I write a new sermon each week, and yes, that is oftentimes exactly as challenging as it sounds. It is difficult to come up with fresh ideas each week. It is even more difficult to come up with fresh practical application each week. Practicality doesn’t always leap off the page at me when my job is to take a Scripture, any random Scripture, and make it applicable to the lives of people living 2,000 or even 3,000 years later.
That’s too bad, since practicality is what the people want. Congregations want to know how Exodus 3 and Psalms 132 and Matthew 7 and 1 John 4 apply to THEM. And don’t get me wrong… I’m glad that Christians have a desire to apply the Bible to their lives and to live out the Word in the flesh. The only problem is that lately I have been realizing more than ever that, not only is the practical application hard to find, it’s simply not there.
The practical application is not there because the Gospel is by its very nature impractical. It calls us to live in a way that doesn’t make sense. Take the Sermon on the Mount for example. Nothing in the Sermon on the Mount is practical. Turning the other cheek is impractical. Going the extra mile is impractical. Seeking first the Kingdom is impractical. Not worrying about tomorrow is impractical. Judging not is impractical.
And the impracticality doesn’t stop there. Five loaves and two fish are impractical. Talking in parables that no one can understand is impractical. “Not my will, but yours, be done” is impractical. Laying down your life is impractical. The cross is impractical. GRACE is impractical.
This is why I struggle so much to provide ‘practical’ application in my sermons. Application of such an impractical Gospel should always lead us to do impractical things and live impractical lives, which brings me to the current issue dividing both the Church and my Facebook newsfeed: Syrian refugees. (Current event sneak attack!) I have no silver bullet answer. I simultaneously acknowledge that, on the one hand, the situation is way more complex than someone like me can understand, and that, on the other hand, Christians are called to love everyone, regardless of who they are.
I think the parable of the Good Samaritan, who loved another of a different religion and ethnicity at a time when he was hated by that other and at a place along the Jericho road where his life was at risk because he stopped to help the other may be the most powerful passage in the Bible that speaks to how Christians should act in the current situation. The Good Samaritan loved with an impractical love.
I believe this is why, in the midst of the current refugee crisis, so many Christians are calling for their fellow believers to do totally impractical things like welcoming refugees who are fleeing from the madness of Assad and ISIS.
And I’ll be honest: it is impractical. It is impractical to share your money and your food with people who you don’t even know, who have a different culture than yours, who may hate you. Yet, I also believe that welcoming those who do come to our land is what Christians should do.
To those who say that impractical solutions won’t work, I point you to the cross. I believe in the power of the cross, the power of the impractical. I believe that the cross does work, that it saves you and me, and that we are called to carry our own crosses behind Jesus. I believe that when Christians reject the impractical, we reject the cross.
So let’s talk practicality. If Christians don’t get to be practical, then who does?
Governments and nations, that’s who. Governments get to make practical decisions about who to let in and who to keep out. They get to make practical decisions about how to ‘ensure domestic tranquility.’ But, when they do these practical things, we can no longer call them ‘Christian’.
This isn’t a bad thing. In Romans 13, Paul envisioned secular/temporal governments as ‘God’s servant for your good…’ who do ‘not bear the sword in vain.’ Essentially, God uses governments to maintain justice and order in the present. Today they bear the sword against ISIS. Our hope, however, is not in that sword, but in our God who will one day break the sword off in evil’s side, so that both sword and evil will be gone forever.
But today, we must discern between the practical and the impractical, and I think this is especially difficult for American Christians, where state and faith, practical and impractical, are so intertwined. Both those Christians who are pressuring our government to reject the refugees and those Christians who are pressuring the government to accept them seem to both be falling into the trap of conflating a secular government’s responsibility with a Christian’s responsibility.
Those Christians who want to reject the refugees are assigning to the Church the responsibility of the government and accusing other Christians of folly. Those Christians who want to accept the refugees are assigning to the government the responsibility of the Church and accusing the government of fear.
Here’s the thing: fear is a perfectly normal motivator for secular/temporal governments. My government can put up walls (whether figurative or literal) against foreigners and that is its right. But it can’t do so in the name of Christ, because when that wall is finished, Christ will not be found within its safe practicality. He will be on the outside feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger. I pray that I would have the courage to be out there with him.
But here’s the other thing: fear is NOT an acceptable motivator for a Christian. This is hard when our default mode as humans is to react to things that are risky and scary with fear, and to disguise that fear under a cloak of practicality. This is the very thing that the cross does not allow. Impractical love for the other as displayed on the cross soundly trumps practical fear of the other. As John wrote, “There is no fear in love… the one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
I leave you with more of John’s words about the love of God:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
-I John 4:7-21