Us and Them

Us and Them

“Us and Them”
All Saints Church
Pentecost ☩ 12 ■ August 27, 2017
Bruce Cole

The Pharisees and the Scribes. The Pharisees had a lot of rules. Religious rules. They were kind of obsessed with the observance of those rules. So much so that observance of the rules often took precedence over mercy, forgiveness, love. 

The Scribes were the lawyers. They kept track of the rules, wrote ‘em down, interpreted the rules. You have people obsessed with keeping rules and others who make their living keeping track of the rules – well, those are natural allies. 

Jesus is about mercy and love, and if the religious rules and rituals stand in the way of mercy and love, love wins. Mercy wins. The Pharisees and Scribes don’t like this about Jesus. They’re riled up.

“Jesus! Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders? Why don’t they wash their hands before they eat?”

Jesus answers:

“Why do YOU break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and you create these scenarios that you use to justify abandoning your parents. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites!” 

That had to sting. Then Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah:

“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me; teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me, and believe a lot of stuff, and make up a lot human stuff that they elevate to the level of doctrine, but their hearts…? Not so much. 

So it’s interesting a chapter later when Jesus is concerned about what people are saying. We just heard from him that what people say isn’t as important as what they do and now he wants to know what they’re saying. He asks the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and they ring in: “Some say John the Baptist. Some say Elijah. Still others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 

Well, that’s progress, Jesus is probably thinking. They’re having this conversation in Caesarea Philippi, a city originally built by Alexander the Great and then built up some more by Ptolemy and finally really, really built up and turned into a world class city by Herod the Great. There’s a shrine in Caesarea Philippi to the Greek god Pan – god of the wild, a half man half goat who plays the pan flute (not a coincidence by the way). Just a shrine, though, because Pan’s god of the wild so you wouldn’t build him a temple, he likes to be outside. There is a temple, though – to Caesar Augustus, the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar who inherited power from his uncle, and inherited divinity as well. So in the temple to Augustus are the inscriptions “Son of God” and also “Son of Man” and “Savior.” That means that when Jesus asks the disciples who people are saying the Son of Man is, there’s some serious competition, and at least they’re answering with John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah, and not Augustus. They’re within range.

Then Jesus zooms in and asks the disciples, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Simon, the one about to be renamed Peter, answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Good answer Simon, because there are key differences between Octavius Caesar Augustus as the Son of Man, the Son of god (a dead god named Julius Caesar, by the way),  and Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of Man, the Son of the Living God. 

  • Augustus was born in a palace to a rich family. Jesus was born in a manger to a penniless family.
  • Augustus was popular with the masses and the powerful sucked up to him. Jesus was sometimes popular with the masses but the powerful hated him and the masses eventually turned on him.
  • Augustus eliminated his enemies. Jesus taught people to love their enemies.
  • Augustus reigned over the Pax Romana - the Roman Peace - achieved at the tips of spears and swords. Jesus ushered in a peace won by love and a call to put the sword away.
  • Augustus feared betrayal by his rivals and surrounded himself with a 5,000 member Praetorian guard. Jesus knew he would be betrayed and surrounded himself with 12 disciples and taught them to turn the other cheek.
  • Augustus has a month on the calendar named after him and no one gets bent out of shape if anyone ever says, “Happy August.” Jesus has a holiday named after him and how people greet each other around that holiday bends people out of shape all the time.

So, good answer Simon son of Jonah. Blessed are you Simon! Your prize? A new name! From now on, you are Peter - Petros (in Greek, which means “rock”) - and on this rock I will build my church!

Now, you may be aware that Christians have divided themselves into “us and them” right at this point for at least a thousand years now. Some say that when Jesus renamed Simon Peter - Rock - and said, “On this rock I will build my church” that Jesus was declaring the primacy of Peter who went on to become the first acknowledged leader of the church in Rome - the first “pope” - and that this is why we have and should have a pope. Others say, “No way. The “rock” Jesus is referring to is the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of the Living God and that confession, that recognition, is the rock upon which Jesus will build his church and everyone who can make that same confession or recognition is located firmly on that rock. Us and them. Well, which is it? Peter the person is the rock or his words are the rock? 

I think that’s a false choice. I’m not arguing for the concept of a pope, although I don’t have to, there is one whether I argue it or not, and I would have no trouble calling the current pope a spiritual leader to whom I would happily give great deference. Even if Jesus did mean to imply the primacy of Peter and that he, personally, was the rock upon which the church would be built, I doubt very much he had in mind a person who would exercise absolute power and demand universal uniformity for all Christians everywhere in the world. No, I think it’s a false choice because of what Jesus had said earlier when the Pharisees and Scribes showed up to challenge him, when he quoted the prophet Isaiah by saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me; teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You see, as many problems as I can find in the notion that Peter as the rock means somehow a primacy for Peter’s successors in Rome, I can find as many problems in the notion that Jesus meant for us to understand that it is only the words that Peter spoke that are the rock. Because Jesus seems to have a problem with words left to themselves. And I wouldn’t bring it up to you if it wasn’t a false choice that still plagues followers of Jesus today and still devolves into this very unhelpul, unuseful “us and them”. 

Who is blessed in Jesus’ eyes? A person who honors him with their lips, like, for instance, “I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior”; or a person who does what Jesus does, embodies what Jesus embodies, but never says the words?  You might say, “Now wait a minute, that sounds like a false choice and it just gets us to a different version of ‘us and them’.” And I’d say you’re exactly right except that the ones who never say the words but who do what Jesus does and embody what Jesus embodies are so busy being love, mercy, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, humility in the world, so busy loving their neighbors, that they don’t have time nor does it even occur to them to engage the argument or to label others as “in” or “out”, as “us” and “them”. The ones who say the words but don’t necessarily do a lot seem to make the argument and do the labeling frequently. We have what we might call...a false equivalency.

The Scripture does indeed say that it is by grace we are saved, through faith, and not by our works, so that none of us will boast, so that none of us will get twisted up into some mathematical game through which we can work our way into a right relationship with God, ascend some stairway to heaven, that whomever does the most works wins. Because the minute we start to play that game, the minute we start to keep score, is precisely when “us and them” starts and it is precisely when we begin to destroy ourselves and each other.

At the same time, the Scripture says that “faith without works is dead,” because it is also true that if our religion, our spirituality, our faith is only words and not embodied action on behalf of the other, then it is a sign that the grace – the unconditional, no strings attached love of God for us revealed in Jesus – has not set in, has not transformed us. And then, Jesus says to us, our hearts are far from him; in vain do we worship him; and we end up teaching human precepts as doctrines.” And those human precepts are always the same old song: “ them...them...them…”

I fear that’s where we are today, my friends. We are citizens of the land of us and them:

Us...measuring ourselves against those who have more than we do, and against those who have less...them.

Us...captivated by the celebrity and popularity of the evidently successful and disdainful of those...them...who have squandered resources or never had resources or are unable be resourceful because of personal dysfunction or societal dysfunction or generational dysfunction...unable to live fully into the promises of a country whose abundance should be sufficient for all.

Us...who want to be considered people of love and mercy and forgiveness and hope - Jesus people - but who also live with deep suspicion of those who are different from us and therefore opt at times to support the elimination of our enemies rather than doing the harder work of loving...them.

Us...who guard against betrayal by others by powering up, shoring up our defenses against...them.

Us...who assure ourselves that not only do we believe the right things but our way of believing the right things is the only way to believe the right opposed to...them, who don’t believe as we do and whom we are quick to correct. Because that’s our tradition, because somewhere in the development and history and tradition of the Christian Church we started this dividing of people into us and them despite everything that Jesus taught us.

Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all mind, all our strength, and that the second commandment is like unto it: Love your neighbor as yourself...not love your fellow Christian, not love your fellow American, not love my fellow-whoever-looks-acts-and-thinks-most like-me, but your neighbor, my neighbor, our neighbor. And who is our neighbor? Every one of God’s created people on this earth. Jesus tells us all that and then asks us: “Why do YOU break the two greatest commandments of God for the sake of your tradition? God said, ‘Love God and love your neighbor’ and you create these scenarios that you use to justify abandoning your neighbor. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites!” 

It’s a tough word. He didn’t throw us the keys for that. He didn’t toss us the keys of the kingdom of heaven to bind ourselves and others into categories of us and them. Jesus threw us the keys so that the great Gordian knot of “us and them” would be cut loose. Jesus threw us the keys so that the chains and bonds of injustice and greed and hatred would be unloosed.

I’m so glad Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” So glad. Because so much of our telling people that Jesus is the Messiah in 21st-century American Christianity is really an exercise in separating us and them. So, how about this?  Don’t tell anyone. Don’t...tell...anyone. Just go be who Jesus taught us to be. Be a person who embodies love, mercy and forgiveness. Be a person of hope and expansive, reckless inclusion. At home. At work. At school. In the neighborhood. On line. It’s not an add on. Just who we are wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. And let God our Creator...and Jesus our Savior...and the Holy Spirit who enlivens everything and the rest. Amen


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