December 11, 2017

No need for protection

Some years ago I was in Amsterdam to speak in an enormous celebration of Christian ecumenism. I breakfasted each day with a Catholic monk who was on his way to serve a community in the Sudan. The relaxed and warm atmosphere of the conference was very welcome to him; it provided a peaceful preparation for a future where he might be enveloped in conflict. On the third morning he disclosed to me that he was replacing a colleague who had just been martyred. My face must have registered shock and concern, as I asked what kind of protection they had. He shook his head at the word ‘protection’ and preferred to talk about ‘trust’, explaining, gently, that he was well aware that his own time there might end in death: ‘the brothers rarely come home, you see.’

His replacement of ‘protection’ with ‘trust’ sums up the commission Jesus gave to his disciples as he sent them out into the towns and villages (Luke 10). They were to go in faith and vulnerability, seek out the people of peace, receive from those they ministered to, and proclaim the Kingdom of God. The cultures they entered were not their enemies, but places where they healed the sick, and spread the Good News. What motivated the monk, and was commended to the disciples, was a trust in God which extended beyond suffering and death. For this trust alone, rather than concern for self-protection, could draw them into the life-giving service which changes lives.

I fear we see something rather different in the way we operate today in our Church. Over the last few years particularly, we have seemed pre-occupied with self-protection. We want to ensure that our views are safeguarded, our ways are heeded, and our power exerted. We become defensive in response both to secular culture, and to differences within the church itself. We are highly sensitive to being marginalised, unfairly treated, or wrongly perceived. We quickly feel persecuted or disregarded and respond defensively towards critics outside the church and to each other within it.

I can understand why Christians become defensive. There are forces in our world that oppose the Gospel and would love to see its power eliminated. But, surely, this is where trust in God must replace defensiveness. We need wisdom and maturity to respond. Especially within the church, trusting God enables us to listen to those who disagree, and look for ways of working together. We might even be able to acknowledge that though we do not get our way, God’s will could yet be being done.  But when we develop a siege mentality, we end the conversation and draw to a swift separation. This can harm our culture, but it is even more harmful within our Church. When we pull up the drawbridge, batten down the hatches, or retreat to the trenches we see other believers as those we need to be protected from, rather than brothers and sisters who love God and are called to love each other in God’s service.

Perhaps we need to gain more insight from the way in which Jesus refused to be drawn into self-protection. The Gospels record how he didn’t allow his family to protect him from the crowds; he overruled his disciples who wanted to protect him from the dangers ahead in Jerusalem and rebuked Peter who tried to protect him from arrest by violence. Everything about Christ speaks of vulnerability and trust in God, even to the point of crucifixion. It’s an enormous challenge to follow Christ, but even more challenging when we set off in the wrong direction.

 

 

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