Some 15 years ago now, I preached a message with the above title. Fast forward to the last couple of years, and I have searched high and low for the archived copy either in my electronic files or in printed ones lying around in various places; and you guessed it: nada; zilch. And yet even so, this wonderful passage and its ongoing application and relevance in the life of the church is still sorely needed; perhaps especially right now. So, let’s take a little look see.
The Woman, The Mansplainers and The Rebel Jesus
The passage comes from John 8:1-11. And in our story, we find Jesus in the temple courts early in the morning right after prayer on the Mount of Olives, as was His custom. And in the courts, he sits down to start teaching, and as sure as death and taxes, the “experts in the law” and the “Pharisees” our text says, brought a woman “caught in adultery” and “made her stand in front of them”. And their challenge for Jesus was this: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone to death such women. What then do you say”? We then find out (duh) that they ask this question because they want to “trap Him” and by doing so add to their catalogue of charges against Him. And yet interestingly, Jesus at first appears to ignore them and bends down and writes on the ground with His finger.
Now as you can imagine there are many speculations and commentary from the earliest times around this event, with certain scribes mentioning that Jesus was writing down particular accusations of the would-be accusers themselves. But it causes me to wonder, and of course none of us really know, if that’s what He actually did; because vs. 7 then tells us that “When they persisted in asking Him, He stood up straight and replied, ‘Whoever among you is guiltless may be the first to throw a stone at her’”. And our text then tells us that “Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground”. And though I am not a big commentary consulter when it comes to my own study of the scriptures (though the thesis of others is very plausible), I tend to think that Jesus’ two-fold “gotcha” is enough to cause them to drop the charges and go hide in yet another humiliation by Jesus to these inept spiritual leaders.
Jesus’ One-Two Punch to the Heart of the Matter
The first “gotcha” moment to the entrapment dummies is in letting them know that they need to get up a little earlier in the morning than Jesus did to know that by them stating that women such as her should be stoned was missing a small little detail. For instance, in Leviticus 20:10 (the book everyone just loves), it clearly states that “if a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death”. And then again, we find in Deut. 22:22, “If a man is discovered in bed with a married woman, both the man lying in bed with the woman and the woman herself must die; in this way you will purge the evil from Israel”. Bam! A little male chauvinism twist at its finest wouldn’t you say?
Now it won’t be our purpose today to get into “why” that was a justifiable practice in purging the evil from Israel, or anything else. But the point is that these so-called experts in the law had built an awfully good fiefdom for themselves in adding a whole lot of extra gobbledygook to what God “actually” said in order to keep people both oppressed and subservient to their “all knowing” exposition. Meanwhile, they were always left standing securely in their ivory tower of condescension missing the very texts that would incriminate themselves first and foremost. And of course that is a convenience many graceless church men and women still allow for themselves as well, much to our continual sorrow. For as the preacher said, “there is nothing new under the sun”.
But in addition, as our case in point here, in the “so called” experts and Pharisees effort to purify their people after their previous exilic history resulting from their gross disobedience to what God had commanded them under the covenant; they went a bridge too far! And as Jesus would remind us in a couple of other passages in the gospels, not only did they proselytize and convert people into being monster judgementalists like themselves, they also were actually unwilling to lift a finger to ease these extra-biblical burdens on their followers (Mt. 23:4). And as a result, not only were they still utterly lost, but they had become wandering sheep with no real shepherd in sight (Mt. 9:36).
And of course, the second “gotcha” is simply this, if we look at our text purely at face value. Once the mansplaining chauvinist pigs realized not only their obvious inability to get things in the scripture right, they were also faced with the fact that not only did they now know this to be true, but also the whole crowd watching them now came to the stark realization as well. For they now know in unison that these blind guides don’t know “diddly squat”, and thus were incapable of boxing their own way out of a wet paper bag to find the truth, much less the situation they know found themselves in! And as a result, this awareness caused all of the lost sheep’s eyes to be fixed on Jesus as to what would be His next move and wondering: Could he be the one that we’ve been looking for? The one who would guide the least and the greatest of us into real graceful righteousness (Jer. 31:34) coupled with a spirit of grace that gives life; rather than the letter that only seems to kill (2 Cor. 3:6)? And you could cut their hopeful revelation with a knife, while one by one the prophets of woe and dread exit to lick their wounds and regroup for a meeting of entrapment for yet another day. And that’s the wonderful thing about the legalists. They are the gift that keeps on giving. And both them and their progeny will go to their grave having been right about everything. Right up until the final shovel of dirt pats their eternal ground!
A Sinner Confronted With Just the Right Amount of Grace and Truth
And now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The women caught with her pants down and shamed before the masses, recognizes that her male accusers are now GONE. And though there are those still lingering around with just enough popcorn left for the climax of the show, the woman has her moment with Jesus; the gamechanger par excellence! The man of the hour has come to her address. It’s as if there is no one else in the room. And our text says that he again “stood up straight” and says to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you”? And I for one find his questioning utterly pastoral and healing. For if knowing the history of women in this culture, with the added baggage of adultery as the perfect ammunition to churchmen’s stares everywhere, the question I would imagine also caused her to “sit up straight” for just a moment herself. Perhaps it was the first time in her life she did so in fact. For it was a time when there were no pointed fingers, no threats of male exploitation hiding behind the “cat calls” that would come her way. And instead, there was nothing but reassuring eyes staring back at her waiting for her serendipitous reply. And so she says, “No one Lord”. And the answer that would come back to her was so full of dripping grace and truth that I would bet my last negative dollar, caused her to never, ever be the same again! For the revolutionary Jesus said to this precious would be child of the King, “I do not condemn you either. Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore”.
The Two-Edged Sword of Abiding Stone Theology Applied
And there is in this wonderful story a two-fold reminder to the woman, that then by proxy we are to take and hold in justifiable tension on our own path with Jesus of Nazareth. I know you thought we would never get there.
First of all, I find that most people currently outside of the faith, and even those of us who have had our halo slightly bent most of our lives, really love this story. I mean after all; it is great news. Because the concept of grace is indeed the “thought that changed the world” (U2). And in addition, if there is one verse both the lost and those of us who walk with a limp on the narrow path know, it is something along the lines of “judge not”. Consequently, it is the national anthem of those still keeping God at least a stone’s throw from having any jurisdiction in their lives, and the anthem of those still forever trying to get it right. And well, the point is, in a sense we all are. Even though many like the “experts in the law” try to remind us that they have somehow bypassed these experiences. And so, it is a need of continuance. It is of a “time-release” nature. It is grace on top of grace, and more grace besides; even through the dark glass until He come again. We’ve all needed it. And we must endeavor to keep the cupboard full of such gracefulness, as our both “necessary” and “daily” bread.
But of course in contrast, there is the other side most of those on the outside and us “grace folks” don’t care for too much. The aspect of which Jesus reiterates to the woman in that she is to “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore”. But before we rush to reactionary mode, and as a shot of “shock and awe” to die hard religionists, this must also reside in the time-release category. It is a work always in progress. It is the recognition (daily I’m afraid) that with each first light “cup of Joe” and daily bread, it must also lead us to wipe off our tears and our dirty knees to start over again in some form or fashion. All the while, the cupboard of grace opens to continue to give us what we need to both forgive, be forgiven; and with that vow before us to “go and sin no more”. And then we rinse and repeat. Again, and again, and again.
And yet the sad part is, most in the church never seem to get this theology lesson. Even now. For we either continue to evaluate ourselves by our own standard of righteousness we seem to be getting right and thus constantly stand in judgement of our other brothers and sisters. Or, we err so much to the side of grace that we expect nothing akin to discipleship and transformational change from those who tip a few dollars week to week to hear us spout of sermonettes of anemia! And right about now, I’d say we are reaping what we’ve sown. Obvious it seems to everyone; except for those that have been digesting the idiocy!
But one thing is for sure. There is a lesson somewhere between the un-cast stones and the “about face”. I like to call it a lesson in stone theology.
An Oft Untold Story
There’s an untold story in Christendom that doesn’t get much light at the end of the pastoral ministry tunnel. And it’s a sad one, I think. Though it doesn’t necessarily start out that way. For it is the tale of those who recognize the call of God upon their lives and set out as very “gung-ho” vessels eager to contribute to the fight for the souls of men and women. They are comprised of individuals either privileged to garner support for the preparation they will need for enlistment; those who weather massive school loan debt because of the call that seems like a constant fire shut up in their bones; as well as potential leaders without the academic pedigree, but who have that something special about them that everyone knows just by being in their presence. And with all three of these shiny new toys in the body of Christ, there is a confirmation from the particular ecclesiastical cloth of which they were hatched that seem to initially both recognize, endorse and even send them off with their spiritual guns ablaze. But it is here that the story gets somewhat murky along the way I’m afraid.
Failure to Launch
For instance, the now emboldened man or woman of God all of a sudden begins to voice their own thoughts on the spiritual matters at hand. They are somehow seeking to join the “top brass” in the discussion of all matters that effect the church and to find their place in its noble mission. And so they begin to “in love” voice their litany of Socratic questioning trying to find answers they assume all are wrestling with. They are those who simply want to contribute to the collective church conversation and be a part of its universality both as those who are accountable and as those who serve; somehow endeavoring to become co-equal in the journey of faith and and its propagation, so help them God. Equal at least in the sense that theirs is a voice to be heard; while at the same time understanding their ears need equal attention to others older and more tenured who have journeyed much farther on the most difficult path. And yet it is at about this particular time that the story often takes a different turn I’m afraid. For many will often be accused of being a novice irrespective of their time in the collective fold, but never quite “ready for primetime” to the one in which they now find themselves as the “odd man out”. Or better yet, because of their own giftedness, they are cast off as mere rebels and perhaps even uncommitted and bastardized sons. And yet all the while, there remains hidden the perceived threat among the ecclesiastical gatekeeper’s club. A hazard to their very own status quo and fiefdom that up until now has kept them somewhat fat, sassy and gainfully employed. And once the threat finds equally strong voices in unison, these potential powerful soldiers coming alongside the church of Jesus Christ are now cast off; or they simply throw in the towel, give up the fight and say, “I quit”! And they have found out the hard way that there is not much room for even gracious mavericks in the Kingdom of God (men).
We Shouldn’t Have Been Surprised
But you know I guess you and I shouldn’t have been surprised really. Somehow, we think that as the church, we are so much more enlightened than those stubborn Israelites groveling around in the wilderness, or those gosh darn Pharisees and Sadducees missing Jesus by a country mile! Those of whom never lifted their pointed finger to ease the burden of those seeking to find rest for their souls from the ecclesial intelligentsia who were to lead the way. And yet oftentimes we scurry off, not extracting lessons from these leaders of what would have been “the church” of Jesus day. We forget that power timelessly has the wherewithal both to corrupt and to cause narcissistic and even entitled tendencies the masses don’t recognize until the pastor and the choir director have checked into the Hilton for choir practice! Or when young male and female acolytes are given “extra” duties not listed in the church bulletin! But perhaps even more subtle and somewhat dicey, are those who continue to bypass the next line of leaders because they think the show couldn’t possibly go on without them. The result being mass produced imagery of themselves on satellite screens from here to Timbuktu! For indeed the praise of men is an aphrodisiac gift that seems to keep on giving yet evenly extracting more from them, as well as from the congregants who can’t ever seem to get enough.
While Waiting for the Church World to Change
But back to our oft untold story. A story whose unfolding chapters continue in tragedy in some, and spiritual retreat in exiled anonymity for others. Yet the latter are men and women of God who hold on to the hope that while yieldedly resting under the microscope of God on the sidelines, they are still feebly holding on to what was once entrusted. Somehow quietly refusing to please the ever-visible men, but instead preferring the hopeful validation of their invisible God. They are those who shun empty flattery or the potential of “ill-gotten gain”, resigned to wait in anticipative uncertainty for a renewed call that has long lay dormant while they watch, wait and listen. And yet sometimes, like Rip Van Winkle, they wake up 20 years later and something has changed.
The Emergent Anomaly of Humble, Apostolic Leaders
You know a lot of people tend to the throw the apostle word around a lot these days. Some have scary tones to them, lacking the “small a” in its spelling while also adding “more of the same” to the ground we’ve already covered. And yet others emerge gifted; yet also broken, humble, and equally holy; ready and able to empower others to exponential multiplication of themselves (2 Tim. 2:2). They are about the business of the church period. They are ecumenical and cooperative. They look for strategic engagement with the world rather than retreat from it. They look for movements that are as deep as they are wide, while shunning attractional models which only create “mega” spectator sports. And they are those who care less about a title attributed to them and more about the fruit that comes from their gracious tutelage. And instead what we find, are men and women who open gates rather than close them, constantly keeping their watchful eye out for the placement of gifted yet broken leaders at their newly appointed battle stations. And though I’ve often wondered just how I missed these “Johnny come lately” leaders’ existence by virtue of the circles I ran with once upon a time. Yet in retrospect, I’m glad at least to have finally encountered one who seems to be opening wide the door again. And so I guess there is at least a modicum of truth here to be learned. For it seems that time does indeed heal all wounds. Even the faithful wounds of gatekeepers.
I would like to take a brief bit of your time today to sort of piggyback on last week’s blog: It’s Not Called Faith Until It’s Hard. We wrapped up things, reiterating our main focus of the fact that faith is often times “hard”, yet we have been guilty many times of packaging the gospel in a more palatable fashion that harms more than helps. The result has been massive attrition (some of which is natural), but that could be avoided at least partly by a presentation of the gospel that includes the costs associated should one give wholehearted alignment to it. A case in point, and perhaps an addendum to our previous talk worth additional ponderance, comes from Peter himself. A serious disciple of the Lord known for often getting it wrong, but who often got it “spot on” while the rest were simply trying to catch up. Our text before us today captures this in a monumental way I believe.
Some Hard Pills to Swallow
Our story comes from John chapter 6, and particularly starting in verse 25, where Jesus begins relating the manna that was given to the Israelites in the wilderness as in fact “Himself”. In other words, Jesus says He is the “bread of life” that in fact came down from heaven. This of course starts an immediate ruckus among the crowd, with them first of all calling out his humble and unimpressive lineage from their perspective. The additional gag reflex was in trying to get their arms and minds around Jesus asking them to “eat his flesh”. And if that were not bad enough, Jesus seems to be commissioning them to drink some of his “blood” to wash it down with. And as a result of this “hard teaching”, in verse 66 we find the words, “After this many of his disciples quit following him and did not accompany him any longer” (John 6:66 NET). And I find it interesting to note here that there were many “disciples” that were following Him besides the 12, but it was at this point when the gospel and it’s “hardness” began to separate the men from the boys shall we say. In fact, you can bet your bottom dollar part of this crowd that bailed as a result were also some of the same ones who later hollered “crucify him” and also chimed in “Give us Barabbas instead” assisting Pilate in deciding His fate.
But in light of this, understandably, Jesus looks out at the 12 and says these somber and profound words that I would suggest He is still asking today to those of us for whom the good confession we made before many witnesses is starting to lack any visible “benefit package”. Additionally, for those of us who at a pivotal point in our walk begin to also wrestle with the things “hard to understand”, or in the navigation through times of difficulty that seem to have no current expiration date. The stuff of which Jesus beckons us to not only file away until a later time of revelation, but to also embrace in patient waiting along with the more genteel admonitions that give us epiphanies of glorious light along the way. And so He says to them, “You don’t want to go away too, do you”? And I’m guessing at this particular instance you could have heard at least 12 pins drop!
Peter Graduates to Class 201
In fact, it is here that I envision all the disciples looking at each other, wondering who has the correct answer to this haunting question. Or perhaps they in unison are contemplating whether there is even a right answer to give at this point. Perhaps they were looking at each other much like you and I might do as schoolchildren when the Principal asks a suspicious looking group of us for an answer to a question that could incriminate the whole lot if answered incorrectly, and so no one lets out a peep; or else! And yet Peter has already sifted this uncomfortableness through his own mind and heart proven by his epic response. For he has, if you will, already “burned all the ships” and “cashed in his chips”. And his reply is captivating to say the least. Our text says, “Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God”. And from my perspective, never have more profound words been uttered for our instruction to those of us trying to make it to second base on the oftentimes lonely narrow path of which we are embarking upon. For Jesus’ question will continue to be one we also need to answer on the long trek homeward, and our needful repetitive answer will demand the basic tenets of Peter’s reply all over it.
A Flunky Disciple’s Pilgrimage
I concluded last week’s blog with a short video about the story behind the song I sung as a child, still wrestling then with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and what that would look like in Mark Prince clothing. And though I wouldn’t totally embrace the narrow path until the age of 27, I would spend the next 28 years afterwards learning what that continual decision would cost me personally. And though I skinned my knee many times throughout that journey through my own spiritual clumsiness, by God’s grace I have been able to say, “I have decided to follow Jesus” and “though none go with me, still I will follow”. In fact, that has often been the case in moving pictures so to speak. For I have watched many of my friends who were once “brothers in arms” in the fight of faith on this narrow road become casualties of that same raging battle before my very sad blue eyes. Men and women who because of trials, toils and snares and a variety of brokenness are those who finally call it quits and say, “enough already”. For the road is much, much too difficult. Those costs have also included God’s very own churchmen treating me as an outsider, part of the rebellion, or as someone simply unwilling to kiss their ecclesiastical ring. A ring of whose glitter did not reflect the gold that had once been projected as a given. It’s also cost beloved friends and family who both quietly and even boisterously conjured up spells given spiritual names for my demise. Added to these were my own flaws being worked through cruciform necessities to drive my roots deep and wide and ready for a later more worthwhile rumble with the demons just outside my door. And then not to be excluded were the loss of all things often unequally mixed with restoration and hope, along with “dark nights of the soul” that lasted more akin to days, weeks and years; along with dates with death to then be postponed until further notice. And yet here I am, still talking about and walking with Jesus, albeit with a very distinctive limp.
The Decision to Abort Plan B
And as you guessed it, all of us face this same pivotal moment in our lives if we dare to dream about walking on the path of our Lord and what it might entail for us. For there are a plethora of never-ending options alluring us to its beck and call, all the while making continual boasts of its cure to whatever currently ails us. And yet sooner or later like Peter, and like the rest of any would be disciple who endeavors to embark on that self-same path, we’ll have to answer a difficult (yet with God’s grace and help) life altering question. And the answer has only one reply once we have been beat up one too many times with the pleasures of sin for seasons, and man’s endless tirade of pragmatic plans that promise to lead us anywhere but a cross that will need to be carried. And it is at that time as we stand watching the crowds teeter-tottering between this way and that, sifting through the vast array of best made plans, that we finally understand that He alone has the words of eternal life. And then consequently resigning to the fact that in light of that stark and yet beautiful reality, there simply is nowhere else that we can go! And when that happens; when we finally “fish and cut bait” for the last time, life without a B plan becomes the absolute safest place in the world we could possibly be; and one in which we finally begin to actually live!
I guess at times over the years many either overtly or secretly considered me a prophet of doom. Perhaps now looking back it wasn’t totally unwarranted. Not because I ate locusts and wild honey, saw apocalyptic visions or preached imminent doom before sundown “lest ye repent”. However, I guess in a way I just continually felt that many of us (including yours truly as a much younger man) somehow didn’t get the memo that the walk of faith is well…hard.
Yea, there it is; I said it. Now take a deep breath and then exhale.
The Bitter Revelation
And now that we have collectively had our breathing exercise, I guess you could say I’m at least fortunate to have grasped this very central core of the Holy Writ’s teaching early on, although it didn’t serve me well in ministry very much. After all, nobody likes a “Debbie downer”. And though Eeyore is cute and all, you wouldn’t invite him to do a self-improvement seminar. And I get it, I get it. But I was a little troubled in my spirit I guess. For while it seemed most everyone else was preaching “God wants you to be happy and fulfilled”, I seemed to always emphasize the “yeah, but”, or, “maybe not so much”. You see because as I read the ancient writings, what always seemed to rear its ugly, yet substantiated head was the message that perhaps we either missed or simply tore it out before it had a chance to get into us. And the message is, that life is not only difficult sometimes, even many times; but if you decide to add Jesus to your life-cake mix, man oh man; you’re going to have you some TROUBLE! That is, if you actually “believe” and stick around long enough to let that active decision run its course.
This Does Not Compute
You know it’s really no wonder that I ran into some problems seeming to always allow the chicken little in me to take center stage. And I won’t put much fuss up about it. In fact, I remember as a child growing up at the tail end of the Jesus movement, much of what I heard at least in my circles was the “if you gave your life to Jesus everything would be a breeze” kind of message. You know, things like “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” and such and so on. And yet it seemed that every time I decided to follow Jesus and lay myself down and put myself out there, a crucifixion of some sort lay not too far off in the distance. I could pretty much bank on it. And, the more I read, prayed and pondered, the more I couldn’t help but see that this is to be the way of those who embark on the narrow path in some form or fashion. I couldn’t get around it. And even if I had wanted to, my continued reality of unanswered prayers, disappointments, and knives aimed straight towards my back taught me otherwise. And then I realized that somehow or another we’d all been duped. And so, a man named Job became my new travel companion.
So let me just say that I can perfectly understand why no one wants to read Job. Can I get an amen? In fact, it’s the same reason everyone echoes Paul’s prayer in wanting to know “the power of His resurrection”, yet sheepishly leave out the “share in His sufferings” part (Phil. 3:10). It’s tantamount to the Fonzarelli trying to say he’s wrong The Fonz. Not only does it come out incoherent, but we’d rather not do it at all. And the devil knows. That’s why he paid God a visit one day to talk smack about His boy. He came to the Lord and basically said (Mark Prince translation), “Yo God, I mean it’s no wonder why Job serves you and all bruh. You know with that silver spoon he has sticking out of his sheltered behind and all, and his smoking hot (but not so wise) wife and Norman Rockwell picturesque kiddos. I mean come on man. And don’t let me forget, the dude’s got more money than Kanye, and enough land and stuff to isolate himself from any pain the world gives out in good measure. Of course he serves you. I mean sign me up for some of that”! And the Lord said, “it’s your call Lucy; but you can’t take his life”. And then, the rest of the 40 plus chapters show his utter crushing of all he knew, loved and held dear. And then in a New York minute, everything was gone. And then my boy Job, for the exception of having to stomach a few “fair-weathered friends”, and a little mirror-check of his own smidgeon of self-righteous narcissism once hidden; always kept his faith. And in the aftermath, true humility before a Holy God became his permanent abode, and he also still ended up with more money than Kanye! But I’ll leave the rest for you to discover for yourself. Suffice is to say for now, that Job should be Church 101, but instead it is a neglected class whose casualties are far too many to mention here.
The Forgotten Class
Well, wait a minute, before I forget. The Job Church 101 class was once taught. Oh yeah, the early church taught it. They learned it first from Jesus who said, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his own cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34 NET). And so it would be no real surprise that Acts 14:22 tells us the disciples of Jesus were encouraged to “continue in the faith” teaching them that “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions”. Class 101 for sure. And Stephen found out firsthand, and later Paul and Peter, and then the rest of the 12; save John who was exiled to a luxurious vacation spot in Patmos.
But getting back on track here, I’m sure Job was insightful to them as well. But if they had forgotten, their Lord not only told them what it would require to have faith in Him, but He then laid down the gauntlet with spilled blood and a broken body and drinking that ghastly cup. We now have a name for that act in commemoration in fact. We call it the Eucharist, and we are to regularly imbibe it till He come. Symbolic innuendo methinks. And well anyway, Paul reiterated what Jesus taught, and what he taught in his class when he instructed a timid boy named Tim to pass it on to his parishioners when he reminded him, “Now in fact, all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 2:12 NET). And I could go on, but O.K., O.K. Here I go again. Old habits die hard I know. I didn’t mean to bathe you in it. Really, I didn’t. Class dismissed for now.
Time To Get Down To The Heart of the Matter
So back to where we started. I was trying to make the point that it’s not actually called faith if it’s not hard. In other words, the expectation that we can inoculate ourselves from either the world’s pain or the pain of carrying our own cross in this world for this noble cause we profess is a misnomer. It’s gotten us nowhere, and fast. And I don’t mean to say that many good things will not come on the path, and we should pray and believe to that end “always”. And we can encourage each other with much emphasis from the scriptures on this aspect of the Christian life, and we must. I’m simply saying that we must no longer commit the treason of false advertisement when we sell the gospel cheap! Or better yet, when we don’t lay the “good news” out warts and all for people to consider first and foremost. For there was once a man that came to Jesus who blurted out, “I will follow you wherever you go”. And he got an A for that. But Jesus reminded him that “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has not place to lay his head”. To which he retorted something along the lines of “Let me go bury my pops first”, and Jesus, being seeker-sensitive as He was (sarcasm alert) said, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”.
So what we learn is that Jesus told people to “count the cost” of discipleship. Yet from my estimation, it seems we have been guilty of gross misrepresentation for “not” imploring people to do just that. We haven’t told the whole story. And consequently, churches full of “Humpty Dumpty’s” are unaware of the great fall that is to come, or that has already been played out for our viewing displeasure! They are unprepared for the “faith that is hard” phase of their walk that upon navigating through can only then lead them to the forty, sixty and hundredfold of fruitfulness. And because of this much neglected class, perhaps you and I are watching the movie reel of both others and ourselves played out before us right now, quarantined away here in contemplative Coronaville. And just maybe someone forgot to tell us what we needed to know; found both in the scriptures, and also in the sage and timeless words of G.K. Chesterton when he wrote, “The Christian life has not been tried and found wanting but has been found difficult and left untried”.
Longer Than Normal Blog Alert!
I can remember my trek through seminary many, many moons ago, when in my homiletics class, I was told in a Jeremiad-like tone from my professor to preach topically once a year and then afterwards, I should quickly repent! Needless to say, I have sense abandoned that directive for reasons that will hopefully be obvious to you as you both read this blog, and then more importantly; go and search the scriptures mentioned here for your own self-understanding.
Now though I do preach in an expository manner still, I endeavor to do so with the whole of scripture in mind, while simultaneously seeking to prove my point from the text in question from other scripture. Nonetheless, I am also attempting to proportionately allow other scriptures (not always fitting neatly into the narrative I’m projecting to my audience) to also be given honorable mention and consideration. I find many in the church at large have trouble with this however, simply because; as this blog hopes to shine a little light on, it doesn’t wrap up everything nice and pretty with a bow for them within their preferred systematic theological framework. Nonetheless, my purpose through any exposition I attempt is to allow other “students of the book” in the audience to both receive some manna they can fill their hungry souls with, but that also gives them more work to do when the preaching party is over. This of course requires thinking, which most evangelicals would rather die than do (Mark Knoll) I’m afraid. Having said that, as a result of these observations over the years, I’ve wanted to at least write briefly about this topic.
Tools for the Expedition
In fact, I often thought about calling my talk in this direction something akin to Biblioidolatry, which I believe aptly fits. However, I then also realized that this is a term more liberal-leaning theologians seem to use for a diatribe against those who take everything in the Bible literally; even though they might use affectionate terms like “Bible thumpers” as they do so. But in their defense, that indictment in itself is a problem on steroids, admittedly. Yet as I see it, though there are many times we “in fact” are to take the bible literally, the important thing to understand is the different genres of the biblical writing employed throughout the forest of scripture (historical narrative, poetry, wisdom, apocalyptic, prophecy, gospels, letters, etc.), which many in the Christian community simply fail or refuse to do. I would also add that a proper hermeneutical understanding would be a breath of fresh air, especially at this hour as lone-wolf voices are in no short supply mass-produced into the electromagnetic waves of our living rooms and not so smart phones! And also, quite contrary to popular “Churchianity” thinking, this hermeneutical thoughtfulness does not require a seminary education, nor a secular one for that matter. Instead, it simply must have the consistent application of the West’s gift of logic and reason (now fallen on hard times), and perhaps more Berean-like individual study of the scriptures periodically divorced from our favorite teacher’s tutelage. And then if we add to that a thing called “The Spirit of the Living God”, we can then mix it all together like the “Candyman”, and it is then that the word of the Lord starts to taste very, very good and almost ready for prime time! But wait. Not so fast. We haven’t solved the riddle yet. And here’s a newsflash: until the eschaton, it will still be seen through a glass I’m told is often murky and dark (I Cor. 13:12).
Jesus Drops the Mic!
And so to introduce the perplexity of arriving at biblical and theological certainty, the most learned “people of the book” in the world’s history introduce our “elephant in the room” point for us. In fact, in verse 39 of the 5th chapter of John, Jesus says this, “You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:29 NET). So in other words, the ones who should have known better missed the forest for trees of legalistic minutiae unable to save anyone, including themselves.
Moment of silence please!
But wait. There’s more to the story. Jesus will later explain to these scribes and pharisees that besides missing the real life He offers, while an insignificant “woman at the well” drank deeply of a chapter previously, in Matthew 23:15 He explains the result of their lifetime of foregone conclusions when He writes, “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You cross land and see to make one convert, and when you get one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”. In other words, not only do you have it wrong continually, but you have the audacity to procreate for goodness sakes!
And there it is: the mic-drop front and center!
Paul Expands on Jesus’ Narrative
You know I’ve oft thought that Paul and the other apostles explain what Jesus said, and I think that will preach. And so, for our next text for consideration, Paul reminds a young Timothy of how this wrongful thought process can creep in and catch hold of the sincerest of hearts and minds, and so he writes, “Remind people of these things and solemnly charge them before the Lord not to wrangle over words. This is of no benefit; it just brings ruin on those who listen. Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately. But avoid profane chatter, because those occupied with it will stray further into ungodliness, and their message will spread its infection like gangrene” (II Tim. 2:14-17a NET). And then to conclude at least for now with other Pauline guidance on this vastly important issue, he addresses the Corinthian church; who being the most gifted (at least in their mind’s eye), still says to them, “I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written, so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other” (I Cor. 4:6 NET).
And though it won’t be my purpose to do a proper “deep-dive” into these passages (which is also virtually impossible to do in a blog), I want to at least give some cursory points for our further contemplation before the Lord. But the first thing I find that leaps off the page here, without it actually being said at all, is that the church closest to the events of the resurrection are already experiencing these problems we still all face. So with all the chatter about being a “New Testament Church” as the preferred archetype, perhaps we should have some new nomenclature. Point being: They were human like us; and so outside of the apostle’s influence, they had the ability to botch the whole thing up quite well before we ever showed up on the scene! So perhaps we can give ourselves a pass here.
The next thing that actually does jump off the literal page at me is this issue of “wrangling over words”, which at surface level is having wars over words. And to me that can be the meaningless wrangling over word tenses and “more correct” translations to the debates over our systems of theology that we have apparently been more baptized into rather than our actual faith in Christ that will share no other allegiances. And Paul’s point seems quite clear: Arguing over any doctrinal point other than the essentials (Apostle’s Creed/Nicene Creed/historic church non-negotiables), and how we are to be more like Jesus, is nothing more than “profane chatter” that ruins everyone participating. In addition, this practice is akin to “ungodliness” and actually; you guessed it, also procreates! The result is of course the destruction of people’s faith in the end, having no roots of protection against it; and also destroys the church in the process. This is not to mention the numerous scriptures that tell us that this bad behavior causes the world to both yawn, as well as continue to search for other options on the god superhighway. And they are legion!
But the point from these two passages is summed up when Paul says in our Corinthian passage, that we should not go “beyond what is written”. I take this to mean that when we spend so much time digesting a vast array of teaching that is not centered on some ecumenical focal point for all followers of Christ (the essentials I mentioned earlier), it only causes argumentation and debates over peripheral issues that simply do not matter in the overarching narrative of scripture. Add to this what results in a good dose of spiritual-theological pride, and you’ve got a recipe for rampant division, and yet one more reason why the lost decide we are more a part of the problem than any solution that would cause them any more than a passing glance other than for sheer entertainment purposes, as they then rightfully exit stage-left.
Peter Chimes In
And then if that brief dialogue were not enough to get our interpretive juices flowing in the right direction, we get equally enlightening guidance from another pillar of the faith (Peter) speaking coincidentally (or maybe not) about his brother Paul’s writings when he says, “Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard that you do not get led astray by the error of these unprincipled men and fall from your grasp on the truth. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the honor both now and on that eternal day” (2 Pet. 3:16b-18 NET). So then, let’s break it down, hammer-time!
The first thing I notice from the pen of Peter is that Paul’s letters, and Peter’s for that matter, can be both “misunderstood”, and “hard to understand” without painstaking study. That of course begs the question that “the rest of the scriptures” as a whole require meticulous mining to find its glorious pearls often purposefully hidden until we can better comprehend it or have been kicked in the teeth enough to finally allow its timely message to not return void in us. For if not, it is so easy to “lose our grasp on the truth”. And as an equally substantial icing on the cake, these treasures are often best kept in our prayer closet until a later broken and humble follower can graciously communicate its revelatory message to others with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down (Julie Andrews). For as our text opines, “grace” and helpful “knowledge” bestowed to others is something we “grow into”. Subliminal Alert! It’s just that some of us are trying to do a rush job on what the Lord has committed to a much longer tenure for us at His cruciform potter’s wheel. And I for one get it. I have no stones in my pocket, and neither does our Master.
But in conclusion, the point that Jesus, Paul and Peter are outlining for us; and that the rest of scriptures teach as well, is that God’s ways and purposes in this life are sometimes “past finding out” (Job 9:10; Rom. 11:33; Psalms 139:6; 145:3; Isa. 40:28; 55:8,9), and the mysterious things that are not revealed belong to the Lord until we both know in finality, and then and only then, are fully known (Deut. 29:9; 1 Cor. 13:12). We have to hold this dichotomy between true revelation and ambiguity until such a time that obscurity is either lifted, or, until we see Him face to face! And, I might add, we need to be able to live “faithfully” with God’s help in that ongoing contrast. For it is that “center of biblical tension” (Robertson McQuilkin) that lives equally faithful when God is saying “Both/and” and not always “either/or”. This is why the task of the preacher is indeed a hard one, juxtaposing between being a true spiritual director to hungry souls, and likewise as one making sure that what we dish out comes back to sit on our plate as well. Or better yet, we are so much the wiser when it has already been worked out in us so we can give a little glimpse of what it looks like currently beyond some of our brothers and sisters reach; all the while reminding ourselves that “there by the grace of God go I’. This is to be our address. This is where we live. Somewhere indeed between the forest and trees!