Equipping Christians & churches for whole-life discipleship in the world.

Resolved (5): To Boast in the Cross of Christ

January 31, 2011
31 Jan 2011

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule – to the Israel of God.
Galatians 6:14-16

We might well resolve to do the things Paul calls on us in Galatians to do – to stand firm in our freedom, to walk with the Spirit, to fulfil Christ’s law, to do good to all people – but where, when all is done, will our confidence finally lie? For Paul, not in our own achievements or the approval of others, but in the cross of Christ.

Removed as we are from the first-century world, where crucifixion was looked upon as shameful by Jew and pagan alike, it’s not easy to feel the scandal of that claim. And yet, the cross is not something Paul returns to only when he has to, and then in slight embarrassment, but is at the centre of his message about Christ. For it was there that Christ became a curse for us (3:13), delivering us from slavery (4:5). And it is there, Paul says, that our old self has been crucified (5:24), echoing his earlier testimony that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’, and that he lives now ‘by faith in the Son of God’ who loved him and gave himself for him (2:20).

As Michael J. Gorman explores in his Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, 2001), Christ’s death not only provides the source of our salvation but the shape of our salvation, such that our daily life ratifies our fundamental allegiance to Jesus – as we take up our cross to follow him.

More than this, however, the effects of the cross are cosmic in proportion, reaching beyond individuals to embrace heaven and earth – bringing about ‘a new creation’ no less. Small wonder, then, that whatever privileges might have given grounds for honour for God’s people in the past (circumcision being the specific example here), are nothing compared to what really counts – belonging to the new age that God has begun through the cross of Christ.

And with that comes peace and mercy for the whole family of Abraham, Jew and Gentile alike, to all who ‘keep in step with’ this rule, whose identity is now derived from the new creation God has brought about through the Spirit and in Christ.

 

Antony Billington

Resolved (4): To Do Good to All People

January 24, 2011
24 Jan 2011

Whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Galatians 6:8-10

We like to reap results from our resolutions – some indication that the fitness regime is paying off, that the boxes are being ticked on our ‘to do’ lists, that the bank balance is moving in the right direction. We sometimes forget, however, that ‘sowing’ and ‘reaping’ require hard work. What’s more, there’s a considerable stretch of time between the two activities that demands patience – not easy for those of us who want to see the outcomes of our labour before it’s ready to be reaped.

Here, Paul shows a delicate pastoral balance between the confidence that as we sow to please the Spirit we will also reap ‘at the proper time’, an implicit reminder that this way of living is to characterise our daily lives until that moment, and the encouragement not to lose heart in the process. Crucially, though, the sowing and reaping are not the things that bring us personal benefit, but helping others in need – ‘doing good’.

Interestingly, the exhortation to do good is not contradicted by the emphasis on faith throughout Galatians. In fact, Paul has already made it clear that, as well as being entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel, the apostles encouraged him to remember the poor – the very thing, Paul says, he was ‘eager to do’ (2:10).

All this resonates with what Scripture says elsewhere – that while our primary responsibility are those in the family of faith, our ‘neighbour’ is anyone in need. As Tim Keller points out in Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010), the doing of mercy to others is indicative of our grasp of the gospel and the scope of its application.

Paul leaves unspecified what ‘good’ he has in mind, which allows us to reflect on its scope – not just the needs around the world, but in the street where we live, the place where we work, the church we attend. And, as Keller reminds us, the mixture of responses required allows for some things to be done by the church as the church, and for other actions to be carried out by Christians in their places in society – as we go about our business in the world, seeking to be a living demonstration of the mercy we have been shown by God himself.

 

Antony Billington

Resolved (3): To Fulfil the Law of Christ

January 17, 2011
17 Jan 2011

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Galatians 6:1-2

Popular wisdom suggests that fresh resolves – at new year or any other time – often fall prey to the fatal flaw of ‘going it alone’. They focus on individual self-improvement to the neglect of relationships through which support might be given and accountability expressed.

Likewise, it’s possible to mistake the fruitful Christian life for private Christian experience. For sure, we walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 25), but we do not cultivate his fruit alone. We need each other in order to exercise patience, kindness and gentleness. The change we aspire to is a communal process – at the heart of which is love.

Paul has already made this clear. Those who have been freed from the law now become ‘slaves’ of one another through love (5:13). Those who walk in step with the Spirit are empowered by the Spirit to live a life of love (5:22). Such love – far from doing away with the law – actually sums up the law (5:14). In fact, the law attains its primary reason for existence in churches of Christ when its members become loving servants of one another.

Paul’s concrete example is love expressed in restoration. Even those who have been set free and who seek to walk in the Spirit are still caught out by sin in unanticipated ways. Here, however, is an opportunity for people of the Spirit to display the fruit of the Spirit in gentleness, enabling correction without arrogance or anger – where the goal is restoration. And we do so, Paul reminds us, fully realising our own proneness to stumbling, and our own dependence on others. I who help to restore you one week may need your gentleness the following week.

So it is that we carry each other’s burdens. Beyond suffering the consequences of a specific failing, burdens might be physical, emotional, practical, financial… What, then, might we be able to do for someone this week – a visit, a conversation, a meal, a cheque, a hand with the children, a cup of cold water? Whatever the case, shouldering a load with someone requires distributing the weight between us, lightening the load of the other in the process, demonstrating love in action.

Thus it is that we follow the example of Christ, the supreme burden-bearer. Thus it is that we fulfil the law of Christ.

 

Antony Billington

Resolved (2): To Walk in Step with the Spirit

January 10, 2011
10 Jan 2011

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh… If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law… Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:16, 18, 25

How are the resolutions looking this far into January?

Surveys show that among the most common new year’s resolutions are the determination to enjoy life more, lose weight, get fit, learn something new, find true love, get a better job, pay off debts, and reduce stress. And yet, recent research by the University of Hertfordshire, from a study conducted with 2,000 people, confirms what we already suspect – that the majority of us will abandon our resolves by mid-January, with many of us not making it beyond the first week.

Still, the making of resolutions at least implies a felt-need for transformation of some kind.

Reframing resolutions – with the help of Paul’s letter to the Galatians – begins with a reminder that Christ has set us free (5:1, 13). But the freedom Christ gains is a freedom to live in the Spirit.

Those who walk by the Spirit (5:16) and are led by the Spirit (5:18), who live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit (5:25) are no longer under the authority of the Mosaic economy; nor are they bound to ‘gratify the desires of the flesh’, that way of life marked by alienation from God and each other. Instead, the death and resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Spirit have ushered in a new era in which the Spirit animates our ongoing covenant relationship with God, just as he promised through his prophets.

Of course, as Paul notes, there is conflict and struggle. Fruit needs to be cultivated; lasting change does not arrive overnight.

And that’s why the walking metaphor is so apt. Unlike the dramatic moments of decision or fresh resolve we sometimes make at this time of the year, walking suggests a more regular pattern – ongoing, mundane even – a process which takes place in the everyday where we live and where we work – on the commute, in the home, at the office, on the squash court, in the checkout queue.

In such contexts, we discover, it’s the consistent, everyday actions that make a difference, as we continue to walk step-by-step – our lifelong process of transformation into the likeness of Christ through the ongoing work of the Spirit.

 

Antony Billington

Resolved (1): To Stand in Freedom

January 4, 2011
04 Jan 2011

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery… You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Galatians 5:1, 13

The start of a new year prompts thoughts about new beginnings: new diets to keep, new regimes of exercise to follow, new patterns of study to adopt, new determination to show more appreciation to colleagues, new undertaking to spend quality time with the children, new commitment to work on the house…

So far as we can tell, humans have marked what has been seen as a ‘new year’. And the resolve at such times to ‘do better’ goes back at least to ancient Babylon. Something about the turn of the calendar carries with it a pervasive and powerful desire for a fresh start, a clean slate.

Indeed, many wise Christians down the centuries have encouraged the discipline of renewed reflection and fresh resolve at this time of the year. And we should celebrate genuine change where it occurs. But church history and practical experience warn us of the dangers of trying to secure ‘salvation’ through keeping a set of ‘rules’ or following a certain ‘code’, with the risk of looking down on others who don’t quite make the grade, or despairing with ourselves that we can’t manage it either.

To such people comes the message of freedom. It’s a message the Galatians needed to hear. And in a first-century Roman context, it would have conjured up images of being freed from slavery. Christ has set us free! For the start of a new year, then, comes a reminder that the heart of the Christian faith is not mere potential for self-improvement, but freedom, won by Christ – that we are free from the pressure of having to do things to gain favour with God, free from trying to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others, free to submit to the rule of Christ.

Like Eustace – the boy-turned-dragon – in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we will give up in frustration if we try, by ourselves, to remove our ‘dragonish’ scales. Only as we submit to the sharp claws of Aslan will we discover what it is like to be set free from our old skin, to be made clean, and then dressed in new clothes.

May this be the year not when we discover our own capacity for self-improvement, but when we discover afresh Christ – and the freedom he brings.

 

Antony Billington