Over the course of human history, there have been leaders who sought full control over the people who they were to lead. These leaders have employed a variety of tactics to establish and maintain this control. One of the methods utilized by every one of these leaders is the employment of fear. They establish techniques which will instill in the people a fear which prevents them from acting in any manner not prescribed by the leader. This fear is based on witnessing or anticipating repercussions if the leader’s desires are not met. Such repercussions may include banishment, imprisonment, torture, seizing of assets, dismemberment, loss of statics, financial ruin, or even death. The people follow the leader not out of trust but out of fear.
The writer of I John presents a leader who has an opposite approach. In the midst of a discussion which equates God with love, the writer speaks of a relationship between humans and the Divine. Because we live in love, we have no fear in our relationship. The writer points out that love and fear are incompatible. We do not have to fear anything from God. In fact, since God is love, fear is pushed out of our relationship.
There are church leaders who attempt to use fear much as the world leaders mentioned earlier. These leaders create fear as a way to control while masking it as an attempt to “save” people from God’s wrath. This originated with the Jewish leaders and has come down over centuries to the Church. Jesus spoke against this technique during his ministry. In our passage, we see the incongruity of using fear in regards to a relationship with God. Instead, the message we receive, and should pass to others, is that it is love which draws us into a relationship with God. Love is the source of all of God’s actions, teachings, and promises. Love not fear emboldens us to be in relationship with God. Our actions, teachings and promises should flow out of love.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Genesis 1:26-30 (NIV)
One of the most famous ceilings in the world can be found in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the vaulted ceiling of the chapel. One of the panels depicts the creation of Adam and has that exact name today. Below is a picture of that panel as it appeared in National Geographic.
1. What do you see first in this image? Why do you think this stands out to you?
2. How do you interpret the relationship between God and humanity as depicted here?
3. Why might Michelangelo have chosen to place a space between God’s finger and Adam’s finger? Do you agree with that choice? Why or why not?
4. Was there anything missing in the painting which would be important based on your reading of today’s passage?
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Matthew 16:13-20 (NIV)
Try an experiment, Google your name and see what comes up. I do this on occasion just to see what type of information about me is readily available on the internet. I also have discovered who else shares my name and I learn something about them. We are creatures who like to be known in varying degrees. Many of us are curious about what people know and what they say about us. Jesus was not different than us in that way.
Reading of Jesus’s conversation with a group of disciples causes us to take a step back to consider how each of us might respond to the question. Who do I say that Jesus is? My answer says a lot about my view of my relationship with Jesus. The answers may be different depending on how I am interacting with Jesus at the time the question is asked. There might be elements of my response which are always the same along with some varied additions. The answer may also be impacted by who is asking the question.
Peter responds to Jesus that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” This reply causes Jesus to declare Peter as blessed since no human has revealed this but only the Father. This revelation and response leads Jesus to proclaim Peter to be the rock on which the Church is to be built. It also provides the keys of heaven and the power to bind and loose things on earth which will be duplicated in heaven. Peter’s answer defines who Peter becomes and the authority given to him.
This brings me back to how I respond to Jesus’s question. I begin by affirming Peter’s response but go further in declaring Jesus to be my Lord and Savior. These titles require a lot of unpacking which I will not do here. My response also defines me and the place Jesus is given in my life. While the words in my response come from my faith journey within the Church, the way I am impacted by their truth is beyond words and is embedded in my spirit. This flavors the choices which I make, the relationships in my life, and the interactions which I have with others.
Sometimes it can be so easy to get wrapped up in details that you lose track of the big picture. Another way of saying this is the frequently used cliche, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” A person gets so focused on the little details that remembering the initiating goal is forgotten. This often happens in the church. People begin focusing on every detail of a project or how to accomplish a mission that they lose track of why the project or mission came to be important.
In April of this year, I wrote a series of blog posts about the purpose of the Church (see Purpose of the Church, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I discussed specific aspects of what it means to be the Church. A one sentence definition which I place before you now is this: “The Church exists to demonstrate the love of God to the world and show what it means to be in relationship with God.” This is the forest which often gets lost in the everyday life of a congregation.
Within the church, we spend too much time arguing about the details of fulfilling the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:16-20). We discuss endlessly in committee and board meetings how much money to spend, who is going to be managing the mission, and how we are going to hold everyone accountable for the mission. We wordsmith everything to make sure that we clearly define boundaries and expectations so that no loopholes or confusion exist. Requirements are established; techniques are evaluated; and limitations are set. Our skills in exhausting the details often exhaust us and in the end any enthusiasm for doing the mission is diminished or destroyed.
The leaders of the congregation cannot be fully blamed for this problem. Part of the blame comes from outside of the church completely. We have become a society that spends a lot of time haggling over the details. If someone does not like the results of work done by a group or an individual, complaints escalate and may even result in litigation. Mistakes are not tolerated or acceptable in our lives anymore. All of this creeps into the church because too often we try to imitate corporations and our human behaviors become the norm inside the church just as they are outside the church.
Another problem that leads to being too wrapped up in the details stems from fear. As mentioned above, we have become intolerable toward mistakes. This creates a fear on each person’s part that she/he will make a mistake which will lead to ridicule and personal attacks. Each detail is hashed out over and over to prevent a mistake from occurring and negative consequences resulting. Our fear of failure rules our actions and choices.
What suffers because of this is the big picture. We are unable to focus on demonstrating the love of God and the meaning of being in relationship with God because we have to get all the details correct. On those rare occasions when we do successfully demonstrate these things, it is often because something has forced us to move away from the details and just do. Thank goodness for the Holy Spirit who encourages these times of being forced away from the details.
If you are a leader in the church, or more importantly a member of a congregation, I encourage you to constantly remind yourself and others of the big picture. Look for those times when the focus on details need to be thwarted. Create an atmosphere which allows mistakes and offers forgiveness. Remind each other that failure is only when action is not taken.