Did Aaron Shave?

Did Aaron Shave? A look at relational disunity.

Look! How good and how pleasant it is
when brothers truly live in unity. 
It is like fine oil poured on the head,
which flows down the beard
Aaron’s beard,
and then flows down his garments.  Psalm 133:1

And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Acts 15:39

 Fair is foul, and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air (from Macbeth) 

Once upon a time, in a land not far away, there was a big sandpit, where children loved to play.  Peter and Johnny, along with Suzie and Tim, loved to build castles and pretend to be king (with the exception of Suzie who, although only 5 years old, recognised that she was a girl and decided to go with it and subsequently played the role of queen).

One day however, out of the blue, Johnny decided to build something new. Suzie joined in and thought it was fun, but Peter and Tim instead became glum.

“That’s not fair!” they lamented and moaned; “you’re supposed to be our friend and not leave us alone!” Suzie and Johnny were surprised by this change, and being so young and not knowing what to do, went to a new sandpit to continue their game.

Where once there was laughter, there were now shouts and tears, as each sandpit became a battleground of fears.  A new king was born as Rejection reigned clear, because the children didn’t know who really did care.

Name-calling and suspicion and side-taking too, these were the new rules as distrust filled the air.

Eventually what happened was they just let the others be, and thoughts of reconciliation never took heed.

Amazing how we never really outgrow our playground dynamics: we just become more sophisticated in our expression of them.

I don’t think I have met a Christian who has not, at the very least, observed division in the body of Christ.  Very few have not been burnt by it.

As a youngster our family rocked up at church one day only to discover that it was basically empty: the bulk of the membership had “suddenly” moved up the road to a school hall to start a new church.

And that is a story that has been repeated countless times over in some form or other in the body of Christ.  A pandemic of idolatry has invaded the church, as personal opinions and scores have taken preference over the hard work of reconciliation and unity.  As can be observed on social media, political polarization has taken the place of civil discourse, social distancing of a different sort instead of connection, and Christians are leading the way to the extent that it would be more accurate to term it ‘anti-social’ media.   This has led me to wonder if perhaps Aaron shaved his beard off?

It’s a relatively predictable pattern that happens (we are sheep after all).  Invariably a person or persons does not act in accordance with our expectations; the shock of this causes hurt and anger as heart issues of trust get violated.  We often feel betrayed and we don’t know what to do with this so we create distance and build walls.  Now let’s add some more ingredients:

  • gossip and suspicion;
  • the gang effect or corona effect (to use a more current analogy) where anyone associated with the person or group that has offended you is somehow also tainted. This is also simply known as the “us-them” dichotomy
  • the famous barge pole where such persons are kept at a distance (sometimes under spiritual sounding phrases so as to sound mature, sometimes not).

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the caldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

At least that’s what it felt like to me when I entered ministry: it felt to me like I had inherited this cauldron of issues, and whilst I wholeheartedly believed that with God all things were possible, I soon discovered that with man all things are impossible.

Let me be upfront: there are times when there is a biblical mandate to separate yourself from relationships within the body of Christ:

  • when a false gospel is being preached (heresy),
  • when a person is unrepentant in clear sin

In all other circumstances of disagreement and offenses, we are required to work through the issues  to the target of restoration and relational unity, so as to set an example before a watching world.  Probably the best the world can offer in terms of unity is unanimity or uniformity: we as the church can offer a credible witness in the absence of unanimity and uniformity.  As James Emery White puts it:

When we disagree with each other, we have two choices: We can maintain the ultimate mark of the Christian, or we can abandon and betray it.

The ultimate mark referred to is love.  What is love? Let’s remind ourselves:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4-6 NIV)

You don’t need to live very long to realise that relationships get so messy sometimes, and navigating with grace is easier said than done.  But when relationships go awry apart from the two scenarios mentioned above (heresy and unrepentant sin), we have a command from Jesus that requires us to reconcile:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23&24)

Worshipping God in the context of relational discord isn’t regarded as wholesome by God.

Those are hard words to swallow.

Whether it be in a church, a home group, or a para-church organisation, or any scenario where children of God work together for a common cause, we all sit under the authority of Jesus and His Word, and He has clear expectations for us.  These expectations are so serious to Jesus that it occupied His mind prior to His crucifixion: He prayed that His disciples would be one just as He and the Father were one (John 17:20-21).  Am I contributing to being the answer to that prayer? A failure to honour these expectations is a failure to take seriously the Trinitarian God we serve, who wants His disciples to be characterised by the capacity to overlook offenses, be kind and gracious to one another, to forgive one another and all the other ‘one another’ commands we see in Scripture expressing the multi-faceted dimensions of love.  This was the way people in the world watching God’s children would know that we were children of God.  A failure to do so means we bring ourselves under His discipline (which can take the form of sickness and death) and let us not forget that disobedience also opens the door for the enemy to enter (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-11)

With respect to discipline in the form of sickness and death, this comes into play when we participate in the Lord’s Supper when we have unresolved bitterness and unforgiveness towards brothers or sisters in Christ.  In 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 we read the following sobering words:

27 For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead. 31 But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world.

What is the ‘unworthy manner’ spoken of? We’re informed earlier in the chapter as we read (see from v17) that there were divisions in the church (which Paul indicated was good from the perspective of revealing who were genuine believers), and this got played out in the context of giving clear expression to social hierarchy[i], which in turn meant that there were wrong attitudes towards fellow members of the body.  Communion can be dangerous!

I remember once that I was upset with my pastor over something (I cannot for the life of me recall what it was), but what spoke to me deeply was that he came to see me on a Saturday because he knew I had some issue with him, and he couldn’t with a clear conscience administer communion the next day knowing this.  I was in the wrong, not him, but nonetheless he took the initiative to restore relationship and reconcile.

That is being Christlike (more on this a bit later).

So, why do we find it so hard to overlook an offense, to look past differences, and reconcile?  Why do we fool ourselves so easily into thinking that Jesus is still Lord of our life when we bear grudges, hurts and are so slow to seek reconciliation?  Why is it, when Jesus has fully equipped His children and His church with the tools to keep unity, we choose to rather go our separate ways?  Is it just simply because it’s easier for us to tap into the flesh rather than the Spirit?  Why is it that we no longer see relational disunity (bearing grievances against brothers and sisters) as sin?

If I look into my own heart, which is not really territory I like to venture into, I see that I excel at a particular non-spiritual gift: self-justification.  Like that lawyer who approached Jesus, I also find ways to justify my excuses and decisions – I can even make them sound spiritual (who of us doesn’t know how to spiritualise sin?)  For example, I can quickly point out how Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement and parted ways (Acts 15:39): but that doesn’t make what they did right, because parting on loving terms as opposed to a sharp disagreement is what Jesus desires from His disciples.  Incidentally, reconciliation did ultimately happen, as we see Paul clearly didn’t hold a grudge against Mark as we see in Col 4:10, 2 Tim 4:11 and Philemon 24.

At this point some might point out that when Paul and Barnabas split, it was a good thing for the kingdom of God that Paul and Barnabas separated, since in going their separate ways the labour was in effect doubled.  I have no argument with that, but that just goes to show that God is amazing in that He still accomplishes His purposes despite the fallibility of His servants (yet another outworking of Romans 8:28), as the whole of the OT record shows.  God accomplishes His purpose through us not so much because we’re in the right as much as it is He is gracious, and God’s grace is never extended as a sign of condoning our actions, but because He is God and grace is by definition undeserved.

Back to my heart…

One of the toughest hurts to work through in my journey of faith was being let down by leaders in the faith.  In retrospect I recognised that I had ‘pedestalised’ them and then got angry when they didn’t behave the way I expected them to or wanted them to – How dare they display humanness! How dare they be different from my expectations!  How dare they climb out the box I put them in! Or, being a pastor in a leadership position myself, seeing people leave the congregation – it is extremely difficult to not tie in your identity as a pastor with those you serve, and not to see it as personally injurious when they leave. But leaders do not belong to me; people do not belong to me; people belong to God.  People are made in His image, and I do not have the right to recreate them in mine, or to offer to people what should only be offered to God.

John the Baptist exemplified the attitude we need to have towards people, especially in the context of maybe feeling let down.  It’s one of those scenarios where it’s a case of what is not said that speaks so powerfully:

Again the next day John was standing there with two of his disciples. 36 Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When John’s two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

We don’t see John getting upset over losing ‘his disciples.’  Pointing to Jesus and getting people to follow Jesus was the whole point of why John lived.  Later John had to point out to his own disciples again that this was the point of their ministry.  His own disciples were clearly feeling a bit bruised as the disciples of Jesus took centre stage, but as John so clearly pointed out in his statement designed to kill arrogance: “He must increase, I must decrease. (John 3:25-30)”

Of course there’s also the not-so-small matter of recognising that people become enemies when we label them as such, and that is our assigned label, not God’s.  And just when we think that treating a person as an enemy justifies our distance, we get told by Jesus to pray for them!  Our Lord is not letting us get away from the call to love!  Of course it’s really easy to love when we’re all behaving in accordance with each other’s expectations, but that isn’t to our credit at all.  People who don’t love Jesus also behave like that.

It’s easy to divide.  It’s easy to hold onto our own version of We Are Right.[ii] It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking the Lord doesn’t want us to reconcile, or that we can hold onto our ‘mature special insight’ justifying our reluctance to engage.

It’s really hard and humbling to engage in the work of relational unity.  Paul had to beseech two women in the church in Philippi to agree together in the Lord (Philippians 4:2), and he chastised the church at Corinth as being mere infants in Christ because of the division that existed (1 Corinthians 1:10-17 & 3:1-3).  Clearly Paul expected these folk to get over themselves for the sake of the gospel.  Relational unity, as in marriage, is hard because it requires the grace to say sorry and reconcile when we have done wrong, and even be willing to reconcile when we have been wronged against.

It’s this capacity to reconcile that starts to indicate spiritual maturity, as it requires humility and forgiveness.  The life and teachings of Jesus reveals the litmus test for spiritual maturity is not giftedness, it’s not how many ministries I’m engaged in, it’s not how many followers I have or how much theological knowledge I have.  It’s how Christlike I am; and Christ was reconciling the world and forgiving the world whilst it was crucifying Him.

I’m grateful Jesus didn’t take the approach with me regarding forgiveness that is quite popular (I’ve kind of used it myself too): “I’ve forgiven them…I just don’t want any contact with them…”

With Jesus, forgiveness was tied up with restoration and reconciliation.  Even while we were enemies, the desire of Jesus was reconciliation.  Even though we were the ones in the wrong, Jesus was taking the initiative in reconciliation through being crucified.  As we read in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 

If we do not extend grace, we’ve not understood what we’ve received.  We need to ensure that we do under-serve that which we received as undeserved.

Venturing into my heart again, I recognise that forgiveness does not always come naturally.  And then I have to go to the cross, and see afresh that forgiveness does indeed cost, because it cost Jesus His life.

Chad Bird brilliantly describes from his upcoming book Limping with God:Jacob and the Old Testament Guide to Messy Discipleship (quoted here by permission):

To forgive people means that we must die. There is no other way. And that is also, of course, why we don’t want to forgive. To forgive is to die to the people we would become, and often do become, when we breed bitterness, conceive resentment, and nurse the desire for a pound or three of flesh from those who have hurt us. It consumes us. It eats at us like a cancer from within.

To forgive is to kill the ungod within us for whom absolution is anathema and redemption reprehensible.

You may have noticed that, in the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, there is only one line in the whole prayer that entails an action on our part. Our Father keeps his name holy. He brings his kingdom. He forgives us, gives us daily bread, guards us in times of temptation and evil. He is the doer of all those verbs. The only part of the Lord’s Prayer that involves us doing something is this: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The reason for this is obvious: there is arguably no more fundamentally Christian act than forgiving others.

Absolution is the beating heart of discipleship because Christ, our forgiveness, is the beating heart of discipleship. Every day he richly and prodigally forgives us, lavishing love upon us, undeserving though we be. And we, having received, do not build a dam within our hearts to stop the flow of mercy, but let it pass from us to others. We forgive, as we have been forgiven.                                                                                                                                                                    

It’s amazing isn’t it?  Jesus had a vision for the church.  It was to see a motley bunch of messed up people, ranging from the ‘respectable sinners’ to the ‘not-so-respectable’ sinners who need grace, to be given a new identity of ‘saints-made-by-grace,’ and for this lot to show the world what love looks like.  Jesus even had the audacity to call this bunch of the likes of you and me “His Body,” His “brothers and sisters” and…His bride!

So, before I hide too quickly behind Romans 12:18, I have to come to the cross, to the person of Jesus, and simply ask: have I done everything I can?

If so, fair enough.

If not, let’s make sure we are part of the answer to the prayer of Jesus and not part of the problem.

Then maybe, just maybe, Aaron’s beard will start to grow again, and the joyful image of a well-oiled beard can come to life again.

Notes:

[i] Archaeology has helped in this passage as the layout of a house in Corinth gave insight into how dinners were held.  In this scenario, those who were well-off would arrive earlier, and those who were workers who could only arrive late in the day missed out on opportunity of sharing in Lord’s Supper because of what it had been turned into – which is why Paul indicates “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” and at end of chapter “wait for one another…”

[ii] This acronym comes from, of all places, the Dinosaurs TV sitcom

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