The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
There is nothing like a racial slur to get your blood boiling as you attempt to begin public leadership… but Satan really showed his hand when he could not hold back the religious attack about demon possession. That is the biggest problem with working for the devil. There is no patience, no thoughtfulness, only barrage after barrage of lies poured out like napalm in hopes of covering everything with the stick, stench, and burn, so that the truth becomes unrecognizable. It is not because the devil is stupid, at least I don’t think that is the case. It is because there is no other way. One single truth shines like a lightning bolt in the darkness, becoming instantly visible to all around. A field of truth growing makes those lies equally recognizable. The only way Satan can gain and maintain a foothold anywhere is by eliminating all truth, because any truth will eventually point back to God and to the devil’s downfall.
We live in this battlefield every bit as much as Jesus did. If you’ve not come across critics commissioned from evil incarnate you have not yet really started leading yet. Jesus told us that we are the light of the world. Our very existence testifies to the truth of God’s goodness, love, and redemption in the world because we are all frail, broken people who God works through and with from time to time. Everything good that comes from us will point back to God if you look far enough. Satan can lure us with lies that we created ourselves or are the source of our own strength and goodness, but those lies will not stand the test of time and eventually he will just have to eliminate us to keep his lies going. I think, if the devil really had his own way, he would destroy every single thing in creation, leaving himself last, empty, broken, and alone – the only one left to keep up the lie that God was somehow wrong or unjust. The only enemy he would have left would be himself. Sin truly carries the seed of its own destruction. Or so claim the some of the critics anyway1
So the first step in dealing with critics is to consider the source. That does not mean we should turn a deaf ear to anyone who is not a friend or claim allegiance to a friendly camp. Sometimes we can learn much from our enemies. But regardless of who they are or what they say, it is important to remember that everyone comes from somewhere, is shaped and informed by others, and have their own motivations in raising their concerns. Most of our heated conflict comes from trying to hide those origins and motivations.
Our politics, both church and state, about doctrinal issues get far more heated in times of economic crisis than in times of economic plenty. We go to war when we think those who do not share our values will take from our precious wealth. Likewise, we quit our internal squabbling when we have an external enemy to focus upon, to unite us against. Solutions are not found in either situation though. Indeed, scripture gives plenty of examples of these conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, between the Jewish people as a whole and the Romans, even between the disciples themselves.
In fact, you have to move through the gospels and make it into the book of Acts before you really start to see communal solutions. There, amidst strong divisions along ancient lines, the Holy Spirit poured out upon 3000 people who hailed form different cultures, spoke different languages, had different understandings of God, His law, and his teachings, and who would not normally associate with one another for fear they might “taint” each other with uncleanness. Within the following decade, that same Spirit would travel across the Near East and up into Europe, into places that had never heard of God before – in spite of a multitude of very active critics. Yes, it requires the Holy Spirit – but not everyone received the Holy Spirit, and not all at the same time. It takes several things for the Spirit to move a community forward.
First of all, it takes humility, which looks like confession and repentance. We love baptism, but we often miss the point that baptism had little to do with getting wet, and a lot to do with getting right with God and others. The confessions that were made at baptisms in the gospel were public and specific. There was no salvation without telling the community what we had done wrong and making amends for those wrongs. The story of Zaccheus is an excellent example of this, and that understanding of confession before baptism is what makes the story of Jesus’ own baptism so powerful… and weird. If we cannot divulge our own weaknesses and failures, we implicitly claim superiority in any situation, which means that if a problem exists around us, it is our fault. People are going hungry? Not my fault, I give to the food pantry! Apparently not enough to solve the problem. People struggling with sexual identity? Not me, I know what is right! And is that “knowledge” making any difference? Broken hearts that lead to self-destructive behaviors know no sexual boundaries. It touches every age, race, religion, political persuasion, and trying to pin it all down on one particular demographic or another is a category mistake.
Because we are human we make mistakes, and these mistakes hurt those around us. When we get hurt, we get defensive and lash back out, with intent to harm because it seems normal to us that if we destroy those around us, no one can harm us, and the devil leads that charge. The one thought that does not occur in those moments is that we need each other, and that the miracle of healing, reconciliation, and grace can only occur between opposite sides of a conflict – between enemies.
If we can get to that place of real honest humility ourselves, then we can start moving towards the next step: Examining how the relationships between us create the situations we live in and the thoughts and feelings we hold. Those who claim that children are not born knowing hatred and bigotry, but learn it from those around them are at least partly right. But it is not their parents alone who are their sole teachers. You and I, every moment we are around children are teaching them one example or another, and if we do not teach them another way, but settle on being passive, and not teaching them anything at all – we reinforce any bad teaching they have. A person’s (of any age) opinion will not, and should not accept as a rational truth of “normal” reality, anything that they do not experience significantly more than another opinion. If we want to claim that there is no division between rich and poor, but a person only sees the rich and poor eating together in public 1 out of every 100 times, you would be a fool to believe they are peers. If, on the other hand, they see people of similar racial, socio-economic, religious, and political backgrounds sharing meals together in public 99 out of 100 times, it makes perfect sense to believe we live in a divided society, and that the normal thing to do is to find the group into which you fit best.
Jesus, made Himself our peer. He even made connections (through Abraham) to His critics, and they felt threatened by that connection. Having thrown their worst words at Him, they could not allow Him to exist if He was indeed connected to themselves. So they picked up their rocks. I think, it was mercy that kept Jesus from defending himself, the way He defended the woman caught in adultery, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” That truth, set inside a question of who is worthy to dispense justice, stopped that conflict cold. Jesus would defend us, but not Himself, but it made no difference. The first to choose the stone is always the first to admit defeat and inability to lead.
Jesus does not needs stones. Stones are the way of lies. Jesus leads by humbling Himself, stripping Himself down to vulnerability, and washing the lies from feet of his critics as He invites them to join Him in bringing healing, reconciliation, grace… truth to the world.