My friend Gareth once told me about a young man in his workplace. The young man was a Christian and made sure everybody knew the fact every opportunity that he got. For example he would never laugh at the smutty jokes etc. However, there was a flaw. If ever anyone needed someone to fill in or do that little bit extra after hours, our Christian friend was never available. His faith was about certain rules, regulations and self righteous statements but never about the spirit of love or grace or anything relational. The Pharisees of Jesus day were very like that. They prayed on street corners, made sure everyone knew of their charitable acts and lack of doing anything on the Sabbath. They waved their religiosity in public. Yet, when it came to grace, love and forgiveness in their relationships with others there was nothing. They lived by the law and not by the Spirit. Living by the law is a human effort; very outward. Living by the Spirit is a revelation of the transformative power of God; in inner redemption that works its way out in everything!
Today is a Sunday and the vital Haass Talks on Northern Ireland’s peaceful future have been adjourned because the DUP would not negotiate on a Sunday. Now this surmise is not about Sabbath observance. I have very strong views on God’s gift to humankind of rest and time for spiritual reflection. Like Jesus himself though I am not enslaved to a particular day or particular things you can and cannot do on that day. Already Twitter is alive with the fact that the DUP cannot be involved in peace discussions, which seem very much in keeping with God’s Kingdom and will coming to earth as in heaven, but are able to be on Twitter. If your witness lives by the Sabbath it sadly dies by the Sabbath too! It might even have been a right decision to adjourn the talks but it is a complex issue and not what my grievance is in this blog.
No, my surmise is the lack of consistency in the DUP’s Christian observance. They seem to me to be a little like my friend’s work colleague. Here they are waving their human work of keeping the Sabbath “holy” and yet in the negotiations, that they have refrained from for Christian reasons, they seem to be showing very few Christian ideas. The Pharisees were about law keeping and judging others for not law keeping. Jesus was about grace and love and forgiveness. Jesus said, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” These are radical, revolutionary words. They seem insane, unjust and irrational. Yet they are the life of a whole new heavenly kingdom come to earth. They are fueled by the grace of God that loves people as they are, in all their sin and shame and past misdemeanours. This whole new way to live is the only hope for the world and the only hope for a Northern Ireland captive to its past of tit for tat sectarian prejudice, hatred and murder.
So I find it disturbing that the DUP can make some stand for the keeping of Sabbath by adjourning negotiations with Richard Haass while ignoring the core teachings of Jesus during those negotiations. It is a symptom of a huge problem at the heart of Northern Ireland society. We have reduced Christianity to the laws of the Pharisees and lost almost entirely the explosive (word well chosen!) spirit of Christ. If we desire to shine the light of Christ across the country and indeed the world then the best way to do it will not be by keeping the law in meticulous Pharisaical fashion but by revealing to the world how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus can do the impossible and redeem a country haunted by its past. American clergyman and writer Frederick Buechner defined sin as that which pushes away. That has indeed been the experience of our peculiar sins in Northern Ireland; we have pushed our communities apart and built walls to divide, put up flags like dogs marking out those divisions. Grace of course is that which breaks down all barriers unconditionally and brings people together with each other and with God. Now that DUP is what we should be making a stand on. Keeping the sabbath is easy. You might be right in having adjourned these talks. However, come Monday morning and I am expect you to bring us peace by mid-afternoon by living out the faith you have waved about so publicly today!