Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians continually brings up the contrast between the values of the kingdom of the world and the values that Christians commit to live by. We are physically in this world, but we are called to live in the Kingdom of God. Because the two kingdoms are engaged in a spiritual war, conflict down here is unavoidable. In the early Church, that conflict manifested itself as persecution. Out and out persecution is rare in our lives here in the US, but that doesn’t mean the conflict of values is not taking place in subtler ways. In fact, the latter can be more deadly because it can be hard to detect.
Last time I posted a blog it was a parenthesis on my study through 1st Corinthians. That pause was motivated by Washington Elementary School District’s (WESD) decision to stop accepting Teachers trained by Arizona Christian University (ACU). In that blog I wondered what would happen if ACU chose not to fight this in the courts of this world.
Would that be tantamount to surrendering to the world? Would that be cowardly? WESD was engaging in religious discrimination. And we do live in a country where religious discrimination is against the Law. So, in this case, at this time, the Law of the land is on “our side.” But, my concern is, what happens when it no longer is? Will we change the way we live?
Well, if you have kept up with the news, you know a religious discrimination lawsuit was indeed filed and the issue resolved: WESD agreed to renew their agreement with ACU to allow their student-teachers to teach at WESD school again. Plus, WESD had to pay $25K in attorneys’ fees.
Would Paul applaud this as a victory?
Paul himself turned to the laws of the world in more than one occasion. At the riot in the Temple, he appealed to the fact of his Roman citizenship to keep the Roman chiliarch from having him scourged; and that gave him one more opportunity to witness to his people. At the trial before Porcius Festus, when it became clear that the procurator was about to turn him over to his enemies, Paul appealed to Caesar. And that is how he ended up in Rome.
Paul availed himself of the laws of this world when the occasion gave him no other way to accomplish his mission. But, by and large, he didn’t expect the world to help him – or even be neutral. He accepted literally what Jesus told His disciples:
John 15:20 Remember the word which I said unto you, The bondman is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep also yours.
So, it is no surprise when he tells the Corinthians in the second letter, how he differs from the so-called super-apostles that were leading them astray:
2 Corinthians 11: 23-25 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as being beside myself.) I above measure [so]; in labours exceedingly abundant, in stripes to excess, in prisons exceedingly abundant, in deaths oft. From the Jews five times have I received forty [stripes], save one. Thrice have I been scourged, once I have been stoned…
Paul’s sufferings were his credentials… And not only the sufferings at the hands of men. (Yes, he mentions his unjust imprisonments, but look at how he continues this passage.)
2 Corinthians 11:25 …three times I have suffered shipwreck, a night and day I passed in the deep: in journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from [my own] race, in perils from [the] nations, in perils in [the] city, in perils in [the] desert, in perils on [the] sea, in perils among false brethren; in labour and toil, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
Paul is not implying here that natural disasters and the violence of this world specifically target Christians. Everybody in this world is subject to such pain. But Paul is pointing out that he kept exposing himself to those dangers willingly by carrying the mission God gave him. Think about it: Staying in Tarsus, minding his own lucrative business, he would have been relatively safe from robbers and shipwrecks and scarcity.
The conflict between the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of God is real. (And we know from Genesis and Romans that nature itself got caught in the middle: natural disasters and the violence of nature – the law of the jungle – are the result,) And even though we, as Christians, are on the “right side”, even though we are doing God’s will – precisely IF we are doing God’s will – we cannot possibly expect that our life here in this world will be comfortable… or even fair.
Faith and uncertainty
I have been engaged in a multi-year conversation with one of my students about Jesus and the reality of the Kingdom of God. In a recent email I was talking about Abraham’s journey of faith. This was my conclusion on that subject:
Faith is not about having a conviction about a worldview that you have chosen to make yours. It’s not even about strongly believing in the existence of God. One thing I learned from reading Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity is that Faith is a choice we make when we are at the crossroads.
There are two paths before all of us:
On the right is the path God has asked us to take. But there is nothing along that path that commends it to our “flesh”. There is no worldly advantage in it, there are no riches along it, there are no physical rewards, no all-expenses-paid vacations. No, on the contrary, there is work along that path, there is duty, there are people who need to be loved and helped and who may very well not thank us for that help. It is a path where, yes, I get to make choices, but where also there are absolute rules that constrain those choices. There is Right and there is Wrong, Good and Evil; and I do not get to redefine them when their dictates are inconvenient to me, or even when those rules may condemn me.
It is a path where love exists because there is One who first Loved me. This path never ends. Yes, I know somewhere down along that road, my human body will die, I will have no more jobs to do in this physical reality… but I will not end. The path continues to eternity in the other reality where my life will never end. All this I know… but only deep in my heart… God will not speak it aloud or do a miracle to prove to me that this is all true. He only speaks to me Spirit to spirit.
On the left is the path that the world and all my worldly friends expect me to take. It is the path where I make of my life whatever I want it to be, where I can pursue all that I want, and get as much as I can get for myself. It is a path where, because there is no Good and Evil, we define pleasure as good and pain as evil. This is the path where my convenience, my happiness, my self-love is not only my right but more than that: I will be rewarded for pursuing it.
In this path, all that I can have is plain to see. I can touch the gold; I can taste that banquet. I can drive that race car and feel the adrenaline rush. Everything this path offers is in this physical reality and, because of that, I know it is “real”. I don’t have to wonder; I don’t have to “believe”. It is all plain to see. I am, like all other human beings, in this physical world. Whatever they have, I can have. Whatever that guy can get away with… hey, I can get away with it too. No – again – more than that: I deserve to get away with it too.
Which path do I choose? Do I choose the path that my senses can verify, and which tempts every physical sense of this flesh with its siren song? Or do I choose the path that my spirit tells me is the right one, because God is calling me to it?
That’s not an easy decision. In fact, if you think about it, it isn’t a fair choice! I mean if God really exists, and He gave me this spirit so I could “hear” His Spirit, then isn’t He also the One who made the world, the physical reality that I live in, and didn’t He create my senses with which I see and enjoy that world?
Why then doesn’t He step into this physical reality and tell me plainly what He wants me to do? Why put me at this crossroads? And worse, why make this world so full of opportunities for instant gratification, and then tell me He has another mission for me?”
Doesn’t seem fair.
What do you think? Is it fair?
If we decide it is not, then where does that put us? At another crossroad. There is no escaping crossroads.
Because if I am right and it is not fair, then I am saying God is not fair. And an unfair God cannot be Just… and therefore He cannot be God.
But if I am wrong, and God IS and God is Just, then I must accept that I do not understand what “fair” really means; that, maybe, my human definition of fair is somehow incomplete; that, maybe, there is more to reality than my understanding of this moment, more to life than the feelings and values I have grown accustomed to while anchored to this world.
This is one of those subtle conflicts I was talking about: Subtle, because we all take for granted that what we think and feel in this world is as trustworthy as what we see and touch. By default, all of us automatically assume that we are right, that we know what we are doing, that we know why we do it, and that our intentions are right and honorable.
But the prophet Jeremiah told us:
Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and incurable; who can know it?
This is indeed a deep problem, because it means we are all unreliable narrators in the drama of our own lives. If I can, and will, lie to myself, how can I ever know the truth?
This is why someone had to be born to reveal our hearts to ourselves.
Jeremiah 17:10 I Jehovah search the heart…
Luke 2:25-36 And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was just and pious, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and [the] Holy Spirit was upon him. And it was divinely communicated to him by the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death before he should see [the] Lord’s Christ.
And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and as the parents brought in the child Jesus that they might do for him according to the custom of the law, *he* received him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now thou lettest thy bondman go, according to thy word, in peace; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation of [the] Gentiles and [the] glory of thy people Israel.
And his father and mother wondered at the things which were said concerning him. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother, Lo, this [child] is set for the fall and rising up of many in Israel, and for a sign spoken against; (and even a sword shall go through thine own soul;) so that [the] thoughts may be revealed from many hearts.