It distresses me greatly that churches generally have the same bad name with the general public today that I have just given the "religious establishment" of Jesus' time. That is, churches are typically viewed more as exclusive clubs than welcoming havens. More people say they find nonjudgmental acceptance in Alcoholics Anonymous than in churches! And if you are inclined to reply in a defensive mode that groups like A.A. are willing to tolerate every point of view and let people get by with doing anything they like, you are exposing the fact that you know nothing about how that group functions.
Christ's church is supposed to be the place where the disenfranchised and rejected find acceptance. It was created to be the place where Jew or Gentile, slave or free, and male or female would all stand on equal footing. It is supposed to be a unified group in our fragmented world that models oneness among black and white, have and have-not, educated and illiterate, Democrat and Republican, American capitalist and Chinese communist. Is that how the world sees the church? Does the church bridge those great divides in human experience? Why, we can't even model unity among those of us who confess Christ as the Son of God and try to follow him!
Jesus not only challenged his disciples to love those who were ethnically or socially different from themselves but those who held different religious beliefs. Do you realize that the Parable of the Good Samaritan points to both race and religion as distinctions between the wounded man and his rescuer? Ironically, Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of the story — a story he told to a Jewish audience.
One of the most informative texts in this regard is one that deserves more attention than it gets among church people — especially the more conservative ones like us. It is a love-your-neighbor passage. The circumstances that produced it are clear from the brief context in which it is set. The narrowness of his own disciples forced Jesus to confront them for their suspicion, hatred, and exclusion of someone whose experience of him was different from their own.
"Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us."
"Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward" (Mark 9:38-41 NIV).
John was guilty that day of what many of us have done over the centuries of church history. He equated being "one of us" with belonging to Christ. He was mistaken. Jesus rebuked his narrowness and told him to stop passing judgments on other people who were following him. Paul would later rebuke the church at Rome for the same sort of narrow-mindedness:
Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4).
I have a dear friend who is pastor of a Pentecostal Church. A while back he made this confession to me:
Rubel, time was that I would not have considered you my brother in Christ because of the way you were baptized. My church tradition took Acts 2:38 to be a "pattern" that required us to say "in the name of Jesus Christ" as a verbal formula when we immersed somebody. And because you were baptized "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," I could not honor your baptism.
Can you imagine it? We both believed that Scripture was the Word of God to humankind. We both confessed Jesus Christ to be Immanuel, God come in the flesh. We had both repented of our sins. We both believed it was necessary to be immersed in water for the remission of sins. But he thought my baptism didn't count because the "formula" somebody said when I was put under the water invoked the Trinity instead of the name of Jesus only! Can you imagine the arrogance of that?
Here's what I told him:
Dear Brother, I felt exactly the same way about you. Because of how I was taught to interpret Acts 2:38, I would not have considered you my brother in Christ. I could not honor your baptism. I can certainly forgive you your arrogance in judging me, if you will forgive my arrogance in judging you!
There are some Bible stories in the Old Testament that we used to tell with particular slants to make people think that God is a stickler for detail and eager to make an example of anyone who broke a rule. They were used in sermons to say that anybody who misinterpreted Scripture or failed to follow the biblical pattern down to its minute details had no hope of seeing God. So we told about "poor old Uzzah" who made an honest mistake in touching the Ark of the Covenant and was struck dead for his trouble. We warned about "strange" and "unauthorized" worship practices in light of the Nadab and Abihu story, in which the two sons of Aaron were killed on the spot for some offense they committed in their haste or inattention to the rules of the sanctuary.
Uzzah didn't die as a good man who made an honest mistake. The Ark of the Covenant was never to be moved except at God's command, then only by specially designated Levites under priestly supervision, and always transported by long poles inserted through rings on its sides that could rest on the shoulders of the porters (Exodus 25:12-14; Numbers 4:5-15). Uzzah wasn't a righteous man who died trying to do the best he could. He was — in the language of the text — "irreverent" for mishandling the ark:
The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God (2 Samuel 6:7).
As one commentator puts it, Uzzah had a "serious attitude problem." His story is a serious warning against anyone who would be irreverent enough to disobey. It is not a story that should be used to scare honest people seeking God with reverence. It isn't about mistakes but disobedience, being punished for misunderstanding but for disregard of clear instruction.
The same can be said for the Nadab and Abihu story (Leviticus 10). It too has been used to judge persons and groups who do not conform to an exact pattern or blueprint for worship. For one thing, one has to create the pattern or blueprint by hop, skipping, and jumping through the biblical text and not from anything offered in Scripture as a blueprint. For another, the very cases cited to make God out a stickler-tyrant show quite the opposite and, instead, reveal his longsuffering spirit with those who seek him. For example, Nadab and Abihu appear to have been guilty of the same sort of "irreverent act" that Uzzah committed. At the end of the story, all the priests are not warned about how to light their censers next time but commanded never to touch a drop of alcohol on the days they officiate before Yahweh (Leviticus 10:8-11).
It is particularly interesting to note that the very same chapter closes with an account of how Aaron's surviving two sons, Eleazer and Ithamar, violated the command to eat the offering they presented for the people after that morning's tragic events. Moses was in a panic because of his fear that God would strike them down as well. When Aaron explained to Moses that they had not eaten the meat because of their mourning and anguish over what had just happened, "he was satisfied" (Leviticus 10:20). God too was apparently satisfied, for no calamity came on Eleazer and Ithamar. Eleazer, in fact, succeeded his father as high priest for the nation when Aaron died.
God's instruction to us in terms of rules and commandments is to be taken seriously. A disciple listens and learns. A servant hears and obeys. As Jesus would later teach us, however, some disciples learn more and some less. And there are varying degrees of responsibility for servants, depending on their opportunities and possibilities. The sense of fairness we humans have comes from the fact that we are made in God's image, after all.
But if the servant thinks, "My master won't be back for a while," and begins oppressing the other servants, partying, and getting drunk — well, the master will return unannounced and unexpected. He will tear the servant apart and banish him with the unfaithful. The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given (Luke 12:45-48).
So we need not worry that lack of information and opportunity will be treated as rebellion. We need not worry that someone who does the best she can under limited conditions will be treated like the "irreverent" and "defiant" person. It is only deliberate, willful sin that one commits against God in defiance of his holiness for which there is no sacrifice left to atone (Hebrews 10:26).
The God who has been revealed in Jesus deals with us as a loving father does a prodigal-but-dearly-loved child. We are not numbers on his judge's docket; we are the objects of his love as daughters and sons within the dysfunctional human family. Yet we need to understand that God didn't become kind, loving, and gracious after Calvary. Calvary happened because he has always been that way! And the horrible misrepresentation of those Old Testament stories such as the two already named is perhaps easier to justify than the avoidance of certain stories that would have taught us not to understand them as they were being represented to us. Take just one example. It is a story a brother pointed me to when I was in Uganda several years ago.
Hezekiah became King of Judah at age 25 in the year 715 B.C. He was convinced that the horrible state of affairs in his kingdom was due to the sins of his forefathers. They had been punished by Yahweh for their faithlessness and rebellion in the face of all the prophetic warnings he had sent them. So he set about to initiate a restoration of the spiritual life of the people. He called the priests and the Levites together, commissioned them to refurbish the long-neglected temple at Jerusalem, and to reinitiate sacrifices to the Lord (2 Chronicles 29).
Moved by a sincere determination to restore the ordinances of devotion, Hezekiah sent runners not only through all of Judah but into Israel as well to announce that Passover would be celebrated at Jerusalem. His intention was to call the people together "in large numbers" to keep the Feast of Passover "according to what was written" (2 Chronicles 30:5). His plea to the Northern Kingdom is particular poignant, for Israel has been devastated by the Assyrians and many of the kinsmen of those he called to Jerusalem for the festival were still mourning their fate. Listen to the language of contrast between rebellion and seeking, punishment and mercy:
Do not be like your ancestors and relatives who abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, and became an object of derision, as you yourselves can see. Do not be stubborn, as they were, but submit yourselves to the LORD. Come to his Temple which he has set apart as holy forever. Worship the LORD your God so that his fierce anger will turn away from you. For if you return to the LORD, your relatives and your children will be treated mercifully by their captors, and they will be able to return to this land. For the LORD your God is gracious and merciful. If you return to him, he will not continue to turn his face from you (2 Chronicles 30:7-9 NLT).
Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written (2 Chronicles 30:18).
Will the renewal program be compromised? Will it be necessary to punish and banish those who ate "contrary to what was written"? Will the king, priests, and consecrated people have to separate themselves from the ones who have broken the rules? Have you heard of the Jabez Prayer? Have you prayed it? Here is the Hezekiah Prayer that is far more appropriate to our time, place, and alienation in the larger Christian community:
But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying:
"May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God — the LORD, the God of his fathers — even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary." And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people (2 Chronicles 30:18b-20).
God will heal our divisions yet, if we will learn to pray the Hezekiah prayer for one another! Race, economics, gender, religion, politics — we have turned all of them into points of distinction and division. And we have used religion with particular vengeance to pass judgment on one another. How utterly shameful.
- No, it is not right that Christ-confessors who are not part of "our group" should be judged, opposed, and put out of business. Jesus said nobody who gives a cup of cold water in his name will fail to be rewarded by him (Mark 9:38-41).
- No, it is not correct to think we are right and everybody else is wrong. To the contrary, without thinking for a moment that we are perfect, I am pressing toward the heavenly goal that sees perfection in Christ alone (Philippians 3:12-14).
- Yes, we have every right — even the spiritual obligation — to live, teach, and share our convictions about Christ as our best effort to honor him but never as judgment of others (Romans 14:9-13).
- Yes, we may and should pray the generous Hezekiah Prayer for those whom we think are defective in some part of their spiritual life — and ask them to pray the same prayer for us in our deficiencies (2 Chronicles 30:18b-19).
Let us be known for loving one another, not squabbling. Let us meet our neighbors in service to them, not in confrontation. Let us love across the dividing lines of race and gender, economic status and religious affiliations, neither compromising our own beliefs nor judging another's faith. It is Christ who is the judge of us all.