Traveling involves a lot of rules.
There are rules about what you can bring, how big it can be and how much it can weigh. Rules about when you can sit down and stand up and use the restroom.
Every country we come from or go to has its own rules. Every country applies some rules more strictly than others. In Greece, where we are traveling for the first part of this sabbatical, isn’t much of a stickler for traffic rules. Speed limits are ignored. Pedestrians must yield to be safe. Passing on the left – or right – is accompanied by much honking and gesticulating.
On the other hand, if there is an accident, Greece is all about the rules. If you are stopped, you better have plenty of proof of insurance, and you must have – not just a license from your own country – but an International Driver’s permit.
That’s no big deal. Here in the States you go to the AAA office, give them $20 and show them your driver’s license and you have an International Drivers Permit.
Unless you have unexpectedly been notified that your driver’s license has been suspended.
Let me tell you my story.
I am generally all in favor of traffic rules. In fact, I am often one of those annoying traffic rule followers. I am the person going 40 mph down 71st street, with another car riding my bumper. I’m the driver who stops at the yellow light, only to have a driver pull from behind me to run a red light. I use my turn signals so religiously that I blink in empty parking lots.
However, there is a traffic rule which I do not strictly obey: the rule that says you must stop for three seconds at a stop sign – even when there are no other cars are around. I don’t like its common name, “the rolling stop.” I prefer to think of it as “the quick stop.”
About two months ago, I didn’t follow the “three second rule, ” and it turned out that there was another car around. It belonged to a police officer.
For violating the rule, I received an astonishingly expensive fine. I could pay, or I could protest.
I wanted to protest. Why? Because I didn’t want to pay for the ticket. Because I didn’t want to admit that I was wrong. Because I like to believe that this rule, unlike other rules, isn’t important.
My inner voice, however, said, “You hypocrite. You don’t get to pick which rules to follow. If you say you obey traffic rules, obey all the traffic rules.”
So, I paid the astonishingly expensive fine. Online you can see the record of my offense, my admission of guilt and my penalty paid.
That was that, until last Saturday. I received in the mail a notice that my drivers’ license had been suspended for failure to respond to a violation. The letter said that I could appear in court to pay the fine or I could appeal the suspension. An appeal must be submitted in writing for adjudication.
I felt a wave of panic and regret. I had put off getting that International Drivers permit. I couldn’t imagine this would get resolved in time through a written process. The expedient option was to pay the astonishingly expensive fine again.
Here’s the situation (as the Apostle Paul would say.)
A person who generally obeys the rules, but doesn’t obey all of them all the time, who got caught breaking one of them, who hypocritically wanted to say this rule – unlike others – doesn’t matter, who paid a large penalty for breaking the rule yet is still not free from punishment. In order, not to break another rule, she must keep on paying. She doesn’t want to tell anyone because she is ashamed of the original infraction, her hypocrisy, her self-created predicament, and her willingness to pay her way out. Her freedom to come and go, to travel, to experience something new has been constrained. She can easily see how someone with fewer resources would break more rules, owe more and become deeper in debt.
The situation in Galatia and the early Church
With very little imagination, you can see how this situation resembles the predicament that Paul is speaking to in Galatians and in the emerging Christian church. (Galatians 2:11-21) People who want to be faithful – to be faithful to the Jewish faith of Jesus – have a lot of rules to obey. There are almost a thousand, in excruciating detail. Faithful people keep many of them, but sometimes – for various reasons – they don’t keep all of them. Faithful people who have come to believe in the faith of Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord continue to judge other people for not keeping all the rules and to justify not keeping other rules themselves. When rules are broken, there are consequences – often large penalties to be endured – even though the application of the penalty is not evenly applied.
People cycle through attitudes of perfection, noncompliance, failure, self-justification, rectitude, accusation, projection, segregation, and exclusion. They hold others hostage to the same complicated, hypocritical standards by which they feel confined. In Galatia, and elsewhere in the early Church, this rule bearing and breaking system, with its fines and punishments, has created an atmosphere that is not conducive to community, inclusion or empowerment. People are never fully free.
The apostle Paul sees this situation. He has lived it. (Galatians 1:11-16) And he wants it to end.
Paul believes this situation ended in the crucified and risen life of Jesus Christ.
Paul believes that the old model of rules, rules, rules, keeping them and dividing up the rule keepers and those who can’t begin to fit your standard has got to go. We aren’t set right with God through rule-keeping. It’s never worked, Paul says. Instead, we are accepting that God has set us right and made us free through Jesus Christ, who offered a new way of being faithful people.
Don’t rebuild the same old barn, Paul says. Live in the new structure, which is the family of God. It too has design, stability and even rules. But the rules of the family of God are intended to free people to free people to live a life of purpose.
The rules of the family of God build relationships and create community. They are rules which are useful to individuals, and families and when faced with those whose stories we don’t know or understand. They are helpful when times are settled. They are especially important in changing times, around strangers and in unfamiliar places.
Faith Presbyterian Church and I are both entering a new time in our lives– heading into new, uncharted territory of this sabbatical. This seems like a good time to note the rules that Paul found worth keeping for the good of the family of God.
Five Rules for the Family of God
Don’t make a lot of rules. This is God’s house, and we are God’s family. In God’s house, Jesus makes the rules. Instead of worrying too much about rules, know and follow the Law of Love. We know it in the life of Jesus and in the two great commandments. It’s true that the Law of Love won’t always lead to a peaceful, safe, rule keeping existence. It will lead to connection, growth, freedom and more love.
Don’t be a hypocrite. Act on the outside on what we believe on the inside. We believe God loves all of us, all of us, and created us to care for one another. Be the same person – with the same integrity – all the time. Then you will treat all people – family, friends, and strangers – the same way – the way of Jesus would treat them.
Don’t pretend to be perfect. Being perfect is impossible and yet – in so many subtle and outrageous way – we try. We keep on trying. It is a form of self-idolatry. We believe we can do what we were not created to do. Paul says, Stop being a law man and be God’s man. Or person. Be a person who knows only God is perfect.
Rule 3 part B: While you are at it, don’t expect anyone else to be perfect either.
Don’t work so hard. “Oh,” you say, “that’s easy for me to say because I’m leaving on sabbatical.” But you and I know it will be hard for many of you not to do too much when there is one less full time staff member. Let’s make an agreement not to work too hard in these coming months. We are not responsible for working our way to salvation or even working out the salvation of our neighborhood. That is God’s work, through us. God in Jesus has done the hardest work. What we get to do may be challenging, but it is a gift and should bring us joy.
Don’t make this is all about you or all about me. Our egos shouldn’t be central. Our lives as Christians aren’t meant to impress anyone – certainly not God. We don’t do this thing called Church to get right with God. God – who is good – has made things right with us. Now, Christ is living in us. When we are together and when we are apart we are the life of Christ.
What’s the end of my story?
I don’t know completely. But first thing on Monday, I started calling the Marion County Traffic Court. I had my credit card ready to pay again that astonishingly expensive fine. Ten times I called. Ten times I was placed on hold for five minutes and disconnected. The eleventh time, a person answered. I told her my story. I could tell she didn’t believe me. She looked up my record so she could tell me I was wrong and what I owed the court. There was a long silence while she searched. Finally, she announced: “You are right. That debt has been paid. You don’t owe anything. I’ll change your record immediately.”
That debt has been paid. You don’t owe anything. Your record has been changed.
Those are words of freedom.
Every debt you owe has been paid. There are no penalties adding up, no fines accruing. Don’t hold onto what God has let go of. Your record has been changed forever.
Follow the rules of the law of love inside and out – not because you must, not to be perfect. Love because you have been loved.
This gift has been evenly, fairly, lavishly completely applied. Everyone receives a new start, a fresh beginning.
You are free. I am free. I am free to go. You are free to stay. Or go. Wherever we go, we are the family of God. Christ is living in us.