This is astonishing! This is absolutely, totally astonishing! That you – YOU – in whom I invested so much and to whom I taught the Way so diligently, would turn away. It is just incredible. Do you not care about how hard I worked with you? Did you not think twice before you listened to somebody with a silver tongue, coming to undo everything I have done? How can this be? And what must I do, now, to compel you to come back to me? How can I make you come home?
What am I talking about? You don’t know? You don’t even understand what is at stake? Oh, this is frightening – that you do not get it -- what you are doing and what you are giving up!
Listen – what I taught you when I was here among you earlier is the Gospel. It is the only Gospel. It is the way, the truth, and the life, without which no one comes to the Father. This stuff you are getting from others – it’s, it’s – well, it’s not Gospel. It’s confusion, it’s perversion, it’s wrong! And those who teach it to you, about them I want to say -- well, because the Lord said, “Do not swear,” out of respect for the Lord I will not say what I think of them. But you – YOU have deserted the Gospel and you have deserted me. Oh, Lord God, how can I compel them to come back to the truth?
What’s that? You say you still don’t know what I am talking about? You haven’t got a clue what the issue is or why I am so upset? Well, brothers and sisters, let me give you a refresher course. Let me remind you of the fundamental truths in which we stand. Here is a quick outline of the Gospel – THE Gospel – not that garbage you have been listening to.
Oh, I am so frustrated! I could just wish those who have messed with you would … would … would do something drastic to themselves!
But now, the quick outline of the Gospel. This is what we live by, this is what I have taught you. If only I could just force you, compel you, to follow this:
First of all, we are sinners. Sinners, all of us. That is, because our minds constantly turn away from God and we follow the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have cut off the fellowship God wants. We have created a huge gap between ourselves and our Creator, and we cannot bridge that gap ourselves. We cannot undo what we have done. We cannot be good enough to make right all the wrong we have done.
However, God, who is rich in mercy, even while we were yet sinners, poured Himself into the life of Jesus of Nazareth, came to live among us, came to taste life as we live it, came not only to teach us how to live, but, more profoundly, came to die for us. Dying for our sins, giving Himself as a sacrifice for the wrongheaded and the spirit-broken, Jesus Christ came to bring us back to the Father.
So that what you and I must do is to trust Christ for forgiveness. We must trust the gift of God expressed in Jesus, sufficient to reconcile us with Him. Yes, that is mysterious. Yes, that is hard to understand. But, brothers and sisters, it is also so clear and so simple, so straightforward that we miss it! We don’t see it because we want to muddy it up with vain philosophies and pointless arguments. We want to make it complicated. Oh, how can I compel you to accept this? How can I persuade you that this is the truth, the greatest truth there is? How?
I shall not only point out what I want you to hang on to, but I shall also highlight how the old way of life has been destroyed … you could even say that like Christ Himself, the old way of life has been crucified. And so, now, I am the freest of men, because it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Do you see? This is all-important.
I have taught you this before. You and I need our fellowship with God to be restored, because we have broken it; God has in Jesus Christ provided a way, through His sacrificial death, so that we can grasp how profoundly God loves us. And then we just come home. That’s it. That’s all. We just come home, and live in Christ. Free. FREE! You must believe this! I insist on it! How can I compel you to believe this?!
Oh, no, no, no. You have misunderstood, or maybe you are deliberately going out of your way to make me out a charlatan and a falsifier. No, of course, I do not mean when I say that we are free that then we just go out and live any old way. Of course we don’t. If we live in Christ, we let the Spirit of Christ grow in us, and that Spirit gives us wonderful gifts, gifts like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We are free, but free not just to throw off restraints; we are free to serve others. That’s the finest freedom there is.
That is what I have taught you? Do you remember? Do you see it? Do you understand?
Ah, you are right, you’re right. I said I would not only remind you of what you must hang on to, but I would also show you where you have gone wrong. And indeed I will. I will – because not only you but countless others will make this mistake. Not only you but believers in other places will fall into this trap: thinking that if they just do the right things or say the right words or follow the right rules, they will earn their way into God’s good graces. And that’s wrong. That is dead wrong. No, what God gives God GIVES. What part of “gives” do you not understand? It is not by law-keeping or paying your bills on time or by being a pillar of the community or even by going to church that you receive what God gives. God GIVES, remember? Grace. Something we do not deserve, but we receive it anyway.
But now your issue is that you are busy making people think they have to conform to somebody’s idea of goodness, or else. Those who have messed with you have got you thinking that if you can follow the forms and show up on Sunday morning and stay away from the wrong crowd, and don’t get caught, that will please God and you will be safe. You could not be more wrong! You are off on exactly the wrong track! You are being compelled to follow the old ways; how can I compel you to come back to the good newsl?
What’s that? I am making this an issue about myself? Aha, somebody wants to know who do I think I am, standing against the traditions of the fathers. Why, the answer to that is easy. Surely you know my story already.
Surely you have heard that at one time in my life I was so certain that this new thing called the Way was perverted and wrong. Surely you know that I was bent on rooting out every vestige of the Jesus-followers. Nobody was more zealous about tradition than I! If I had had my way, you would not be here now, but would have been consigned to the rubbish heap of history, so eager was I to protect what I thought was important – the Law. The traditions and rituals and religious system on which we had so long relied. And so off I went, everywhere I could, to denounce these Jesus people. They were different, they rejected much that was important to us, they had to be rooted out.
But one day, as I was on my way up to Damascus to do what I thought God required me to do, He met me. He – Jesus – met me, and turned me around. For days I was in turmoil, knowing that everything I had given myself to I would have to scrap. For days and weeks I struggled, but loving people – men like Ananias in Jerusalem – loving people nurtured me and helped me. Until, well, it was almost like scales falling from my eyes, and I saw it, I saw the whole Gospel!
I saw that we are not saved by keeping the Law or by being what we call good, because there is no one that is good, really, no one is righteous. I saw that God’s love was reaching out to everyone – and when I say everyone, I mean EVERY one, no matter what race or language or religion or background. I saw that being a Jew was not the ticket, but that what God was doing in Jesus meant that now there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male and female, but we are all becoming one in Christ Jesus. I saw that. That’s MY good news!
But you are right in suspecting that not everyone got it the same way I did. After three years of teaching this way, I went to speak with Peter and James about it, but not much came of that. They didn’t object. Fourteen years later, I went to Jerusalem again because I was hearing that some of the people in the church were murmuring against me. Why? Because I did not insist that new believers go through all the rituals and forms of Judaism. Why should they? Why should they act as though all that folderol meant anything, when it does not? But grumble they did, and so I took young Titus with me, one of our Greek believers, so that they could see how deeply Christian this young man was, never mind that he was different. And all went well – or so I thought.
But do you know that I discovered that Peter and Barnabas, two men on whom I thought I could count, had refused to sit down and eat with our Greek believers! They were afraid to risk it, because in their religion – the old way -- they had always been taught that you keep your distance from folks who are different. You might get stained, you know! And you have to watch your reputation, they said.
Well, let me tell you, I stood up against them, especially Peter, face to face. I said to the one whom some call the Prince of Apostles, “How do you think you can compel others to live like you? Are they not free, just as you are? Have we not all been redeemed by the blood of Christ? If you compel others to follow religious forms, then Christ died for nothing!” Yes, that’s right, nothing! Because forcing anyone to live the way you want him to, when his heart is not in it, nor has Christ been at work in his life, is empty routine and pointless piety. I told that Peter off, I did, and set him straight. Now how is it that I could readily convince a man like that, but I cannot compel you to see the truth? How is that?
Oh, brothers and sisters, you seem to think you can be good out of your own efforts. Now just how can you compel yourselves to live a godly and upright life? You cannot! That’s right, you cannot compel yourself to live as you ought. I can tell you that many times the good I wanted to do I did not do, and the evil I did not want to do I ended up doing – wretched man that I am! It is only as we submit ourselves to Christ, in complete and total trust, that He can change us from within and give us peace. For, I tell you, a new creation is everything. How can you compel yourselves to be better? You cannot; but you can receive the new creation.
Or, how can you compel others to be what you want them to be? How can you force that unbelieving husband, that rebellious child, that reluctant neighbor, that skeptical friend, to live a moral and upright life? I will tell you in a heartbeat – you cannot. You cannot compel them to be like you; that would be following your law, patterning after your ways. You cannot compel goodness. But you can live by the Spirit. You can through love become servants to one another. You can with joy let God’s Spirit roam freely through your life, and then you will be an effective witness. Remember, this is not your work, not your church’s work, not any human work. It is the Spirit’s work. It is He who gives the new creation, and a new creation is everything!
Brothers and sisters, how can you compel others to live as you want them to? My counsel is that you bear one another’s burdens, understand one another’s weaknesses, be gentle with those who do not yet fully understand this new life. Do not worry about what church they go to, nor even whether they go to church. Do not fret about their mistakes, but in love help them see who Jesus is and what joy there is in living for Jesus. This is the only rule I want you to follow, if you must have a rule: whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all. How can you compel others to see the truth? You cannot, but you can exhibit the love of Jesus and say He died for all.
Humph! Did I hear someone say that I am proud and boastful? Is it your opinion that I am too full of myself? I receive that as spoken in the spirit of godly reproof, for I have on occasion called myself an Apostle, one who has seen the Lord personally. But I also must call myself chief of sinners, and pledge to you never to boast about anything except the cross of Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Because however good I may think I am, and however zealous I was in my former life, and indeed however overbearing you may think I am even now, I tell you, this one thing I know: a new creation is everything.
How can we compel anyone to experience the new creation? Listen to the Spirit and trust Christ fully; t will be yours – a new creation. Upon those who receive it I pray peace and mercy. Amen.