No Harm, No Foul

offense defense

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Proverbs 3:11-20, 1 John 3:18-4:6, Matthew 11:1-6

As Jesus’s ministry was beginning to really take off, John the Baptist was locked up by Herod. Even from prison John heard of the impact Jesus was having, and so he sent his own disciples to find out if this man really was the messiah. They asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Rather than answer with a simple yes or no (did Jesus ever answer with yes or no?) Matthew tells us Jesus instructed them to remind John of the signs he was performing, and concluded by saying, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Does simply lacking offense seem like a pretty low bar for blessings?  Later in Matthew 12 he will say of false prophets: “Those who are not with me are against me,” but in Luke and Mark, when the disciples complain to Jesus about strangers casting out demons in his name, he tells them, “Those who are not against us are for us.” People who look for reasons to draw lines between “us” and “them” may tend to favor the Matthew passage, but Jesus was addressing people prophesying falsely in his name, not neutral or uncommitted parties. Regarding people who aren’t actively condemning Christians, today’s scripture and the Luke/Mark passages seem to say: “no harm, no foul.”

So how is it Christianity has become virtually synonymous with trumped up outrage over things which don’t truly impact us?  Why do some of us insist an inability to impose our brand of doctrine on others is a form of oppression? If we’re going to own accessories branded with “WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)?” we better be prepared to answer “Root out hypocrisy in our own institutions and stop worrying about people who prefer ‘Happy Holidays!'” In some countries Christians are actually silenced, imprisoned, or killed. That is oppression. The local public elementary school celebrating an inclusive “Winter Festival” is peaceful pluralism. Besides, do you really want public schools teaching your children religion? What brand of Christianity would it be – if it were Christian at all?

Jesus and Paul spoke to and taught believers who would were part of a small, oppressed minority. Embracing that persecution mentality in a country where over 70% of the citizens identify as Christian can twist the good news into something scary.

Let’s opt out of outrage culture, and redirect that energy toward Kingdom work: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, clothing the naked. If we are not for them, we are against them.

Comfort: People are going to disagree with you, and that’s OK.

Challenge: Leave it for God to take care of.

Prayer: Merciful and gracious God, please help me let go of my own ego and insecurity so I may offer a glimpse of Christ’s love to all I meet.

Discussion: Do you ever mistake being persecuted for not being charge, or being censored for being challenged?

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Impractically Possible


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 16:10-22, 1 Peter 2:11-3:12, John 15:12-27

After his resurrection, Jesus commanded his apostles to carry on his mission of love for the world and one another.He unflinchingly told these newly appointed bearers of love how the world would receive them: people who hated him would hate them; authorities who persecuted him would persecute them. Imagine similar words coming from a corporate recruiter looking for top talent, or a politician trying to build grassroots support: follow me and you’ll be hated and persecuted! Why would anyone sign up?

In the case of the apostles, they were motivated by love. Their leader had laid down his life for them – for the whole world – and in doing so overcame death. He wasn’t asking them to do anything he hadn’t done. Experiencing such love straight from the source left them unable to deny that the mission was worth any risk. The eternal life that Jesus promises doesn’t begin after our deaths, but in the moment we realize the willingness to lay down our lives down for one another frees us to love as Jesus loves.

Except for John, all the apostles died as martyrs. Most of us will not be tested to this extreme, but there are other ways of laying down our lives than death. Taking the smallest slice of cake or dropping spare change into a charity bucket is good but not enough. Following Jesus makes impractical and dangerous demands that may  require us to risk our finances, reputations, and livelihoods. Love that requires us to take in strangers and to decline striking back in revenge seems positively scandalous. In a culture where Christians are the default authority, we will be at odds with fellow believers who would cling to the dominance of Christendom so blindly they cannot recognize when we are no longer the light revealing the corruption of the empire, but the empire itself casting long shadows of injustice. We value security above faith at our own spiritual peril.

Jesus does not prioritize the safety of our bank account, good name, or physical person. He does call us to sacrifice all these things in service to each other.

Comfort: In the long run the sacrifices we make to follow Jesus do not deny us of anything, but help him give us everything.

Challenge: Almost all of us have a point where our desire to be safe impedes our desire to be faithful. Discuss this with some fellow believers.

Prayer: Loving God, give me strength to follow in the steps of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: When does your faith inconvenience you? Does it ever put you in harm’s way?

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Get Over It


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 22; 148, Exodus 9:13-35, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12, Mark 10:32-45

When Christians – or any other religions – gain secular power, trouble follows. Some Christians like to claim we live in a nation that is – or at least should be – Christian. What exactly does that mean? To which particular branch of Christianity do they refer? And most importantly what part of the teachings of Jesus leads them to believe political power is a good influence on Christian character – or vice versa?

Jesus tells his disciples repeatedly, they are to be servants as he is a servant. To be first, they must be slaves of all. We live in a time and place where practicing our faith does not threaten our well-being. On the other hand, having been told that we should expect persecution, we have greatly skewed our sense of what that means. Having no real reason to fear martyrdom, we behave as if any loosening of our grasp on power and control is a form of persecution. For evidence we only need look as far as the trumped up War on Christmas: how did temples to commerce become a battlefront for religious freedom? Then there’s the outrage over religious displays which have been removed from government property or – worse yet! – made inclusive. Government establishment of our religion makes us beholden to that government – the antithesis of what Jesus taught.

In twenty-first century America we simply don’t suffer serious persecution for our faith – unless allowing people to disagree with us or having our feelings hurt has become a form of persecution. Instead of railing against perceived slights, we should celebrate them! When we rub society the wrong way, we’re just doing our job. When we rub other Christians the wrong way, we’re probably earning overtime. Paul says: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Does that sound like “Happy Holidays?” When we trade grace for outrage at everyone who doesn’t follow our beliefs, we demonstrate a faith too weak to handle the persecution ladled on those who truly spread the Good (but sometimes unpopular) News.

Comfort: Your faith doesn’t obligate you to be outraged over petty things.

Challenge: A lot of the things we think of as religiously sanctioned – think Christmas shopping – are really not.

Prayer: God of Mercy, help me to walk and speak humbly but confidently in your light. Amen.

Discussion: What things offend you more than they maybe should?

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Losing Power


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Job 11:1-9, 13-20, Revelation 5:1-14, Matthew 5:1-12

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, etc. He concludes them by saying: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” When this happens do we feel blessed? Do we act blessed? Or do we want to dispose of our persecutors – and therefore our blessings – by legislating them away?

To follow Christ is to set oneself apart from the world in significant ways. When refer to the United States – or any country – as a “Christian nation,” we seriously dilute the meaning of what it means to be a Christian. A Christianity wielding secular power is no longer the persecuted – it becomes the persecutor. Forcing a society to conform to our beliefs is not spreading the gospel. Rather it turns a message of hope and salvation into a system of threats and artificial piety. Jesus asked God to forgive his persecutors, “for they know not what they do.” Saint Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, cried out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” If headlines of the twenty-first century are any indication, Christians seem less interested in forgiving our enemies than in forcing creationism into science textbooks and Merry Christmas into commercial transactions. So many people understandably believe we are about forcing others to be like us, and it’s our own fault.

But the Beatitudes are still waiting for us.

We can be meek without compromising how we live our own lives. We can be peacemakers without being appeasers. We can be merciful to those who don’t seek our mercy. We can accept that being persecuted is part of the being the last, and stop worrying about making Christians the first in everything. But we can only do these things when we are less interested in maintaining power and more interesting in sharing Christ’s love.

The Sermon on the Mount ends with instructions about loving our enemies. We can’t offer them a hand while our boot is on their neck.

Comfort: You aren’t responsible for the behavior of other people.

Challenge: Over the coming week, keep a journal of opportunities you had to share the gospel, and how you chose to do so.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, help me to live the Beatitudes. May my life be an example of Christ in the world.Amen.

Discussion: In many place in the world, Christians really are persecuted for their faith. What should be our response?

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