I’m reading a book named Viral by Leonard Sweet (which I’ll be reviewing soon) wherein he intimates that Christianity is built on three personalities pillars of early Christianity — Peter’s simplicity, Paul’s complexity and John’s simplexity.
I see a similar breakdown to characters in God’s grand play of history, but mine is far less interesting. To me, Peter represents the heart, Paul the mind, and John the soul of the Christian picture. I suppose you can choose either sets of images. They both serve the same point, which is that Christianity presents itself on several different fronts.
The challenge of church leadership, authors, speakers and other such proclaimers of the gospel is in recognizing that Christianity does not always break down simply, that sometimes the gospel applies to our lives in complex, unorthodox ways. God has made a reputation of “coming out of left field” when it comes to his tactics.
Often times the failure to effectively teach the gospel in a way that truly changes lives begins with oversimplifying gospel. Sure every pool has its shallow and deep ends, and a good time can be had in both places. But we tend to linger on communicating the shallow, black and white, this way or that, way of teaching rather than engaging in the gray area of grace and obedience. You might say, “Wait a minute, obedience is a black or white thing. Either you’re obeying or you’re not.” And you’d be right. But I’d also offer the challenge that Jesus’ life of obedience was not cut and dry.
Jesus’ lived a life in the gray area of relationship building and service to people. To simply obey is very “Peter,” if you will. But to “become all things to all people” in obedience to the mission to preach the gospel to the world in real, relevant, empathetic, understandable ways is very much “Paul.” In the scriptures, Jesus presents himself in what looks like paradoxical views. As Sweet says so eloquently:
“On one hand, Jesus came not to judge the world. On the other hand, Jesus came for judgment. The kingdom is here, and the kingdom is coming. Truth is both Hellenistic and Jewish, “wisdom” and “mystery,” culminating in Jesus’s declaration that he is “the way and the truth and the life.” Yet don’t forget that Jesus has many sheep “not of this fold” and Jesus is the true light that enlightens everyone entering the world.”
“Simplexity is like an elegant Flemish needlework. The complexity looks like the loose threads and stray knots on the reverse side of the tapestry. But the beginnings and endings are eventually matched up with the finesse of an artist whose simple scenes blare forth on the front side. To experience God is to live in simplexity, an unfathomable mystery of absolute sobriety and almost giddy intoxication. To know God is not to banish mystery, but deepen it.”
In this quote, Leonard Sweet isn’t undermining the validity of the scriptures by pointing out seeming contradictions in Jesus’ message. And for that matter, neither am I. But what this does show is that the scriptures often bend and contort the linear forms we place on them. What see is Jesus treading the singular gray path where the black meets the white, where the random events of life and the will of God and His redemption of bad choices meet. Jesus was completely obedient to God. And in so doing, he gained the reputation of compromiser, lawbreaker, and blasphemer from his black-and-white, religious counterparts. That’s grey area stuff.
Look further into Jesus’ ministry and you’ll see why that is. Jesus was God’s love letter to the world. The Word become Flesh. Jesus’ purpose was, and still is, to stand in the gap, to bridge the relationship of each of us to God. There’s a reason the greatest commandments are relational. Loving and God and loving our neighbor are the functions for which we were initially made. God is not calling us into his grace to a life of black and white morality and simplicity. He is calling us to the messy business of relationships. Of actually living life together in a way that encourages and edifies all who are involved. He is calling us to the gray of relationships with each other, all the while enveloping us with his Spirit for direction and spiritual development.
My story as a Christian used to include a black-and-white way of thinking. And frankly, there are still places where that thinking legitimately holds true. But I’m learning that serving people beyond their choices creates more opportunity to join Jesus in the grey. The ever-illusive “truth” of God’s Word is both simple and complex. We need to rely on God’s Spirit, in concert with his word, to reveal how best to bring truth to people’s lives. Let’s not forget that the Pharisees were masters of the law who dutifully lived life through the black and white lens. They practiced what they preached (for the most part). And that is why their issue was so great with Jesus.
The truth that Jesus spoke, that Jesus is, has the backdrop of relationships. As leaders, we should remember this. Otherwise, we’ll alienate the people we are meant to reach. And that’s the opposite of what we’re suppose to be doing.
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