As some of you know, my mother-in-law was a doctor. I think it’s fair to say that she more than enough paper and pens in her house supplied by drug companies to see out most of. And mugs. And sponges and brushes. Once drug companies started giving doctors long golfing holidays in sunny places, that all got stopped. For the record, I can confirm my mother-in-law never accepted any gifts from drug companies worth more than spare change.
And there have been similar things with politicians. Councillors being treated to luxury gifts from people applying for planning permission had to be stopped. Nowadays, all politicians must declare even the smallest gift they receive. The Register of members Interests. The trouble came, of course, because these weren’t gifts at all, but became inducements to grant some or other favour to the giver of the gift, landing those foolish enough to accept them in trouble. So a free holiday in the Seychelles or a new car or a grace-and-favour apartment weren’t really free at all, but carried a hidden price tag. And that price tag could be considerable. The cost was the unwritten, but nonetheless there was an understood obligation to use one’s influence on behalf of the donor of the so-called “gift”. Obviously for politicians and everyone who must be impartial in their decisions, this amounted to something closely akin to bribery, and so it’s all been stopped.
But I suspect that we all know a bit of what it feels like to be the recipient of a gift with strings attached. Some of us may have been unwary enough, or innocent enough, to receive a gift at its face value, only to discover some time later that we were under an unwanted obligation to do something for somebody that we didn’t particularly want to do.
Even in families, it isn’t unknown for a gift to have strings attached, such as the generous parent who gives a car to their unsuspecting offspring, but then expects a chauffeur service at any time they might require it. And it’s very difficult to withstand that sort of emotional pressure. If someone has been so kind as to buy you a car, then it seems churlish in the extreme to refuse to give that person a lift from time to time. Just as the gift of a house from your parents might oblige you to have them to stay for long periods of time whenever they wanted to come.
And if there can be that sort of emotional obligation from family, how much more obligation there’s likely to be after receiving an unexpected and unwarranted gift from anyone who isn’t family. So we all know that exotic gifts aren’t always as wonderful as they might appear to be on the surface.
What, if anything, might this suggest to us about God’s gifts? If God gives us gifts as amazing as eternal life, you might expect us to be under considerable obligation to God. So it won’t surprise you to learn that Christians are under an obligation. But it might surprise you to learn that we’re under no obligation whatsoever to God.
No matter what we do, or how we treat God, God continues to offer us all his gifts, including eternal life. God’s gifts are ours for the taking. We only have to accept them. We may not be in a position to appreciate God’s gifts, and we may therefore reject them, but they’re always on offer to us whether we want them or not. And if we reject God’s gifts, God doesn’t then withdraw his gifts from us. He goes on showering us with gifts which we can receive or not, as we choose. So we’re under no obligation to God.
But we are under an obligation to ourselves. In today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, Paul put sit like this “we have an obligation, but it is not to the sinful nature.” What I think he means is that we each have an obligation to ourselves, to our spirit, our soul. Through Jesus we can enjoy a relationship with God, the relationship of a precious son or daughter, an heir to God’s promises. So our obligation is to do everything we can to tune into God, to align our spirit with God’s Spirit within us, so that we can reach the heights that God has waiting for us. We always need to pay more attention to our spirit, and less attention to our physical body with its insatiable demands. Of course, I know more than anyone how hard that is.
Paul also said in his letter to the Romans, “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” I think this means that to enjoy the eternal life God has waiting for us, both now in this life and in the future after we die, we need to honour our obligation to our spirit. We owe it to ourselves to encourage the development of our spirit, because that’s how we experience the glorious heights of a wonderful life – eternal life.
We’re able to do that because God can set us free from fear. Very often it’s fear which prevents us allowing our spirit to develop. The fear of being thought weird by everyone else. The fear of being ostracised. The fear of getting it wrong. The fear of upsetting other people. The fear of losing someone or something that we value deeply. And so on. But if by clinging closely to God we’re able to begin to overcome this fear – and God has made it possible for us to do that – then we can learn to begin to honour our obligation to ourselves, to our own spirit.
Going on this journey means sharing in Christ’s sufferings. The path to spiritual heights is a narrow one. It can be difficult, and it can be painful. Jesus recognised this, and referred to the path as something like crucifixion. He said that each of us must carry our cross, just as he carried his cross, and that by so doing, each of us will reach the resurrection of eternal life, just as he reached the resurrection of eternal life.
This is all very daunting, but what good news that Paul was very clear in his letter to the Romans that the glory that is to come is far greater than any sufferings which may precede it, and we’ve seen that in Jesus himself. Jesus suffered the most appalling agony, far worse than anything most of us will be called upon to suffer, but once he’d faced that and withstood it, the new life of the resurrection was simply stunning. Suddenly Jesus was no longer bound by time and space or by any other human limitations, and all his wounds were healed. He promised that we could not only match, but exceed his achievements. All we have to do is to remember our obligation to our own spirit and refuse to accept that we’re under any obligation whatsoever to our “sinful nature”.
If you want the best that life has to offer, if you want undiluted happiness and the deepest peace within, if you want to rise to the heights and utterly fulfil your own potential, in other words, if you want eternal life, then honour your obligation to yourself. Pay attention to your spirit and enable it to develop and to blossom. That’s the way to eternal life and that’s the way to meet with God.
Now, if you don’t understand what I’ve been getting at, I’m going to end with some words from Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee. The point of this to try and explain what I’ve been talking about in a completely different way, thinking of how we connect with our spirit:
“We sat by the roadside and scooped the dust with our hands and made little piles in the gutters. Then we slid through the grass and lay on our backs and just stared at the empty sky. There was nothing to do. Nothing moved or happened, nothing happened at all except summer. Small heated winds blew over our faces, dandelion seeds ﬂoated by, burnt sap and roast nettles tingled our nostrils together with the dull rust smell of dry ground. The grass was June high and had come up with a rush, a massed entanglement of species, crested with ﬂowers and spears of wild wheat, and coiled with clambering vetches, the whole of it humming with blundering bees and ﬂickering with scarlet butterﬂies. Chewing grass on our backs, the grass scaffolding the sky, the summer was all we heard; cuckoos crossed distances on chains of cries, ﬂies buzzed and choked in the ears, and the saw-toothed chatter of mowing-machines drifted on waves of air from the ﬁelds.”