So, picture this. A particularly devout religious group with a fairly strict sexual ethic that pushes a fairly particular moral viewpoint currying favor as a loud and sizable but minority political group. They shun outsiders and those who do not share the same ethical or moral framework and actively work to punish those with differing views. Viewpoints are polarized, everyone is at each other’s throats — it looks like civil war is about to break out.
Am I summarizing politics across the US, with the recent fights over book bans, transgenderism, and abortion? You would be forgiven for thinking so, but I am actually thinking of life when Jesus walked on the scene. But, as they say, history may or may not repeat, but it definitely rhymes. And I can’t help but think that our present moment rhymes a lot with what life looked like when Jesus walked onto the scene.
I was reading some threads on a couple of local sub-reddits absolutely denouncing religion in general, and Christian churches in particular. And I kind of nod my head along. I think the criticism leveled can sometimes be quite spot on.
I identify as someone who follows Jesus and I look at a lot of churches and Christians and just think, how did we get so far off track?
Over and over again Jesus conflicted with people who, I think, were very well meaning and wanted to show their love, devotion and piety towards God but they did it by hurting the people that God loves. Which, turns out, at least according to Jesus, is not a good way to show your love, devotion and piety towards God.
When Jesus’ cousin John was beginning to wonder if Jesus really was everything he thought — John sent messengers to Jesus to ask. And Jesus’ response I think is telling: Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me. (Luke 7:21-22)
When Jesus is directly asked whether or not he is the One, his answer is: look at all the good I am doing for marginalized people.
Not look at how many sinners are turning from their sins.
Nor look at how many adulterers have been beaten.
Nor look at how many lost people we told to go to hell. (literally)
Not even: I am the one prophesied of old, the one predicted to come.
But: we are taking care of and helping the least. The people the world is forgetting and trampling down upon are receiving a new life. Jesus hangs his hat entirely on how well he takes care of people.
And with that in mind, the early church spread like wildfire. The church had a very particular (and peculiar for the day and age) ethic for most things, especially sexually — but what it never lost sight of was the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, lepers healing and more. Roman Emperor Julian famously denounced Jesus’ followers in the 300s as “impious Galileans” who take care of not only their own poor but Rome’s as well:
These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them and causes a contempt for our gods.
So if history rhymes, and if the greatest error the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and all the other religious groups of the day committed was to focus too much inwardly on their own piety, and outwardly on the sins of the people around them: what does that say about us today?
Is it possible, just possible, that we who follow Jesus are just a little too focused on the sins of our communities? Should we listen to Paul who asks, rhetorically, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (1 Corinthians 5:12) Answer, none.
Should we listen to God who sent his people into exile in Babylon and then commanded them to seek the prosperity of Babylon? (Jeremiah 29:7)
What would it look like to let our good deeds shine before others? (Luke 5:16)
Listen. Dragging people out in front of Jesus for their sins and asking him to condemn them didn’t work the first time, and it’s not going to work today. Let us instead of blasting people for their shortcomings instead build people up, especially the poor and marginalized, and never give up in working towards the peace and prosperity of where God has planted us.
Maybe we will have a few less complaints about us on reddit.
And maybe God will do something really big like transform all of human history.
That would be good news, wouldn’t it?