Sunday, March 29, 2009

Us Versus Them

The following is a talk I gave recently to a Bible Study group. Discussion Questions are included.

With Easter approaching, I had recently been thinking about John 20:31, where the author writes that “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” I had always known John’s gospel was different from the others, and I had always known that verse was there. But I never really put them together to see what exactly it is that John wrote that he felt would make his case. So I read it from start to finish to see what I’d find. As I read, and wrote, and re-wrote, and then re-wrote some more, there was one theme that stood out to me. I suppose it has been on my mind due to a book I’ve recently been reading that has bothered me, because it is a book that seems to take pleasure in drawing the line between Christians and non-Christians and seems to show a great deal of arrogance in being a Christian. That theme is taking an “us-versus-them” attitude and turning it around.

But first, I want you to imagine yourself living about 60 years after Jesus’ did. That’s about when John’s gospel was written. Many, if not most, of the people who witnessed anything are dead. The events happened before you were born. All you have to go on are stories that are passed down orally. You know there are people who believe Jesus is the Messiah. But is he? What does that even mean? If you are not Jewish, it’s not something that really means that much to you as the idea of a Messiah is a Jewish idea. If you are Jewish, it has specific meanings: freedom from Roman oppression and the righteous rewarded, the ability to live freely in your own land, the restoration of the kingly line of King David, the Temple and all of its activity restored to its former glory. You wouldn’t have been expecting a Messiah to die without accomplishing these things. You wouldn’t have expected so many non-Jewish people to be following the ways of a Jewish man. After all, most of the non-Jewish people had no interest in the God of Israel. There were a few, called God-fearers, that believed in Israel’s God and lived peaceably among the Jews, following the laws set out for them, but for the most part, they worshipped any of the myriad of pagan gods out there.

In the eyes of most Jews, Jesus didn’t do the things the Messiah was supposed to do. In fact, he was even killed. What good is a dead Messiah? But John wants to convince people that he was, in fact, the Messiah. What could John have seen in Jesus that made him believe this so much?

The Jews were in their own land but ruled over by the Romans. This was not the way things were supposed to be, they said. God was punishing them for their collective sin as a nation, but some day, God would vindicate them, would declare them righteous, and would then punish the enemies. It was an us-versus-them world. God is with US, Israel said. Not with THEM.

And it goes even further than that. The most law-abiding Jews looked down upon the “sinners” of the day. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4, his disciples are scandalized that he is talking to her. Any righteous Jewish man would not be alone in the company of a woman; it was indecent. And certainly not a Samaritan woman, who were the people who not only worshipped in the wrong place but actually claimed to be the true descendents of Abraham.

And they looked down at the place where Jesus was from. In chapter 7 verse 41 we see people disbelieving that the Messiah could come from Galilee. There’s no way a prophet could come from there, they say. But two of their prophets, Jonah and Hosea, were from Galilee. They’re looking down on the region without even really knowing who is from there, and without even giving Jesus a chance.

But we do see Jesus freeing people from oppression. Not the oppression of Rome, but the oppression of illness, like in chapter 4 when he heals the royal official’s son. Or in chapter 5 when he heals the crippled man or in chapter 9 when he heals the blind man. He frees them from the oppression of their sin and the stigma attached to it, like in chapter 4 when he teaches the woman at the well about the living water she can receive from him, or chapter 8 when he frees the woman from the penalty of adultery and then when he explains that when one commits a sin, one is a slave to that sin, and only by knowing the truth can they be set free.

The people who were thought of as sinners were seen as deficient in some way—they didn’t believe the right way (the Samaritan woman) or they didn’t follow God’s laws the right way (the man carrying his mat on the Sabbath after Jesus healed him, and Jesus himself telling the man to do so), or they weren’t from the right location (Jesus).

What they are essentially saying is “if you don’t believe or do things in the same way as I do, then you are in Big Trouble”.

To make it worse, John tells us the following in his gospel:
John 11:47-52 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, "What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed." 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.
Remember how earlier I said that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be the one to redeem them and overthrow the oppressors? John’s gospel is telling them that the Messiah is not just for them, but rather is to be the one to gather everyone together, Jew and non-Jew alike, and that all are children of God.

You can imagine that this might be pretty upsetting. People who didn’t believe and act as they did were going to be included with them in one big group? Where’s the justice in that, they wondered.

Unfortunately, this us-versus-them mentality is still alive and well today. Look at the hundreds of Christian denominations that we have. If we think of ways that we feel our own beliefs have been threatened, we probably can understand Jesus’ opponents a little better. That’s not easy to do, though, is it? To say we understand a little bit what the Pharisees or Sadducees might have been going through? After all, we most often look at them as the “bad guys”—there’s an “us-versus-them” mentality right there!

And we often take that mentality with us wherever we go. I know there are people with whom I disagree theologically. There are probably things that everybody in this room doesn’t agree on. But we can’t let that take over who we are as disciples of Jesus. We’re told that God loves the whole world, right? And then, in John 13:35 Jesus tells us that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” He didn’t say that his disciples would be known by their specific beliefs or actions, but by their love.

I think the reason for this is that beliefs take time. Our beliefs are refined as we learn and grow. We are faced with questions and challenges throughout our lives. Sometimes, we are the “us” and sometimes, we are the “them”.

We see in the book of Acts that many non-Jewish people came to believe in Jesus and it is non-Jews today that make up the majority of Christians. But it seems that in some ways we have taken the position of the Pharisees—we have become the “us” and non-Christians have become the “them”. This may not be deliberate and many people may be unaware of it. But as we heard earlier, Jesus is supposed to bring us all together. The Pharisees couldn’t do it. They couldn’t accept that the sinners were just as worthy of God’s love as they were.

This isn’t to say that we accept whatever people do as ok—we do see Jesus telling people to not sin anymore and healing them from things that marked them as “sinners”—illnesses were often thought of as a result of sin. But how can we improve our own attitudes towards the people we deem as less, either consciously or subconsciously?

It’s not easy. But nobody ever said being a disciple of Jesus was supposed to be easy.

I don’t know if I’ve completely figured out yet what exactly it is that John wants people to see in his gospel in order to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah. But I am pretty sure that this message of breaking down the barriers between us-and-them is a big part of it.

Questions for Discussion

What are some ways we see the “us-and-them” mentality today?

Who do we look down upon based on knowing where they are from or what nationality they are, without getting a chance to really know them?

Have you ever felt angry when someone had a very different point of view about the Christian faith?

What causes us to feel angry or threatened? Why do we feel that way?

When we feel angry or threatened what should we do?

How should we view the person who is different from us?

Do you ever find yourself putting people in the “them” category?

Have you ever felt like “them”? What was it like?

How can Jesus help you in your relationships with “them”?

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