sanctimonious self — not only to others but even to our own selves? The former president Jimmy Carter was mocked for admitting in a Playboy interview that he struggled with “lust in his heart” but that was just an honest admission that, like all of us, he was far from perfect.


           I think Luke’s parallel version of this verse from Matthew maybe a good way to get into this sticky subject. Luke’s shorter version of the same material makes a couple of editorial changes. To begin with, where Matthew has a “sermon on the mount” Luke offers a “sermon on the plain”. Maybe he thought that by re-locating the sermon from a mountain to plain he could make Jesus’ message more accessible. It is like he felt that Matthew had set the bar too high for ordinary people, mere mortals. But Luke went even further and instead of concluding the passage as did Matthew, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), which echoes Leviticus 19:2: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”, Luke makes a single but remarkable word change. He writes that what Jesus said was: “be merciful, just as your heavenly father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).


Luke proposes a more achievable fall back position since being perfect was evidently difficult is not impossible. So he suggests that while not being perfect we can at least show mercy, and in showing mercy we approach divine perfection. In effect he says: To live a life of divine perfection, show mercy to your neighbor. In that Matthew and Luke agree. Showing mercy is precisely what God does. He causes the sun to rise on the good and the evil. He sends rain for the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). God is kind to the wicked and ungrateful (Luke 6:35). And consider Matthew’s five examples. Divorce is understandable, at times even necessary, for some people inevitable, but what might happen if spouses extended mercy to each other? Avoiding murder is not much to brag about, but moving from anger to mercy certainly is. Retaliation is tempting, and retribution is part of our penal system, but mercy–mercy forgives and forgets. Nations, families and individuals protect their self-interests by hating their enemies. Jesus calls us to love our enemies.


This call to be perfect can become a real problem for some of us. The DSM-IV, among a list of personality disorders, discusses the person who is a perfectionist, who obsesses about details to the point of following rules for the sake of rules. These people are extremely inflexible and their quest for perfection usually slows their progress toward their goals because they will re-do things forever without completing anything. While over conscientious in their work but tend to have few relationships. In terms of morals and values they are extremely rigid to a degree beyond anything expected by their faith tradition. They can’t risk delegating a task to someone else so they become overwhelmed by the details. They are loath to throw anything away for fear they may need it someday. For fear of making a mistake they have difficulty making decisions.


So, especially for those struggling with perfectionism, here’s an even more radical idea — let’s extend this divine mercy to our own self, for that’s what God has already done.


Quakers, being a major voice in the holiness movement, challenged a major doctrinal position held by the Congregationalists, Baptists and Presbyterians, those who embraced the Westminster Confession. It said that ‘it is impossible for a man, even the best of men, to be free of sin in this life and that no one, either of himself or by any grace received in this life, can keep the commandments of God perfectly; but that every man doth break the commandments in thought, word and deed.’ It even goes on to say that the very actions of the saints, their prayers and their worships are impure and polluted. Robert Barclay commented ‘What a wicked saying against the power of God’s grace!’


In the 8th Proposition in his Apology Barclay wrote: “He in whom this pure and holy birth occurs in all its fullness, finds that death and sin are crucified and removed from him, and his heart becomes united and obedient to truth. He is no longer able to obey any suggestions or temptations toward evil, but is freed from sin and the transgression of the law of God, and in that respect is perfect. Yet there is still room for spiritual growth, and some possibility of sinning remains if the mind is not diligently and watchfully applied to heeding the Lord.” As Barclay expands on the point he is trying to make he quotes Paul in his letter to the Ephesians where Paul says that the work of pastors and teachers is to ‘equip God’s people for work in his service until we attain to the unity inherent in our faith and our knowledge of the Son of God-to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ’. A doctrine that declares the people are unable to attain that unity makes the work of the ministry useless and ineffectual.


I’ve been slowly getting read the recent biography of Deitrich Bonhoefer. It is a fascinating story of a theology student and pastor who came of age in Hitler’s Germany. He had written that ‘The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.” His biographer writes that he dismissed the standard responses to what they were up against in Germany and then Bonhoefer asks “Who stands fast?”   “Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God”. In this he redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It wasn’t about avoiding sin or merely talking or teaching or believing theological ideas, theories or rules. It was about living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to our maker which was the fulfillment of our destiny. Bonhoefer wrote: “If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes and by showing a real sympathy that springs not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.”    


But the clue we are looking for actually comes from 1st Thessalonians – what sounds like a benediction—“May God himself, the God of peace, make you holy in every part, and keep you sound in spirit, soul and body without fault when our Lord Jesus comes.” You see, it’s not us making and keeping us perfect – it is the work of Christ’s spirit. It is in this respect that we are perfect.


We may lack what it takes but our God doesn’t. Again, in Ephesians Paul writes of the faithful “But God, rich in mercy – (opps, that’s where we started, right) –-God, rich in mercy, for the great love he bore us, brought us to life with Christ even when we were dead in our sins; it is by his grace you are saved. The commands of God are not oppressive.


Barclay writes: If you wish to know the perfection and freedom from sin that are possible for you, turn your mind to the light of Christ and his spiritual law in your heart and allow its reproofs. Bear the judgment and indignation of God upon the unrighteous part in your as it is revealed there, and which Christ has made it tolerable for you to do. Be made conformable to his death so that with him you may feel yourself crucified to the world by the power of the cross within you. Then that life that was once alive in you to this world and its love and lusts will die and a new life will be raised. Henceforth, you will live for God and not for yourself. Then you can say with the apostle: “I have been crucified with Christ; the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me”.


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