Today I’m not working with any one Scripture. We’ll begin with Captain MacWhirr. Captain MacWhirr is a character in a novel, not a real person. The novel is Typhoon, a story by Joseph Conrad. A company of merchant steam-ships has placed Captain MacWhirr in their newest ship, and the story follows this MacWhirr and crew and ship through a tropical storm.
Here is a line near the beginning of the story. The company owner explains why he put Captain MacWhirr over their best ship: he was one that “you could be sure would not try to improve upon his instructions.”
People who try to improve on their instructions often don’t improve them. MacWhirr would not try to improve upon his instructions. The story makes clear, and it is often funny how Captain MacWhirr really is like that. Also, that is the key to MacWhirr’s ship surviving a terrible storm.
In the Bible, God gives instructions to churches. Here’s the question: what would our churches look like, what would we do, if we never tried to improve on our instructions? What if churches did not prize new ideas? What if we prized sticking to our instructions, justas God gave them?
Obeying God’s Instructions Or Acting on what God Cares About
I am going after something particular here. The Bible, and for today we’ll go mostly with the New Testament, gives us clear instructions. The Bible also tells us the kinds of things God cares about. These two are not the same. God cares about many things, how many hairs are on each of our heads, for example, and he cares about every sparrow that falls.
Should churches be acting mostly on their instructions, or should the things that God cares about have equal importance, when we decide what he wants us to do?
Examples: Generosity and Creation
The NT has clear instructions, for example, that God’s people should avoid greed, and instead should handle their money and possessions generously. That’s clear.
On the other hand, God cares deeply about every part of his creation, and he is not pleased when people damage the earth or sea or air or animal life. God cares about this, that’s a given. Should it follow from this that God’s instructions to us include actively working to repair creation?
If we are going to stick with our clear instructions, the answer is no. God has not given us instructions like that. Every child of God knows the Creator, and should act with care toward creation. But the fact that God is concerned about creation does not change our instructions.
I am not trying to make a case against creation care and toward material generosity. I want you to make a distinction between what God has told us to do, on the one hand, and on the other hand things that he cares about and we know are good, but we do not have instructions about them.
Jesus Cares about His Instructions
Here are four examples of Jesus telling us that what he actually said matters, and that he wants us to pay attention to what he told us to do, and to do it.
1, At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, Jesus told a little parable about a wise builder and a foolish builder. The wise builder was the one “who hears these words of mine and does them.” “These words of mine” can only be the teachings of that Sermon. The storm of judgement destroyed the foolish builder because he heard “these words,” but did not do them.
2, In Matthew 15, Jesus bluntly corrected the Pharisees and scribes because they made the elders’ traditions equal to the commands of God. Jesus used the example of the commandment to honor parents, and showed how the tradition of the elders led people to break that command.
The tradition of the elders was not an evil thing on its own. This one encouraged people to keep their word. But the tradition insisted on this to the extent that they would not let people change their minds about what they would do, so people had to disobey the written command of God.
Jesus said such traditions were the words of hypocrites, those who honored God with their lips but their hearts were far from him. The elders developed their traditions to make sure people kept God’s commands. That seems like a good motive. But adding instructions to God’s commands got them in trouble with Jesus, and it does that to us, too.
3, In Matthew 28, Jesus told the eleven to make disciples of the nations. The last step in this was to “teach them to obey everything I commanded you.” This is the last verse of Matthew, so we know that this means the teaching of Jesus in Matthew. All disciples obey his commands.
4, Here’s how Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John: If you love me, keep my commands…. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me… Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching…. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love…. You are my friends if you do what I command (John 14:15 – 15:14, NIV).
My brothers and sisters, Jesus intended for us to take his words to heart. In this he included the Old Testament, and he appointed his apostles to be his delegates and speak for him, so we include the New Testament Letters as well.
The written Word is front and center in each of these example. In each of these, what he wants from us has been written down, and we have it. The Holy Spirit leads us and guides us with different impulses and messages, but they are not outside what is written, they are rather only applications of what is written.
The Main Instruction: Love One Another
In the teaching of Jesus, one instruction takes priority over the others. Jesus cares about other things besides this, but he’s tells us in different ways that this is most important. Again, let’s look at four examples.
1, In Matthew 20, Jesus told the twelve, “whoever among you wants to be great, let him be your servant; and whoever among you wants to be first, let him be your slave.” The apostles did many impressive things, preaching and miracles and casting out demons, even raising the dead.
But here Jesus told them what would bring them to the top in the kingdom, and it was not things like that: it was service to each other, humble and lowly service to each other. Not to anyone else, not the world out there, but to each other. This will make the apostles great, it will even make them first. Can that possibly be true?
2, In John 13, after the Last Supper, Jesus said this to the same group: “I’m giving you a new command: love one another. Just as I loved you, love one another. By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This is the one new command, it is our duty to one another, and it is our witness to the world.
3, Here’s a paragraph from Paul to the church in Thessalonica. This one almost makes me laugh. It sounds like a church’s mission statement, or vision statement. I’ve read quite a few of those, but I never read one like this. What if this was the purpose statement of your church?
“Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thess 4:9-12, NIV). Would that not be a fine church vision statement?
4, In his first letter John says this: Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:11-12, 21-22, NIV).
In one way or another, each of these four, not only tells us what to do, but implies that this is the central instruction. This will make the apostles great, or even first in the kingdom. This is the one new command, and this is a mark of Christians in the world.
This God has already taught the Thessalonians, they already obey this, and instead of directing them to something else, the apostle urges them to do this same thing more and more. This is the one sign that God lives in us, and the sign that we love him.
There are no paragraphs like this that we should read our Bibles every day, or that we should all be speaking to our neighbour about Christ. There are no paragraphs like this that we should feed the hungry in our city, or that we should fight for justice and freedom for the world’s oppressed.
There are no paragraphs like this that urge us to be more careful with Creation, or to cure any of society’s problems. These are all good, God cares about all these, and he calls some of us to different ones of these. I am called to read the Bible often and carefully. Many find regular Bible reading helpful, and many faithful followers of Christ do not. That’s all as it should be.
This is important: the individual callings never replace the new command, our instruction to serve one another and care for one another, to forgive one another, and encourage one another.
Remember that all the incredible things the apostles did were not as important in the kingdom of God as their humble service to each other. The main instruction for the church is the main instruction for everyone, no matter what our individual calling might be.
The Main Instruction is not Every Instruction
We other clear instructions from God, about money and possessions, about how the church selects its leaders, instructions about sexuality and anger, about our relationships to the unbelieving people around us, to human governments, and so on. Some of these are actually applications of the main instruction, but some are not.
But it is good for us to nail down the main instruction, so that various alternatives do not take us away from the Lord’s central call.
Let’s Separate God’s Instructions from Good Things to Do.
Think about how we will live because we belong to Christ. Let’s make a habit of dividing what we hear from others into two imaginary boxes in our mind. One box says “instructions God has given us” and the other says “good things for God’s people to do.” Make this distinction in your mind. Use your minds, let’s love God with all our minds.
On the box named “instructions God has given us,” in your mind add underneath, “must do.” On the box or folder named “good things for God’s people to do,” add underneath, “not a priority.”
Even if you’re not sure if something belongs in one box or the other, set up those two boxes in your mind anyway. In some ways we go through our whole lives deciding what belongs in one and what in the other. That’s okay. Just be prepared to make a distinction.
Just because someone makes a passionate appeal for how good it is to do something, how much the Bible tells us that God cares about this, how God has called them to do this and how much God has blessed their work, don’t buy it right away. Use your head, love God with your mind. Is this a part of God’s clear instruction to the church, or is it not?
If you don’t know the answer, that’s okay. Be asking yourself the question. Don’t be swayed just because someone quotes the Bible. The devil quoted the Bible when he tempted Jesus. Don’t be swayed just because they can show that God cares about this. People use the Bible to send the church in an awful lot of directions. There are too many good things to do.
There are so many energetic calls to do noble things. They all sound good, they all use the Bible, but I think, “I need to do this too?” People, there are actually too many. Too many. Heavy burdens are sometimes put on churches, and Jesus did not appreciate that. He condemned leaders of God’s people for loading heavy burdens on the people. We need to know what’s important.
Remember the Important Instruction
The number one instruction God has given us is to love one another, serve one another, forgive one another, be humble and gentle and patient with one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, accept one another, and so on.
The relationships that God’s children have with one another, how we act toward one another, takes first place in the folder that holds our instructions. You can’t go wrong with this one. Amen.
PRAYER: You’ve told us the truth, O God, and shown us the way. Don’t let us be deceived about what you ask of us. Teach us and guide us. And fill us with your Spirit for this. May the fruit of the Spirit pour out of us. That would be a great kindness from you. Amen.
BENEDICTION: May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give us a spirit of unity among ourselves as we follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth we may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Go in God’s peace to love and serve the Lord.