The Good News of Rebel Literature

The diaries and personal letters of
Politicians and prime ministers,
Revolutionaries and explorers,
Inventors and artists,
Give us a unique glimpse of the private thoughts, hopes and fears
Of the men and women who shaped our world,
Often against extraordinary odds.

The Hebrew scriptures are an epic collection of
Poetry, history and law.
But the early leaders of the Christian church did not
Leave behind long works of theology
Or Leviticus-style instructions on how to act
In a multitple situations.

Instead, the Holy Spirit compelled
The church to preserve
The letters the apostles penned
To scatterings of believers.
In these “books” – which are rarely more than a few pages long –
We read of the passions and concerns
Of the people planted the early church.

These were the people
Who brought Jews and Gentiles together;
Who knocked down the barriers between rich and poor,
And preached a message which they believed could –
And we know did
Change the world.

If we want to learn how to change our society so that
Lives can be transformed with the same
Freedom, forgiveness and love which spilled out of the first Christians
We should read the letters of the Apostles
And come to appreciate the
Priorities of these preachers.

We will also learn to spot the bear-traps
That can wreck any fledging community of faith.
The book of Titus is nothing less
Than a message delivered to the leader of a revolution
On the island of Crete.
But this short letter from the Apostle Paul
Does not read like rebel literature.
Paul does not tell Christian slaves to throw off their chains.
Nor does he encourage the island’s congregations
To plot a revolt against the state.
But he explains that God is staging a revolution against
The power of sin.
God is the warrior
Whose power is at work deep
In the darkest chambers of the human heart.

The knowledge that God is at work in his creation
Is the heartbeat of Paul’s theology.
He had not stumbled across a forgotten truth
In an ancient religious text;
He was not attempting to reform a faith
That had gone off-course over centuries.

Rather, he believed that the living God
Was on the loose,
Changin his life and the lives of those around him.
Paul was convinced that the world needed to know this fact
If it was to escape the pulverising consequences of sin.

Sin has squatted in God’s creation like a toxic toad.
Its poison has destroyed relations between men and women,
Fathers and daughters,
Mothers and sons.
Tribes and nations,
Brothers and sisters,
Neighbours and workers.
Now, Paul has discovered,
God is going to break this reign of evil.

The signs of the revolution will not be riots and beheadings
Or the installation of a religious cleric in a council chamber.
Something much more subversive will take place
As God’s kingdom breaks into life.

Christians will not live each day thirsting for secular power
And hating anyone who gets in their way.
Instead, as they start to live to the laws of God’s revolutionary order
Wives will love their husbands and their children,
Men and women will obey the earthly authorities,
And everyone will be ready to do good deeds at every opportunity.

People will give up everyday vices
Like gossip and drunkenness.
This is a revolution of the heart,
Which challenges and changes
The most basic impulses of the believers.

This isn’t the type of character change that comes about
Through gritted teeth and the power of the will.
The church is not a diet group
Or an anger management course.
Rather, God is at work inside the bodies and the minds
Of people who will welcome him in.

Like a rescue worker who picks up a bird
Whose feathers are trapped
In the dark gunk of an oil slick,
God washes his people clean of the polluting effects of sin.
He heals their wings and teaches them to fly.

Paul was Titus’s mentor and he knew all about sin.
In chapter three he tells him:

“For we also once were foolish ourselves,
Enslaved to various lusts and pleasures,
Spending our life in malice and envy,
Hating one another.”

Hang on a moment,
You might say.
It's one thing for people to become model citizens.
It's another to claim that this process is changing the world.
How does this challenge the systems that grind down the poor
And enslave the oppressed?

Paul, a Jew in first century Palestine,
Knew what it meant to live under occupation.
But he also knew what it meant to be trapped by sin.

The Bible does not turn a blind eye to
The curse of political repression.

The story of how God rescued his people
From slavery in Egypt,
Is perhaps the most famous story
Of liberation in human history.

In the pages of the Bible
The prophets rage against the evils of corrupt tyrants.
And the Gospel narratives display in unflinching clarity
The odious cruelty of an occupying power
And a collaborating religious elite.

But one of the glories of the Bible is that it does more than condemn
The public outrages anyone can see.
It addresses the secret oppression of sin
And reveals how it can clutch us captive.

Thousands of years before Freud started itemising
The shame, guilt and fear
Which is webbed through the human subconscious,
God revealed a law which showed the world
What righteousness looked like.

What is righteousness?
It is the revelation of a way of life
In which our conscience and our actions can chime;
A life which looks something like
What a loving creator might intend.

But Paul also knew how impossible it was to live
As a human life without
Daily tripping over.
He had been “enslaved to various lusts and pleasures”.
Every one of us know what this means.

Sin turns pleasures such as sex and wine
Into chains that trap and cut.
Paul knew what it was like to spend a “life in malice and envy”.
He had taken a leading role in rounding up the first Christians.

These men and women had challenged the power of
The religious establishment of which he was a shining member.
He sweated to stamp the movement out.
But he had not understood
He was not just dealing with a
Movement of people
But a movement of the Holy Spirit.

Little did he know that
God was about to move in his life.
An early Christian evangelist would not have looked at Paul and thought,
“Ah! Here comes a potential convert!”

Back in the days when Paul was known as Saul,
Hate festered in his heart,
It burned like cholesterol of the soul.
Despite his prodigious intelligence,
He was so shaped by his schooling and his prejudices
That he was not on the verge of studying the Hebrew scriptures with an open mind
And discovering that the work of Jesus
Was the fulfilment of what Prophets predicted.

He was not about to throw away his prestige as an educated zealot
To sign-up with this strange collection of fishermen
And tax collectors who spoke in tongues
And believed in a resurrected Jesus.

But on the road to Damascus,
God intervened.
Yahweh, the creator of the cosmos,
Knocked Paul off course, literally.
Paul saw a flash of light from heaven
And Jesus asked him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
This question changed Paul’s life.

He could see that in trying to imprison and murder
These strange zealots
He was actually attacking this risen Christ.
The Messiah,
The Lord of the Universe,
Was one with these people.
He dwelled among them and he dwelled in them.

Through the course of Paul’s life,
He would come to understand the riches and wonder of what this meant.
In the great epistles of Romans and Ephesians
He would expound the significance of this miracle
For all creation and history.

But in his own life,
As the shackles of malice and the manacles of hate fell away,
He tasted freedom.
In the short letter he sent Titus,
We see his desperate concern that the young church
Should not lose sight of the power and precious beauty of this liberty
By squabbling about arcane points of pseudo-mystic speculation
Or getting dragged into the mire of religious legalism.

Just as God had freed the Israelites from Egypt with a salvo or miracles,
Yahweh had led Paul into a new world of love and possibility
Which he could never have reached
By force of will,
Pursuit of reason
Or the power of conviction.

He knew that he could never live a life
Of perfect righteousness
Which would satisfy God by his own efforts.
And yet, now, God had gripped hold of him and rebooted his soul.

The tenderness of God’s love contrasted with the brittle rigidity of Paul’s old faith.
But in the seconds, hours, days, months and years which lay ahead,
The persecutor became a pioneer who took this message of hope across Europe.

He explained to Titus:
“[W]hen the kindness of God our saviour and His love for mankind appeared,
He saved us,
Not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness,
But according to his mercy,
By the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,
Whom he poured upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
That being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

The Bible exposes the blotches of sin and
Disgrace and shame
And guilt which hide in every human,
But it also reveals the character of God to humanity.

We can only know of God what he chooses to reveal,
And in these few, wonderful verses in the third chapter of Titus we learn
He is a God who is kind,
Who loves us,
Who saves,
Who shows mercy,
Who washes us,
Regenerates us,
Renews us,
Who pours his very spirit upon us,
And who transforms humans into heirs of eternal life.

This is an inheritance and a gift we have no
Right to expect.
It is possible to go to church every week and not know
This revolutionary truth of the Gospel.

Are we willing to let God free us from foolishness,
Rescue us from hate and malice,
And liberate us from pleasures which have
Become private prisons?

What are the consequences for our world if
The message of Jesus is not heard?
How many more years can our city, country and planet
Survive the everyday collisions
Of human greed, envy and deception?

Just as Moses rounded up the Israelites,
Got them to pack their pack their bags and
Prepare for the terrible miracle of the Passover,
Paul made sure the believers knew their lives
Were about to be changed for good.

They were not to think about the work of the Holy Spirit
As a nice, utopian metaphor.
Immediately after telling Titus of the hope
That God wants to pour into the lives of his children,
He said:

“This is a trustworthy statement;
And concerning these things I want you to speak confidently,
So that those who have believed God may be careful to engage in good deeds.”

This nudge to get on and do “good deeds” affirms that Paul is
Not selling a new philosophy to
Daydream about on the way home from work.

Paul knows Christians live in the
Messy world of children and managers
And employees and responsibilities.

Yet if God is at work in our hearts,
Then his new life will flow through our bodies,
Take hold of our thoughts
And lead us on new revolutionary adventures.
With a spirit of love and gentleness,
In the quietness of the home and the
Staid surroundings of the workplace,
God is using his people to hoe the weeds of envy, malice and hate
Out of his creation.

In the Garden of Eden,
He gave us the fun of naming the animals.
In today’s life on earth,
He lets us get on with the simple but monumental task
Of loving and caring,
Just as he taught us to do.

When Paul tells Titus to teach the Christians in Crete
To “malign no one,
To be uncontentious,
Showing consideration for all men”
He is calling them to follow the example of God.

Back in 1979,
The Belfast Bible teacher David Gooding remarked:
“When we feel like acting against somebody.
We do well to ask ourselves,
‘If God had treated us like we are proposing to treat this person,
Would we ever have been saved?’
The way we treat each other should be the way God has treated us.
May God save us from ever treating anyone in such a way that if God had treated us in that manner we would have perished forever.”

God does not call us to kill, bully, bribe or threaten.
Instead, he calls us to live and love as husbands and wives;
Sons and daughters;
And sisters and brothers.
He gives us the sheer pleasure of
Existing in his creation
As children blessed with the opportunity
To share his message of eternal life.

Let us give the Holy Spirit the full freedom
To wash us and renew us when we need such a dousing
And in the true grit of the everyday
Let us find not just the courage but the power
To love with revolutionary zeal.

When confronted with the values and systems
Of this world
Love can seem an act of rebellion.
But it is in fact
An expression
Of joy at a drenching in grace.