The Rest of Faith

It occurs to me that I’ve devoted a lot of attention in this blog to the issue of faith and works, and yes, here’s another post on that same subject.

In many ways, it’s so basic to Christianity that you almost can’t get it wrong as a Christian. I mean, since the Reformation we all know and understand that you don’t have to perform penance in order to get forgiven by God. (Charitably understood, penance is more about making restitution, but it so easily turns to the works mentality that I don’t personally think it’s a good idea). Since Paul’s letters, we have known and understood that we don’t have to sacrifice sheep and cattle, or get circumcised, or keep the ins and outs of the Jewish ritual and dietary laws in order to be in God’s Kingdom.

We understand that it’s by faith, not works. Don’t we?

But the works mentality isn’t always that obvious.

You’re maxed out in your giving, struggling to meet your own obligations, and along comes another urgent need. Who doesn’t feel guilty about saying “no, I can’t”?

Or you’re trying to help a neighbour, but the help they need is taking an exhausting toll on you and your family. Do you help them regardless of what it does to you and your own family, or is it ok to say no sometimes?

Or you’ve planned a special anniversary date with your spouse, but then your boss asks you to work late because whatever it is is urgent and we’re running behind. You recognise that it’s an important thing, but so’s your marriage. Which do you do?

Will God be pleased with you if you neglect an opportunity to give, or to help? Doesn’t the Scripture say that if you see your brother or sister in need and do nothing, it’s sin?

(But doesn’t the Scripture also say that you should take care of your own family? It’s so confusing…)

I’m back here again because I was in Hebrews chapter 4 the other day in my personal Bible readings.

The chapter is part of an ongoing argument for the sufficiency of Christ, and is directly concerned with the issue of Israel’s example from the wanderings in the wilderness, and specifically the command not to harden your heart but to respond to God’s voice with faith.

On the surface of it, the passage doesn’t seem to be the most straightforward way to make this argument. It has all of this convoluted reasoning going back and forth between two or three different Scriptures, and appears to jump tracks quite a bit in order to make its point.

The book of Hebrews was written very much for a Jewish audience, though, and this is the way you advanced an argument in that time and culture. Everything was grounded in Scripture.

The writer (and there’s been a lot of speculation over who that was, whether Paul or Apollos or Priscilla or someone else) starts from the Psalm in which David writes “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart”. David connects the hardening of the heart with the rebellion and grumbling against God that took place at Massah and Meribah, the bitter waters of Strife and Trouble. The people rebelled and grumbled because they had hardened their hearts to God’s voice. By extension, this was the cause of all of the troubles in the wilderness, all the grumbling and complaining and rebelling. So God said that that generation “would never enter His rest”. He shut them out of the Land of the Promise for a generation. This is understood.

But then the writer of Hebrews brings in the idea of God resting on the seventh day.

I can see the connection. “They shall never enter My rest” – ok, where are we told about God’s rest? But it’s not one I would necessarily have made. On the surface of it, “enter My rest” looks like code for “go into the Promised Land” rather than “share in the Sabbath-day rest of God Himself”. But we are Christians. We believe that David was inspired by God to write the Psalms, and that the writer of Hebrews was inspired by God to interpret David’s writings. So it’s evidently a good connection.

What are the implications of this connection?

The writer of Hebrews traces some of them out. Israel as a whole was denied entry into God’s rest because their rebellion and grumbling showed their unbelief. They all heard God’s voice. As the writer puts it, they all heard the Gospel, just as we have. But because they did not combine that hearing with faith, because they did not trust that God is good and would do what He said, because they had unbelieving hearts, they grumbled and rebelled and did not enter that rest.

Entry into that rest, as symbolised by entry into the Promised Land, was never on the basis of circumcision (as many at the time of the Apostles werwe trying to claim). They were all circumcised, but only Joshua and Caleb out of all that generation entered the rest of God, because they had hearts of faith.

Circumcision in the New Testament is often used as a shorthand way of referring to the keeping of all of the Jewish ritual law. The feasts and the tithing and the sacrifices and the tassels and the dietary requirements. But all this has never been what allows you to enter the rest. It’s faith, not a list of “do”s and “don’t”s, that gets you in.

Not even the sacrifices were really what God required; as David prophetically wrote, “sacrifices and offerings You did not require”. The sacrifices were nothing in and of themselves, but they looked forward to the one perfect Sacrifice that was once for all. By putting your faith in these sacrifices as what God had commanded, you were putting your faith in Jesus’ once-for-all final sacrifice.

In short, it never has been about what you do.

The writer makes this explicit, or as explicit as anything in this passage, by saying that those who enter God’s Sabbath rest also rest from their own work.

The point of all this is that though we are fully convinced that we don’t have to work to earn our salvation, sometimes we seem half convinced that we do have to work for God’s favour. If I don’t share the Gospel with this person today, God won’t be pleased. If I don’t help that person with the money I don’t have, God won’t be pleased. After all, if I do, it’ll be sacrificial giving, which Jesus commended in the widow with the two small coins.

If I don’t do what this person is asking of me, even if it’s going to cause trouble for my own family, God will not be pleased.

Certainly there are times for going out of your way to help someone. There are times when the right thing to do is to sacrifice your own desire and put another’s needs first. Exercising faith rather than works has never been an excuse for laziness or failure to show compassion.

But there are times when all of these things become works. Something we do out of a heavy sense of obligation, because if we don’t then somehow we’re sinning, or God will remove His favour from us.

When we’re helping someone because we feel we have to, when we’re giving because we think we’ll be sinning if we don’t, when we can’t say “no”, that’s when we’re in danger of it becoming works-driven.

God doesn’t need our sacrificial giving. He owns the universe. He doesn’t need us to meet anyone else’s need. He knows their need better than we do, and He has a thousand channels through which He can meet it. He doesn’t want our sacrifices: “Sacrifices and offerings You did not require… Then I said, “here I am; it is written about me in the scroll. I delight to do Your will, O Lord”. When we’re doing what we do with a heart of faith, it’s joy and peace. When we’re doing it because we must, it’s works.

Now, sometimes we can become weary of doing good. What started out as a joy and a ministry becomes a drudge and a labour. But there are two kinds of labour. The one is the labour of a slave under a heavy load. The other is the labour of a pregnant woman giving birth. Same word, but vastly different results. One is joy and life, something you endure for the great new birth that is coming. The other is suffering, endurance and death. Sometimes we need to refocus, to pray “restore to me the joy of Your salvation”. Other times we need to come aside and rest. The sabbath was commanded, not an optional extra if you felt like you needed it. Still other times we need to stop trying to earn His pleasure.

The Christian walk of faith is an entry into rest. Rest from working and striving: this is the one place in the Bible where we are ever told to strive, and it’s “strive to enter His rest”. Living by faith and showing Christian compassion isn’t the inability to say “no” to anyone asking something of us. God will be just as pleased with us if we continue in faith and never do a single thing more in terms of “righteous acts” as long as we live. Really.

The Time Between

We’re now a little way into the forty days between Easter and Ascension, and so I turn to a question that has puzzled me for a while.

What happened in that time between? What was it like?

From the glimpses we’re given in the Scriptures, it seems rather different from the pre-Easter life. For a start, Jesus was here sometimes, then He’d be gone. His presence seems to be a series of Appearances, not an ongoing thing like before.

It’s difficult to imagine the post-Resurrection Jesus falling asleep in the bottom of Andrew’s fishing boat, or teaching in the Temple courts, or laughing at Peter’s jokes.

It’s difficult to imagine Peter making jokes. In the time between, things are a lot more serious and weighty.

But my questions boil down to two, really. Number 1: what was Jesus doing when He wasn’t appearing to His disciples? And number 2: what was Jesus doing when He was appearing to His disciples?

The first one is a lot more difficult to answer, but the second one we are given a few clues about.

The Scripture says that He appeared to them over a period of 40 days and “gave many convincing proofs that He was alive”. Including, no doubt, spending several days at a time with them, so that they would lie down to sleep with Jesus among them, and wake to find Him still there. Including eating with them, walking with them in the clear light of day, interacting with people outside the immediate group. Including actually using the door, even though He’d proven He no longer needed it.

But then He’d be gone for a bit, and appear somewhere else. Just like CS Lewis’ Narnian Christophany Aslan, He’s not a tame Lion. Not someone who comes and goes as you please.

Secondly, based on what He did with the two on the road to Emmaus, I imagine He was taking them through the Scriptures, opening their minds and eyes to see all the passages that were talking about Himself. Giving them understanding of who Messiah really is and what He is about.

Thirdly, He’s preparing them for when the Holy Spirit comes. Instructing them not to go off in their own strength to try and start inaugurating God’s Grand Master Plan that they suddenly, finally comprehend, but to wait for the One who was coming after Him, Who would give them power.

Which leads me to my first question. What is He doing in those times when He isn’t appearing to His disciples?

Perhaps He’s beginning to prepare them for the time when He won’t be with them bodily. He knows that time is coming soon; five short weeks and most of a sixth, then they will see Him no more. They are going to have to operate without His physical presence.

Or perhaps He’s showing them that the Crucifixion was not something they had imagined. If He were back permanently, I can imagine that after a week or so, you’d start to wonder if He’d really died, or if He’d just swooned. It’d be like His death was a sort of illness (“I’m better now”), rather than an enemy that He had gloriously conquered.

No, death is still death, but it’s not the end you thought it was. I’m not back like Lazarus was, only to die again. I’m back in a different way, victor over death rather than snatched from its grip. And so I won’t be here in quite the same way.

In short, another of the “convincing proofs” that He is alive.

I don’t know that this is so, of course. I’m speculating. But it seems reasonable speculation.

“And Peter”

“I’m going fishing,” Peter announces.

This isn’t some hobbyist speaking. It’s not the “think I’ll go and drop a line in the water” of someone that fishes for pleasure. It’s a step backwards, away from what Christ had called him to. An admission of failure. I’m no longer fit to be His disciple. I denied Him, not once, but three times. Even if He’s alive, He can’t possibly still want me.

Might as well go back to fishing. It’s all I know. It’s been an interesting three years, but it’s over.

“We’ll come with you”, say the others. Whether this is their own throwing-in of the towel, or a reluctance to let Peter go off by himself at a time like this, or a simple unwillingness to entirely forsake the camaraderie of those three years is anybody’s guess, but go they do.

They fish all night, but catch nothing. Three years is a long time, but Peter’s a grown man. He’s spent how many countless hours upon that lake, man and boy, learning his trade from his father before becoming a fisherman in his own right. That sort of ingrained skill doesn’t evaporate overnight, not even in three years.

Maybe God is against him. After all, he did deny His Son. At any rate, not one solitary fish.

At the close of the night, someone shouts from the beach.

“Friends, haven’t you caught anything?”

It might trigger a twinge of memory, but you put it out of your mind. That life is over. At any rate, it’s not an unusual question.

“Throw your nets on the other side of the boat,” the stranger calls, after the disciples’ negative response.

Now this is familiar territory. But there’s only one way to test it: Do what the stranger says.

What have they got to lose?

At once, their nets are bursting. They can’t hold all the fish.

There’s no doubt at all, and Peter knows it. Jesus is deliberately taking Him right back to the beginning, when he was an outcast fisherman, rejected by all the rabbis as unfit to be a disciple. One of the many whom the teachers of the Law of the Lord had put aside.

Now as then, Jesus breaks through all that. Others may find Peter too hardheaded, too impetuous, too indisciplined. Peter himself may find himself unfit. None of it matters. There’s only One opinion that counts, and it’s borne by the One standing on the beach.

Leaving the others behind in the boat, in his own impetuous way Peter plunges into the water as soon as he can stagger to shore.

When the others join them, Jesus has the grill all ready, with enough fish already cooking that the haul is superfluous. Breakfast is served: fresh fish a la Son of Man.

Some way through the breakfast, Jesus pulls Peter aside. “Do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, I love You,”

“Feed my sheep”.

The question repeats, then repeats again. By the third time, Peter is distinctly uncomfortable.

“Lord, You know all things”. You know how I failed You, how I let You down. You’re proving it right now. But You know that I do love You.

And the threefold declaration comes with a calling, not to be a fisher of men but a shepherd of the flock, and with a promise.

“You know, Peter, that when you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted. But when you’re old, someone else will dress you, and stretch out your hands, and lead you where you don’t want to go”. Yes, Peter, your death will be like Mine: hands outstretched. And this time, Peter, you won’t fail. You won’t deny Me; you’ll remain faithful, for My Spirit will be in you.

Christ is risen…

Thomas

“You’re all crazy! Grief has unhinged your minds! We saw Him hanging on that cross. You think the Romans have started botching their executions all of a sudden?”

Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. Understandably, though he was a little shaken up by their tales, he remained sceptical.

After all, if Jesus were really back from the dead, why didn’t they see Him all the time, like before? Why did He flit in and out like some sort of phantom, sometimes here, sometimes not?

“No, even if the rest of you are taking refuge in fantasy, I’m keeping my feet on the ground! Unless I can see the nail-prints in His hands and feet, and put my hand in His side, I’m not going to believe!”

Thomas probably isn’t quite that determined in his scepticism, but you know how it is. Disagreeing with a whole group of people who are all insisting that something is true can tend to entrench you in your opinion. You get more vehement in your opposition, even if you wouldn’t be quite so opposed if you sat down to think about it.

But as he is confidently proclaiming that Jesus can’t possibly be alive, there He is.

Thomas stops, aware that no-one is paying attention to him any more. He turns around, looks into the eyes of the risen Lord.

“Well, Thomas? You wanted to put your fingers in the nail marks? Here they are! Here is My side: put your hand in! Touch Me, put your hands on Me. I’m really here! Put away your doubts; you really can believe!”

Thomas’ response is immediate. He worships. “My Lord and my God!” No second-guessing Who Jesus is now. No “yes, He’s alive, but whether He’s God or not is another issue”. In one leap he moves beyond doubt into the certainty of faith, sure of so much more than merely that Jesus is alive.

“You believe because you have seen Me,” Jesus responds. “Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe”.

Christ is risen…

The Eleven

Cleopas and his friend drop everything and rush back to Jerusalem. The same seven miles, but what a difference!

Excited, they burst into the place where the disciples are staying to find them in an uproar:

“It’s true! The Lord has risen! Simon Peter saw Him!”

The disciples relate the news, then – “Weren’t you two going back to Emmaus?”

Then it’s the turn of the two to relate their story. How Jesus appeared to them as they were walking along, and opened the Scriptures to them, and how they had finally recognised Him when He broke the bread.

And quietly, somewhere in the middle of all the mutual rejoicing, there’s Jesus Himself, right in the middle of them.

One by one, every eye turns to the Master. “Peace be with you”. Shalom alechem. Hi, guys.

They freak out. It’s a ghost!

It’s not quite as crazily double-minded as it sounds. In their world, physical resurrection is a theoretical possibility that God might do, but ghosts are real and far more everyday. “It’s a ghost!”, to their worldview, is far more possible than “It’s the resurrection!”

“Why are you troubled?” Jesus asks them. “Why are you doubting? Look – it’s really Me, and I’m really here! In flesh and blood!”

They’re not convinced, so Jesus makes the one incontrovertible cultural proof of His resurrected physicality:

“Do you have anything to eat?”

Ghosts don’t eat physical food. They get their sustenance from the world of the dead. Even asking would have been a no-no for a ghost as they understood them.

They give Him a piece of roasted fish, and He takes it and eats it in front of them. Yeah, guys. I’m back!

Christ is risen…

The Emmaus Road

Sometime later that same morning. Cleopas and another disciple are on the road, heading out the seven miles to Cleopas’ home in Emmaus. Fighting the crowds thronging in to Jerusalem for the rest of the Passover festival, the “wrong way” of their physical orientation a metaphor for the way their lives felt right now.

But someone is going the same way they are. Their muffled conversation is interrupted with a friendly question: “What are you talking about as you travel along?”

They stop, staring. “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem that doesn’t know what’s been going on?” Are you really that clueless?

Apparently so. “What? No, I haven’t heard. What’s been going on?”

“About Jesus, from Nazareth. He was a great prophet, He did all kinds of miraculous signs, He spoke like we’ve never heard before. But our feckless rulers and the chief priests handed Him over to the Romans, and they crucified Him.

That was three days ago.

“What’s more, this morning some of our women amazed us with a tale of having been at the tomb to find the stone rolled away!

“They told us an astounding story about having seen angels who told them He was alive! Some of our men went up to the tomb and found it as they had described it, but Him they did not see.

“And we had hoped that He was going to be the One to save us…”

Now it’s the Stranger’s turn to stare. “You foolish men! How slow you are to believe what was written in the Scriptures! Isn’t it written that the Messiah had to suffer?”

You think I’m clueless? You’re the clueless ones! It’s all written in the Scriptures; you ought to have expected this!

And the Stranger takes them through the whole Bible, Torah and Prophets, beginning with Genesis, explaining what had been written about the Promised One.

They reach Emmaus, but the Stranger acts like He’s going further. Bye, guys.

But according to the custom they press Him to stay. Hospitality is a big deal, but you’re supposed to refuse a couple of times to let them show how much they really want you to stay by inviting you over and over. And the Stranger allows Himself to be pressed into staying.

The host would normally break the bread, but the Stranger reaches out His hands and takes the bread to break it.

And all of a sudden their eyes are opened and they recognise the Stranger for who He is: Jesus. And then He’s gone. Vanished. But they know the truth.

Christ is risen…

Peter and John

The women hurry back, filled with joy and bewilderment, and report to the disciples what the angel had said.

The disciples… act like men of their culture. Women, eh? Unreliable. One step from crazy, all of them.

Remember, most Jewish men daily thanked God that they were not born a woman. It would have required a massive leap of imagination for rural fishermen to step outside of their cultural norms like that.

So they don’t believe them. In this particular it’s easy to get smug. We Know Better. But we have our own blind spots.

But Peter (impetuous Peter!) and John decide that someone should at least go and have a look. Peter was probably still stricken with remorse over his denial. John, who kows what was in his mind and heart.

With two burly fishermen involved, of course it becomes a race. John runs faster than Peter, gets to the tomb first. But he doesn’t enter in. Any contact with a dead body, even accidentally, would make him ritually unclean. It’s engrained in him from childhood: you don’t ever go into a tomb.

He peers inside, sees a glimpse of grave-wrappings.

Then Peter barrels up, pushing right past John into the tomb itself, heedless of the ritual consequences. Where was the Master? Was it true? Would he truly have a chance to somehow make up for having denied?

Inside are the grave garments: long strips of linen that were wound around the body, typically with spices to help mitigate the smell of decomposition.

But there’s something strange here. The grave clothes aren’t scattered around, as if someone were hastily unwrapping the corpse. They’re folded neatly: stacked to one side, with the head shroud separately.

What sort of weird grave-robber takes time to take off and fold the grave clothes in the tomb itself? Especially with a squad of Romans posted outside lest anyone try any funny business.

Could it be true? Was the women’s incredible story actually real?

Christ is risen…