Those of us who have gone to seminary will tell you there nothing like graduating from seminary to ruin your church going experience. This goes double for taking classes in biblical interpretation. Having had the mantra “context, context, context” drilled into your skull by a venerable professor, you just can’t help but harp on it. Recently I was in a Sunday School class and the topic was being a disciple. Matthew 10:39 was the verse offered:
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
The teacher was doing a good job of getting everyone to share what they thought Jesus meant by this passage. Folks were chiming in with stories about times when they had sacrificed for Jesus. The teacher wisely directed the discussion so that everyone pondered what Jesus meant by “loses his life” for my sake. One person mentioned martyrs for the faith. It was a lively discussion and heads were nodding and chins were scratching.
I should tell you that I worry about speaking in Sunday School. I worry that I will be tagged as a no-it-all because “Seminary.” I worry that I will talk to long. I worry that the teacher will resent me for derailing his discussion. Normally I make a rule for myself that the first time I’m in a new class, I don’t say anything. Just listen and nod my head.
My problem was all that pesky context. While heads were nodding at someone’s story about self-sacrifice at work, I was looking at the text. Particularly the verses right above it–starting with verse 34:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What was bugging me is the alienation of it all. Jesus is not just describing self-sacrifice though he is doing that. But he also seems to be warning those who would follow him that they will always be outsiders.
The Christian worldview makes us outsiders. In a world convinced of either materialism (what the cool kids call physicalism) or do it yourself religion, the idea that there is a kingdom, a power, and a glory on the other side of the veil is crazy. Just consider the claim that Jesus is Lord. Right now. In this moment, Jesus is the sovereign ruler of every atom in existence. No power on earth, the American gods of Mammon, Aphrodite, and Mars ( you know them as money, sex, and war) are right now subject to him. Turn on the news or check your facebook feed and ask yourself how counter-intuitive that sounds? Them’s fightin’ words.
Our ideas of virtue will always make us outsiders. Sure Western civilization with its emphasis on reason hasn’t quite been drowned out by emotional reasoning of the that’s-a-fine-argument-but-validate-my-feelings variety. But the concept that critters like us are created at all, let alone created to be a certain way is heresy that dare not speak its name. To add injury to insult, Christians dare to add faith, hope, and love to the classical virtues of courage, justice, prudence, and wisdom. Those who still buy into an objective world colored by Aristotle can only be our allies up to a point. That point is when we say that Aristotle was only just over 57% right about human flourishing.
Faith in extra-dimensional kingdom and a messiah who somehow broke all the rules of life and death is necessary for us to be all that we can be. Hope in a coming kingdom–a monarchy of all things!–is the ultimate cure for racism, war, and poverty; all our political mechanization is just bailing water till the coast guard arrives. And love, yes that most ubiquitous recipient of our daily slander.
Classicist Sarah Ruden points out that when it came to expressing love, Paul searched in vain for a Greek word that could measure up to the Hebrew word for God’s covenant kindness. He had to take a flat word reserved for trade and social relation, agape, and fill it full of new meaning. Meaning that is practical lunacy. Love that would make slaves go back to their masters. Love that would make masters free their slaves. Love that would transmogrify marriage from a social contract to a portrait of Christ’s love for the church and fly in the face of every romantic lyric about skipped heartbeats, moon-calf eyes, and bodies in the dark.
The sooner I realize how absolutely, stark raving mad that sounds to the rest of the world, the sooner I can get comfortable my role as outsider and stop trying to make everyone like me. I can stop mourning a safe, comfortable existence for me and my family that was never promised.
This side of glory, we will always be outsiders. Me, my wife, and my children. Which reminds me of another verse in context. Jesus says in Mark 3:31-34:
And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
Warm fuzzy statement of inclusivity. Not so much. A glance at a few verses above seems to hint at why his mother and brothers showed up. Mark 3:20-1
Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”
They thought he was crazy and they were devout Jews living in a pre-modern world. No wonder we are dismissed as crazy Christians. But there is hope and not just because Jesus’ only family came around in the end. I think what Mark 3 in context shows is that Jesus is doing no less than redefining what God’s family around himself. He is creating a new family within God’s covenant. So we are outsiders but we are a family of outsiders. We are not huddling alone in the dark. We are a family, those of us who refuse to compromise the Gospel. A family the likes of which the gates of hell are but an obstacle to overcome.Ω
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