Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Salt and Light

This is a modified version of the page to the right entitled "options" -- I think it's worth reposting given the climate in our current political fracas.  I've mostly kept this post as it was originally posted, just changing a few details to avoid confusion.  In the end, what this post comes down to is the question, what does it mean for Jesus' followers to be "salt and light" in the world today?  And what are some of the mistakes we often make in seeking to be salt and light?

I'm taking a page from N.T. Wright's teaching on the resurrection of Jesus and the mission of the church, simplifying a deep talk to present a basic idea here. We will start with the situation in the New Testament and see what it says to the church today.

Wright says that for the Jews in Jesus' time, there were basically three options. The first was compromise. The most obvious examples of compromise is Herod on one hand and the Sadducees on the other, those who figured they had to go along with the Romans to some extent to get along and make better things happen for their nation and their people. Among Jesus' disciples Matthew -- the Roman-employed tax collector -- might be the best example of this mindset.

The second option for the Jews was extremism. The Zealots chose military resistance to Roman rule, and plotted to find the best time and circumstance to throw off the rule of Caesar. They had no patience for spiritual solutions that had no impact on the political situation. They yearned for the time of the Maccabees, the military Jewish leaders who threw off Greek rule about 165 B.C. Every now and then a Zealot would rise up and lead a revolution against Rome and be quickly put down. Near the end of the book of Acts, when Paul is arrested, the Roman tribune assumes Paul is an Egyptian Zealot who was leading a revolt. These extremists were a destabilizing force in Jewish society, because the threat was always that a revolt would bring increased military oppression from Rome. Jesus included a Zealot (Simon the Zealot, sometimes called Simon the Canaanean) among his twelve disciples.

The third option facing the Jews was quietism. The Essenes are never specifically mentioned in the New Testament, but we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that they withdrew into the wilderness, especially to Qumran, where they strove to live lives of holiness apart from the politically and religiously tainted life of the Temple, the Romans, and everyday Jews who had to live in a world polluted by interaction with pagans and all the compromises it demanded. They studied the scriptures and focused on their own community piety, striving to live holy and blameless lives. They were adamantly waiting for the Messiah who would come and make things right, but they were withdrawn from the world while they waited.

Interestingly enough, you can see same options facing Christians today. Many Christians have chosen the route of compromise. This is true in America on the right as evangelical Christians have become the driving force behind the Republican party; it is true on the left as liberal mainline churches have dedicated themselves to the platforms of the Democrats. Jesus has become a tame political slogan for both sides. Republican evangelicals show pictures of Jesus weeping as he holds the aborted unborn; Democratic mainliners see Jesus in the faces of immigrants facing deportation or the poor who can't get health care. Both sides use the righteousness of their cause to bolster their political campaigns, and they have lost any true sense of who Jesus is and what he really is about. They read the gospels through the filter of their political assumptions. This is the fruit of compromise.

Extremism takes a couple different forms in our world. Certainly there is fundamentalism of all stripes -- whether Muslim or Christian or other. The fundamentalist Islamist who would strap explosives to his body and destroy lives in Baghdad is not much different from a fundamentalist Christian who would bomb an abortion clinic or abusively demean a gay person. This kind of fundamentalism is rooted in fear, and may withdraw from the world's pollution to start with, but eventually it creates a worldly kingdom where religion rules morality and community life with steel gloves. Eventually, if the fundamental community feels threatened enough, this fearful religion strikes back at an apostate world.

Extremism can also be a little less cut-and-dried, however. Look at the Zealots' impatience with spiritual solutions, and you begin to see others in our world who fit into this category. Christians who resort to political activism in order to change the system are in danger of this same mindset. (More on the common mindset in all three of these options in a moment.) I am not saying that the Christian is not called to political activism, but the problem with the Zealots was that they acknowledged Caesar as lord. They didn't want him to be, and they were determined to do whatever it took to change that fact, but they didn't feel they could live in freedom until they threw off Caesar's yoke. The same mentality infects activists who believe we cannot live in freedom until we win the battle for our social agenda.

Quietism infects much of the Christian church today, especially among the middle class suburban church. Whether it's the right-leaning evangelical churches or the left-leaning mainline churches, many Christians are content to live peaceful lives in which they worry about their kids' soccer schedules and their 401K's and exercise a personal piety, effectively withdrawn from the world with just enough of Jesus to make them secure in their own salvation. They're concerned about the quality of their pastors and their church buildings, they send a group to some third-world country now and then to build homes, and they effectively live isolated from the real brokenness in their own communities.

Here's the thing. Jesus didn't buy into any of these three options. He rejected the Herodians and the Sadducees and their way of compromise. He rejected the Zealots and their desire to fight the Romans. He rejected the monastic communities withdrawn into the wilderness. While all three of these approaches saw themselves as the only legitimate way to be Jewish, Jesus reached back into the tradition, into the stories, into the scriptures, and did something quite different.

You see, the problem with compromise, with extremism, and with quietism is that all three approaches recognized Caesar as Lord. Until Caesar was defeated, all three approaches believed that the Jews could not live out their God-given identity as the Chosen People.

Jesus said something radically different. He said people should turn away from these ways -- they should repent, they should turn away from they way they had approached life. Then Jesus said they should believe in the good news. What was the good news? Caesar is not Lord. Instead, Jesus proclaimed that "The Kingdom of God is at hand." We need to understand this if we're even going to begin to get Jesus at all. Why did Jesus spend so much time talking about the kingdom of God? Because this was the heart of his message. This is what gave meaning to his teaching. This is what led to his death, and this is what his resurrection is all about. And -- don't miss this -- the kingdom of God is what the mission of the church is all about. Individually and corporately, Christ-followers are called to be proclaiming the same message in our words and our actions and our worship and our community and our work. Caesar -- the powers of this world in all their forms -- is not Lord. Jesus is Lord, and he has come to establish a kingdom under the loving rule of his Father.

What was so confusing, so infuriating, so frustrating about Jesus in the first century was just this. He had the audacity to live as though God was really in charge. The way Jesus lived showed who God was and what he was really like, first of all -- he was a God who hated hypocrisy and treated the broken ones with gentleness, who welcomed the outcasts and touched the lepers. Second he was ruling, alive and active and sovereign over all creation. Jesus lived in God's sovereign freedom. He refused to acknowledge political expediency or Caesar's sovereignty. He refused to fear poverty or privation. He spoke truth to power. He ate with all the wrong races and economic classes.

Jesus was not just an example of these things; he built a new sense of what it meant to be God's chosen people that centered in himself. The temple was no longer the center of worship -- Jesus was. The sabbath rules and the dietary rules no longer defined morality -- Jesus did. The sacrificial system no longer mediated between sinful humans and a jealous God -- Jesus stood in that gap.

He came to proclaim a kingdom, to be enthroned as its king, and of course there were groupies and camp followers who sought to profit from his popularity. Even some of his own closest followers asked to be on his right and his left when he was enthroned, and Jesus put them off, saying, "You don't have a clue what you're asking about." When he went to Jerusalem and was finally enthroned, James and John were quite glad they didn't receive the positions to Jesus' right and left. Those crosses were occupied by two criminals, one of whom rejected Jesus and received judgment; the other repented and entered into the kingdom. Jesus hangs between heaven and earth as judge and as mediator. He is the crux, the center, the focal point of reality. We judge ourselves by our response to him. By him we either enter into his reign and his kingdom, or we alienate ourselves from God's good plans for us.

So what does it mean for the church to follow Jesus today? We cannot allow ourselves to slide back into the options of compromise, extremism, or quietism. After his resurrection, in John 20, Jesus tells his disciples, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." We are sent into the world to proclaim that the kingdom of God is here. We are to live as if God was sovereign, as if Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord. We are to live without fear in the face of economic uncertainties, to proclaim the limitless love of God in our words and our actions.

Does this mean that we should abandon politics, social justice, and economics? Far from it. As those who know Jesus, as those who recognize him as Lord, we step boldly into those arenas. We do not come to lobby or to compromise. We do not come to make demands. We come as those who speak and live the truth, who speak and live Jesus, and we speak and live that truth in the face of power. Rather than stand back as Jesus' followers and critique those in power, we should be more inclined to simply build structures that become centers of kingdom life. We don't need the world's permission to meet together to study scripture, to sing, to pray. We just do these things. In the same way, we don't need the world's permission to help the hopeless, to befriend the friendless, to lift up the downtrodden. We don't need the world's permission to create pockets of economic justice. We don't need the world's permission to proclaim the kingdom of God through radical generosity that transforms some small space in society.

Why do we insist on living as though Caesar was Lord? Jesus is risen. We follow him in this world, and by the power of his Spirit we live in the world as salt and light, working the kingdom of God in our lives, our actions, our spending, our giving, our speaking and our loving.

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