Commentary for the August 31, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” Romans 8:9, 14 NIV
Reformation is sometimes seen through the lenses of the actions and events surrounding the Protestant Reformation and the corresponding Catholic Counter Reformation of the Middle Ages. Harsh and angry men who believed they were enacting the wrath of God on Earth fought repeated wars in attempts to force their opponents to obey God as they perceived Him. In reality, this often meant little more than obeying their earthly conquerors who arrogantly claimed to be God’s voice and will.
Many people lost their lives in these conflicts and in some countries, they continue to do so. As I write this commentary, the country of Egypt is in turmoil as some Muslims, who claim to be God’s voice, are burning Christian churches and murdering their Christian brothers who dissent from the Muslim view. While such medieval extremism continues to occur, in many countries, churches and mosques are not being burnt and believers are not being martyred over religious differences. This does not necessarily mean that the attitudes that produce such behavior have changed. It may only mean that a strong central government is able to restrain these behaviors that are so destructive to civil order. When this is the case, the conflict changes arenas as it moves from open warfare to the somewhat more refined warfare of politics and intrigue. If, as in the case of Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious party can obtain power through such means, then open warfare may once again resume as the religious viewpoint in power seeks to monopolize belief.
I do not mean to pick on the Muslims. They are only currently more obvious as they tend to be more powerful where modern governments are weak or corrupt as is the case in some countries with Muslim majorities. However, Christendom has had its share of coups and resulting persecutions as well. Examples can be sound in the seesaw persecutions between the Catholics and Anglicans in England that hinged on the faith of the monarch sitting on the throne in London.[i] The Thirty Years’ War of the early seventeenth century devastated much of central Europe for similar reasons.[ii] Paradoxically, those countries with strong Nordic populations, descended from the Vikings, who so mercilessly pillaged and murdered the Christians of Britain and Europe as well as burning their monasteries, convents and churches, became the champions of the Protestant cause against the Holy Roman (and Catholic) Empire. Christian IV of Denmark lost several battles against the Emperor’s Catholic army under Albrecht von Wallenstein, but eventually Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden entered the fray and although he died in battle, he brought victories that allowed the Protestant Union to continue its resistance. Probably more lost their lives to famine, disease and persecution than in battle as the continuing conflict devastated much of Central Europe, leaving little support for the starving populace. What little might be left was often taken by the marauding armies.
These conflicts tend to be based on three simple beliefs. First, God is wrathful and wants to sweep the disobedient into destruction. Second, I am God’s true servant who alone understands His will for both you and me. Third, better you suffer my wrath than God’s in order to purge your soul of that which is unclean so you might be saved. As might be seen from their generalized simplicity, these beliefs might be held by those of disparate belief systems. A Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu or any number of other sects and faiths might easily accept these principles and use them as justification for conflict with other faiths.
Perhaps we do not realize when we engage in this behavior that we actually portray God as very weak and unable to accomplish His will on Earth unless His followers engage in open warfare on His behalf. However, irrespective of the writings of other faiths, God is not characterize thus in the New Testament of the Bible. It is in submission and surrender of His people that allows God’s will to prevail for the Christian. While those who believe they are the instruments of God’s wrath on Earth may see this as weakness, it is the way of Christ.[iii] Those who rely on assertion of will, conflict, political power or any aggressive means to accomplish supposed reformation of others can never muster the force that Christ might have mustered.[iv] Yet, even though the opposition Jesus faced resulted in His death, He declined to summon the forces at His disposal, preferring to demonstrate His power through submission rather than laying low His opponents.
Jesus knew that only the spirit of forgiveness and grace could overcome the evil in the world. Reform that originates in anything else is really only oppression and persecution. Some justify this behavior by stating they must “Cry aloud and spare not.”[v] They overlook that this was God’s instruction to the prophet Isaiah and not to them. They also overlook that the statement was made in the context of calling God’s people to be merciful and compassionate not judgmental and condemnatory. Perhaps we would do well to give more credence to the life of Jesus than to the words of a prophet in this instance anyway. Jesus’ life was all about grace rather than condemnation.[vi]
Sadly, when we start to see ourselves as God’s voice on Earth and set standards for ourselves and others, we tend to see our interpretations as rules that must be obeyed at pain of loss of salvation. Jesus expressed concern about these rules based on our perspectives becoming onerous burdens for ourselves and others.[vii] He wanted us to bear a lighter burden than this.[viii]
Paul also expanded on these burdensome regulations that originate with men rather than God in his letter to the Colossian church.[ix] Here and in Romans he related it directly to things touched and tasted.[x] Of course, through the centuries, apologists have added many interpretive glosses to these words, avowing that they cannot be understood in their simplicity but must instead be seen through many paragraphs of cultural applications which are speculative at best.
Perhaps an egregious example of this sort of apologetic manipulation can be found in the efforts that some make to support the idea that a modern vegetarian diet is biblical. They overlook that Jesus was not vegetarian; some even going so far as to assert that He would be if He were with us, today. How they can make such a statement with a straight face is beyond me.
Sometimes as justification for a vegetarian lifestyle these individuals will point out that the diet given to mankind at Creation was strictly vegan.[xi] Some even go so far as to claim that since fungi were not mentioned in this account, mushrooms cannot be consumed, much to the chagrin of all those who bring delicious mushroom soup based casseroles to church potluck. However, while some will push for these extreme diets and even insinuate that our salvation is dependent on what we eat or drink, they overlook that per the Bible, mankind did not wear clothing until the fall into sin. Strangely, they do not advocate for a return to biblical nudity like we had in the beginning as they do for the veganism they feel is so important.
Reformation is not about how we eat or dress. It is not about the things we do. It is about what God does in us. Instead of comparing our experience to that of those around us, we need to repent of such behavior and begin focusing on Jesus. The only way we can examine the behavior of others is to take our eyes away from Jesus. Peter knew what this was like. When he stopped focusing on Jesus and instead began worrying about what was going on around him, he began to sink. When he realized his peril, he did not pray for Jesus to fix what was going on around him. Instead, he prayed “Save me!”[xii]
Perhaps this is true reformation. Maybe we need to focus on Jesus, who loves us supremely and has no greater desire than to dwell in love with us forever. While it is true that we must live on this earth until the end of our lives or until the Parousia, whichever comes first, we cannot afford to let what is going on around us take our focus off of Jesus. To quote C. S. Lewis: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”[xiii]
[i] “English Reformation,” www.wikipedia.org
[ii] “Thirty Year’s War,” www.wikipedia.org
[iii] 2 Corinthians 12:9
[iv] Matthew 26:53
[v] Isaiah 58:1
[vi] John 3:17
[vii] Mark 7:7
[viii] Matthew 11:28-30
[ix] Colossians 2:20-23
[x] Romans 14:3-4
[xi] Genesis 1:29
[xii] Matthew 14:25-31
[xiii] “Mere Christianity,” C. S. Lewis