(This post is based on the 12/7/14 sermon at Covenant Grace Church -- the text is Acts 15)
It's early in the first century AD, and the predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem has a problem: Gentiles are getting saved. Not only that, they are beginning to live a distinctively Christian lifestyle, one that has never, or just barely, heard of the lifestyle imposed for so long on the Jews by the Mosaic Law. Some of the church leaders are disturbed by this inequity, and are demanding that the Gentiles start observing the Law; in fact, they stubbornly affirm that no one can be truly saved unless the Law is kept.
So the leaders of the Jerusalem church did a wise thing -- they decided to get together to talk about the issue. They listened to arguments on both sides. They heard the voice of the Holy Spirit. They agreed, not to disagree, but to conform to the will of God, which had declared that the Gentiles would become co-heirs with Israel of the promises of God and their fellow citizens in the Kingdom of God. (Rom.10, 11) James summed it up well by saying, "It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." (v. 19)
But isn't it curious how, down through the centuries, how all sorts of people and groups have kept making Christianity difficult for their fellow believers? This rule, that requirement, my formula, his idea, a program, an agenda, etc. etc. and on and on it goes... In so many ways, at so many times, a grid has been superimposed on Christianity, a grid that tries to regulate how Christians should act or feel; a grid that stipulates what they should declare or believe or promote.
I grew up under one such grid -- separatist fundamentalism. My church/denomination believed that we had a corner on the truth and that we alone were interpreting the Scriptures correctly. Therefore, we did not associate with any other Christian groups. We were also very legalistic about lifestyle rules and regulations. But this group made one very costly mistake when it came to preserving the ranks, at least among those of us who took it to heart. We were taught to read, study and interpret the Bible as it stands on its own, which is of course, outside of the grid. Once we heard the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word, the holes in the grid opened up, and we were set free to embark on the great pilgrimage that is the Christian life.
I'll never forget the relief that flooded over me when I realized that I didn't have to keep all those rules or adhere to all those picky points of dogma any more. I could learn the truth that Jesus came to reveal to us, for "all truth is God's truth." (1) I could find remnants of beauty in things that were once forbidden, and come to appreciate the true beauty that energizes the universe. I learned to find the goodness of God in the myriad of places where it hides.
But grids are slippery things, and they try to capture us unawares. They try to convince us that its safer to stick with a formula than to "test everything." (2) They lure us to sleep with the comforting thought that we're ok and on the right track. The grid can take over and give us a pseudo-spirituality that makes us feel like we're better that everybody else. But that is the sin of pride, the original sin, that takes us far from God.
Jesus gave us the secret for escaping the tyranny of the grid: "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31,32) The secret lies in discovering the truth of the gospel as we grow in our understanding and application of the teachings of Christ. His life, words, death, burial, resurrection and ascension -- the Gospel -- is the key that unlocks the door onto everything that is true and real. When we walk through that door, we enter a life that is truly liberated.
This freedom, however, does not mean that we can do or think whatever we want. That is just slavery to another grid -- selfishness. The freedom found in the Gospel of Christ is the freedom that chooses to do what is right, because we know what is right. It is the freedom that allows us to let go of ourselves in order to embrace the burdens of others. It is that freedom that instructs us to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ," that is to say, we are able to learn about many things and see it all through a godly, biblical perspective.
In Psalm 91, the psalmist says that the Almighty will "save you from the fowler's (a birdcatcher) snare." A trapped bird cannot fly; it is not free. Grids are not imposed by God, instead he tears them away. When we "dwell in his shelter" and "rest in the shadow of the Almighty," we find ourselves in the quiet center of his will. Even though unrest and terror rage around us, as the Psalm describes, we find the peace that frees our souls. "'Because he loves me, says the Lord, 'I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.'" Delivered from the grid, we are freely loved by God and set free to to love and accept others with that same great love.
(1) quote from Frank Gaebelein (2) 1Thess. 5:21