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The third option

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It’s been a tough week for America, it’s been a tough week for the Middle East, and it’s been a tough week for the Church. Four U.S. diplomats gruesomely murdered in Libya. American embassies attacked, the Stars and Stripes torn down and replaced with the black flag of the radical Islamic fringe. And all of this precipitated by some folks who share our baptism, some Christians self-appointed and self-validating, hungry for the authority to pronounce their account of the world as the only one that is right and true – some Christians filled with lust for power but empty of any sense of responsibility. And so we see four more coffins draped in the American flag, and Islamic and Christian blood and enmity pouring out in the streets. The blood seems distant now. Once more, chaos seems to rule.

In my last post, I reminded us how James gives two warnings about the Christian life about which we sometimes get confused. My focus last week was on his point that our faith is empty if it is not visible in our good works. Our good works are the ways in which we physically say “Yes!” to God. I briefly mentioned that James also warns Christians to “be quick to listen and slow to speak, slow to anger, for our anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (Jm 1.19). This week we have witnessed the tragic truth of his point. The lections this week speak a special Word to us. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” (Jm 3.5) “The tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (Jm 3.8-10). As Americans we celebrate free speech. But Christ-followers are charged to exemplify charitable speech. When we forget the difference, our world is set ablaze. That’s true on the global stage, it’s true in our national and local politics, and it’s true within the homes that we promised God would be sanctuaries of love.

We live in a time when the world religions live alongside each other. That’s not just our present; it’s the future reality of all Americans. My experience is that Christians are often unsure of how to be Christian in our encounter with other religions. What’s sad is that many folks seem to believe there are only two choices. Either there is the oppositional logic that says “if Christianity is true, then it’s our Christian duty to declare all other accounts of God as false.” What we’ve seen this week is an extreme case of that logic. Or there is that faux-tolerance that’s become quite fashionable lately that pretends that our differences don’t matter. But if our differences don’t matter, then what we are really saying is that we believe in nothing. No matter how we dress it up, that way is not Christianity, it’s nihilism. Both approaches lead ultimately to violence and despair. If those are the only two paths left to us, we are in real trouble, friends.

But there is a third option. It’s the gospel. Immediately we encounter there the one thing that makes us distinct, that makes Christians Christian. Jesus. Other religion have love. Other religions have claims about ultimate Good and ultimate Truth. But only Christians have Christ. If God had remained remote from us, if God had given us merely a book of laws by which to live, then we would have our own Holy Book (like others), but we wouldn’t be Christian. We would be just another grand philosophy, just another system of ethics. But we’re not those things. Christians are those who take seriously their confession that Jesus is the Lord, the Master of their lives. Christianity is not a belief system, but a way of life, a way of walking with Jesus. It is relational. It’s about Jesus, or it is not Christian. Which means the faux-tolerance option is not an option at all. Our differences do matter, and the most life-giving one is this relationship with Jesus that makes Christians Christian. Standing there in Caesarea Phillipi, near the ruins of the ancient temple of Baal, near the ruins of an ancient temple to the Greek god, Pan, near a temple for the worship of Caesar as Lord, Jesus asked: “Who do you say that I am?” With Peter, we answer, “You are the Anointed One. You are the Lord of life.”

Yet notice that Peter, when he made that confession, didn’t know what he was talking about. He imagined a messiah who would conquer, a master who would at last set things right by restoring Israel to power over its opponents. Jesus began to speak about having to suffer, about being rejected by the smartest and most powerful people in Israel, about being killed. That wasn’t the kind of Master Peter wanted. So he rebuked Jesus. And his rebuke belied his real concern. “If that happens to you, and you are my Lord, then what will happen to me?” Therein lies the crux of it all. Jesus’ way is the way of the Cross, and if that’s the way Christ-followers follow, what will happen to us?

We don’t like it. Like Peter, we’d prefer a Messiah who will conquer those who oppose us. Instead, Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow. Let’s be honest with each other: it is not that we’ve listened to Jesus and can’t understand his meaning. The truth is that we’ve listened to him and understand him too well. The Way of the Cross is the way of weakness, the holy weakness that makes space for others so that they might live. Like Jesus did for us. Space in our words, space in our lives, space in our cupboards, space in our hearts. So that others – including those who oppose us – shall flourish. We understand Jesus all too well. We don’t like the way of the Cross, we don’t want the way of the Cross, and we refuse to walk the way of the Cross. “God forbid it!” Peter said, according to Matthew. But actually God ordained it. Hence Jesus’ reply to Peter, and to all who live according to this second option: “Get behind me, Satan!” As James says, “Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.”

The third option, to which the gospel summons us, is to do what Peter ultimately did – to allow Christ to liberate us from the oppositional logic that governs our lives, to get behind – not Satan – but Jesus. When we’ve been grasped by the Spirit we receive a new identity. “With the ascription of deity goes the inscription of identity.”[1] When this identity governs our lives, we make space for all whom he loves. Therefore, the distinction between ourselves and Muslims is not that God loves us, for God loves all humankind. The distinction is that we have been called by Jesus to walk in a particular way, a non-violent way that makes space for another so that he or she might be blessed, a peaceful way that is the very means by which we embody real relationship with Jesus. What makes Christians Christian is this relationship, this one we follow, this Jesus.

This is how we live with God in a world of rich diversity. With “the wisdom from above  [that] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy…. a harvest of righteousness [will be] sown in peace for those who make peace” (Jm 3.17-8). Thanks be to God!

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[1] I am indebted to one of my professors, Dr. William Turner, for this phrase.

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