“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from ‘desires of the flesh,’ which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the [nations, peoples] that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
1 Peter 2:11-12
I remember many years ago at our denomination’s Annual Meeting we were shown a video of fellow Covenant church members in a Latin American country who were serving the homeless.
These homeless folks were in many cases mentally ill and/or substance abusers, and they had long ago given up any hope of being clean. They were the most dirty and foul human beings I’d ever seen on a screen – and this church arranged for showers, barbers, donated clothing and food to help them.
In one scene a man who had about two teeth and long overgrown matted hair, who seemed not to know he was, was helped into the shower by two individuals who peeled off his rotting rags and then proceeded to wash him. Encouraging him the whole time, they washed and scrubbed his whole body and brushed his teeth, cut his nails and had the barber cut his hair and shave him. They clothed him again and had him seen by a doctor, and gave him a meal. And he was transformed! Not only did he look (and no doubt, smell) better, he seemed much more aware, and very, very thankful.
And I realized I had a lot to learn about following Jesus.
These church people didn’t complain about the homeless. They went out and loved them, in a most practical, wet and soapy, hands-on way. These saints saw those broken people as made in God’s image, and what they could do, they did. They rescued him from the chaos of who he was becoming, and rediscovered his human dignity, and they did it by getting right in there with that washcloth.
They did for that man what they’d hoped someone would do for them should they ever have such needs.
Peter, writing to a church that is suffering from some local persecution, points to that kind of work and reminds us that those kinds of deeds are going to be hard to criticize, even if someone really is out to get us. And then if they do, others will see the holiness of it – and they’ll recognize that holiness in Christ.
What are the principles of such behavior?
Just the love and grace and mercy of God. Having eyes to see as Christ sees all of us – broken “eikons,” those made in the image of God, worthy of being loved and made whole because that’s what God wants to spend on us. This is life “in the Spirit,” because “in the flesh” we’d be too busy thinking about how much they smell and how wet we’d get and the unlikelihood that we can, with our soap, make them “successful” in the world’s way.
Recently, a prominent senator questioned a nominee for a federal position about his Christian faith. The nominee had written an article for a conservative journal and expressed his belief in Christian doctrine about Jesus and the kingdom of God, and this senator at least pretended to outrage: are you telling me, Mr. Appointee, that you believe that everyone who is not a Christian is condemned by God?
He said it as though he didn’t know the claims of Christianity, or indeed the claims of his own religion or others. In putting it that way, he made it sound as though anyone who adheres to a religion that has doctrines is, by that fact, unfit to serve in the federal government.
It was rather astounding to see, in a nation where at least 60% of the population still identifies as Christian!
It made me feel like we’ve hit a turning point, and henceforth we will feel like we need to defend our Christianity on a public stage among people not inclined to like what we say.
Now, we know why that is. We are constantly told that 81% of Evangelicals voted for the current president, so members of the other party are not feeling kindly about Evangelical Christians right now.
And we are all frequently exposed to people who feel free to literally hate other people and wish them harm (Muslims, immigrants, Jews, blacks, etc), who also call themselves “Christian,” even though the rest of what they say publicly doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.
Not surprisingly, other people are not very drawn to a Christianity that sounds like that!
And as we increasingly gather around opposite poles in our culture, refusing to accept a single thing about people on the other side, the public view of Christianity is that it is all gathered around one pole. And all who call themselves Christians get all lumped in even with those whose “Christianity” is about saying “merry Christmas” and calling down trouble on those who won’t.
I realize as this swirls around us that the only thing that upsets the entire devilish scheme is Christlike humility. Paul reminds us of it in Philippians 2 – Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8)
Jesus’ way of life was a demonstration of humility, even while at the same time it was a demonstration of the power of the kingdom of God! Jesus touched lepers to heal them, and went out of his way to meet and know the outcast, and to bring them back into community. He sat down and talked with women, and lifted up children as models of how to enter the kingdom of God!
He was not focused on the things we might think would be important to a religious figure, such as families or the institution of the church or synagogue, or railing at sinners.
Instead, he bent low and washed feet, and he let the adulterous woman go home, and he restored even Zacchaeus to a place of honor. Though it should have all been about him as God, he didn’t act as though it were. He kept pointing everyone’s attention to God the Father, and literally spent his life in order to reconcile those who were far away from God, to God. He said he was like a doctor, who came for the sick, not the well – he came for the sinners, not the righteous.
And then he said, as the Father sent him, he was sending us.
As I got on the plane last week to come home from the annual meeting, I found myself feeling offended by a fellow passenger. He was of a different subculture, advertising in his clothing and the things he carried a kind of rebellion. I was immediately put off. He wound up sitting a row ahead of me and on the other side, and as we all were scrolling through our phones waiting for the flight attendant to tell us we had to turn them off, I glanced up and saw that he was watching porn on his phone, right there on the plane.
Like, really? Where everyone can see it, dude? And not only that, but what is wrong with you, anyway – don’t you realize how that woman is being exploited so you can “enjoy” it? And you probably don’t care about how much her exploitation and your lasciviousness (there’s a Bible word!) offends God….
Yeah, I was very offended and frankly, I don’t think I was wrong to be.
But, what should I do with that?
Humility tells me that I am not his judge. And that’s because a) there are things in my life that may not look offensive but are, and b) because the judge of all the earth hasn’t given up his day job (but he did instead take all our sin to the cross.)
The gospel tells me to love that (literal) neighbor. So I began to pray for him, trying not to pray prayers of judgment but of hope and love for him. I know that in this world what he was doing is often seen as innocuous; much as I want to think I know all about him, I don’t – I only know that he too is beloved of God.
This is why our mandate is to love God with everything we’ve got…and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s not glib. It’s hard, and it changes how we view everything and everyone. It’s not what others expect and it’s not what we know how to do except by the power and love of the Holy Spirit.
Even my prayer isn’t “it” – to love him, I’d have to get to know him. I’d have to be his friend, not his judge and not his rescuer, but someone authentically caring for him. I’d have to take his view of me into account! Perhaps I’d learn a lot about what is offensive in me. If it were possible, I’d have to let him care about me. And all of this would be under the guidance of the Spirit, who wants to see us both “saved.”
This is what Jesus-following really is, and why it can really change the world. Beware buying into the smaller, portable kinds of Christianity that are sold in the marketplace, where we figure out who is and who is not a Christian by the language they use, the music they listen to, and – critically – who they are against. That’s not enough. This world’s dysfunction needs the full power version, the kind of Christianity that took Jesus to the cross for us…and raised him from the dead in a burst of power we cannot replicate…not yet!
This world needs Christlike love and nothing less, and we are sent out with it, but only if we are in tune with the Spirit. Then it is lifechanging.
And that kind of Christianity might still get criticized, but it won’t be so easy to hold up to ridicule. It just might fortify even our critics to recognize Christ at his coming! And God willing, some will see Jesus in us as we have experienced him, making us new and setting us right, and loving us thoroughly. God willing, in that moment we will all forget the poles, and the enemies we are supposed to be, as we love the Lord, and are loved by the Lord, together.