Give the Benefit of the Doubt

Matthew 4:12-23

By Alston Johnson

There was once a man named Aristides, a second-century Athenian philosopher. Aristides was asked to make a report to the authorities on the Christians who lived in the region around Athens.

The year is A.D. 125, and already Christians are singled out in the ancient world. This is part of a letter that Aristides wrote that would make its way to Emperor Hadrian:

The Christians, O King, know and believe in God, the maker of heaven and earth. They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them. They observe scrupulously the commandment of their Messiah; every morning, and at all times, on account of the goodness of God toward them, they praise and laud him, and over their meals they render him thanks. On account of them, there flows forth much beauty in the world.

Probably 100 years: Jesus on the shores of Galilee as a young man, to the Church in Athens … that is the same time from the 1920s and ’30s to us; the world of jazz and F. Scott Fitzgerald and the young Hemingway, Charles Lindbergh, Prohibition, Babe Ruth, Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse, and the creation of the BBC in England. Shreveport had a population of about 45,000, the Strand Theater was built, the East Texas Oil Field was discovered, and the Downtown Airport was planned.

What happened on the shore of the Sea of Galilee so that within 100 years reports are traveling from the university to the Emperor?

A young man is going about telling people to repent, change their lives.

A young man known to be a carpenter, maybe a day laborer, known to have something of God’s presence about him.

Did this carpenter have a strategic/organizational plan?

Did this young carpenter have such a plan that would eventually cause a well-known scholar from the Oxford/Cambridge of the ancient world to write reports to the emperor? One hundred years is not a long period of time, about three or four generations.

Think about it.

How is it that this conversation between a carpenter and some fishermen on the shores of a faraway country reaches the ears of the best and the brightest of the ancient world? What sort of encounter could happen on the shore of Cross Lake this afternoon, or along one of the farm roads in DeSoto County, so that it would be talked about in London, or New York, or Washington, in this way, in the year 2120?

Some scholars believe that this moment is actually Jesus’ first miracle: his Word for a few working men, “Follow me,” said in such a way that Simon, Andrew, James, and John drop life as they know it to begin a new life.

There was something in that “Follow me” that was different, something giving power to life — from the inside out; something with the power to change history — from the inside out.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John came to see that this “Follow me” meant keeping pace with this carpenter, as they were drawn more closely to the heart of God. This “Follow me” meant doing as the carpenter did, meant seeing as the carpenter saw, meant listening as the carpenter listened, and feeling as the carpenter felt; it meant becoming a disciple; accepting instruction and guidance and redirection.

As early Christians built the Church during those 100 years, they did not agree on what it meant to follow Jesus. They did not agree on who this carpenter was, or what he stood for, or why he lived and died. They often fought. They often struggled. Certainly they would have been on opposite of sides of the voting floor. Given the opportunity, I am sure many of them would have jousted on Facebook.

Paul tells us so in his letter to the Corinthians:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

But still, for those 100 years, early Christians lived together in such a way that Christ was made known to strangers in strange lands; and the body of Christ grew.

For 100 years early Christians lived enough like the carpenter, and the fishermen who followed him, that they were set apart. They were marked as Jesus’ friends and followers, so that scholars in Athens, a city a long way from the shores of Galilee, sat up and took notice.

As bakers, bankers, artists, soldiers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, camel-breeders, tentmakers, and fishermen, when strangers were in their midst, the strangers noticed that they were in the presence of something different. Their following, their kind of discipleship, cut a swath through the ancient world from the inside out.

Discipleship is finally, perhaps bitterly for some, but finally, a decision. A decision, the way we might choose a spouse, a child, or a friend, when we know that such decisions will certainly lead to some “cost” in terms of the life that we would like to preserve for ourselves.

And that is what finally makes discipleship a decision of love, because it is the conscious giving up of one life for the sake of another.

We drop the nets of what we have known and follow Jesus through a doorway into a new life. A simple action that leads to a larger scope of God.

It can be so simple. It can be the smile and laughter when others scowl and grumble. It can be the extra 30 minutes of listening when we have every right and ability to flee. It can be a casserole or a card, when anonymity and distance would be so convenient. Discipleship is usually easiest when it calls upon things we have in surplus.

Sometimes discipleship is more difficult because it calls upon things that might be scarce in our lives.

Sometimes discipleship looks like what I call the ministry of giving the benefit of the doubt, when we suddenly find ourselves on opposite sides of an idea or an opinion with those whom we live, labor, and love.

The ministry of giving the benefit of the doubt means that we look at others, we listen to others, and we try to see them as one of the many children of God for whom this carpenter gives his best, and finally gives his life.

The ministry of giving the benefit of the doubt is what Jesus gives to the thief who hangs on the cross beside him; with the authorities and most of his fellow citizens turned against him, the thief calls out for mercy, and mercy is given.

It is into moments such as these that the “Follow Me” of the carpenter calls each of us. These are poignant and sometimes painful moments of discipleship, when we have to look past the posture the world would have us take, and give one another the benefit of the doubt, and see one another as fellow children of God.

I have a feeling in the days ahead we will each be given an opportunity to follow, to be disciples, to share in this ministry of giving the benefit of the doubt, and in adding our small contribution to the legacy discovered by Aristides so many centuries ago. My hope and my prayer is that we too can be worthy of this kind of observation in our days and times. When a skeptical, cynical, and self-justifying society looks in our direction, might they see these things; these things from 18 centuries ago noticed by Aristides that we, in our broken and limited capacity, try to carry into tomorrow:

My Lord Emperor Hadrian:

The Christians, O King, know and believe in God, the maker of heaven and earth. They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them. They observe scrupulously the commandment of their Messiah; every morning, and at all times, on account of the goodness of God toward them, they praise and laud him, and over their meals they render him thanks. On account of them, there flows forth much beauty in the world.

The Very Rev. Alston Johnson is dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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