The Good Samaritan may be the most famous of all the parables that Jesus told. It certainly ranks in the top two or three. Sometimes familiarity like that breeds indifference. We have heard something so much that we think we have gotten all we can out of it. Yet, no matter how familiar I am with what the Bible teaches, I constantly find myself being surprised, challenged, and inspired by new insights. That certainly happened to me as a prepared to preach this message at Oviedo City Church recently. I hope you find something new as well and that it strengthens your relationship with Jesus.
Have you ever felt like you live in a culture that you don’t recognize any longer? The values you are faced with every day are nothing like what you grew up with. The practices that people carry out in their lives each day are at times shocking to you. How do you respond as a follower of Christ when the culture seems to be so far removed from what you think God desires for you to flourish? Have you found yourself feeling out of touch with what is going on in the world and needing to figure out how to fit in?
Throughout history, followers of Christ have generally taken one of two routes when dealing with a culture that did not embrace biblical values. One route, taken by large numbers of historic denominations, is to embrace the cultural change and fill your sails with the prevailing cultural winds. That typically results in the loss of the Gospel and the loss of the power of what God does through the Gospel. The other route, one more common among conservative and evangelical churches, is to loudly denounce the sins of the culture and withdraw into a Christian ghetto in order to remain untainted by the culture all the while fighting the culture through political means or social media posts.
Here is the question. Is there a third way? Is there a way that avoids giving in and becoming like the culture AND avoids withdrawing while lobbing theological barbs and the culture? I think the answer is a resounding yes and we find the biblical example of this in Acts 17. In that chapter, Paul finds himself in Athens, a city of countless temples and altars to every imaginable God. It was a city rampant with all the sin a city could offer. When Paul visited there, he spent several days just walking around the city and getting a handle on its culture and values. Finally, only after digging into the research, does Paul begin to speak in the public square, the Areopagus.
What is striking about Paul’s response at this point is what he doesn’t do and say as much as what he does. One would reasonably expect that a man so deeply committed to Jesus and opposed to paganism and idolatry as Paul, one who comes out of the legalism of being a Pharisee, would have leveled both barrels at the Athenians. Like some contemporary, angry street preachers today who denounce the sin they see at every turn, it would not be surprising to hear Paul cry out, “You filthy, idol-worshipping pagans, you are all going to fry in Hell”. I have heard a few of those kinds of preachers in my day and have certainly seen more than enough of them posting on social media. Paul certainly has the kind of reputation that most people would probably expect just that from him. But it is a reputation that is not deserved.
Paul shocks the world when he begins, not with denunciations, but with compliments for the Athenians. That is shocking in itself. But it is the nature of his compliments that is really eye-opening. He compliments the Athenians for their idolatry. In Acts 17:22,23 we are told this, “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship”. Instead of ripping into their false religious ideas, Paul actually makes a connection with them. He recognizes that the Athenians care deeply about spiritual things. They want to make sure they are honoring the gods. They want to cover all the spiritual bases to the point that they have altars and temples to every god they have ever heard of, and even an altar dedicated to The Unknown God. After all, what if some god shows up one day and asks to see their temple and the Athenians don’t have one? They ask the name of the god and declare, “So that is your name! We wanted to give you an altar but had no name to attach to it. Here it is right over here. We will have the stonemason add your name forthwith.” They are clearly a deeply spiritual people.
Paul is also deeply spiritual and he uses that commonality to his advantage. It is that altar to the Unknown God, that Paul uses as the jumping-off point to help the Athenians know who God really is. In doing so, he begins where they are and with what they can all agree on together. He quotes some of their own poets and philosophers that speak of a creator and uses that to point them in the direction of the God of the Bible who is the creator of all. From there he points them to Jesus, the resurrection, and the Gospel. Paul’s goal in all of this is not to denounce what the Athenians believe but rather to show the truth that can be found in what they already believe in order to lead them to a more complete truth that leads to faith in Jesus.
Paul could have easily denounced the Athenians, their ideas, and lives and withdrawn into his Christian bubble, or he could have acquiesced and gone along with them just to keep the peace. Paul chose the third way, the way of engagement and dialogue. He researched the culture. He found points of common understanding and used that connection to point ultimately to Jesus. That was his goal, point people to Jesus. He chose a more difficult way. It is easy to withdraw and denounce. It is easy to go with the cultural flow. It is harder to show a better way.
Paul wanted to show the Athenians that Jesus was the answer to all their hopes and dreams. His goal was always for people to find life in Jesus. In Acts 26, Paul is making his case before a Roman official named Festus. Paul is awaiting being sent to Rome to stand trial before Caesar and is telling Festus and a Jewish official named Agrippa, about Jesus. “And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”.
Paul’s deepest desire is for people to know Jesus. He didn’t let the idolatry of the culture force him into a cultural battle. He didn’t let the lifestyles of the Athenians turn him against them. He didn’t withdraw from difficult conversations and disagreements. What he did do was show them respect. It is what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15 that when we make a case for our faith, we are to always do it “with gentleness and respect”. That doesn’t mean doing it weakly. Paul was strong and courageous as he stood in the heart of academic learning of his day. Athens was the Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard of the ancient world. It took courage and grace to stand there and make your case.
How do you navigate the ever-shifting cultural landscape around you? Paul shows us how.
- Make sure you know what it is you believe and why. Being a follower of Jesus means being a student of the things of God, a life-long student.
- Make sure you know what it is that others believe. Paul understood the belief systems of the Epicureans and Stoics of Athens. He didn’t argue against a caricature of those beliefs that would have been easily dismissed by the philosophers. They knew that he knew what they believed.
- Find common ground to work from that leads to Jesus. Far too often followers of Jesus only point out where the differences are with others and never show the key points of agreement that allow for a true dialogue.
- Don’t freak out over practices and beliefs that defy the Gospel. Paul was surrounded by stuff in Athens that was clearly wrong and in some cases vile. He didn’t let that turn him away. Rather, he confidently lived the life that he knew Jesus wanted him to live, in hopes that it would be a light to others.
- Always show respect no matter how disagreeable and argumentative people become. Yelling louder and having the more witty retort, is not what brings people to Jesus.
When we live in our own cultural setting, with little real exposure to other cultures, it is easy to miss how we got to where we are. When we live in our own microcosm of time and ignore the centuries it took to get to this moment, it is inevitable that we will have blinders on. We will fail to understand and appreciate the foundational ideas and events that our current values are built upon. In the western cultural world of Europe, North America, and Australia, among others, there is an existing set of cultural values that want certain trappings of Christianity, but without the Christ who is at the heart of Christianity. They are values that find their roots in the biblical teachings of Jesus.
We want kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, love, compassion, and respect for others. These things have become ingrained in our culture to the point that most people simply take at face value that it has always been so and always will be so. The problem is, that most people don’t realize those values are the natural by-products of a culture shaped by and infused with, the teachings of Jesus, over many centuries. They are not things that are naturally found in the human psyche and are not typically found in cultures outside those impacted by Christianity. Values like kindness, care for the poor, compassion, and respect for others, are the flowers of the teachings of Jesus. They have bloomed and blossomed because of their connection to Jesus. Sadly, in today’s cultural climate, they are like cut flowers in a vase. They look lovely in the vase on the table and smell wonderful. But they have been severed from their roots, in this case, Jesus, and because they are no longer rooted, they will eventually wither and die, no matter how much plant preservative we add to the vase. And you can begin to see the withering when you look at the vitriol that has become part and parcel of our current disagreements in society.
This idea that our western values are actually based on biblical values has been brilliantly demonstrated by author Tom Holland, no not Spider-Man Tom Holland. This Tom Holland is a graduate of Cambridge University and author of the landmark book Dominion. In that massive 640-page book, Holland details how the values that we take for granted in the west as enlightened and desirable, are historically, uniquely, Christian values. Don’t get the idea that Holland is some on-fire Christian conservative. He is actually something of a religious skeptic when it comes to God. But he is enough of a historian to recognize that so much of what western culture values, comes right out of a Counter-cultural, biblical Christianity.
For instance, contrary to current perceptions of the past, the rights of women were non-existent in ancient Rome. Until the teachings of Jesus took hold, women were little more than property who had no say in the direction of their own lives. Their husbands could treat them with contempt and abuse and that was considered normal. They could be tossed aside on the whim of the husband. The teaching of the New Testament actually leveled the playing field, even if Christians have not been great at following that teaching. Care for the sick, unless they were extremely wealthy, was non-existent, until followers of Jesus began to care for them. People with power could force those without, to have sex and there was no #METOO movement to say otherwise. Why? Because it was a normal, cultural value for the powerful to force sex from the weak. Respect for all people of every socio-economic class was considered outrageous until Christians taught a message of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-racial family, all united by a common faith in Jesus. Even the basic idea that we are all to be treated with respect and dignity only came to be a cultural value because of the biblical teaching that all people are made in God’s image. In ancient Rome and most of the world, power was the prime value and people without it were considered expendable and useable. Any objective look at history will show that where we are today in terms of our values of human dignity, care for the downtrodden, compassion for the poor, respect for others, and so much more, all find their roots in the life and teachings of Jesus.
If you are a religious skeptic and reading this, it would be worth your while to ask, why do I hold the values I do? Where do they come from? Holland’s book may be a bit much to dive into. Another option would be Glen Scrivener’s book, The Air We Breath, How We All Came To Beleive In Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality, is a must-read. It makes a very strong case that our current western values are uniquely the values of Jesus.
Unfortunately, we are seeing the unraveling of those values and teachings before our very eyes. The more we hear secular voices cry out for tolerance and acceptance, without being connected to the author of those teachings, the less tolerant and accepting we actually become. When there is no foundation to the message, no spiritual or intellectual weight to back up those values, the method of trying to achieve them is to yell louder, become more shrill, and block out anyone who disagrees. Why? Because deep down inside there is a gnawing fear that we don’t have good reasons for our values. We can’t make a defense for them. So we emotionally react and those emotional reactions come from the baser portions of our personality, the very things Jesus taught against and that all other values are ultimately built upon. The fact is, without being rooted in Jesus, we humans are ultimately incapable of living out the values of love, compassion, kindness, and sacrifice for others, that He taught. Oh to be sure, we can have short bursts of those things. But we can’t sustain them.
The popular culture wants Christians to tone it down, to become more blended into the rest of the culture, to privatize their faith. What we actually need is for Christians to double down on being more Christian not less. You see, as the culture has lost its Christian roots, sadly, so have many Christians. The more secular society becomes, the more likely it is for many Christians to also become cut off from their roots that are found in the person and teachings of Jesus. Being cut off from those roots leads to the kind of insipid Christianity we have in our culture. Or worse, it leads to Christians who are arrogant and self-righteous while they try to bolster a faith that no longer resembles Jesus, through the exercise of political power. The answer to both the insipid and power-hungry expression of Christianity is to become more like Jesus, not less.
Becoming more like Jesus means following the radical teaching that he laid out, and not just a little bit. Culture wants us to be tolerant of our neighbors. (If you want to read why I think tolerance is not an option read this post, Why I Refuse to Be Tolerant) Jesus doesn’t want tolerance. He wants us to love our neighbors and not only them but our enemies as well. Culture wants us to make a small donation to some charitable cause. Jesus wants us to live sacrificially and give extravagantly as He did. Culture wants us to respect people of other races and religions. Jesus wants us to throw open the doors of our own homes and invite them in, showing radical, biblical hospitality and inviting them to be our brothers and sisters.
Why does He want us to be so different? So that people will be drawn to Him. The greatest good we can do for anyone is to live in such a way that they come to know the deep love of Jesus and put their lives in His hands. They will not experience that if followers of Christ are not kind, loving, and respectful in their relationships with people who are not followers of Jesus. In other words, if we are not living an even more radical Jesus-like lifestyle then people are not going to see the real Jesus and will ultimately end up with Christianity without Christ. They will have a cut-flower religion that looks good for a time but will eventually wither and decay.
Want to make people uncomfortable? Just bring up the topic of justice in American culture today. There will be immediate reactions of every conceivable type. Some will cry out about the level of injustice with claims that America has never been concerned about justice and that the entire enterprise is rotten to the core. Others will shout about this being the greatest country in the world and a near approximation of God’s heaven on earth. And of course there is everything in between. It is a debate that seems to be tearing at the very fabric of social interaction and connectedness and threatens to push us into barbaric tribalism over disagreements that are often ill defined and misunderstood.
The church of Jesus, both at large and on the local church level, is not immune to the division. A recent article by Michael Graham, The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism, (1) brilliantly describes the breadth of ideologies that are overtaking churches and the lack of charity in dealing with the disagreements. While we might assume the fracturing is over theological issues, at the core it is really over how we approach social and political issues and wrap them in theological garb.
What has become apparent in the debates about justice is that first and foremost, Christians are often not starting with what the Bible has to say about Justice, at least not a fully orbed view of what the Bible says. Rather, both on the political right and left, many are starting with unexamined world views they have long held, and making the assumption that they have the Bible and Jesus on their side. Any pushback on those views is automatically assumed to be an attack on what the Bible and Christianity teaches. That is a dangerous assumption.
Something that adds to the discord is that the topic of justice has rarely been dealt with in a comprehensive way by preachers and teachers within Christianity. One result of this lack of teaching is that older Christians have functioned under a malnourished understanding of justice and not engaged the issues of the world from a wholistic biblical framework. Younger Christians on the other hand have been confronted with the various injustices in the world and the churches failure to engage. Often times they end up latching on to secular approaches to justice that distort the biblical approach and serve to cause more division.
One Christian author has clearly explained the current situation.
In the Bible, Christians have an ancient, rich, strong, comprehensive, complex, and attractive understanding of justice. Biblical justice differs in significant ways from all the secular alternatives, without ignoring the concerns of any of them. Yet Christians know little about biblical justice, despite its prominence in the Scriptures. This ignorance is having two effects. First, large swaths of the church still do not see ‘doing justice’ as part of their calling as individual believers. Second, many younger Christians, recognizing this failure of the church and wanting to rectify things, are taking up one or another of the secular approaches to justice, which introduces distortions into their practice and lives. (2)
The Bible Is Loaded with Teaching About Justice.
Even a cursory glance at the Bible is going to reveal that it speaks about justice a bunch. The words Just and Justice appear more than 500 times in English translations of the Greek and Hebrew. That doesn’t even take into account that Righteousness is often synonymous with Justice in the Bible and it shows up more than 800 times in its various forms. At the heart of it all is the fact that an attribute or characteristic of God’s very nature is that He is just. He is a God of justice because at the core He is a just God. That in itself should move Christians to dig into the question, what is biblical justice and not take simple, surface answers as the end of the matter.
When we do the hard digging we find that biblical justice of far more robust, rich, and nuanced than our sound bite arguments can accommodate. Often times when we engage complex topics we recognize that there are two sides to the coin. It is a way of saying there is another aspect that needs to be considered and it is integral to the whole piece. When it comes to understanding Biblical Justice it gets a bit more complicated because there are actually two coins in the treasury of Biblical Justice and each of the two coins has a flip side to it. Our tendency as people is to latch on to one side of one coin and miss the other three sides. At best we might see both coins but still only see one side of each. One of those coins is what I call the punishment/protection coin. The other is the individual/communal coin.
The Punishment/Protection Coin
That the Bible speaks of punishment for wrongdoers as an aspect of justice is not news. If anything it is the most often examined side of the justice coins, at least among American Evangelicals. We understand that sin is wrongdoing against God and others, and justice requires that it be dealt with. Preachers have rightly declared for centuries that human beings are sinners deserving punishment from a holy God, but in His mercy, the Father sent the Son into the world to take that punishment for those who would trust in Christ.
What we often miss is that justice is also about protecting those who are wronged, Amos chapter 5 is but one example. In that chapter the prophet chastises the people of Israel because they are doing grave injustice by having rulings in their court system that favor the rich, who have given them bribes, and ruling against the poor, the widow, and the orphan who have no resources to spare in bribing judges. This is one example of injustice and Amos is calling for people to seek justice, which would include protecting those who are most vulnerable in society.
Throughout the scriptures we see four classes of people who we are to protect and provide for if we are to see justice. Zechariah chapter 7 makes this clear and is one of many times this shows up.
Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor. Zechariah 7:10–11 (ESV)
True justice requires assuring that the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant, and the poor, are shown mercy and compassion and are not oppressed. We may differ as to the remedies for showing justice to those who are vulnerable, but there should never be any doubt among followers of Jesus that justice in God’s eyes is BOTH punishment for the wrongdoer and protection and provision for the one who is wronged. Most often those wronged are those among us without the resources to protect themselves, like the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor.
There is a long history favoring this side of the justice coin in American culture. One needs to simply look at any list of western genre movies and you are going to find the theme of justice as protection and provision for the oppressed. Think of movies like, The Magnificent Seven, Unforgiven, High Noon, Tombstone, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, even Blazing Saddles and The Three Amigos. They all had a theme of someone or a group of someones who are being oppressed by bad guys. We look at that and say to ourselves, “That’s not right”. Then the hero or heroes comes to town and make things right and we cheer. That is a full expression of justice. The bad guy is punished AND there is relief and vindication for the oppressed. Both are required for true, biblical justice to exist.
In law enforcement we see this same theme played out. On the side of many police cruisers you will see something along the lines of “To Protect and Serve”. Just who are the police protecting and serving? It is those who are potential victims of injustice. We don’t need to be reminded that the police are there to bring wrongdoers to justice. No police cruiser has “To Apprehend and Punish” on the side of the car. We don’t need to be reminded of that side of the justice coin. But we do need to be reminded that justice is also about protecting and serving the vulnerable.
The Second Justice Coin – Individual and Corporate Responsibility
We can wrap our minds around the notion of justice being both punishment for the wrongdoer and protection and provision for the vulnerable. What gets really dicey is when we get to the next coin. This is the coin of individual AND corporate responsibility for justice. Again going back to Amos 5 we see this as part of God’s call for justice.
Amos 5:24 is one of the two or three key verses that were part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s in America.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:24 (ESV)
The word justice in this verse is the translation of the Hebrew word Mishpat. Righteousness is the Hebrew word Tsadek. At first glance we might think that Amos is talking about two different things here, justice and righteousness. In fact they are the same thing. This is an example of Hebrew parallelism in poetry. It is using similar yet slightly different words to speak of the same thing. In this case, justice and righteousness are both to have a quality of water flowing. When we get to the Greek New Testament, there is one Greek word, dikaiosune, that is translated as BOTH justice and righteousness. Biblically speaking both justice and righteousness are closely connected.
But let justice (mishpat) roll down like waters,
and righteousness (tsadek) like an ever-flowing stream,
So what is the point of all this word study? Mishpat is one side of justice from a Hebrew perspective and Tsadek is another. Tsadek we can understand. It is the one to one relationship between people. I need to treat you justly and you need to treat me justly. We are each responsible for our actions and need to do right by one another. The more politically conservative you are, the more likely you are to understand and call for individual responsibility when it comes to justice issues.
However, the Bible also understands that there is a communal or corporate side to justice. Going back to the issue of bribery in the Hebrew court system of the city gate we see this corporate, or mishpat aspect. If we only thought of tsadek we would say, it is a corrupt judge. While that is true, mishpat would also be concerned about the fact that other people obviously knew about the bribery and at best turned a blind eye to it and at worse, received a cut from the corrupt judge. This is what is meant by systemic injustice. In this case, the community bears some responsibility for the injustice. Certainly not as much as the corrupt judge, but their hands are not clean either.
I find that this is where the serious pushback and arguing begins. We don’t want to share in the blame for something that we did not directly do. This is where our western French enlightenment individualism, clashes with a biblical understanding of the communal nature of life. But we are not without examples of times when we instinctively accept the communal aspect of guilt.
Parents seek to raise their children to live rightly and do the right thing. When children go off the rails in some way, parents can feel a certain amount of responsibility for what their children do and may even apologize on their behalf. Of course it works the other way around as well. Children can find themselves apologizing for their parents behavior. Why? The answer is simple. We understand that we are connected to our family and the actions of family members reflects on us in some way. Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures understand this. The Bible was given originally by God to a Middle Eastern people and if reflects how God values community.
Sins of Commission and Omission
As western individualist we tend to focus of what the reformers of the 16th century church referred to as sins of commission, those sins we committed. Whenever the question of communal or corporate responsibility comes up there is a quick reaction that says, “ I did not do that”. We think of sin as only being something we have done wrong.
But the Bible regularly points out sin that is the result of us NOT doing what is right. In fact, NOT doing what is right could be said to be the most serious of sins. When Jesus was asked by a religious leader, “What is the greatest commandment,?” he replied to “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself”. Loving God and neighbor calls for us to DO something that is loving. It is not just about not stealing from your neighbor or not slandering your neighbor. It is also a call to do things to care for, serve, minister to your neighbor. Failure to love your neighbor in those ways would be sins of omission.
As a follow-up to the question who is my neighbor, Jesus tells the story of Good Samaritan. Two religious Jews walk by a man who has been beaten and left for dead. A Samaritan stops and cares for the man and serves him. The point is clear. The Samaritan is the one who loved his neighbor. By failing to love their neighbor, and care for the beaten man, the religious leaders committed sins of omission. They didn’t beat up the man, but they also did not do anything to help him in his plight.
This notion of sins of omission is imbedded in the historic liturgy, or worship structure, of many churches. There is often a time of prayerful confession followed by an assurance of God’s pardon or forgiveness. That prayer is said corporately as an expression that we are all in this together.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
How often has that prayer been recited without considering how our failure to provide for and protect the vulnerable is actually a sin of omission?
But why should I be held responsible for what someone else has done?
One of the most difficult stories in the Bible is the story of Achan in Joshua 7. The Hebrew people had just conquered Jericho, a mighty fortress. The next town on the march was Ai. They thought it would be a pushover. They were defeated badly and cried out to God for an answer. The result was that Achan had stolen booty from the defeat of Jericho, in direct violation of what God had commanded so the whole nation was defeated in the battle at Ai. The short version of the story was that not only was Achan punished for this offense against God, but his whole family was well. To our modern, western ears this seems horrific and unjust. Yet, God clearly sees a connection between the guilt of Achan and his whole family being involved.
As hard as it may be to accept, Achan’s family were complicit in his sin due to their failure to call him to account. Theirs was a sin of omission. It was just like the people in Amos’ day who knew that widows and the poor were being denied justice in the city gate and did not come to the defense of the oppressed. That sin of omission was a failure to love their neighbor.
What we need to wrestle with as followers of Jesus is to what extent do we see corporate responsibility being taught in scripture. To what extent is mishpat to be experienced. We cannot deny that it needs to be part of the equation. The error of denying it exists, along with the error of blaming everything on systems and accepting no individual responsibility is equally wrong. That is why I use the illustration of two sides of the coin. The Bible holds both individual, (tsadek) and corporate, (mishpat) together as a wholistic approach to justice. To stress one over the other is to have what amounts to a counterfeit justice.
Asking the Why Question
My hope is that followers of Christ will wrestle with and come to grips with what the Bible says about justice and ask WHY does it say what it says, before trying to argue the “what” or “how” of dealing with injustice. Simon Sinek points out our propensity to only ask what someone has done or how they did it, without asking the important question of why. You cannot come to a biblical solution to the problem of injustice by getting stuck on what or how. If we do not know why God cares about justice we will never understand true, wholistic justice. Without that we will never have real justice in our society. We also need to understand that this is not a secondary issue. It is of primary concern. God cares deeply about justice. His very nature and character is to be a God of justice.
,Arguments over things like reparations, or affirmative action, or wealth redistribution, or securing the borders, are dealing with “what” questions. What should we do? Those are important questions. They rarely ever get to the how of things, other than to tax some people more or give some people more or just let everyone in, or no one in. Asking why we do something is crucial. Asking why something is the way it is may be even more crucial.
A great example of the need to start with why, is to look at the highly controversial statement, Black Lives Matter. Is there a more polarizing phrase today? The immediate response is to say things like, All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter. Those are certainly true statements but they don’t get to the heart of the issue. Another reaction is to immediately dismiss the statement because the organization Black Lives Matter has roots in political and philosophical ideas that would be contrary to scripture. But what we really need to ask is why. Why would a 25 year old black male feel the need to say, Black Lives Matter. Is it possible that he says that because in his experience he has come to believe that his life really doesn’t matter to some people, or even most people?
Why do I as a 63 year old white male not feel the need to say white lives matter? The simple reason is because I have never been made to feel as if my life did not matter. I have never had to wrestle with a history that says people of my color only count as 3/5ths of a human being or that people of my color were not allowed to drink from certain water fountains or swim in certain public swimming pools. While those things are mostly things of the past, they are part of our collective, mishpat, history. The effects of which still linger.
I would not be one to say things are worse than ever when it comes to justice issues in our culture. I have been around long enough to know that in fact things have gotten way better, not worse. The short sighted view of history that sees only our contemporary situation and deems it worse than ever is possible only if we ignore history. We practically burned the country to the ground in 1968 in response to the Vietnam war and the assassinations of Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What we saw in Portland or Minneapolis recently was played out in every major city in the country for an entire summer, if not longer, in 1968. We have made huge strides since then. We have had a person of color as president and currently as vice president. That was beyond imagination in 1968. Things have gotten much better but there is still much to do.
The only way to really move forward is to understand and adopt a biblical view of justice. It was just such a view that drove the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and needs to be what drives us today. The secular answers to questions of injustice will always fall short for the simple reason that they are not rooted in the character of God. We only care about justice because of the latent sense we have within us that justice matters because it is a character trait of God. We must be willing to adopt a biblical view of justice, even when it clashes with our politically left or right notions. And in fact a biblical view will conflict with both in different ways. Neither the political left or political right has all the answers and the correct foundation when it comes to justice. Only justice that is rooted in who God is and what God has done, will ever fully satisfy our desire and need for justice.
1 The Six Way Fracturing of American Evangelicalism. Michael Graham
Mere Orthodoxy Blog June 7 2021
Gospel in Life Quarterly. Special Edition 2020
In light of recent events at our nation’s Capitol Building and the close association of Christian banners and symbols with that event, I began to think about the whole question of when Christians may or even should defy the governing authorities over them. The fact that yesterday was the day celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and that tomorrow is the Presidential Inauguration, makes it all the more relevant.
Anytime I am faced with questions like this, I find that the only real answer is to explore the scriptures, what we call the Old and New Testaments. Far too often when people argue for things they think are “the Christian” way to do something, there is little time spent actually studying what God has already said about the issue. When it comes to obedience to governing authorities, the story of Daniel in the Old Testament as well as Matthew 22:20-22, Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 are essential to the conversation. (If you have not read and understood those, you are most likely off base when it comes to answering the questions surrounding civil disobedience and I encourage you to read and wrestle with them before diving into the conversation). As with any subject, especially one as complicated and emotionally charged as this one, it is essential to look at the full scope and context of what the Bible teaches.
The three passages from the New Testament make it clear that all governing authority that exists, does so because in God’s sovereignty, He has granted it to be so. Anytime we oppose that authority, we run the risk of opposing God. However, that does not mean that there are never times when a Christian may oppose those in authority. The story of Daniel, as well as the Apostles in Acts 4:19, gives us the guidance we need to understand the limits of obedience to authority and when disobedience is called for. When I speak of those in authority that can mean those in government, the workplace, or even the home.
What we get from studying the Scriptures is this; there are two times a follower of Jesus may and in fact should, disobey those in authority. The first is when they command you to do something God has forbidden. The second is when they forbid you to do something God has commanded. In the case of the Apostles, they were being forbidden to preach the name of Jesus, something they had been commanded to do by the Lord. That is why they said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” In the case of Daniel he was being commanded to do something that God had forbidden and to not do something God had commanded. He was commanded to pray only to King Darius, and forbidden to pray to God.
There are only two times a follower of Jesus may and in fact should disobey those in authority. The first is when they command you to do something God has forbidden. The second is when they forbid you to do something God has commanded
There are two words of caution and clarification here. The first is, you need to be sure that what you are being forbidden from doing or what you are being commanded to do, is actually in violation of God’s commands and not a violation of your preference or some cultural value. As an example, some Christians have run afoul of local ordinances that are designed to make life good for everyone in a neighborhood. They can be things like, how many parking spaces you need to have for every seat in your worship space or how many people are allowed in the building. These are established as safety measures for everyone. They are NOT forbidding you to gather to worship. You may have ordinances that prohibit the noise level that can he heard so as not to disturb neighbors. These are also not forbidding you from worshipping. They are forbidding you from annoying your neighbors. There are all sorts of local ordinances like these. I have seen Christians object that these things are infringing on their “right” to worship and they they must obey God rather than man. I believe that opposing the governing authorities in those instances is not justifiable from the Bible. In those cases, worship, which is commanded by God, is not being forbidden. What is being forbidden is an unsafe practice in the case of capacity, or an unloving practice, in the case of annoying your neighbors. You may need to add worship times to accommodate everyone to be safe, or turn down the volume of your sound system in order to love your neighbor better, but you are not being forbidden to worship.
The second caution is to realize that when you do have a legitimate, biblical reason, to oppose those in authority, you must be prepared to face the consequences. Just because you are right and biblical doesn’t mean you will be treated justly. Dr. King rightly opposed the segregation laws of the 50’s and 60’s because such laws were in violation of God’s teaching that we are all made in His image and they required us to NOT love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet, even though he was following biblical guidelines, he still ended up in a Birmingham jail. Even though he was following biblical guidelines, Daniel still ended up in the Lion’s Den. Even though they were following biblical guidelines, the Apostles were still beaten for their faith.
There is one thing to note about the Apostles. They did not moan and complain about being beaten. Rather, they actually rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. We need a whole lot more of that kind of attitude and a lot less moaning and complaining about not being treated fairly by those in authority. We especially don’t need Christians suing the government everytime we find ourselves being put upon in some way and being angry and rebellious because of it.
There are legitimate times when disobeying those in authority is the right thing to do. Your boss may tell you to do something illegal or unethical. The government may enact a law that requires you to violate God’s commands. We need to be strong enough to do so when the time comes. But you better be absolutely certain that it is because you are being required to do something God has forbidden, or forbidden to do something God has required. It is my experience that those times are fewer and farther between than we usually imagine.
If there is something sad that characterises how we approach difficult or controversial issues in the age of internet memes. It is that the extremes move to center stage and gain all the attention. The pithy, mic-drop sound bite becomes the be all and end all in the debate. Emotion packed retorts push out any chance for real dialogue and the process of using our brains to do the hard work of thinking becomes replaced by visceral, knee jerk reactions.
Nowhere is this more evident today than the argument over the fate of Syrian refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of more than 120 people. On one end of the spectrum is a view that sees every Muslim as a Kalashnikov toting, bomb vest wearing, destroyer of the western world. On the other end of the spectrum is a view that sees every refugee as an innocent child, or elderly woman, on the verge of starvation being left to die by heartless, angry racists. Those positions either focus on the need to protect ourselves from terrorists by keeping all refugees somewhere other than where we are or the need to supposedly be like Jesus and welcome all of them without hesitation. Those on the protection end of the spectrum are castigated by the other side as being hypocritical, unchristian, violators of Jesus command to love others. Those on the welcome them all in end of the spectrum are castigated as being foolish, weak, idiotic, and naive.
At the risk of being run over from both directions and castigated by each end of the spectrum, let me suggest that both are wrong and both misunderstand the teachings of Jesus.
First, both are wrong in thinking that memes, sound bites, 140 character tweets, and Facebook postings are the way to have a dialogue about this issue. Those things may make us feel like we stuck it to the “other” side and allow us to puff out our chest and claim the moral or intellectual high ground. But that is a fantasy and self deceiving. It does nothing for the refugees.
Second, both are wrong in thinking that this is an all or nothing issue. It has become normative in the debates of today’s issues, whether they be political, moral, social, or religious, to make a simplistic either/or argument for a complex problem and leave no room for a both/and solution. I have a theory that the reason this is a growing trend has to do with us becoming intellectually lazy. It’s just easier to make something an either/or issue and entrench ourselves in our ideologically or emotionally driven position than it is to actually engage our brains, look at the bigger picture and acknowledge that the other side may have a point or two worth considering.
Third, as this discussion enters the religious world and invokes Jesus I find that there is a major failure to wrestle with the totality of what Jesus taught. Calling people to embrace all refugees with open arms because Jesus was a refugee may tug at emotional heart strings or promote guilt but it is hardly presents a viable biblical answer for dealing with something as chaotic and even terrifying as several hundred thousand refugees on the borders of your country. Telling people they are unchristian for being afraid in that situation does nothing to help them get over their fear. On the other hand, the calls for no refugees what-so-ever fails to take into account that Jesus was serious when He said to love our neighbors and our enemies. He made those statements knowing full well that such love was dangerous and risky and yet fully expecting us to obey Him.
So what is the answer? I think it is to be found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:16 when He sends the disciples out into a dangerous world to do ministry. He said,“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Jesus acknowledged that the world is dangerous. That did not mean we withdraw and hide for our own safety. Rather, He intento On the other hand He did not advocate naively rushing off willy-nilly without considering the danger and taking some precautions. Jesus did not propose and either/or solution. He proposed a both/and solution. What He proposed was that we be both gentle and wise.
So how does that apply to the current crisis? Be gentle by taking every step we can to care for refugees, provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care and as followers of Christ, bring the message of the Gospel, make disciples and plant churches among refugee communities. It also means be wise, do what is necessary to make sure, as much as we can, that wolves in the midst of those sheep are prevented from using this crisis to make their way into our midst and spread greater evil.
It is equally easy to say either, “welcome them all” on the one hand or on the other hand “welcome none of them”. Both positions are in my mind, lazy, simplistic, and only make things worse. The hard answer is to think through what it would take to be wise and gentle at the same time and then do that. Governments need to do the work of protecting their people. Paul makes that clear in Romans 13. Followers of Christ need to do a better job of loving people. Do I even need to quote chapter and verse for that? Both need to find a way to work together better which, in a time of hyper-separation of church and state, may be the hardest part of all. As governments do the work of finding the wolves in the midst of the sheep, so the sheep can be taken in and cared for, there needs to be a place for the church to come and help provide some of the love and care that refugees need. But that means Christians must be willing to take the risk of serving those refugees and possibly being confronted by a wolf in the process. Now that is something I am confident Jesus would do.
I had a seminary professor who was what I call a true liberal. By that I mean, she really believed in and lived according to the idea that we all have the liberty to hold our own opinion of things, live by them, and express them. Our differing opinions, when shared and engaged, make us wiser and stronger. To her, disagreement was an opportunity for learning and growth. Being a true liberal she was always open to hearing what others said and even when she disagreed with them it was as a learning experience, characterized by respect in the midst of disagreement. The disagreements could at times be serious and important, from the nature of God, to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, or even if the crucifixion was necessary for the forgiveness of sin. In a seminary those are hot topics and could at times produce a shower of sparks in debates between liberals and conservatives. But not with this professor. She had the respect of the conservatives because she would engage in serious dialogue and treat others as people made in God’s image and worthy of being treated with dignity.
During this latest cultural tempest over Chick-fil-a, their position on homosexual marriage, the protests and counter protests, I have often thought of that professor and wondered to myself, “where have all the liberals gone”. You may think that I am just not paying attention because clearly there are lots of them. Many of them are planning a kiss-in protest at Chick-fil-a stores across the country today. But that is not what I am talking about. I don’t mean people who are morally liberal as opposed to conservatives or evangelicals. I am talking about true, philosophical liberals who really do believe that everyone has the right to their own opinion, expression of it, and their version of truth. Those liberals are few and far between today. What I find in their place are people who are morally liberal but philosophically conservative. What do I mean by that? Simply this, a true liberal would not attack you telling you that your position is wrong and you are a hateful person for holding it. They would simply tell you that they disagree, and then tell you what is true for them and works for them. They would simply acknowledge that it is different from what you think or believe. What I see in the outrage against Chick-fil-a is a philosophical conservatism that says, your position is wrong, it is untrue, incorrect, and in fact dangerous, and hateful. In a rather obvious twist, obvious to me at least, I find many liberals engaging in the exact hate speech that they accuse Dan Cathy of spouting. Just this morning I read the report of on Arizona CFO getting fired after he posted a YouTube video of himself berating a Chick-fil-a drive through attendant over the company’s position on gay marriage. So my request to liberals everywhere is simply this, be a true liberal. Be consistent. If you really want to live as if there are no, or few moral absolutes, as if people should have the liberty to do as they want, then you must allow the conservative the liberty to hold their positions just as you do. You have no philosophical grounds on which to tell them they are wrong for the positions they hold. Liberalism is about liberty, the liberty to think and believe and express whatever you want. Dan Cathy should have that liberty as should anyone else. It even gives mayors of major cities the liberty to say things that they later regret and realize they need to clarify or retract.
But I also want to say a few things to my conservative and evangelical friends. If you truly think that there is right and wrong, good and evil, and that there are moral laws we should follow, then follow them. Start with what Jesus said was the most important, love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Such love is not confined to feeling all warm and fuzzy about someone. The biblical kind of love, the Jesus kind of love, is the kind that acts lovingly, even when you don’t feel like it. If you are a conservative or evangelical then ask yourself these questions. Is there a LGBT person who considers you a friend? Is there an atheist who knows that they can talk to you about anything and that if they were in trouble at two in the morning they could call you without hesitation? Is there a Muslim or Buddhist who respects you because you first respected them? Is there anyone who is of a radically different lifestyle from you who knows that you love them because you have consistently served, encouraged. prayed for them, and treated them with respect and friendship? If the answer is no or you are not sure, then I suggest you skip waiting in line for your chicken sandwich and go do something that builds a bridge and demonstrates the love of Christ. I am pretty sure that Dan Cathy would gladly give up the profit on the sandwich if he knew you were investing in the life of someone who desperately needs to know that Jesus and you, love them.
You see, as much as it makes us feel triumphant that people needed to wait in long lines for a piece of chicken on Wednesday, such triumphalism will not bring people closer to Jesus. Our love and kindness will. That’s not my idea. That’s what the Bible says. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4 It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. It is the love of the Lord that draws us to him. It must be noted that this word kindness is part of Paul’s’ argument against sin in the early verses of Romans. The particular focus of the end of Romans 1 is on homosexual practice and sin. Many Christians trot out those verses and use them to beat over the heads of proponents of same-sex marriage. Yet Paul, for all his strident words against sin, reminds us that kindness is what God most often uses to call us to him. That kindness is first and foremost to be made evident though followers of Christ as we treat others with kindness. That doesn’t mean we say everything is acceptable. It means that we graciously, humbly, lovingly hold to what we believe, including that we believe Jesus calls us to serve and love even our perceived enemies.
We conservatives and evangelicals need to take a page out of the playbook of that liberal seminary professor. We need to treat people, no matter how much we disagree with them, with kindness and respect. We need to demonstrate that we love them and will serve them and sacrifice for them in order to show them the love of Christ. I suspect that if more of us lived that way, there would be a true dialogue and not a parade of useless protests, counter protests, showing support by buying sandwiches or showing disdain by boycotting sandwiches.
I bring this all back to the point of this blog site, provoking a response to the sake of Christ. According to 1 Peter 3:15, Christians should be living life so differently, so hopefully, faithfully, and lovingly, that people who are not following Christ become intrigued by our faith, hope, and love and want to know the reason for it. It is then that we can point people to Jesus and say, “He loves me and because of that, I love you, and He wants you to know that He loves you too”.
If your Christian experience has found you in a more conservative church that focuses on people asking Jesus into their hearts then you have probably been trained that the Gospel is all about loving God and making sure you will get to heaven. If your experience is more of a church that focuses on serving the poor and needy then you have been trained that the Gospel is all about loving your neighbor and making sure that they experience a bit of heaven right here on earth. Both of those understandings of the Gospel are mutated aberrations of what the Bible really teaches.
I have seen both of these extremes in action so many times that they have almost become cartoon caricatures in my mind. On the one hand you have the folks who regularly come up with some new gimmick for telling people about Jesus. It might be a Christian version of a Rubik’s Cube or multi-colored wrist band, or a little blue booklet that you pull out of your pocket at the most inappropriate times. In some cases it is the obligatory altar call at the end of a sermon. The message may have had nothing to do with the grace of God and the church may have the same 75 people who have been coming for decades, some of whom have walked the aisle multiple times, but we must have a chance for people to pray a sinners pray and punch their ticket to heaven. No consideration is given to the trauma or pain in their lives. No attempt is made to minister to the needs of the poor and broken in order to love them to Jesus. It is all about the message and getting that prayer done.
On the other hand there are growing numbers of people who are serving the needs of the poor and broken. They are offering the cup of cold water, giving shelter the homeless, clothing to the naked, visiting the prisoner, and a host of other wonderful things. This is especially true in the under 30 crowd in Christianity, although it has a long history in the liberal branch of the faith no matter what the age. There is a lot of cool stuff going on, but what you might never hear is anyone actually telling the poor, or the prisoner, or the homeless person that they need to submit to the Lordship of Christ in their lives and follow Him. We can’t say that for fear of sounding exclusive or arrogant and we don’t want to offend anyone.
Neither of those approaches is faithful to Jesus or the Gospel that He preached. When Jesus began His public ministry he gave a very clear picture of what the Gospel is in Luke 4:17-19:
17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus said that He was sent to proclaim the Good News, the Gospel. They mean the same thing. So the Good News, the Gospel includes both speaking and doing. It is about telling people something and showing people something. You tell the poor the Good News, but you also set free those who are oppressed. It is about redemption. In the Old Testament there is a long history of the idea of redemption. It is about restoring something or someone to its rightful place. Often times people would have to sell themselves into slavery because of a financial disaster in their lives. If a relative came about bought them out of their slavery then that relative was called their kinsman redeemer. The idea was to restore the person to the completeness of what was lost. The got their lives back because someone paid a redemption price. The was certainly Good News to the slave.
Jesus is our kinsman redeemer. He paid the price for our restoration. We are restored through Christ to the relationship with the Father that was lost due to our sin. That restoration is not just about a place in Heaven with God. It is not just about having our lives in this world made better. It is both. The Gospel is holistic. The Good News is that life now and life to come are both to be changed by Christ. The implication of that for people who follow Jesus is that God cares about the spiritual and the physical. He cares about eternity and the here and now. He redeems our soul and our body. If God cares about such things then we should as well. We should be prepared to share the Gospel in word and deed. We should demonstrate the Gospel for our neighbor by showing them the love of Christ as we cloth them, feed them, house them and heal them. We should tell them of the love of Christ for them by proclaiming for them the message of liberty and freedom found in Christ.
That is the Gospel. It is not a lopsided mutation of only preaching or only serving. Jesus did both. He calls us to do both. If we serve people as He did, then like Nicodemus in John chapter 3, people will come to us. They will have been provoked to ask why we are the way we are. Then we can proclaim how we have been set free by Jesus.
I came upon this quote recently. It was written by Dionysius the Bishop of Alexandria in 260AD. He wrote at the conclusion of a five year plague that at its height killed 5,000 people a day and by the end two out of every three inhabitants of the city.
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty,
never sparing themselves
and thinking only of one another.
Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need,
ministering to them in Christ,
and with them departed this life serenely happy;
for they were infected by others with the disease,
drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and accepting their pains.
Many, in nursing and curing others,
transferred their death to themselves
and died in their stead.
The best of the brothers lost their lives in this way”
My friends, that is how we change the world. That is how people are drawn into following Christ. It makes no human sense that people would want to give themselves to a religion that asks them to serve people they don’t even know, even to the point of death. And yet, that kind of service was a major reason why the Roman world was turned right side up. Our love of our neighbor, with that kind of devotion and sacrifice, is exactly what tells people that this whole thing of following Jesus must be right. There is no other explanation for an action that is so self-sacrificing. Jesus must really be who he claimed to be if his followers live with such a radical love for God and neighbor. There is substance to our words when our actions are so provocative. Oh that we would have that kind of faith again. Oh that I would have that kind of faith.
The Bible is not nearly as complicated as people make it out to be. Yet, what I have learned is that it is simple enough that the least astute child can understand it’s depths and deep enough that the most skilled of scholars can never fully grasp it’s implications. This verse from Philippians comes to mind as one of the verses that so perfectly fits that reality.
12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Philippians 2:12-13
On numerous occasions I have had people ask me about this verse and wondering if there is a contradiction here. People think that Paul is saying our salvation depends on our good works. They get the fear and trembling part because they usually start trembling when they realize they are not doing a very good job of it. But Paul is not saying that our good works, or being a good person is was gets you into heaven. The problem is, people usually read verse 12 and forget to read verse 13. The verse divisions are great for finding places in the Bible but terrible as a guide to understanding it. Verses 12 and 13 are a complete sentence. To read verse 12 by itself is to only read one half of the thought. We would never do that with any other piece of literature yet we do it with the Bible all the time. Not a good idea.
What Paul is saying is simply this, “When I was with you, you did a great job of living for Jesus. Keep doing this even though I am not there. Work hard at living out the salvation you have been given by God. Why, Because God is working in you and that should be made evident in the way you live.” Paul is NOT saying that you are saved by being a good person. He is perfectly clear in many other places that we are saved by God’s grace and the faith/trust we have in Jesus Christ. The life we live as followers of Christ does not save us, but it should be a life that is consistent with being a follower of Jesus who is saved by God’s grace.
Paul does not say, “work FOR your salvation” or “work AT your salvation” or “work TOWARD your salvation”. All of those would mean that in some way it is your efforts that gain you admission into eternal life. He says “work OUT your salvation”. In other words, live it out. Plan out your life, live out your life, work out your life in such a way that your salvation is obvious. And you need to be so committed to living out the Christ-like life that you are driven to it with an urgency that makes you tremble.
But why such urgency? Why such desperation to live out your salvation? Paul gives the reason, “For God is at work in you”. Why work out your salvation with fear and trembling? Because God is working in you, giving you the will to follow and obey Him. To fail to live out your life as a radical follower of Jesus is to actually work against what God is doing in you. That should cause fear and trembling in us. When we fail to love others in Jesus name, when we fail to be content with what God has given us, when we long for someone who is not our spouse, when we fail to love God with our entire being, we are not simply ignoring something that God has told us. We are actively opposing God and what He is doing.
To simply ignore God could be seen as a passive thing. It is like failing to exercise. We view that as passive. We are not actively trying to hurt our body, we are just not doing anything to actively help it. I think we often look at our Christian life that way. We are passive in it and think that this is somehow acceptable to God because at least we are not actively opposing God. What Paul is saying is that by NOT actively working at living for Jesus, we are by default, actively opposing what God is doing in our lives. In reality, failing to exercise means that you are actually actively working at getting fatter, weaker, and sicker. You have made a decision to do something that harms you. That something is whatever takes the place of healthy physical activity. The same is true of your spiritual well being. To fail to live a life that is committed to a radical love for God and neighbor is to actively oppose the work that God is doing in you. Every time I fail to love God with all I have and my neighbor as myself, I am actively fighting against what God is doing in me as He works to shape me into a more Christ-like follower.
The fact that God has worked in me to grant me grace and faith should motivate me to live for Him with all I am. The fact that God has worked in such as way as to pay the penalty for my sin should cause me to tremble before Him. The recognition that my sin is great but God’s love for me is greater, should cause me to work at living for Him like nothing else I have ever done in my life. I do it, not to earn salvation, but because I have salvation.
I am not a big fan of the WWJD bracelets, simply for the reason that a very good question, “What Would Jesus Do” quickly became a cliche’ and not a way of life. But with that said I have to ask the question about the current economic crisis, “What Would Jesus Do?” It is an important question, especially considering the current human response to it all. Politicians are posturing to get money funneled to pet projects that serve more to win them votes at home than to actually help the economy. Then they express outrage over things like AIG bonuses, only to find that one of their own put that loophole in the bill and they all voted for it. In the meantime people who have their jobs and have no hope that the government will ever really got to helping them, are left frightened and desperate.
Jesus gave His followers some very clear instructions about how to live and how to take care of one another. He said things like, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34. And just how did Jesus love us? That is simple. He sacrificed whatever was necessary so that we would have all we needed to be in relationship with Him. He died so we could live. As Philippians 2:5-8 puts it,
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The early church figured out how to do this in very practical ways. The Book of Acts tells us that no one in that first gathering of Christians in Jerusalem ever went without having the basic needs of life provided for them.
44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Acts 2:44-45
This was not government forced socialism or communism. This was Holy Spirit led generosity and sacrifice for the sake of family. Those first Christians understood that they were family in Christ. They were brothers and sisters in the Lord. As family they took care of one another no matter what the sacrifice entailed. People have done things like that for family through out the history of mankind. But usually it was for family by blood. This was for family by Spirit. They didn’t just take care of family. They took care of anyone God put across their path, but they especially made sure that they took care of family. Paul said to “Do good to all men, especially to the household of faith”.
In that first church, if someone was out of work, they would be inviting into someones business to help out. If that was not possible the the people who had food would provide for those who did not. If someone lost their home then others would open their home and give them a place to live. No one was concerned with protecting his own little material bubble. Because they interacted with each other on a regular basis they refused to turn a blind eye to a brothers need. People like Barnabas sold property and had the money used to feed people.
Whether we want to admit it or not, Christians today are as infected by the virus of materialism as the rest of the world. Think of your gut response to the idea of opening your home to give people a place to live. Did you immediately go to the impact on your comfort. Did the very idea of it make you uncomfortable. Did you quickly come up with reasons why your life situation would not allow for that? Okay, what if it was your parents, or your child, or your twin sister who was homeless? Would that change the equation? I would hope so. Now, what about your father in the faith, or your brother in Christ, or your sister in the Lord? They are family too. The response should be no different.
What if you are faced with a need that is beyond you ability to meet. Maybe you have a spare room that someone can move into but you do not have the ability to provide food for them and you. You can’t provide transportation for them or medicine or clothing, then what. In the early church that was simple. They gathered together as the church, house to house. The typical church gathering would have been between 20 and 40 people who where the church at someones house. From time to time the various “House Churches” would come together for bigger meetings, but almost daily they would gather in their neighborhood in a House Church. So the person who was homeless, or out of a job, or sick, would be provided for by a couple of dozen people who shared the load. You might open your house, three other families would take turns providing groceries, someone else would make clothing, someone else would watch the children, someone else would you get their friend who was a physician to come and check on them. It was the people of God being led by the Holy Spirit to meet the needs of the family of God.
Those early Christians were so good at caring for their own that they quickly branched out and started doing the same for the non-Christians who lived near them. Eventually the Roman world noticed this as was put to shame by the sacrificial love of the Christians. Through that sacrificial lifestyle the Roman empire was turned on it’s ear as millions came to Jesus because of the love that we had for one another. Oh to see that happen again!
P.S. Props to Scotty Alderman for suggesting this topic and the next few that will follow the Church in Acts 2
I find it very interesting to consider “worst-case scenarios”. A few years ago I even bought a board game by that name. (By the way, don’t bother getting it. It became the fulfillment of it’s own name) But thinking about the worst-case scenario recently I thought, what would the typical church going American do if attending worship at a church building with lots of other people was no longer an option? What would you do if for some reason it was no longer legal or possible to do so? What if it was still legal to be a Christian, you just could never gather in a group of more than a few people at a time? What if terrorist threat levels meant there were no longer any large group gatherings, not just churches, but sporting events, schools and theme parks and concerts. Sound crazy? Often worst-case scenarios seem to be crazy until they actually happen. Think, The Black Death, The Titanic, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina.
But lets just stick to the church gathering part of this scenario. What would you do? How would you continue to follow Jesus and grow in your faith if you could no longer gather in a “church building” with others? What would you do differently from the way you live your Christian life right now if you had no worship team to lead you, no pastor/teacher to instruct you, no large gathering to make you feel upbeat about your faith? I know that in some cases, maybe even a majority of cases, people would end up with a faith that withers and shrivels beyond recognition. The reason I am sure of that is that for large numbers of people that is the only activity that connects them to their faith.
For those of you who would keep there faith growing and vibrant in such a situation, I suspect that it would look something more like this. First of all you would have a radical commitment to spending a considerable amount of time each day in prayer, worship, and study of God’s Word. That prayer time would be less about giving God updates on you life since He already knows all that, and more about pouring out your love to Him and listening for His voice. The study of His Word would be systematic and not the Bible roulette verse of the day that is forgotten tomorrow. It would probably include writing your thoughts a journal.
Then there would be the time spent with a couple of other Christians during the week, Maybe you would meet in your home or office or even Starbucks. But it would be consistent and a top priority. That time together would include sharing insights from your time with God, what you learned, what psalm or hymn or spiritual song really grabbed you in your worship time. It might include being honest about areas of struggle in your life and being prayed for, really prayed for, by the others in the group. In between those meeting times you would be on the phone to each other or email one another, urging one another on in love and good deeds.
There would be lots of time in your schedule to meet with that new follower of Christ whom you are mentoring since leading them to the Lord a few months ago. You would be talking with them about what the Lord is teaching them and about the obstacles they are facing recently. You would be encouraging them by letting them know that this is fairly normal after a few months. The early honeymoon of following Jesus, blessing that it is from God, is now winding down and the road is getting a little steeper. But you encourage them with the assurance that you will be with them every step of the way and remind them that the person they led to Jesus last week needs encouraged in the same way when the time comes.
You will head home to get dinner ready for the next door neighbors who you are loving for the sake of the Kingdom. It started when you cut their grass while they were on vacation and then invited them over for dinner once they got back. You thought of loving them that way, because last year when you went on vacation you wished someone had loved you like that. You came home to grass way too high and a refrigerator way too empty. One day while your neighbor was away you remembered Jesus telling us to “love our neighbor as ourselves”. When they ask why you did that, you are prepared to give a defence for the hope that is within you. You are determined to not say something lame like, “Oh it was nothing” and instead say something like, “Jesus said we are to love our neighbors”.
You would end your day praying for the people in your life who don’t know Jesus. You would pray for open doors to love them with Jesus love and for the chance to answer questions about Jesus that they bring up. You would spend a bit more time reading God’s Word, just as a snack before bedtime since you already ate fully from His Word through out the day.
Does that sound like how you would want to live out your faith if you could no longer go to a building on Sunday with lots of other Christians? Well let me ask the obvious. Why do you need to have a worst-case scenario in order to live out your faith like that, when that is exactly how Jesus wants you to live out your faith, 24/7, no matter what? How provocative would your life for Jesus be if that was the norm and the large gathering was just icing on the cake?
“Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” Luke 7:44-46
St. Augustine gives is incredible insight into the nature of our heart and the depth of our sin. I remember the first time I read his famous Confessions. At one point Augustine reflects back on a part of his youth when he stole some pears. He confesses that he did not steal them because he was hungry or needed to sell them for money to clothe his mother or family. He stole them simply because he enjoy the sinful thrill of stealing them.
At first I thought that going on for a couple of chapters lamenting your sin for stealing a few pears bordered on the neurotic. But then God brought to mind a similar event from my own childhood. I was about nine years old when my best friend Bobby and I slipped through a hole in the fence that separated my yard from Mrs. Peglow, the widow who lived next door. Mrs. Peglow rarely came out of her house and Bobby and I were convinced that she was over 100 years old. We climbed the apple tree in her back yard like we often did and sat in it eating apples. Sometimes taking only a bite before we threw it as far as we could into the woods behind the house, then taking a bite from another and repeating the process. At first we barely heard the tapping on the second floor window coming from her house. When we looked up it was clear that Mrs. Peglow did not want us in her tree. She especially did not want us taking single bites and tossing the rest of the fruit. But it was also very clear that 100+ year old widow Peglow, was in no condition to come outside and do anything about me and Bobby and the tree. So we stayed in the tree and laughed.
Augustine was broken in spirit because he stole some pears. By comparison I was as wicked as they came. Not only did I steal apples. I trespassed to do it, convinced a friend to do it with me and wasted most of apples in the process. If that wasn’t bad enough i sat in a tree and taunted an old widow woman. Clearly without Christ I am scum. But guess what; so are you! No matter how we try to spin it, we are sinners in deep trouble. Only the grace of God can save us. Before coming to Christ I was, as I like to say, “On a greased pole to hell”. Only Jesus stopped the downward plummet to destruction.
The Pharisee who was Jesus dinner host was oblivious to his own condition condition of sin. All he saw was a woman who was an obvious sinner invading his home and weeping at Jesus feet. When he looked at his own moral standing he incorrectly saw himself as a man far better than her; a man who thought he needed very little from God. The result was that he loved God very little. Jesus was not condoning the little love and saying that his host really was only a little sinner in need of only a little forgiveness and therefore should only be expected to love a little in return. Jesus was forcing his host to come to grips with his own self-righteousness. We know that by the words Jesus speaks about the Pharisees conduct.
Jesus tells Simon the Pharisee that he has been living in a world of self-deception. He has convinced himself that he is a good, moral, righteous person. He is convinced that his sin is little, especially when compared to a prostitute. The message of Jesus is the exact opposite. “Simon” he says, “compared to this prostitute you are a lousy host, a self centered egotist, and a spiritual snob. And at least in the current situation you are a far greater sinner than this woman”. Simon was brought face to face with the startling reality that as good a person as he appeared to be, his sin was deep and his need for forgiveness was vast. He needed to see the deadly serious nature of his own sin so that he could experience the amazing freedom of grace and forgiveness. Only then would he be able to begin to love God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. Only then could he begin to love his neighbor as himself. As long as Simon thought of himself as “basically good”, he could always downplay his need for Gods forgiveness. And as long as be saw himself as better than even one other human being, he could hold on to his spiritual pride and look down at that person. But the moment he comes to realize that he is a desperate sinner as well, then he can love them as he loves himself. His love for himself can equal his love for his neighbor when and only when he is broken by the fact that he and his neighbor are equally sinners, equally in need of grace, and equally broken at the foot of the cross.
So the real question is, “how much of Simon lives in your heart and mine”?