A sign post doesn't make me go in a particular direction. It simply points in a particular direction, and the decision is mine as to which way I wish to go. A 'Stop' sign won't bend down and stop me as I approach, nor will a 'Yield' sign switch off the engine of my car, as I approach the intersection. Jesus is the greatest and clearest Sign Post of all time, but even he will not compel us to travel in a direction we choose not to. He said he was the Way(Jn. 14:6), not one of the ways. He said there is no other way back to the Garden except through him. "They who follow me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (Jn. 8:12).
The Gospels provide a very clear map of the journey we are asked to take, and every twist and turn on the road is clearly marked. People who set out to climb Mount Everest, or travel to the South Pole, will give meticulous attention to planning and mapping out every step of the journey. Jesus detailed our maps for us, because he came, in person, and travelled that road, ahead of us. He cleared the landmines, and he put down very clear markers. "By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another". (Jn. 13:36).
Rules and laws, where just, are there to protect us, to guide us, and to assist us. It would be irresponsible to allow drivers go down the main street of the town at 100 miles per hour. Nor would it be tolerable in any way for an individual to decide who should live, and who should die in his neighbourhood. Any rules and guide-lines given to us by Jesus are given entirely out of love, and are totally motivated by what is best for us. If he asks us to forgive others, for example, he does so because he knows only too well the self-destruction that goes with resentments, and harbouring grudges.
One of the more detailed maps for Christian living is to be found in what we call the Beatitudes. Let me present them here in some sort of simple paraphrased version, just to make sure that it is clearly understood what Jesus said, and what I am writing about.
Blessed are those people who are detached from riches, and have the spirit of the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who love enough to mourn over the death or misfortunes of others, because they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek and the gentle, because everything will come to them.
Blessed are they who yearn and long for justice for others, because they will be satisfied.
Blessed are those who are merciful and forgiving towards others because that's what they themselves will receive.
Blessed are those with a pure heart, who deal honestly and sincerely with others, because they shall see God.
Blessed are those who work for, and tried to promote peace, because they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are made to suffer because of the good they do, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are you when people treat you badly because you are my friends, and you are trying to live as I ask you. Be glad and be happy, because your reward will be great in heaven.
These Beatitudes (Be-Attitudes?) give us clear guidelines for your own attitudes, dispositions, and actions. The end of the line, the Garden, is what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God. The necessary requirements are being gentle, poor in spirit, concerned about others, and purity of heart. If there was a border-crossing on the way, requiring visa or passport checks, these would be the credentials I would have to present, before continuing on the journey. If we all were arrested, brought down to the local police-station, and charged with being Christian, how many of us would get off scot-free for lack of evidence?!
The early Christians must have seemed a very strange bunch, indeed. They were followers of someone who was executed as a public criminal, and their whole message was that this man was still alive. There was no sign of him around the place, like there had been a few years previously, but they stubbornly insisted on speaking about him in the present, as someone alive and well, and living among them. There was one thing, however, that did impress them, and they could not deny it. "See how these Christians love one another" was the comment they made among themselves.
There was no denying the evidence of their eyes, which is exactly the kind of witness that Jesus asked of them. They were to be his witnesses, more through how they lived and behaved than anything they preached. Like him, they were to become sign-posts to others, pointing to a Way. Before they became to be known as Christians(a derogatory title given them in Antioch), they were known as followers of the Way. Jesus was the Way, he showed the Way, and he sent his Spirit to guide our feet into that Way. That Way would definitely, without a doubt, lead us back safely to the Garden.
Love, for the Christian, is not some romantic esoteric emotion; some sort of feel-good experience that enables us go around loving everybody! Far from it! This love is about dying, and nothing less than that. "Greater love than this no one can have, than to be prepared to die for another."(Jn. 15:13). Love is about forgiveness, tolerance, patience, humility, understanding, and compassion. It involves unscrewing the top of another's hear, looking out through their eyes, and trying to see things as they appear to them.
There are very clear markers along the road of Christian love. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who treat you badly……Do to others as you would have them do to you…..Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Be not a judge of others, and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you, and you will receive in your sack good measure, pressed down, full and running over, for the measure you give will be the measure you receive back."(Lk. 6:27-38).
My reason for quoting Jesus at some length is, firstly, because what he says is so simple and direct, and, secondly, it shows that there are very clear markers all along the road to the Garden. I am told how to act and react in each and every situation. The script is written for me well in advance, but there is something much more important than that: I am given the Holy Spirit, so that I will be able to live out that script as written.
"That we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him, he sent his Holy Spirit as his first gift to those who believe, to complete his work on earth, and to bring us the fullness of grace." Jesus wrote the script, and the Spirit is the Producer and Director. Each of us has a vital role in this real-life drama. We know how the story ends. That's one great advantage. To know, right from the beginning, that the story ends with Resurrection must surely be a wonderful sustainer, when the going gets tough along the way.
When one or two mountaineers decide to take on Mount Everest, there is much preparation to be made. All previous attempts, whether successful or failures, are examined in detail. Advice is sought from those who have attempted this before, so as to benefit from their experience and insights. One of the most important elements in all the preparation, however, is to get a good local guide; to get someone who knows every nook and cranny of the mountain, and every twist and turn of the weather. These are the unsung heroes of all such ventures. Without Tensing, Hillary would never have reached the summit, and he was the first to admit that.
On our Christian journey, with all its sign-posts, we are also accompanied all the way, and our Guide is the Spirit and Breath of God. It is the Spirit who fills our sails, and moves us along, as we ride the wind. Migrant birds completely fascinate me. I just cannot comprehend how a tiny little bird can leave the Ivory Coast on a fixed day each year, and land in the slob-lands of Wexford. What is even a greater source of wonder is what happens at the end of the summer. By then the young chicks are moving about, and, in early September, the parents fly back to the Ivory Coast, and the chicks follow them about a month later, and arrive in the exact same place! I would like trying to explain that to an adult, not to mention a child. (The child would probably be the least surprised!).
I think of such a phenomenon when I reflect on the direction given to our lives by the Spirit. I have no doubt that, if these birds were given free will, as we are, that one of them might decide to fly to New York instead, and end up very dead indeed in the middle of the Atlantic. Free-will is an extraordinary gift, but it can also pose a frightening threat. To give us free-will is God's way of showing his trust in us; in giving us the responsibility for making our own decision; in freeing us from the ignominy of being mere robots, totally incapable of making a decision of our own. As with all privileges, there follows the responsibility, and each of us is asked to take responsibility for our own actions.
I said earlier in this chapter that a sign-post points towards a place, but it won't make me go in that direction. It is the same with the Spirit. The Spirit leads…into all truth……into the ways of peace. Jesus offers me peace, but I'm totally free to live in misery and die of ulcers, if I choose to. The key that opens my heart to God is willingness. Unless I am prepared to make this key available, then Jesus has to stand at the door and knock. He will not come in unless I open the door. Like the Spirit, Jesus is interested in leading, not in driving or dragging. "Peace on earth to those of goodwill."(Lk. 2:14).
Jesus came across a man who had spent thirty-eight years sitting by a pool. Once a year the waters of the pool moved in miraculous fashion, and the first into the water at that time was healed. This man waited for his chance all those years. When Jesus came along, he saw the man, and he asked him a simple question "Do you want to get healed?"(Jn. 5:6). Seems a strange question, doesn't it? Perhaps, if the man had really wanted to be healed he would have succeeded by now. Whatever the reason, I refer to this now, because, as I finish this chapter on the sign-posts to the Garden, Jesus could very well ask me "Do you want to get back to the Garden?"