It one corner, we have the pressure to conform to the gods of this world that govern the marketplace of necessity and pleasure. On the other, we are pressured to conform to systems of religion and pseudo righteousness that have frozen grace into a form of rigid compliance that does not resemble the good news of God's grace.
Both poles require resistance and from both, Jesus offers liberation.
We are caught up in a tug of war over what it authentic discipleship and what is extra baggage that we have inherited from our culture, our desire to fit in, and our fear of standing out and being persecuted. It requires constant reexamination of the claims and call of Jesus in every fresh context as we wrestle with timeless truth and shifting concerns. It is not new to our generation. It was happening in the early church and decades later among the band of ragtag disciples who had begun to follow Jesus.
It is as if we are constantly being torn between the poles of secularism and religiosity.
Galatians 6:11-18 (NRSV)
See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised-- only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule-- peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
There was a brief moment in the history of the early church where a protection against Roman persecution existed. It was circumcision as a mark of one’s Judaism. The Romans had thrown up their hands in frustration and had relented in their push to introduce polytheism and emperor worship in all parts of their domain.
Every other conquered nation had complied, but the Jews would not, no matter how much pressure was applied, fall down and bow before the shrine of the imperial cult.
So, Rome made an exception. Everyone had to comply except Jews. As long as the Jesus movement was a sect of Judaism, the church was safe. Once it came out from under that protection, she was subject to harsh treatment, pressure, and even death.
As the gospel and the movement moved into the gentile (non-Jewish world), the question first came from the Jewish Christians and the church had its controversy internally. Do followers of Jesus first have to become Jews, be circumcised, and submit to the law before becoming Christians or are they exempt.
Once that was settled in favor of the latter option, the pressure came from Rome. No longer seen as a branch of Judaism either by Jews or by Rome, Christians, who held the same monotheistic convictions as their Jewish brethren, were not longer protected by affiliation. They were expected to make their sacrifices at the altar of the imperial cult, worship Caesar, and acknowledge the gods of Rome.
To declare that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar was cause for persecution. Even short of death, the state could close the doors of commerce and apply great hardship on vast numbers of believers. Some among them would go to prison and some would die.
I think this is what Paul is referring to when he refers to the pressure to submit to be circumcised as way to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.
It was also being held up as a cause for boasting and pride.
“See! I am a five star believer! I have all my bases covered!”
Paul takes everyone back to the cross and obliterates any cause for boasting, pride, self-righteousness, or nationalism.
“I won’t boast about anything but the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Through it and Him, I have died a crucified death too everything else and it has died to me.”
He reaffirms his love and blessing for Israel and shakes off the criticism of the self-righteous church folks.
In so doing, he raises a banner of defiance and embrace.
He defies all fear of persecution from the world and embraces the possibility of suffering from Christ. He will not hide who he is and what his core commitments are. The easy way out is not an option.
He defies the internal pressures of the church to conform to anything but what God has called the followers of Jesus to do and to be. He rejects any cultural, racial, nationalistic, or ritualistic identification of what it means to be a Jesus follower and goes for the essential commitment of the gospel – Jesus Himself, crucified and resurrected.
He backs up everything he says with the credibility of his own life, even his own body, marked with the scars inflicted upon him by the whips of his persecutors. What he says is verified by his life and his own suffering. Even as a circumcised Jew, he refused to call upon his affiliation as a way of denying his faith. He took the blows and he gloried in them.
Today, we are still pressured from outside and inside of the church to conform to some standard other than the call of Jesus. On one hand, we are pressured to deny Him. On the other, we are shamed into squeezing into boxes not of His making.
What Jesus is calling us to do, is to lose ourselves in Him, be who he has made us to be, and follow Him in total identification, sold out to His kingdom, and relying only on His grace. It is a dangerous adventure, but it is an adventure indeed.
Now, look back to a scene from Jesus’ ministry.
Rather than looking back on the cross as a defining moment, He is looking ahead with his original disciples. He is warning them of suffering. He is preparing them for its inevitability. He would go first and He would die at the hands of men.
Mark 9:30-41 (NRSV)
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Even as He is seeking to engage their hearts in this radical teaching, whenever they had the chance, they began to engage in petty disputes over trivial concerns.
One of those concerns was which of them would be the greatest!
Pride, competition, boasting, power. None of these ever have been compatible with the Jesus walk, but they are the way of the world.
What Paul dealt with was just another manifestation of what Jesus encountered. It was a clash of cultures and values. The culture of power and human greatness was coming face to face with the gospel of peace, of love, and of service.
The suffering servant as king of the kingdom flew in the face of the prevailing view of the culture. It was an insult to the sensibilities of godless Romans and godly Jews. All had been drinking from the same well of grandiosity.
“You have to be more like children,” Jesus admonishes them. “You have to be more like slaves.”
“You have to give up this notion that you can be great by putting others down or dominating them. The greatest among you will be the one perceived, by the world’s standards, to be the least.”
And if you want to really serve me and identify with me, start handing out water.
In a simple rebuke and encouragement, He turns the tables on everything and rights the course of our thinking.
But that thinking must be renewed often. It had to be renewed with every new context such as Paul’s circumcision controversy in Galatia and it has to be renewed today as we confront our gods of materialism, safety, comfort, American exceptionalism, and parochial bigotry.
We are always having to shake loose extra baggage we accumulate along the grace highway. Some of it has become deeply embedded in our psyches, our rituals, and our conversation. It has become intertwined with our way of speaking truth so that it is not easy to extract from the truth. It has permeated our culture and defined our false boundaries, but it is not the gospel and it never will be.
Like Paul, we must be daily crucified with Christ to the world and to that, which is of the world, but disguised as Christianity.
It was costly then and it is likely to be costly today.
Now, the Psalms:
Psalm 80 Qui regis Israel (NRSV)
1 Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
2 In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
3 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
4 O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
6 You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
8 You have brought a vine out of Egypt; *
you cast out the nations and planted it.
9 You prepared the ground for it; *
it took root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered by its shadow *
and the towering cedar trees by its boughs.
11 You stretched out its tendrils to the Sea *
and its branches to the River.
12 Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?
13 The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.
14 Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.
15 They burn it with fire like rubbish; *
at the rebuke of your countenance let them perish.
16 Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
and son of man you have made so strong for yourself.
17 And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.
18 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
Psalm 77 Voce mea ad Dominum (NRSV)
1 I will cry aloud to God; *
I will cry aloud, and he will hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; *
my hands were stretched out by night and did not tire; I refused to be comforted.
3 I think of God, I am restless, *
I ponder, and my spirit faints.
4 You will not let my eyelids close; *
I am troubled and I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old; *
I remember the years long past;
6 I commune with my heart in the night; *
I ponder and search my mind.
7 Will the Lord cast me off for ever? *
will he no more show his favor?
8 Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever? *
has his promise failed for evermore?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? *
has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion?
10 And I said, "My grief is this: *
the right hand of the Most High has lost its power."
11 I will remember the works of the LORD, *
and call to mind your wonders of old time.
12 I will meditate on all your acts *
and ponder your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy; *
who is so great a god as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders *
and have declared your power among the peoples.
15 By your strength you have redeemed your people, *
the children of Jacob and Joseph.
16 The waters saw you, O God; the waters saw you and trembled; *
the very depths were shaken.
17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; *
your arrows flashed to and fro;
18 The sound of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; *
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was in the sea, and your paths in the great waters, *
yet your footsteps were not seen.
20 You led your people like a flock *
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Psalm 79 Deus, venerunt (NRSV)
1 O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; they have profaned your holy temple; *
they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble.
2 They have given the bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the air, *
and the flesh of your faithful ones to the beasts of the field.
3 They have shed their blood like water on every side of Jerusalem, *
and there was no one to bury them.
4 We have become a reproach to our neighbors, *
an object of scorn and derision to those around us.
5 How long will you be angry, O LORD? *
will your fury blaze like fire for ever?
6 Pour out your wrath upon the heathen who have not known you *
and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon your Name.
7 For they have devoured Jacob *
and made his dwelling a ruin.
8 Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us; *
for we have been brought very low.
9 Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your Name; *
deliver us and forgive us our sins, for your Name's sake.
10 Why should the heathen say, "Where is their God?" *
Let it be known among the heathen and in our sight that you avenge the shedding of your servants' blood.
11 Let the sorrowful sighing of the prisoners come before you, *
and by your great might spare those who are condemned to die.
12 May the revilings with which they reviled you, O Lord, *
return seven-fold into their bosoms.
13 For we are your people and the sheep of your pasture; *
we will give you thanks for ever and show forth your praise from age to age.