I didn’t go to college until later in life. I entered Chapman University as a freshman in 1995 – I was 44 years old. And while I was pretty determined to have a college experience as much like that of my much younger classmates as possible, I had pretty much figured that I was not going to be in a sorority. Who would want a 44 year old married woman? One of the most surprising things that happened to me, therefore, was having a group of young women come to me and ask me to be part of a new sorority that was opening on campus – a Christian (Lutheran based) sorority. I did join that sorority, and through my sisters I learned a lot about other Protestant churches and their beliefs. Some of them came with some pretty serious rules for living. One of my sorority sisters always wore long skirts, because her church taught that God hated women who dressed like men, so she wasn’t ever allowed to wear slacks. Didn’t even own a pair of jeans! There were a whole lot of things she couldn’t do that the rest of us could, and we made adjustments in scheduling and in the activities we planned so she would not be excluded. I spent a lot of time being grateful that, as a Disciple, I didn’t have to deal with rules like that. Because you see, the thing about all those church rules is that we get to a point when the rules are the most important thing, and we forget that what God wants most of all is our love.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said to other Jewish Christians like himself
“we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
This teaching was really tough for people like Paul, who had spent their entire lives studying and interpreting and living by the law of Moses. Strict obedience to the laws had been the framework of his whole life – and now that framework was unnecessary. He could no longer say, as the Pharisee praying in the temple said in Luke’s gospel (18:12) “Lord, I give you thanks that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income” and believe that this was enough.
19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.
Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, and taught his followers that all the laws could be stated in the two greatest commandments “Love your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” These two laws created a new framework for Paul and other Jewish Christians. All those laws that had bound their lives were – not irrelevant exactly – but no longer the be all and end all of their existence. New Christians would not have to be circumcised before baptism. Gentiles and Jews, men and women, slaves and free persons could all come together for worship and for meals. The laws that had separated the Jews from everyone else were no longer the most important thing in their lives. Now their primary focus was faith in Jesus Christ – in obedience to his teachings, especially the teaching that love for God and the neighbor took precedence over all the other laws they had lived with for so long. The important thing – the most important thing – was living to God – allowing Christ to live within us.
Which brings up a question I was asked recently. Someone came to me and wanted to know “How do I let Christ into my heart?” That’s a tough one, really.
There is series of children’s books by CS Lewis you are probably familiar with, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.” The first one, “The Witch, the Lion and the Wardrobe,” was recently made into a movie. Near the end of the final book the end of the world comes to Narnia, and all the people and creatures are judged by Aslan the Lion, who is really Jesus. One man, who had done good all his life in the service of an evil god, was embraced by Aslan as one of his own, and the man said “Lord, I am not yours. All my life I have served that other god.” And Aslan said “My child, when you did the good thing, the loving thing, even for though you thought it was for that other, you were doing those things for me.” All his life this man had Jesus in his heart, even though he wasn’t aware of it.
So maybe it’s not so much about getting Jesus into our hearts – he’s already there. It’s about letting him out. When we are being our most noble, when we are living in such a way that God’s love seems to shine through us, we are letting Christ out of our hearts to be a blessing to the world.
A clergy colleague suggested that perhaps instead of asking “What would Jesus do?” we should ask “What is Jesus already doing if we just give him room to live?” Maybe we should ask “What can I do to get myself out of the way and allow Christ room to work?”
And she told this story: There was once an especially tense church meeting in which two men, both good men and respected leaders, found themselves passionately advocating opposing viewpoints. In the heat of the discussion, both men became ungracious toward each other, and Matt, one of the men, stormed out. Everyone was shocked because this behavior was so out of character. Fifteen minutes later, Matt returned with a basin of water in his hands, a towel over his shoulder, and tears in his eyes. He knelt before his opponent, removed his shoes and socks, and began to wash his feet. When he’d finished, he said, “please forgive me. I’ve treated you very poorly. I realized after I left that, if you were so passionate about this issue, there must be a good reason, and I need to at least listen.”
Once that man let go of his tightfisted effort to make his religious point, he discovered the presence of Jesus Christ already there, ready to change the tone of that meeting, and ready to reconcile two brothers in the faith. The "Christ in him" drove him back into that room.
And truly, the Christ in the other man allowed him to accept the foot washing – to accept the offer of reconciliation.
Paul said “I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
Wouldn’t that be great? To be dead to all the things that separate us from God so that Christ could always live in us? To always be loving, generous, merciful, kind, forgiving and compassionate?
I'd love to be dead to self – to be crucified with Christ - so that Christ could always come out of my heart through my words and actions, but that's just not reality. In reality, I can be judgmental, quick to jump to assumptions about other people, ready to gossip, selfishly concerned with what I want or think I need, or just plain unkind. Sometimes I’m afraid that if I give generously I won’t have enough. Reality is the constant struggle to put self behind me - to be kind and generous and forgiving. Reality is knowing that I'm going to fall short of the ideal, but being willing to keep trying to get out of the way so Christ can work through me.
How do we let Jesus out? Focus on him. Call on him. Read the gospels and try to do what he taught us to do. Look for the blessings in our lives, even the smallest. Whatever we focus on is what will be present in our lives – so if we focus on blessing, if we focus on the good, if we focus on helping and forgiving, then these are the things we see, experience, are enabled to do.
We let Christ out when we are drawn to do even the smallest blessing for another and then do it. When we aren't worried about what others will think or if doing something good for someone else will leave us with less - time, money, whatever. To live for Christ, serving God’s children, who ever and where ever they may be, seeking always to act in love. When we are loving, we are living. And when we are living, we belong to God.
Hymn Pues Si Vivimos (When We Are Living) 536