A friend of mine had once been deeply humiliated by a fellow Christian, a soulful worship leader. She told me the story, then burst into tears, saying, “I don’t even know if she’s a Christian. I cannot bear to watch her lead worship.” My friend left that church.
I often think that when I am shockingly treated by another Christian: “I don’t even know if they are Christians. Perhaps they were Christians. Perhaps they are living on fumes.” And sometimes that is the safest assumption—that the person was a Christian, and has now settled for church position, or power, or prominence, or, perhaps, in Jesus’ language “the cares and worries of the world and the delight in riches” have choked the fragile, beautiful seed of new life in them.
Or sometimes, when I encounter decidedly non-Christian behaviour in Christians, I think of circles of discipleship. Jesus had an innermost circle of people he chose for purity of heart, passion, strength of character: Peter, James and John. Then there were the twelve, the seventy-two, the five hundred, the five thousand plus women and children for whom he multiplied the loaves and fishes; the crowds who followed him on Palm Sunday. All following Jesus, but with varying levels of intensity and commitment. Perhaps the people whose behaviour is unlike Jesus’s have strayed to an outer circle of discipleship, as I myself sometimes do. That’s one way of looking at it!
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In Matthew 13, Jesus talks about the mysterious Kingdom of Heaven, which is here, right now, in which it is possible to live, today, in full communion with the Father, walking step by step with the Son, and experiencing the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed provides another way of understanding Christians who behave badly. The Kingdom of God in the micro-world of our lives, and the macro-world of the world is “like a mustard tree, which though is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
And so it is with each individual Christian—we are seedlings and saplings in the Kingdom before we become mighty trees.
Perhaps the Christians whose behaviour puzzles me (as undoubtedly mine sometimes puzzles others) are still saplings, new or distracted in the ways of following Christ. Perhaps the Lord will send them water and sun and good soil, and they will one day grow so astoundingly that what they become bears no resemblance to what they were. And perhaps Jesus shall do the same for me!
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Judging others is a soul-sapping, soul-stunting distraction. I know this because I so often have to rein in and retrieve my falcon -thoughts when they go critically swooping around someone else.
Jesus gives us a way to deal with our natural tendencies to judge. When we find ourselves judging others, we are to immediately check to see if we are guilty of the very same thing that we are judging our brother for, or a closely related thing. For if Freud was right, the traits we most hate in others are those we secretly see and suppress within ourselves.
So Jesus suggests that when we see the bossy Christian, the manipulative Christian, or the over-ambitious Christian, instead of gnashing our teeth at them, we should examine our own souls, remember the times we have used the short cuts of manipulation rather than the slow road of prayer. Have sought the drug of fame or success instead of the new wine of Jesus. And so instead of descending into the bottomless black hole of judgement, we grow, we change! Our judgement of our brother proves a spur for us to grow ourselves.
We pray for our enemies, or those who irritate us. We do dare not assume that they are not in the Kingdom at all. Rather we realise that they may be just saplings in the kingdom as we ourselves might well be in the eternal eyes of him who judges wisely, and we pray that, one day, because of the sunshine of grace, both they and we will become mighty trees, and the birds of the air will come and nest in all our branches.