Sara and I are reading through Hebrews again in our morning prayers before she heads off for work. Something we read this morning really caught my eye. As the writer opens chapter 9 he talks about the old covenant and the temple and how all the facets of that system were just a shadow of a greater reality. They were not reality itself. Then he writes (and I quote from The Message:
My heart breaks for the brothers and sisters who only know the Christian life as a series of rituals or a battle to live by certain ethics. That’s the old covenant cloaking itself in new covenant terms. This life in Christ is so much better than fulfilling obligations and trying to live by the rules. It is an invitation into a relationship with him that shapes every day that we live and our lives to look like him in the world. Why would we settle for anything less?
Having just returned from six days in Washington State, I saw this contrast in so many places—people living in the reality of relationship and people living in the shadow of rituals and behavior. And this was a strange trip for me stateside. The first three days I spent with a leadership team of a seeker-sensitive congregation. This is not a usual venue for me, but I met some incredible people who are seeing beyond the programs to hunger for a full and free life in Jesus, both with him and in relationships to others. I talked about barriers to authentic relationships both with God and with each other. One man came up to me afterward and said, “I know I don’t look like it, but I feel 40 lbs lighter after this weekend.”
Then I spent the last three days with people who are living outside traditional congregational structures. Some were thriving in the freedom of this life in Christ, while others were just beginning to see the freedom beyond the religious bondage they have been captive to for so many years. (We even had a few who were still well embedded into religious ways of thinking and so filled with ambition and agenda that it was tough having a normal conversation with them. Hopefully we planted some seeds there too!)
I was even asked questions like “Is it OK to mow the lawn on the Sabbath?” (Absolutely as long as your conscience is free to! In the New Covenant the Sabbath is a life of rest in Father from our own labors, and the freedom to walk in his, rather than a day for rule-keeping!) And, “If I don’t submit to what my pastor is saying, am I stretching out my hand against God’s anointed?” (Absolutely not! The New Testament could never have conceived of a pastor-person like we have today as the center of body life. Nor did they affirm anyone who would ask people to violate their conscience in deference to their supposed leadership. Leaders help people follow Jesus, not stand in their way as they do it.)
The freshness of hunger and meeting more of those willing to take great risks to pursue the call to life that God has put within them always inspires me. On the last night I got to check in with some folks I’ve met before and to see how some of them have grown in greater freedom, evident even on their countenances, was also a real joy. You could literally see the life of Jesus that had liberated them. That’s the joy of this covenant. Rituals and behaviors are a cheap substitute indeed for the life that really is life!