Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Are you burdened? (1)

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements… Acts 15:28

“Burden” is almost always a negative word. It suggests a heavy weight that has to be carried. “I hate to be a burden to you,” we say, when we need somebody’s help. Or, “Yes, it’s a bit of a burden to us,” when we’re talking about a difficulty we’re facing. On the other hand, “That really is a weight off my mind!” when some trouble is solved. Burdens are bad!

In Acts 15 the early church is wrestling with a difficult question: how should new converts from the gentile (that is, the non-Jewish) world be received by the church? Must they become full-blown Jews, like the first followers of Jesus? Should full adherence to the Jewish law be required? Or should they be admitted to the church on easier terms?

Well, the debate became quite complicated. But the verse I have quoted sums up the essence of the solution that was arrived at: new converts should have as few burdens laid on them as possible. The church leaders said to them, in effect, “We want to welcome you just as you are! Yes, there are one or two things we would like you to agree to, but we’re not asking much – and we’re certainly not expecting you to become Jews like us. Just trust and follow Jesus.”

One of the main curses of “religion” of every kind is that it tends to pile burdens on people’s backs. It’s one of the things Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his day for: “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry…” (Luke 11:46). That’s “religion”!

Sadly, this can be a feature of Christianity. In fact, reading this, you might even find yourself saying, “Yes, I’m a sincere Christian, but I have to admit that sometimes I feel my faith is a burden to me rather than a help.” Yes?

I think that, broadly speaking, such burdens come in two forms: burdens of behaviour, and burdens of belief.

First, burdens of behaviour.

Certain types of behaviour are simply wrong: there can’t be any quibbling or dispute about them. Hatred, pride, envy, killing, sexual immorality, lying, stealing… that’s just a sample.

But there are other forms of behaviour which are what you might call “grey areas”, areas where equally committed Christians might disagree with one another.

It’s a long time since I became a Christian, way back in the 1960s, and a lot has changed since then. But there were certainly things that were frowned on…

It was pretty much assumed that if you were a Christian you wouldn’t drink or smoke or gamble; you wouldn’t go shopping on a Sunday – or go to the cinema or watch television on a Sunday. You would make sure to have a daily “quiet time” of a certain length, when you would read your Bible and pray. You were expected to dress in a certain way, especially for church.

Don’t get me wrong: many of these guidelines were good, and, as I look back, I’m glad I was introduced to them, because they helped me to lay a foundation for my life.
But unfortunately they didn’t always come across as “guidelines” – more like rules that had to be obeyed if you wanted to call yourself a Christian. They could easily become – yes, a burden, and they could suck the joy out of following Jesus because you were always wondering if you were measuring up.

As I said, a lot has changed since those far off days, and many of these burdens have been discarded by most Christians. But, even if in different ways, for many people Christianity smacks more of rule-keeping than of joyfully following Jesus. And that is not the way it is meant to be.

One of Jesus’ greatest words is his beautiful invitation to struggling men and women: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Praise God for that!

I said earlier that there are perhaps two kinds of burden which can plague religion: burdens of behaviour and burdens of belief. Well, I’ve run out of space, so I’ll come back to the second one next time.

But for the moment, here’s a question for all of us to think about: Is my Christianity a burden to me or a joy? Is it a matter of rule-keeping or of gladly following Jesus? Do I enjoy a personal relationship with God, or is my faith a balance sheet where I’m struggling to stay in credit?

The early church leader Augustine said, “Love God, and do what you like.” All right, that’s a snippet taken out of context, and could be open to misinterpretation! – but still, I think he was on to something, don’t you?

Lord Jesus, help me to follow you out of love and gratitude, not out of fear or mere tradition. Amen.

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