Several years ago I had a somewhat heated discussion with some staff members at a church about whether or not it was reasonable to ask the congregation to take a somewhat significant step of faith in the realm of finances. I pointed to Jesus’ command to not worry about money or clothing but to instead seek the kingdom of God, and the general response was along the lines of “that’s a nice sentiment, but you’re still young and you don’t have kids or anything yet, so you don’t understand that you can’t ask that much from people.”
I left that conversation pretty frustrated and disillusioned. It felt like the church leadership was culling what, to me, seemed a clear and challenging statement from Jesus, making it into something safe and comfortable for the middle class crowd that showed up each week. Doesn’t Jesus’ command override what we feel we can or can’t do based on our life situation? Is our security and comfortability Jesus’ priority, or is he pushing us toward something else?
I’m older now (at least by a little bit), and I have a kid. My wife and I live in a nice three bedroom house that we’re able to afford only because of our landlord’s generosity. Over the last couple months we’ve had multiple conversations about the incredible pressure there is to conform to the comfortable – to co-opt following Christ and make it a means of making us feel good.
It does make us feel good to go to church, to sing worship songs, and to know that we’re going to heaven and our sins have been forgiven. It’s comfortable to go each Sunday and know what to expect, to smile and greet the people you see each week, and to sit in “your spot” in the sanctuary. Because we, pastors and church leaders included, so love comfort that we structure our churches and our lives (often unconsciously) to keep anything that might threaten us at a comfortable distance.
The problem is that when you come to Jesus – the real Jesus – he refuses to leave you any room for comfortable distance from the difficulties of the world.
Jesus’ Uncomfortable Closeness
Jesus went out of his way to get close to people and situations that would make almost anyone uncomfortable. We see him converse with a demonized, severely mentally ill man and bring healing up close rather than praying from a distance (Mark 5:1-17). He touches a man with a debilitating, highly contagious disease (Luke 17:11-19). He converses in public with a religious and political outsider (John 4). His whole life was a stepping in closer than comfort would allow for the sake of comforting those who were afflicted. He spends time with drunkards, the homeless, prostitutes, and all the people that make our conservative, middle-class sensibilities shudder and scrabble for “wise” reasons to keep our distance.
It wouldn’t be wise to give to the person begging for money at the intersection because he might spend it on alcohol, despite the fact that Jesus said “give to the one who asks from you” (Matt 5:42) with no qualifications. The church shouldn’t have to deal with people who are mentally ill or disruptive to the service, despite the fact that Jesus seems to welcome such disruptions and bring restoration to those who are broken. We shouldn’t have to give too much of our time or money or possessions because it wouldn’t be wise to not have boundaries, despite the fact that our lives are supposed to be living sacrifices.
My friends, Jesus is the epitome of wisdom, and his wisdom looks a lot like uncomfortable closeness – stepping into difficult situations in the power of God and bringing change. He most certainly did not stay at a distance.
Our Call for Closeness
Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” If we are truly going to follow Jesus we need to get out of our safe spaces and go even into uncomfortable situations. Would you go with Jesus into a village where there was an ebola outbreak? Into the home of a prostitute? To sit with the man who is twitching on the street corner? I certainly hope so.
If you have the Holy Spirit, when you go into those places today you go with Jesus. Christ followers ought to be the first ones to go to the people and places that the world (the religious world especially) avoids. Any form of Christianity that makes us feel good and righteous apart from serving and loving those who make us uncomfortable is false religion. As James wrote in his Epistle, “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Jesus exemplified it. He stepped out of the security, peace, and comfort of his position in heaven to come into this earth and get close with troubled humanity. the Father’s call for us is to go to those same people.
I don’t want to get 10 years into leading a ministry and be making excuses for why we’re not doing what Jesus said to do. I don’t want the American dream to have more say in my life than the Kingdom-of-God dream that my Lord offers. Let’s take conscious steps out of our comfort zones and into faith, befriending, loving, and serving those who the rest of the world rejects. In Jesus there’s no room for comfortable distance – only the dreadful, beautiful power of grace and love to break down any and all barriers for the sake of saving those who are wounded and wandering. Amen?