Christian, Journeyman: the life of pilgrimage

11 January 2018

I regularly help a friend by doing online genealogical research. That means I’m used to scrutinising Victorian census returns, where an interesting term keeps showing up in the ‘Occupation’ column. The term is ‘journeyman’.

pilgrimIt’s usually attached to another job like ‘wheelwright’ or ‘mason’. It indicates that the man in question, rather than working from a fixed workshop in his home town, had taken his trade on the road. He would travel around offering his skill to do jobs wherever he could find them, and could be away from home a lot.

If ever I have a tombstone, I think I’d like inscribed on it: ‘Christian, Journeyman’. That’s because, in recent years, I have left the safety and comfort of a settled going-on, as far as my faith is concerned, for a spiritually-itinerant lifestyle. That doesn’t mean I’ve become a church-hopper, doing my own spiritual thing but dropping in at different churches here and there like a salesman popping into whichever branch of Costa happens to be nearby. No, I believe in the importance of commitment to a local church where one can be stirred, encouraged and challenged by fellow-believers—and I’m very blessed to be part of the one I belong to.

Nor does ‘a spiritually-itinerant lifestyle’ mean I’ve forsaken the tools of my evangelical trade to become a spiritual bodger who’ll have a go at anything, from liberalism to zen buddhism. No, I consider myself still to be soundly evangelical. But I’ve taken to the road, exploring some out-of-the-way tracks and reading more widely. And being on the road means travelling light; I’ve left certain traditional tools, like biblical inerrancy, original sin and ‘turn or burn’, behind.

Being a journeyman just means that I’ve become more open to new insights into the purpose and meaning of Scripture, with the freedom to follow where they lead. I’m less tied now to the strongly-interconnected toolkit of Christian doctrines that my clan considered ‘right’ and am enjoying looking at new biblical perceptions, new angles on old beliefs, and new ways of discovering God’s will for me. It’s great and I feel strangely liberated.

One fascinating result of all this is that, wherever I look, I find other people experiencing the same thing. One Facebook friend, himself a journeyman, wrote in a post, ‘I’ve learnt as much from my short time on the journey than I did from a long time in the fortress.’ That’s an interesting choice of words. A fortress is a defensive position. From the roof its occupants drop rocks and boiling oil onto those outside whom they consider a threat to their security. I’ve had a few missiles dropped in my direction recently, but fortunately they have all missed.

Journeying seems to have been the experience of God’s people in every generation. Maybe it’s because of my present experience that I see it now wherever I look, but I was surprised to find it even in the Bible, right through to the New Testament. I’m thinking of how God’s will unfolded in stages, and how hard it proved for some of God’s people to accept new things when he introduced them. It was especially hard for the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day to cope with the ‘journeyman’ aspects of his own ministry. Let me explain.

The Jewish religious establishment were never comfortable around Jesus. He didn’t conform to their views and ways. That rocked their boat, and they wanted him out of the way. One thing they didn’t like was how he hob-nobbed with the riff-raff of society, who loved his company and found him warm and accepting. So, when crowds of ordinary folk, including a typical sprinkling of prostitutes, tax-collectors and other low-life, flocked to hear him speak, ‘The Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15:1-2).

They weren’t thinking, ‘Good for him! He’s a fine example of friendliness to all and we can sure learn a lot from him about that!’ No, the word ‘muttered’ gives away their attitude: they didn’t like either Jesus himself or what he was doing.

‘Welcoming sinners’ was not for the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They avoided them like the plague. They were even a bit cagey about ordinary Jewish folk who hadn’t sunk low enough to join the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’. Why? Because everyday Jews weren’t professional students of the Old Testament like the Pharisees themselves; they were too busy earning a living, raising a family and coping with life’s setbacks for that. So they would always be second-rate at religion.

The ‘tax-collectors and sinners’, however, didn’t even make third-rate. To Pharisaic eyes they were an abomination, a stain on the name of God and Judaism, ritually unclean as a result of their lifestyle and their contact with Gentiles, and thus barred from the Temple worship. If one of them walked past you in the street, you would pull your arms in and gather in your robe tightly so as not to defile yourself by a whisker of contact.

Jesus was the very opposite. He hung around with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ all the time. He openly touched the ritually unclean, like lepers and menstruating women. He treated prostitutes with dignity and respect. He went to dinner at the home of tax-collectors like Levi and Zacchaeus.

This latter step really was the limit, in the Pharisees’ view. Today we eat with all and sundry, sharing a table with them at the local Pizza Hut or Macdonalds without turning a hair. But in Bible times, to eat with somebody was loaded with meaning. It meant you accepted that person, you approved of them and you were happy to be associated with them. That’s why the Pharisees griped so much: it was bad enough that Jesus ‘welcomed sinners’ at his talks, but to actually eat with them…well, that really was beyond the pale.
So why did Jesus do it? For the very reasons stated: he accepted them, he approved of them—without necessarily approving of all their behaviour—and he was happy to be associated with them.

Where Jesus (the journeyman) and the religious leaders (the workshop men) parted company was over the Law of Moses. The Pharisees were experts in it. Studying it, and living by every detail of their interpretation of it, was what made them tick. It was the same for ‘the teachers of the law’: you can’t teach others what you haven’t mastered yourself. And both groups felt certain that their understanding of the Law, and their way of observing it, was correct; it was what God wanted. They could pull out a proof-text for everything they did. The Law, after all, was God’s Word, so obedience to that Word was obedience to God—dead simple, really.

Then Jesus appeared on the scene with what can only be called a cavalier attitude to the Law. I’m amazed that some Christians make much of Jesus as the one who perfectly kept the Law of God. That hardly tallies with the New Testament evidence. He disregarded and broke the Law right, left and centre, doing his doctor-work and harvesting grain on the holy Sabbath, hob-nobbing with the riff-raff and the down-and-outs, and accepting dinner invitations at the homes of tax-collectors and sinners. It was because of his very breaking of the Law that the Jewish leaders disliked him so much.

It wasn’t that Jesus was against the Law in principle. But he was interpreting the Law very differently from the Pharisees. In fact, the kind of actions they disliked in him were the kind that Jesus saw as truly fulfilling the Law. In reaching out to the broken, the sick, the outcasts and the needy, and helping them get their lives restored, he was doing what the Law had always been intended to achieve. People were more important to him than rules.

Some, however, clearly considered Jesus to be opposed to the Law. That’s probably why he felt the need to say plainly, on one occasion, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…’ And what he said next sheds light on that: ‘…but to fulfil them’ (Matt 5:17). In other words, the way he was acting was the real way to keep the Law of God. He was ‘fulfilling’ it in the sense of perfecting it by living out in his daily life the purpose for which the Law had been given.

That was new: it was journeyman stuff, and the workshop-bound Pharisees had problems with it. Their focus was the letter of the Law; his was the spirit of it. Jesus’ life and practice made them feel that their nit-picking devotion to the Old Testament text was in fact missing the mark. Nobody likes to be shown up like that. The normal reaction is to dig your heels in, shout louder in support of your well-established point of view, and rubbish the challenger. Which is exactly what the Pharisees did.

As far as we can see, Jesus and the Pharisaic challengers never got to sit down together and discuss their differences in friendly debate. He would have loved it, I’m sure, but they weren’t up for it. Had they managed it, how would it have gone? Here we need to use our imagination a bit. A Pharisee, hot under the collar, pokes his finger at Jesus and demands, ‘Are you telling me, then, that I’ve been up a gum-tree all my life? That my interpretation of the Law and how to observe it has been wrong? That I’ve been wasting my time—wasting my life?’

Jesus, for sure, would have replied, ‘No.’

He would, I think, have pointed out instead that there are times and seasons in God’s dealings with his people, who are called only to live as best they can in light of the understanding they have at the time. Insofar as they do that, God accepts them. But when he causes new light to appear, they are responsible for responding to it, which may well require some major adjustments.

Such a change of season had occurred just a few years earlier with the arrival on the scene of John the Baptist. He had been God’s messenger to bring new light on how the divine purpose was working out among the Jews. Many had recognised this and been quick to respond, making their way to the Jordan and submitting to John’s baptism—with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ among them.

Luke, looking back on this as he compiled his Gospel, made a fascinating observation about the response of those who listened to Jesus’ teaching. He said:

‘All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptised by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John’ (Luke 7:29-30).

What does Luke mean? He is saying that, in the ministry of John the Baptist, God had caused new light to shine on the Jewish situation. Many ordinary people, including ‘even the tax collectors’, had responded to that light and let John baptise them. Their wise response had given them a shot of spiritual life that had prepared their hearts to respond to further light down the line. That light had soon appeared in Jesus, and now they were hearing him with delight and responding to his teaching.

Then Luke draws a comparison between this and the attitude of ‘the Pharisees and the experts in the law’. These, over-confident in their own correctness, had turned up their noses at John the Baptist, refusing to believe that anything could ever supersede their own way of understanding things. In doing that, they had ‘rejected God’s purpose for themselves’—sobering words. Having turned their backs on one new revelation, they were doubly opposed to the second, and thus spurned Jesus and his message.

Jesus, I think, would have adopted this angle in our imaginary debate. I hear him replying to the Pharisee’s question something like this: ‘Well, my friend, you’ve lived your life according to the light you’ve had and your understanding so far of God’s Word. Well done for that! But when John the Baptist came along, let’s face it, you had no time for him. You refused to let him baptise you. And that was a mistake, because John was “a lamp that burned and gave light” (John 5:35), sent from God, as the prophet Malachi predicted. So, refusing John set you back, I’m afraid. Your refusal to accept him has made it well-nigh impossible now for you to accept me, because I’ve come to reveal an even bigger step forward in God’s purpose. But it’s never too late, my friend! See your life as a Pharisee, not as wasted, but as a valid stage in your pilgrimage with God, because that’s what it has been. But now it’s time to move on. The past is the past, and the future beckons—and I’m the future.’

Jesus’ message, however, fell largely on deaf ears. The Pharisees were wedded to the workshop. They knew its layout like the back of their hand: where every tool was kept, what each cupboard contained. All their proof-texts were kept well-honed and ready for use. They could lay their hands on the right argument without delay. They were at home in the workshop, and the travelling Nazarene urging them out of it, and into the life of a journeyman, was best shut outside.

Today, an element in the evangelical wing of the church shares much in common with these ancient Jewish leaders. I know, because for years I was part of it myself. They have their systems of belief all tidied up, the attributes of God all neatly boxed, the nature of the atonement all sewn up and their view of Scripture and the Christian life set in stone. Nothing will lure them outside, because everything inside is, in their view, right, correct, sound, unchanging and unchangeable.

They are for the most part lovely people. They are sincere believers in God, followers of Jesus and listeners to the Holy Spirit. They are warm and kind, helpful and caring, often to the point of self-sacrifice. And God is with them, blessing them and their efforts on his behalf, because he loves his people and is wonderfully gracious to them all.

But when a journeyman calls at their workshop they are rattled. He does unsettling things like suggest that there’s been some new light on eschatology, or the work of Christ, or justification, or a new angle on the nature of Scripture, and that they might want to trade in some of their old tools for newer ones. It annoys and upsets them. ‘What!’ they exclaim. ‘Are you telling me that I’ve been up a gum-tree all my life? That my interpretation of the Bible and what it means has been wrong? That I’ve been wasting my time?’

And once again the answer is ‘No!’ I would say, as I believe the Lord himself would say, ‘You’ve been doing fine, living according to the light you have, and doing a good job of it. God is pleased with you.’

But I would want to add, ‘God is causing new light to break forth from his holy Word.[5] Venture outside the workshop for a few moments to check it out, just as those Jews in Bible times left their towns and synagogues to check out the message of the man in the camel-hair coat at the Jordan.

I would want to remind them that the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin were bold enough to leave the cobweb-ridden Roman Catholic workshop and take to the road in the sixteenth century. Were they wrong to do so? And I would gently remind them that, much more recently, some evangelical Pharisee-types poured scorn on the Pentecostal Revival and, more recently still, the Charismatic Renewal—and died in their workshops, still loved by God, but missing out.

Becoming a journeyman is not an easy decision. It’s not as secure a lifestyle as that of the workshop, and you’re never quite sure where your next port of call will be. But it’s worth it for the adventure of travelling, the thrill of seeing new spiritual places and a satisfying sense of progress. It’s pilgrimage of the very best kind! But I still value the contribution of those in the workshop, whose guardianship of the old tools sometimes comes in useful. Out on the road you can follow a light which, far from being divine, turns out to be like the waving lamp of wreckers luring ships onto the rocks to plunder them. That’s why I keep popping back into the workshop myself. I check the standard systematic theologies and revered works of evangelical doctrine. But then I start to miss the fresh air, and I’m off on the road again.

I long for workshoppers and journeymen to remain open to each other, instead of viewing each other as a threat. Surely Christians, of all people, should be able to sit down together and debate in a frank yet charitable manner some of the new ideas out there?
Sadly, the tendency is to become, instead, reductionist and bitter, declaring ‘All journeymen are sinister heretics!’ or ‘All workshoppers are stuck in a rut so broad that it’s a grave!’ when neither is remotely true. We end up too often like the British and German troops in the First World War, crouching in our trenches, from where we lob grenades at each other. These days the grenades travel via YouTube or Facebook, and they serve only to hurt and kill, which is not the Spirit of Jesus.

Some, I suppose, would see this article as another such missile. It’s certainly not intended to be. See it, if you can, as an invitation to truce-talks.

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