The ancient people of God no less than the first Christians lived their lives in a pluralistic world. In fact, it is only recently that we have come to a place, where after generations of having it “our way” more or less, in a kind of Western, modern, Judeo-Christian ghetto (from a more global perspective), that it strikes us as odd and challenging to live in and deal with the dynamics of a multi-cultural, pluralistic world. Much of what strikes us as so strange and profoundly challenging was expected and normal for the historic people of God. I’m referring to such things as the presence and relative vitality of several spiritual thought and life systems which people around us consider and embrace, the growing sense that truth is up for grabs and that competing truth claims suggests that “truth” itself is a function of subjective option or preference, the widespread confusion about which way is right, the deeply held sense that the “right” way or mature way is simply to grant that all ways have their own kind of legitimacy and should be respected, with the one exception of any person or system that disagrees with “openness” and “tolerance.”
Israel arose in a pluralistic world. Likewise, Judaism of the first century functioned in dynamic relationship with a pluralistic world, that felt keenly powerful cultural, social, religious and even military pressure to conform, to be open and to accommodate. The first followers of Jesus, who himself claimed to be the way, the truth and the life, lived their lives on mission with Jesus in a world full of competing religions that tried to force their way on to “followers of the way” in Jesus.
In both Testaments of our Bible there are clear teachings about one true God, maker of heaven and earth, who calls a people to belong exclusively to God and to serve God for the glory of God’s own name and the good of all peoples. In the course of time, this one true God reveals his identity through incarnation, through becoming one of us, to show the world both God’s identity and plan for all things. This mission of God in Jesus, empowered by the Spirit of God, eventually runs its full course: Becoming one of us leads to embracing the suffering and death common to all flesh but for reasons different than they do for the rest of all flesh and with an outcome different as well. The one who becomes one of us, dies as all of us will, but then lives again–rising to overcome all that opposes God’s intention for human kind and the world. Jesus came unto his own and his own refused to receive him, but as many as do become God’s Family. Jesus expresses the fact that God so loved the world that he gave all in Jesus. Jesus declared he did not come to judge or condemn but to bring saving grace and power to all persons. Jesus insisted that when he is lifted up he would draw all people to himself, and presumably to fullness of the grace and truth and glory that he embodies. And, on the other side of the grave, the Jesus who rises breathes the new life of the Spirit into his own, pronounces the shalom of God upon, and then sends them into the world as he himself was sent.
In both Testaments of our Bible, the mission of God’s people, the teachings and the ways of life consistent with them, animates the life of the people in a world that was pluralistic and multi-cultural. God’s people made the claim that there was but one God and that the word of God teaches these things, and therefore, here is the way one must live. When they insisted on such things they were clearly implying, if not directly asserting, that there would be consequences for living in some other way. And at times, though not as often and prominently as some of us think, there are warnings and even judgment directed toward those who chose other ways than the one, true way.
In both Testaments of our Bible, there are passages where the writers expose and expound upon the errors of other ways, other gods, other religious systems. It is most often in such contexts that the sharpest words or warning and woe are to be found. Often these passages are sarcastic, sharp and not at all open and tolerant. Here is one thing that I find fascinating. Most of these passages are directed toward the people of God themselves. Many of them seek to convince the already “convinced.” Many of them intend to expose the unfaithfulness of God’s people to God’s way. Much of the heat and passion directed “against” targets those who are on the inside rather than the outside.
In multiple passages we might wonder who were they trying to convince? In the attack on the foolishness of idolatry in Ps. 115 and 135, who needs to be sure? In passages pronouncing woe from the great Prophets who are called to hear. Often, not so much unbelievers but believers; or rather the unbelieving believers. Likewise, the preaching of Paul in Acts focuses on what is incomplete or what could bring fullness to rather than on the ways in which all the others are wrong. In Paul’s writings there is clear and repeated focus on the formation of a people like Christ who live in stark contras to their world.
Of course, the scriptures are written to God’s people. Not surprisingly then they address the people expected to hear and read them. And, of course, in the biblical contexts God’s people were not in a position to discuss and debate as is common in other settings like our own. Still, however, it is remarkable that we find little in the Bible that seems to show us how to prove that outsiders are wrong, that provides the kind of argument or logic that is guaranteed to work, or that even instructs God’s people to engage in such demonstrations. Instead, mostly the writers suggest that if God’s own people would actually live God’s way, in God’s way, and reflect their embrace of the teachings in their daily lives, somehow outsiders will likely notice, wonder, and seek. It is almost as if God had thought of how best to draw the others and baked that into the way of life to which he called his people. It is almost as if Jesus knew what he was saying–if or when I am lifted up I will draw all people, that if Spirit filled followers do in fact bear witness to the person of Jesus, to his identity and message and ministry and suffering and dying and rising and all that it means to those who now follow him–it’s almost as if that might itself be the strategy and way of convincing whoever can be convinced. Minus the arguing, demonizing, and clever human tactics for winning by defeating others in verbal or intellectual exploits.
I wonder if it is really ourselves who need the most convincing. If Jesus knows what he is doing, perhaps we could trust him enough to follow his example. If his way is superior, perhaps just living it and waiting to see what happens has a genius to it we’ve yet to discover and practice. If his way can become convincing even to those who at some point in time are dead set against it, then perhaps something else must come into play–or Someone else–to soften, allure, woo them to a place of receptivity or sufficient openness to see what will, from that vantage point, then seem good, beautiful, and even right and true.
Perhaps we are not really convinced, or not enough convinced.