If there is any phrase that has become a cliché in 2020, it is saying that we live in unprecedented times. Actually, we don’t. In the bosom of the mightiest nation ever to exist, maybe we’ve been enjoying peace and security for decades, but that’s not how things have gone for most people ever, and it’s certainly not how things went in the first century.
Back then, before people figured out germ theory, epidemics were so common that they weren’t really worth talking about. We’re all aflutter about civil unrest in the US, but Christians 2000 years ago had to deal with the Great Jewish Revolt and Roman civil wars. In short, the things that we think are big problems they probably would not have noticed!
However, the striking thing about God’s message to His people in turbulent times is that it did not change. Jesus’ call to discipleship remained the same for them, and it remains the same for us. We still have our marching orders. As part of our continuing study of living for Jesus, then, let’s see what we should do, both now and always.
The first thing that we must remember is to CONTINUE IN LOVE. Here, look at 1 Peter 4:8. This isn’t a very long verse, but it reveals the chasm between the world’s definition of love and God’s definition of love. In the world, love is something that happens to you. You fall in love; you fall out of love. In this passage, though, we see that love is something we maintain. It’s something we keep constant. To put things another way, to the flesh, love is an emotion. To God, love is a commitment.
This passage tells us, then, that it’s not enough for us to love one another. Instead, God expects us to keep on loving one another. He expects us to be committed to one another. This is true not only when love is easy and we want to. It’s true when love is hard and we don’t want to.
Maybe this is true in our marriages. Maybe we’re going through a rough patch that has been so long we’ve forgotten what a smooth patch is like, and we’re tired, and we want to quit. Maybe it’s true in our families, when we’re struggling so hard to see eye to eye with them on some issues that we start wondering what we have in common with them at all. Maybe it’s in our congregation, because somebody else has been thoughtless or we’ve been thoughtless and this whole big problem has brewed up out of nowhere.
It doesn’t really matter what the situation is. The Holy Spirit’s words are the same. Maintain that love. Keep the relationship going. Stay committed.
Indeed, if we have that love, Peter says, it will cover a multitude of sins. Love will help us to overlook and forgive things that we never would otherwise. Love reveals to us that even the people who drive us crazy are precious in the sight of God. Finally, when we are merciful to others, we ensure that He will be merciful to us. Love does cover a multitude of sins, and some of the sins it covers are ours!
Second, we must CONTINUE TO PRAY. Here, let’s look at Luke 18:1-7. I admit, I could have read just v. 1 and made my point, but I wanted to read the whole parable because I think it’s amazing. Here’s what God is saying to us. He’s telling us that in our prayers to him, he wants us to be like this stubborn widow lady who harasses a wicked judge into giving her justice, even though he had no concern for her or justice or anything. She wore him down with sheer persistence! God says, “Pray like that!”
I think that usually, we see two possible answers to our prayers: “Yes,” and “No,” right? The point of this parable, though, is that there really are three: “Yes,” “No,” and “How bad do you want it?” God does not tempt us to do evil, but there are times when He does test our faith, and prayer is one of those times. Yes, He could give us what we ask for right when we ask for it, but sometimes He delays His answer just to see what we do with the delay. Will our trust in Him remain strong, so that we continue to pray? Or, instead, does our weak faith give in and give up?
If we want to see the fullness of God’s blessing, we need to remain steadfast in prayer. We need to keep praying for our country, even when it seems to be getting worse instead of better. We need to keep praying for our loved ones who are not obedient to the word. Sometimes, it takes decades for those prayers to be answered! We need to keep praying for the church despite an uncertain future.
Above all, we must remember that we are praying not to an unrighteous judge, but to a merciful God. If even the judge in the parable gave in eventually, how much more will our heavenly Father hear the cries of His children!
Finally, we must CONTINUE TO WORK. Consider Galatians 6:9-10. Much like we can get discouraged in loving others and get discouraged in praying, we can get discouraged in our work for the Lord too. Sadly, it’s all too common for preachers to burn out, but I know this is a struggle for the brethren in the pews too. So many of you do so much, both for this congregation and in the rest of your lives, that’s out of sight. You put all this time and effort in, and the world seems to flow on unchanged.
If that’s how you’re feeling, I have some things I want you to think about. First, your contributions aren’t going as unnoticed and appreciated as you think. I don’t know how many times I’ve been talking with one of the elders, and they’ll mention that So-and-So is doing this. They know what you’re doing, and God certainly knows what you’re doing!
Second, we need to remember that it’s a lot easier to tear down than it is to build. With one bad decision, any of us can ruin our lives, but to accomplish anything for good often takes years of patient effort. When you’re working for the Lord, things usually aren’t going to happen very fast. However, the more effort we put in, the better the results will be.
Let me say to all of you, then: don’t grow weary and lose heart! All of you who are working in our classes, working on VBS, working in the AV room or the security team, working on the building, and a host of other things besides—your work matters, and it will matter.
Most of all, though, if you’re trying to shine the light of Christ to the lost, don’t give up on that! There are dozens of Christians here this morning who had a spouse, or a friend, or a co-worker who didn’t give up on them, who patiently taught and encouraged them until they obeyed the gospel. We can be that spouse. We can be that co-worker. We can be that friend. I know as well as anybody how discouraging personal work can be, but we have God’s promise: if we don’t grow weary, somewhere, with somebody, we will reap.
Like all the gospels, Mark is not written for everyone. Those who come to it casually, not willing to invest the effort to understand, will remain ignorant. Only those who doggedly pursue enlightenment will—eventually—figure things out.
This is certainly the case with Mark 9:38-50. At first glance, this context appears to contain four unrelated sections: the story of the man casting out demons in the name of Jesus (9:38-41), a warning against leading others to fall away (9:42), a warning about what we must be willing to sacrifice for eternal life (9:43-48), and a weird discussion about salt (9:49-50).
However, as is often the case in Mark, these apparently unrelated subtopics are tied together by a common theme. In fact, everything that Jesus says from 9:39 through the end of the chapter explains why He told John to leave the unfamiliar exorcist alone.
His first point (9:39-41) is that anyone who does good while operating under the authority of Jesus is good. Indeed, those who help the workers of righteousness, even by giving them a cup of water in the name of Jesus, will be remembered too. Sadly, though, that’s not the only way that we can treat such people. We also can make them stumble (9:42)—by discouraging them, for instance—and if we do, we will be punished rather than rewarded.
In Matthew 5, Jesus’ cut-off-body-parts discussion is appended to His condemnation of lust. Here, though, it’s directed at a different heart problem—in context, the evil desires that make us want to interfere with those who are doing God’s work. There are many reasons why we might want to do this. It could be, as in John’s case, that the worker doesn’t come from the “approved” group of workers. It could be that we don’t like the way they’re doing the work. It could be that we think we should get to control them. Regardless, the Lord wants us to see that being a stumbling block will cause us to meet a horrifying fate. Nowhere else in Scripture is the ultimate punishment for sin described as graphically as it is here!
Interestingly, in v. 49-50, Jesus describes the fires of hell as having a salting effect. I think that here, as elsewhere, salt refers to palatability, especially palatability to God. In other words, the sin of being a stumbling block leaves a bad taste in God’s mouth, and the only thing that can get that taste out of His mouth is the punishment of the sinner. We’re supposed to encourage one another—that tastes good to God—but if we go through life discouraging one another instead, nothing can salvage us. It is much better for us to be salty people who are at peace with one another.
Sadly, the need for this teaching has not declined over the past 2000 years. It’s still true that so-called disciples of Christ have a bad habit of hindering the work of other disciples. This shows up in those cross-grained folks who have it in for the preacher and criticize and oppose him at every turn. It appears in the fossilized pew-sitters who squelch the zeal of the new convert because they “aren’t doing it right”. It flourishes in those who know in their hearts that they could do a better job of leading singing than the song leader, a better job of teaching class than the Bible-class teacher, and a better job of leading the church than the elders. Somehow, these convictions always end up revealing themselves somewhere, and there are many thousands of Christians who sit on the sidelines because some brother or sister told them they didn’t belong on the field.
When it comes to others’ work for the Lord, our work is simple. Support. Encourage. Praise. Help. Don’t say anything critical unless we’ve thought about it and are 100 percent sure that our critique will be received gratefully. When we find ourselves in the role of the discourager and the stumbling block instead, we endanger our souls.
I’ve stayed out of the online debate about how churches should respond to the coronavirus, and whether churches that assemble are more righteous than churches that don’t (or vice versa). As far as I am concerned, this is a marvelous opportunity to honor the great Scriptural principle of congregational autonomy. If we all mind our own business, Facebook will be a quieter, happier place.
However, I did see an argument advanced that I thought was worthy of further consideration. Somebody online, I don’t remember who, opined that continued suspension of services was a problem because many Christians would get out of the habit of assembling and never come back. I don’t think that’s true. From what I see, the vast majority of Christians assemble because they want to, not out of habit. Those who stop assembling because of coronavirus isolation probably would have stopped assembling soon anyway.
The argument does reveal, though, a lamentable tendency among brethren—a mistrust of other Christians’ moral capacity and goodwill. We can’t trust them to figure out the right thing to do, or to do it if they did figure it out, so we have to figure it out for them and manipulate or coerce them into doing it.
I think this is what is behind, for instance, the “conservative” conception of modesty. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul instructs Christian women to be modest, supplies a few examples that have to do with costly rather than revealing clothing (not normally a preoccupation of brethren today), and then leaves it to the sisters to determine what modest dress means for themselves.
However, some today are not content to leave modesty where Paul left it. From the Scriptural principle, they draw their own conclusions about appropriate hemline height and neckline depth, using some truly obscure passages (Exodus 28:42, anyone?) to bolster their arguments. To them, these conclusions have the same force as, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and woe betide the woman who shows up at church with a 23-inch skirt instead of a 24-inch skirt!
I believe that those who make such arguments sincerely believe that they have to, that without such explicit, concrete application, the women of the church are foolish and ungodly enough that they won’t reach the right result on their own. Here too, I disagree, not merely with the result, but also with the mode of thinking behind it.
Fundamentally, the churches of Christ exist because of the conviction that individual Christians are competent to understand and apply the Scriptures for themselves. If we don’t think that’s true, if we believe instead that most brethren are not willing and able to figure out what pleases God on their own, we might as well give it up and join the denomination of our choice!
What’s more, when church leaders insist on doing all the thinking for their people, even if the sign out front says “church of Christ”, within, a denominational spirit predominates. The Bible is no longer the authority. The church leader is.
Second, those who are so skeptical about others would do well to turn their skepticism on themselves. All of us have our moments of foolishness and ill will. All of us grapple with the temptation to determine our conclusion first and twist the Scriptures to fit. When we disagree with someone else’s conclusion, then, rather than seeking to impose ours on them, we first must humbly re-examine our own thinking. Even after we have done so, we must accord their views the respect we desire for our own.
I recognize that to some, this vision of Christianity will seem unbearably chaotic. You will end up going to church with people with whom you disagree. On the basis of their different conclusions, they will say and do things that make you uncomfortable. Where is the 1 Corinthians 1:10 unity in that???
We must remember, though, that Jesus prayed for His people to become one rather than expecting them to start that way. Greater unity in local congregations must come from below, as we grow in understanding and love for one another, rather than being imposed from the top.
Top-down unity, though appealing, is brittle. It relies on church leaders silencing or driving out those who disagree, which doesn’t sound much like John 17 or 1 Corinthians 1 either. Instead, we are called to believe the best about one another, speak truth in love, and be patient. That way, over time, those who are in error will be called to grow beyond their mistaken conclusions.
Maybe we will be the ones who will do the growing.
Over the past few months, a couple of progressive friends of mine have challenged my critique of the LGBTQ agenda by saying that my views would change if I knew someone in those categories. If I knew someone who was gay, if I knew someone who was trans, I wouldn’t say such things about them.
My initial response was to dismiss the argument. After all, I do know people who are gay, trans, etc., and I still write the things that I do. Whatever my motivations, I’m pretty sure ignorance and bigotry aren’t on the list.
However, I think there’s more to consider here than that. Though I believe that a Christian’s closest relationships should be with other Christians, we also should not isolate ourselves from the world. That’s a Pharisaical approach, not a Christlike one.
Indeed, Jesus came to earth in the first place to dwell among sinners. If He was willing to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes, we also should not shy away even from those whose conduct seems to us to be least consistent with God’s will. What’s more, knowing them should change our perspective on them and those who are like them.
First, it should teach us compassion for them. Every human being is created in the image of God, and that does not change, no matter what sins they practice. The better we get to know someone who is gay or trans, the less we will see the label, and the more we will see the human being.
Second, it will help us see the ungodliness of treating them badly, and I think both sides of the culture wars fail to approach this subject honestly. On the one hand, progressives are inclined to label anyone who repeats the teaching of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 as a homophobe and a bully. That’s an ad-hominem attack designed to shut down any discussion of God’s expectations for sexual morality, and it’s frequently untrue besides. It advances the conversation in much the same way that a concrete bridge abutment advances the progress of a car.
On the other hand, conservatives are so used to being called homophobes and bullies that they dismiss the existence and ungodliness of genuine homophobia and bullying. It is never, ever right to treat someone else hatefully, regardless of who they are or what they have done, but so-called Christians have justified tremendous cruelty against gay and trans people in the name of Christ. The best way to avoid such cruelty is to know and love its potential targets.
Third, it will reveal our commonality with them. In my interactions with people in the world, I always try to keep Hebrews 5:2 in mind. There, it says of the Levitical priest that he was able to deal gently with the ignorant and misguided because he himself was beset with weakness. We always must view the sin of others through the lens of our own sin.
I know what it’s like to be tempted. I know what it’s like to give in to my own evil desires. As long as I keep my own failures in mind, it becomes very difficult to climb up on my self-righteous soapbox and give those wicked sinners over there what-for. On our own merits, we’re no better than anyone else, and the better we get to know people, the more apparent that will become to us.
Finally, forming connections with gay and trans people will motivate us to share the gospel with them. This is not the fruit of moral indignation, but of compassion, gentleness, and love.
Satan is not a kind master, and his handiwork often is evident in the lives of gay and trans people. Statistically, LGTBQ people have a much higher risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and even suicide. Anecdotally, most whom I’ve known have not been happy, not particularly because they were persecuted, but because they couldn’t seem to make life work.
Such problems, significant as they are, pale in comparison to the problem of sin and separation from God. Gay and trans people are no greater sinners than I am, but that only means that they need the grace of Jesus as much as I do. I feel bound, then, to speak truth in love, to them as much as to everyone else, not because I think that everyone will listen, but because I hope that some might.
Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in His wings.
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining
To cheer it after rain.
In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God's salvation
And find it ever new.
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say
"Let the unknown tomorrow
"Bring with it what it may."
It can bring with it nothing
But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people too.
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed,
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.
Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there,
Yet God the same abideth;
His praise shall tune my voice,
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.
--William Cowper, 1779