"In-Between”…The Tension Between Two Truths
For my first Lenten Sermon, the first of a 5-part series I’m calling “Stranger Things”, I did some soul searching about inclusion and commitment. I came across an old YouTube video of Rob Bell speaking about his monumental book “Love Wins.” In the video Rob talks about how linear we are in the Western world. We like things black and white. We like multiple choice questions where there is only one correct answer. But, according to Rob Bell, Jesus lived in a different world. In the Jewish world Jesus grew up in, the Jewish rabbis were very comfortable with two truths that created tension with each other. The thought was that the real truth was somehow “in-between”…in the tension between the two truths.
Rob Bell points out that in Jesus’ world the order of the day was very clear. There was a very clear line between who was in and who was out. There was a very clear line between who was clean and who was dirty. The Pharisees were in and the lepers were out. The Jews were in and the gentiles were out. If you were in, you could enter the temple. If you were out, you could not. Enter Jesus, who seems to spend much of his ministry trying to create what he saw as “good tension” between those clear lines and the wide and graceful love of God of his experience. He tells stories of a banquet where everyone, even those on the street, is invited to come. He crosses over the boundary lines to eat with sinners and tax collectors. He breaks every rule in the book to sit at a well at noon to talk to a Samaritan woman. People are furious with him, especially those who have place.
In the middle of this interview, Bell shares that he believes the Christian faith has two truths in it that sometimes don’t gel. The two truths come from Jesus. In Jesus, there is a direct immediate call on our lives. The call of a loving God to repent…to rethink everything we are doing…and reorient our life so that it brings about the kingdom (some people prefer the word “kin-dom” here) of God (shalom, love, peace, justice) into this world we live in. The claim of this calling on our lives is best put by Jesus in the 8th chapter of Mark when he looks at his disciples and says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” There really is not tougher challenge!
But the second claim of Jesus, is just as serious, but in a different way. Jesus, throughout his ministry, talks and lives out grace. He talks often and lives daily this understanding that God’s love is broad and expansive. That God is continually moving back the fence to include others. For me, this second truth is best said in one of my favorite hymns that sings “Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow, wide as the wind, and our eternal home. You leave us free to seek you or reject you, you give us room to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
I think you can see the tension between these two. When you preach the broad love of God, many who tend to emphasize the claim Jesus has on our lives start saying, “Well, then I guess this claim doesn’t matter. If everyone is in, who cares?” And then when you start talking about serious discipleship and the call that Jesus has on our lives, many “broad meadow” Christians get skittish because they think we are getting a bit close to the Pharisees and the lines they were drawing between in and out, and clean and dirty. So we back off on commitment.
Rob Bell says, and I agree with him, that this tension between grace and commitment is actually great and necessary. We need it in our lives. We need both truths and the task of the Christian is to live creatively in-between them.
I personally think that we get in a similar predicament when we talk about sin in the church. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but once you start proclaiming that all of us are sinners in this world, people start to get nervous. It’s like we are pointing fingers and trying to make people feel guilty. Some people feel like we are “shaming” people into an unhealthy sense of self-esteem. And I agree that sometimes the church has been guilty of that. But that is not the intention of this idea at all. For me acknowledging our “sin” (notices I’m not saying sins…to me that’s different) is a healthy realization that we have blind spots (all of us). That we make mistakes (all of us). That we aren’t here in this world as the teacher but the student. To say that we as human beings are “sinners” is to put all of us in the humble place of being willing to learn from others. Again, live between the tension.
I don’t know, but in a way, this helps me understand the great divide in our country and in our United Methodist church. The problem is we haven’t been able to live with each other or without each other without harming others. And that, for me, is just unacceptable. I refuse to do any more harm with our exclusive language. In matters of God, all means all! And God’s call in my live is to commit myself to doing the work of love, peace, and justice, that will be transformation for this world.
Your friend and pastor, learning to live with good, creative tension, Brook