My morning “coffee with God” continues to consist of reading through Matthew in “The Message” and this morning’s read shook me awake yet again:
“A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content – pleased even – when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dungface’, what can workers expect?” (Matthew 10:24,25)
Dungface. The word is a reminder that the life to which Jesus invites doesn’t have some sort of universal appeal. After all, at the end of three years Jesus’ ministry was so effective that nearly everyone in his little part of the world hated him, and conspired to put him to death on a cross. Some of his biggest fans turned on him, and even his most loyal supporters cowered in fear, denying that they knew him.
After an early growth spurt in the church, the same thing happened again, and Christians ended up being used at torches at Nero’s parties, or fed to the Lion’s as food in a sick sport.
“The world will hate you” is how Jesus said it elsewhere. What’s up with this? I spend a lot of time telling people that the story Jesus writing across the pages of history has universal appeal, telling people that God’s good reign of justice, mercy, peace, beauty, abundance, and healing is coming – why not join early, and get in step with God’s story? What’s not to like about that?
Plenty, it appears. Paul says the scent of Christ is the scent of life to some and the scent of death to others. Careful observation indicates to me that what’s unappealing about Christ’s message is the very thing that’s also appealing: transformation! Since Jesus came in order to set things right, following him will mean that there are going to be some adjustments. Remember what Isaiah said about valleys being lifted up and hills being smashed down? It’s metaphor (or allegory, I can never remember which) for Jesus equalizing things. Remember Mary’s prayer?
“He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold…” (Luke 2:51-53). It’s good news – if you’re poor and hungry. Otherwise, not so much.
Here’s the way it seems to work: To the extent that I want transformation, Jesus’ life, message, and power are all very good news, the best news. Consider the lepers that were healed, the woman caught in adultery that was forgiven, the blind man who could suddenly see, and the disciples who, at various times, were aware of their profound need for transformation. All of them ultimately loved and worshipped Jesus because He really did set them free.
And then there were his enemies, who didn’t like Jesus because they wanted to hang onto something:
Herod wanted to hang on to illicit sexual pleasures, and I’ve a suspicion there might be a few people today who are just like him.
An earlier Herod wanted nothing to do with a different kingdom because, being a king, a new kingdom would spell an end to his own power.
The same resistance came from religious camps who understood that Jesus’ reign would mean an end to their religious hierarchy and the structures that allowed them to enjoy prominence and power.
The rich young ruler didn’t want economic transformation because it sounded to much like “transfer of wealth”, especially in light of what Jesus told him to do.
So transformation was resisted by some people on sexual grounds, by others on religious and political grounds, and by others on economic grounds. Sound familiar?
There are two dangers we who love Jesus must consider:
1. Am I being called dungface for the wrong reasons? As a pastor, I hear nearly endless stories of people who have been burned by the church. The stuff that’s been done “in Jesus name” down through history has been gross enough, sinister enough, to turn your stomach, and it’s happening still. What’s worse, when people are called out on their unChristlike behavior, they relish in it, declaring themselves to be persecuted for righteousness sake. That’s dung. They’re persecuted because they’re behaving like jackasses.
2. Is no one calling me dungface? If my message isn’t offensive to anyone, I fear that I’ve massaged the rough edges off so much that it’s become some sort of therapeutic soup, stripped of all transformative power, offering sentimental precious “kum-bay-ya” moments instead. God help us, if that’s what we, the leaders of the church are doing, and sometimes I fear that it is.
How can I make certain that my message and life is powerful enough to elicit rejection, and yet know that I’m being rejected for the right reasons. The answer is simple – to say: Truth and Grace.
Jesus was relentless in calling people to transformation, challenging the prevailing sexual ethics, economic ethics, nationalism, religious hierarchies, and all other forms of idolatry. He did this out of love, because he came to set us free from things to which we’re addicted. We think they’re giving us life, but they’re killing us. I need to hold to this.
Jesus was equally relentless about loving people, whether or not they ever believed. Healing, blessing, friendship, changing water into wine, good conversation, all of these were offered as Jesus roamed through life, without pre-conditions for the recipients. He loved people. Lots of Christians who are called dungface these days are called that precisely because they offer no demonstrable love to people who think or believe differently than they do.
There’s a lot of dung flying around and I need to be willing to let it hit my face – but only for the right reasons. It’s something to think about in a world filled with dung.