By Rev. William Willimon in Pastor, pages 257-260, Abingdon Press, 2002 (adapted).
(…continued) When Jesus wanted to change the world, he summoned a rather ordinary group of inexperienced, not overly talented folk to be his disciples. This is the typical way Jesus does revolution. Although to the world such means may seem hopelessly ineffective, unrealistic, and impossible, the church is, for better or worse, God’s answer to what is wrong in the world. Just let the church begin telling the truth, witnessing to the fact that God rules and that Jesus Christ really is Lord, and the church will quickly find how easily threatened and inherently unstable are many of the powers of this world. If Christians were not being persecuted in the Mideast and in China, and being ridiculed in Hollywood and at Harvard, we might think that the church was no longer proclaiming the Word of God. That thousands still pay for this faith with their lives and their freedom is proof positive that God is still able to speak through his people. The false principalities and powers see in the poor old church a threat to everything upon which their world is built.
One of our recent graduates, now living in California, told me about dragging himself out of bed one Sunday morning and attending the little Episcopal church around the corner. The service went as expected until the pastor stood up at the time of the sermon, and said, “I suppose that some of you expect me to make some statement about the sexual shenanigans of our president (Bill Clinton). What have we to say to the moral mire in Washington? Well, permit me just a moment to go over this again, if I must. People, we are Christians. We do not have sex with those to whom we are not married! For us, there is no sex outside the promises of marriage between one man and one woman! Must we belabor the point? I hope not. Now let us move on to other concerns.”
Ephesians 4:15-16 establishes a link between truth-telling and community and maturity:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
“Speaking the truth in love” is linked to maturity and growth. Without truthful speech, we are left with immature Christians. In the church, in my experience, we usually opt for love at the expense of truth. Of course, from a gospel point of view, dishonest love is hardly love at all. On the basis of Ephesians 4:15-16, truthful speech is an aspect of the practice of love, a necessary component of Christian unity among a people for whom there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6). Too often, in too many congregations, unity is purchased by the world’s means— suppression of information, deceitful flattery, and niceness— rather than through the Christ-appointed means of speaking the truth in love. In order to have unity or love worthy of the designation “Christian,” we need to be more in love with truth than with either unity or love…
A woman accosted me at the front door, at the end of service, after I had preached on forgiveness.
“Do you mean to tell me that Jesus expects me to forgive my abusive husband who made my life hell for ten years until I got the courage to leave him? I’m supposed to forgive him?”
I got nervous. Defensively I said, “Well, we only have twenty minutes for the sermon. I can’t properly qualify and nuance everything. But I do feel that, though I am deeply concerned about the problem of spouse abuse, Jesus does tell us to forgive our enemies, and who is a greater enemy than your ex-husband? I do think that Jesus probably did mean for us to…”
“Good!” she said. “Just checking!” With that she left, going forth, I think, with a burden placed upon her back, a burden not of her own devising, to walk a narrow way quite different from the ways of the world. Who told me as a preacher to attempt to lessen that gap, that life-giving gospel gap, between her and the gospel? Who told me that she was unable to respond to the command of Jesus?
Sometimes we do not have to say anything to be a powerful witness…
A young man called me early one Monday morning to tell me that he needed to talk. He was in terrible shape, having wandered about the university campus all night, crying most of the time.
“I had the worst night of my life,” he explained. “Last night, after the fraternity meeting, as usual we had a time when we just sit around and talk about what we did over the weekend. This weekend, during a party we had on Saturday, I went upstairs to get something from a brother’s room and walked in on a couple who were, well, ‘in the act.’
“I immediately closed the door and went back downstairs, saying nothing. Well, when we came to the time for sharing at the end of the meeting, after a couple of the brothers shared what they did over the weekend, one of the group said, ‘I understand that Mr. Christian got a real eyeful last night.’
“With that, they all began to laugh. Not a good, friendly laugh; it was cold, cruel, mean laughter. They were all laughing, all saying things like, ‘You won’t see nothin’ like that in church!’ and ‘Better go confess to the priest,’ and stuff like that.
“I tried to recover, tried to say something light, but I couldn’t. They hate me! They were serious. I walked out of the meeting and stood outside and wept. I’ve never been treated like that in my life.”
I told him, “That’s amazing. You are not the greatest Christian in the world, are you? You don’t know the Bible that well. You don’t know much theology.”
“You know me, I don’t know anything,” he said.
“And yet, even a Christian like you, in the right environment, can be recognized as a threat and can be persecuted,” I said. “You are young. You don’t know that much about church history. There was a time when to be a martyr, a witness, you had to be good at preaching, or had to be some sort of a saint. These days, even a guy like you can be a witness for Jesus.”
Matthew 5:10-12 — (Jesus said), “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
O God of all power, comfort and defend your flock which you have redeemed through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Increase the number of true preachers; enlighten the hearts of the ignorant; relieve the pain of the afflicted, especially those who suffer for their testimony to the truth; by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
–John Knox, Chaplain to Edward VI in England, main compiler of the Scottish Prayer Book (1514-1572)