In the sci-fi action comedy 80’s film, Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox plays the part of Marty McFly who unwittingly goes back in time with Doc Brown’s time travel technology and accidentally stops his parents from meeting – thus putting his own existence in jeopardy. The fun of the movie is discovering how Marty will save his own future by returning to the past and ensuring that his parents fall in love. What parallel could there possibly be between this movie, and the situation of today’s church? Simply this: We are finding that we must return to the past, if we are to understand how the church is to thrive in the new millennium.
Jesus’ sobering words to his disciples in Matthew 10: 16-23 reflect the realities of preaching the gospel in a pluralistic society, where instead of one dominant world view, there was a marketplace of ideas, philosophies, and religions. His words reflect the attitude of One who knows that his message does not have a favored place; the attitude of One who knows that he must function on the margins, not in the mainstream of the society in which he lives.
These words are difficult for us to read, and to absorb, because we as Christians have had the home field advantage in Western Society for nearly 1700 years. But those days are no more. The past has become the future. The 21st century church is looking more and more like the 1st century church every day; a church that exists in a pluralistic culture in which no single philosophy or worldview enjoys a favored place. We’re on the margins again; but the good news is, there are great opportunities on the margins; and indeed, it’s on the margins where the missional church does best.
The 1st century was a hazardous place for Christians. When Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” he was not having a “bad day” he was being realistic. I think it was my entrance into college at UC San Diego when I truly felt at times like a sheep in the midst of wolves. There were those who wanted to convince me that as a Christian I was a dinosaur… that my convictions were going the way of all superstitions and religious myths. I was also distinctly aware of the fact that I was being challenged as never before to set aside my moral convictions. If I was to persevere in my Christian faith, I was going to need to be prepared in several ways that Jesus alludes to in this passage….
Jesus says, "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (16). As a follower of Jesus in a pluralistic world, I know this means that I need to be wiser and smarter than ever; to understand what I believe and why. C. S. Lewis once said that “Faith is something your reason has accepted despite your changing moods.” Reason is not opposed to faith; it is a necessary component of faith. But knowledge is not enough. What we know must translate into action. Therefore, Jesus says, I need to be innocent (akerairoi: pure, unmixed) as a dove. That is, I will resolve to live a life that reflects Jesus’ holiness and purity; a Christ-honoring life, which includes a total dependency upon his grace when I fail.
Second, Jesus says, “Beware of people” (17). The one who taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us was not naïve. He did not have an idealized or sentimental view of human nature. He obviously did not teach that all people are basically wonderful and trustworthy and have our best interests in mind. We only need take a brief but honest inside look to know that people are not God; and that the best and brightest among us are still fallible. Both candidates for the presidency have made reference to their capacity for failure and their need of God's help. That has encouraged me. Let us join together in prayer for President-elect Obama following his historic victory and all our newly elected leaders who will continue to need the strength and wisdom which only God can provide.
Third, Jesus tells us to "speak up!" for “It is not you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (19-20). One of the biggest challenges we face as Christians is speaking up; it’s putting in a good word for Jesus when everything and everyone seems to be against us. This is as true today as it ever was in the first century. We desperately need to add to wisdom, and purity, and an awareness of human nature, the power of the Spirit who alone can give us strength to say and do what needs to be done.
Fourth, Jesus urges us to be steadfast, for “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (22). Endurance is badly needed today as we live for Christ in the current political climate. In the past few years, the words of Jesus about enemy love and his golden rule (Matthew 5: 38-44; 7:12) have impressed upon me that war must be the absolute last option rather than the first option; and to promote the peace and love of Christ wherever and whenever possible. Jesus' words and example also call me to love those who resist the boundaries of traditional marriage, while lifting up the lifelong marriage of one man and one woman as a God-given institution that uniquely blesses society and its children (Genesis 2: 23-24; Matt. 19: 3-6). I share these examples because they have challenged me to wrestle with God’s word and the culture around me even at the risk of being out of step with that culture.
Finally, Jesus reminds his church "on the margins" to "be hopeful as you await the coming of the Son" (23). As I live in a culture that does not always support the values and truths which have transformed my life, Jesus calls me to live nevertheless with a constant sense of hope. Why? Because Jesus is coming back; and indeed he has already come in the power of the Holy Spirit to dwell within his people. When we live in the hope of Jesus’ return we are saying that he has the Last Word, no matter what we may be facing. We don’t walk around moping and sad…but ultimately hopeful.
From the earliest days of Christianity, Jesus’ followers adopted purple (the color of Roman imperial power) as the color of Christ’s kingly rule. It was a very intentional way of declaring, from the margins, that their allegiance was to the King of kings, above all emperors, kings, princes, parties, and powers. Today, the past has once again become the future. As we engage in Christ’s mission on the margins, I believe Christ is challenging us to forsake the notion that we are red Christians or blue Christians and adopt the purple robes of faith. More than a wishy washy hybrid of red and blue, purple is the color of repentance and humility, the color of the crucified and risen savior, whose kingdom is advanced not by earthly power or politics, but by the power of the Holy Spirit through a community of prayerful love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.