Famous Last Words 12: They will put you out of the Synagogues

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As we transition to chapter sixteen, the conversation between Jesus and his disciples continues. As I mentioned last week, the circular train of thought within the Jewish oral tradition means that certain themes have repeated themselves. That is the case for the verses between last week and this week where at the conclusion of chapter fifteen, Jesus again tells the disciples he will send a “helper” (paraclete-one who kneels besides, supports, comes to defense, cares for).

Now in the sixteenth chapter, Jesus message continues with a more serious tone. Building on last week’s warning about how the world systems (kosmos) will hate them he says these words:

“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.” (John 16:1-3)

Last week I took the time to deconstruct the original languages so that the nuances of Jesus warning about losing our true self (ontological center found in God) by over-identifying with the kosmos (world systems/ institutional powers). Now Jesus is preparing them for the consequences of Christ following, when that gospel voice calls us out from our beloved institutions. Those institutions, which at one time held the power to name us and give us a false identity, will turn vicious toward us now that we have a new identity in union with God through Christ.

For those of you who have pushed back against my claim that Jesus was not starting a new religion, this verse, nestled in its context, should serve a vivid reminder that religion is coextensive with government as a world system (kosmos) which is adversarial to the Kingdom and work of God.

Please let that sink in…. Religion is the kosmos or world system. It is not the kingdom, though it can point us there.

Then, please take a minute and ask yourself if it is possible that you subscribe to any institution (including a religion) which functions like those trapped in the religion of Jesus day. Can you imagine going back to the most devout in ancient Judaism and asking them if they know God and if their tradition could help you follow after God? Certainly, they would see themselves as the authority on the matter. They would say they are entrusted with the scripture and have the most learned teachers interpreting it. They would boast about how their law keeps them holy, favored by God, and how they can spot the heretics who go against hundreds of years of tradition and history.

Did you catch that? Did you see what I was trying to do there?

This small verse demands a sincere reflection from every reader. The modern Christian church is just as susceptible to missing the Messiah and his message (Christ and his gospel) as the devout Jews who looked right into the eyes of their promised messiah and then sent him to the cross.

Most of Jesus’ disciples were Jews. So were all their friends and families. In the ancient Hebrew culture, safety was found inside the city walls, under the shadow of the Temple. Now Jesus is telling his followers that by following Christ, you will be kicked out of the Synagogue. They will be outcasts, marginalized and removed from the economic engines, social safety nets, and protection of the system. Essentially, Jesus is telling them they will have to lose their former lives/ identities and rebuild them from a new identity. From a new community.

We really need to spend time thinking through the implications of this for our modern life.

My story is like many of yours, but perhaps just a few clicks further down the road.

I resigned my position as Executive Pastor of a church in Denver about ten years ago. I began this online ministry and began serving people from a virtual environment and at the time, I was told I was not a real pastor. I faced so many unfair criticisms by those who were over-identified by the institution of the church, that very few could hear the message I was offering. Over the years as my freedom from the institution has liberated me to see the scripture with a fresh set of eyes, I began to discover new frameworks into which orthodox teaching became alive and expanded. Though not a single pastor or lay leader has been able to prove my interpretations to be wrong, many have nonetheless labeled me as dangerous, or a heretic, or a threat to the body.

Along the way I’ve encountered many fundamentalists from every denomination who have said many unfair claims about me and this message I share which I believe holds a tremendous fidelity to Jesus’ own words…more than most messages I’ve heard in organized religion. Jesus said I could expect these “haters” who will write me nasty unsubscribe notes and then do their best to marginalize me. In their minds they believe they are doing a good deed, a service to their religions, tribes, and even pleasing God.

If it were not for today’s passage, I don’t think I would have lasted this long. When scripture says that following Christ will come at a cost to my life and when the particular story of Christ is reanimated in my own interactions with the religious mind, it brings me a tremendous amount of comfort and sustainability along with the hurt and rejection. I live in the freedom of teaching in fidelity to the scripture rather than tradition, by the voice of the gospel and the Spirit, rather than a doctrine or dogma. While I may say things in ways that are unfamiliar to the anesthetized modern believer, I find tremendous continuity with the biblical writers, and early Church leaders. When a sermon is preached so as not to offend, then I often am suspect of whether or not it was even a sermon.

Today’s passage about being put out of the synagog is not just reaching people in religious organizations. If as an Atheist you drift momentarily into the sphere of belief, or if you talk openly about an awakening, those around you will do the same to you. Science is the religion of today and it is full of just as many heretics, liars, and evil manipulators as mainline, historical religion. Science requires its followers comply, obey and bow to its leaders, its rules and its conclusions about the world. My point is that there are no safe institutions to which any of us can go. Once we are free, there will be no place to lay our head. (Matthew 8:20)

My hope for all of us, who are called out of the anesthesia of our pseudonyms, is that we may be united (though diverse), working together to build each other up, encouraging one another in our journey through this wilderness, and that we can eventually celebrate the One who called us out and continues to lead us through his Spirit. The bible calls this varied, unaffiliated, group or gathering the Church. It is the counter-cultural community which empowers us to life our life of faith. If we aren’t too over-identified with our institutions, we can simply exist together and become the safe harbor for a lost world. Collectively, the design is that we become the literal body of Christ, the modern flesh and blood to all those who need something real to cling to.

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it. Now, let us lay that image next to the institutions to which we belong and we’ll quickly see the differences. May we all become willing to deconstruct it all for the sake of recapturing the essence of this lost but powerful community. It shouldn’t be hard to find. It will look like a gathering of the broken, the marginalized, the sinners, who despite all of their failings and weakness, yearn to follow the voice into perfect peace and freedom. This proves Church is not a place we go, it is who we are. It’s a community, a family, a gathering under one head, that of Christ. It’s not an institution.