I was born an old man in many ways, or at least I was raised to be one. I love order and authority and the crisp contrast of black and white. But what happens when that authority is challenged, and the sharp contrast of black and white becomes gray? What happens when the questions that defined those labeled “in” and those labeled “out” do not identify the players accurately? Already, your minds might be whirring like the old-style hard drives, trying to figure out which right controversy I might be talking about. But actually, what I am asking is, regardless of the controversy, are we asking the right questions? We have been thrust into a gray world, like it or not. The question to ask is, Lord what would you have me do?
In many ways, it feels as though we are living through the fulfillment of Jesus’ pronouncement that He bring a sword, dividing father from son and mother from daughter. Today, we find church divided against church, race against race, and family against family. But these challenges are our making, not the Lord’s. The passage in Matthew was meant to illustrate the depth of the commitment one must have to the Lordship of Jesus, but we are failing to even make ourselves uncomfortable with the questions.
Don’t get me wrong, we are committed to our points of view from both the left and the right of every issue. But what does God think about the question? Are we advancing or deterring the Kingdom by engaging in a battle? Will the result be a clearer understanding of the Gospel? In many political fights, dare I say all, the outcome is not black and white. To make matters worse, we want to paint over the divisions to make them appear black and white--church against secular, orthodox against heretical, conservative against liberal. But these labels only mean something to the die-hard supporters at the extremes, and current definitions are often not compatible with the original meanings of the terms in question. The labels become strawmen which are repeatedly set up and then knocked down. Add to this situation the tendency to limit one’s sources of information to those that feed established biases, and you have the exact recipe that Henri Nouwen served up in The Wounded Healer.
In A Way Forward, I described the need for complete submission to the Lordship of Jesus, humility, compassionate understanding and sacrificial giving of ourselves. Someone asked, “But what does that look like?” Though it is impossible to outline every possible scenario, this week’s Gospel reading outlines some particulars worth noting.
First, Jesus prepares His disciples for adversity. He tells them, “If they call me Beelzebul, what do you think they are going to call you.” It is not a matter of whether this will happen. It is a matter of when. At some point in your walk with the Lord, you will be required to proclaim from the rooftop what you have heard, regardless of personal adversity faced. It is not a matter of whether Christians are treated with respect. It is a matter of believing, despite the fact, that you will be mistreated. The difficulty, as in the time of Jesus, is that sometimes that mistreatment comes from the hands of the established religious organization, making it doubly difficult to properly explain the authority of the Church universal to those who do not yet believe.
Second, Jesus advises us not to fear potential mistreatment. Instead, He reminds us that what is hidden will be revealed. Things hidden include both God’s will and matters that men are trying to conceal or avoid facing. Jesus knows His path will include a criminal’s death, despite His innocence of all wrongdoing, but He knows He will be vindicated on the day of His resurrection. We must work with the same determination that He did. The challenge will be to discern and align ourselves with God’s will at a time when the directions that seem the most obvious just might not be the correct way to go. Kind of like taking a left hand turn in New Jersey, we might just have to get in the right-hand lane to turn to the left. It is not necessarily intuitive, but New Jersey traffic authorities demand it. Any apparent solution birthed in fear is not of God.
Third, Jesus encourages His followers to persevere by describing the love that the Father has for them. If He, the Father, knows meaningless details about lesser things, how much more must He care for each of the disciples? The Lord’s presence is to be taken in faith, despite the circumstances that might be encountered. The disciples are warned not to fear the worldly adversaries with limited power to make people suffer (to include physical death) but should instead attend to the Lord’s work which brings about ultimate creation and fulfillment.
Again, discernment is not easy in these situations. Proponents of both sides of arguments seem to be dead-set in their ways. Just remember that both sides could have valid points while completely botching the conclusions. We must persevere with Him, meaning that our conclusions must maintain all of the tensions held in the Bible. In today’s arguments, that means inclusivity matters, but so does holiness. Sin issues matter. but so does grace. Individuals matter, but individual actions do have communal effects whether they be positive or negative.
Strangely, our arguments take us back to the beginning. God tells us not to eat of the tree in the middle of the garden. The serpent comes and tells us “...God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” But we know that the serpent was crafty and deceitful. We will never be like God.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us outside the garden but at the feet of a merciful Father who beckons us to come, just as He did to Adam and Eve. Don’t you see? It isn’t us and them! It is just us, pitiful sinners waiting on the grace of God to save us. When will we stop building walls and begin building tables to gather around?