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Sticks and Stones

John 8 begins with Jesus teaching in the local temple, as he often did. The gospel helpfully tells us in verse 2 that “all the people” were present. We do not know how many people were there, but we do know that Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem, on a popular Jewish holiday, at the height of his ministry. Safe to say there were a good number present.

The Pharisees bring a woman in front of the crowd, and make three claims: 1) this woman has committed adultery, 2) we (the Pharisees) follow the Law of Moses, and 3) according to the Law of Moses, this woman should be stoned. They then ask Jesus, “What do you say?”

The Pharisees’ attention, and even the attention of the author of John, is on Jesus at this point. The woman isn’t even addressed until the end of the whole ordeal! However, as I read this story recently I was struck by the position of the woman. She had been kidnapped, put in front of a massive crowd of people, and had her deepest and darkest secrets announced for all to hear. As I was praying about what this story meant for the church today, the Lord pointed out is how we consistently do this when speaking about others.

I am not a subtle person. Sometimes I can use that as an excuse to be a little edgy in what I bring up for conversation. It can be fun to bring up controversial topics about celebrities, politicians, acquaintances, or, in the right situations, people I call friends. We can use the excuse of being concerned, or having an “intelligent conversation” about the state of our country, or that it can be a lesson for ourselves or others.

Unfortunately, what I am really doing is stripping people made in the image of God of their dignity.

Much like the Pharisees, I have made a value-based decision that a person’s worth, reputation, and image in my own eyes as worth less than the joke I am about to make or the story I am about to tell. I have taken a person, dragged them before the crowd, and sentenced them as guilty. In the process I’ve even goaded others, innocent bystanders, into the stoning of the other person.

Now, obviously, we are not actually stoning anyone. And there is no reality where we could never talk about another person ever again.

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

However, I wonder if the same spiritual principle Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5:21-22, where the hatred of another person is equated with murder, is not applicable here. When we throw another person under the bus, even people who we don’t know, are we condemning them as irredeemable or less than human, much like the Pharisees did to this woman?

I think Jesus’ response offers two redeeming options. The first option is to not engage. In verse 6, Jesus’ first response is to make himself busy. He simply does not acknowledge their charge. Sometimes this has to be your response, especially with people you don’t know well or with folks who are not Christians. Refuse to pollute your mind with the lack of dignity given to another person.

The second option is confrontation. In John 8:7, when ignoring the Pharisees wasn’t good enough, Jesus responds with a charge of his own. Now, I am not suggesting we throw our sins in each other’s faces, but I am suggesting that the way we treat and talk about one another matters enough to get personal.

If you have a brother or sister in Christ who cannot stop talking about other people, whether they are talking about someone in culture, your family, your friends, or your church, be willing to confront them on this issue. Paul deals with gossip extensively in his letters, naming it along with other horrific things which cause division amongst Christians. Proverbs addresses those who gossip and slander twelve times, calling those do so a “fool.” It even say that someone who does gossip sets snare for their own downfall (Proverbs 18:6-7).

At the end of this story, Jesus and the woman are alone. He’s face to face with the one who has been accused. But, instead of condemning her, he gives her grace and dignity. He acknowledges her humanity and sets her free, not just from her situation, but from sin itself! What opportunities are we missing out on to love one another? What does it mean for us to be people who spread grace instead of hatred? Can we lift one another up instead of tearing one another down? Can we make it so that our words “build others up according to their needs?” (Ephesians 4:29). Lord, make it so.

 

By Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor

 

(Featured Image Artwork by Gustave Adore)

The Long Game

“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.” Hebrews 12:1-2 CEB

How difficult would it be to spend time in Gethsemane, praying fervently, sensing the reality of the cross ahead, knowing the pain waiting just hours away, all the while aware of the power at your fingertips to call upon angels and deliver you from suffering?

How could Jesus endure?

Jesus understood the long game: The truth that, woven into the fabric of life, into the call of God which rested upon his life, was the reality that joy was waiting on the other side of endurance, of following the will of God, of suffering and death. Jesus endured the cross, ignoring its shame, because of the joy set before him — a joy he would not experience until he sat “at the right side of God’s throne.”

How often do you reach out in life for joy now, find it isn’t there, and leave with a sense of longing, a sense of depressed frustration, a sense of confusion?

How often do you reach for your phone in a moment of social anxiety, searching for a quick fix to an uncomfortable situation, knowing this temporary solution isn’t permanent but satisfies the need to avoid pushing through to the other side, wherein a contentedness with not knowing exactly what to say next awaits?

How often, in a world that has changed drastically, perhaps too fast for us to understand, do we expect instant gratification, and how often do we struggle to feel content when what previously provided such gratification no longer does?

Jesus understood the long game. The path to joy required that he endure suffering, pain, the cross, and death. He found joy on the other end of following the will of God, wherever that led. For some of us at New City, this means enduring the long road toward finishing an M.Div. It means daily waking up and going to class, listening attentively, reading for hours, writing for days, and choosing to continue doing so for three to four years. For some of us, this means enduring the long road toward finishing college or medical school, toward getting a business up and running, toward waiting to see whether or not in fact we can conceive children.

Having a vision for the long game includes “fix[ing] our eyes of Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” Jesus had faith that his road to sacrifice would result in joy. Because of Jesus, we can have this same faith that when we follow the will of God, the product is joy. This joy may not come for a time — in fact, this joy may not come until, like Jesus, we’ve endured our cross to the point of death — but that joy will undoubtedly be sweeter than we could imagine.

Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane

Joy is a funny thing. It may come in a moment — it may come in stages. I spent about 18 months overseas with the Army in Kuwait, and it was void, in many ways, of joy. It was hard. When I returned to the US, interestingly and unexpectedly, joy didn’t flood my heart as I expected. It came in stages, and is still coming to this day, over two years later, as I reflect on the experience and realize the benefits deployment had upon my life and the lives of others.

Based on past experience, we tend to expect joy to come at certain moments. Perhaps it does and will, but more often than not, I’ve learned that as my life with God changes, joy takes on a different flavor, one that tastes more like the will of God over time and through challenges than like instant satisfaction with the present. The long game.

 

Tyler Tavares, New City Stories Contributor 

God is Good to Everybody

Perhaps one of the most popular cultural and religious ideas is the notion of karma. It’s an Eastern teaching that is everywhere is pop culture: the philosophies of celebrities like the Beatles, the sub-plots of films like It’s a Wonderful Life or Pay it Forward, or, my personal favorite, TV shows like My Name is Earl.

In the show, Jason Lee plays a middle-aged low-life (he’s the one whose name is “Earl”) who has enjoyed an entirely self-centered existence of theft, drunkenness, cheating on his various partners, and general debauchery. One day on a whim he decides to buy a lottery ticket, wins $100,000 and, as he runs outside to celebrate, gets hit by a car. As he recovers in the hospital, he learns about karma, the idea that we are repaid, at some point in the present or future, for our daily actions, good or bad. He decides that day to use the $100,000 to make a list of every bad thing he has ever done in his life and, one-by-one, try to make up for it. The rest of the show documents Earl tackling his list one bad decision at a time, leaving room for a lot of what is honestly pretty hilarious comedy.

Karma appeals to our innate sensibilities for justice. It makes sense for people to be punished for what they do wrong and rewarded for what they do right. Not only that, but we inwardly rage about the unfairness of the world because it so rarely reflects that instinctual reality. Who hasn’t had thoughts about who really deserves those promotions, what that paycheck should look like, or whether that person will get what’s coming to them. It’s a lens many of us look at the world through that always leave us upset when our idea of justice is not played out.

Believe it or not, Jesus spoke on this issue. In Matthew 5, Jesus spends a lot of his time redefining what it means to follow God. He attacks the conceptions of the people at the time in terms of their view on divorce, relationships with their friends, how we view people, and even justice. In the final section of his teaching, right after he calls his followers to love their enemies (ouch), he makes this statement “He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45b).

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

What is Jesus saying here? That God has no standard of right and wrong? That our actions have no consequences? I don’t think so. What I think Jesus is doing here is drawing a constant comparison between what comes to us instinctively and what God desires for his people. Remember, this is a passage where, at the end, Jesus says to his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

This is not a literal moral perfection, but instead a call to us to act in the world as our perfect God does. And our God shows love to people (through the sun and the rain) to everybody (evil and good, righteous and unrighteous). Remember, Jesus was talking to a farming people; the sun and the rain were absolutely essential for their livelihood and well-being. It would seem to make sense to us that the God of our instincts, the God of karma, would set up the world so that the rain would only fall and the sun would only shine on those who are good to others and worship God correctly. However, that is obviously not the case; instead, God shows love and goodness to all people, whether they acknowledge him or not.

What are the implications here? It seems like Jesus is calling us to look at the world through a different lens, and that lens is grace. The more we use words like deserve, or should, or payment, the more we are getting away from the good news of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came and died for us, through no power or work of our own, so that we could be forgiven and live in relationship with our Creator and Lord. Grace is the unmerited favor of the Lord, and our response to that should be gratefulness for the love he has shown us, and a desire to share that grace and love with others.

This is our call: to love all people, evil or good, unrighteous or righteous. Remember, God rejects our own instinctual, retributive justice that would call us to be condemned for our sin and instead embraces a justice that brings redemption through the cross. Hallelujah, amen.

 Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor