October 5, 2014
(World Communion Sunday)
Jude and I have had a rough time of it this week. And I’ve decided that it is because his accusations against the “intruders” sound too much like accusations I hear and read today against me and this church and other open and affirming Mennonite churches.
People say that we are not really part of the Mennonite church–we are slipping in and spreading false teachings.
That we are perverting the grace of God into licentiousness. I mean, people don’t generally use these exact terms, but I hear a lot of accusations about “twisting scripture” and “throwing out morality” and “condoning sinful behavior.”
We are “denying our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.” Not following the Christian way.
We, like the “intruders,” are accused of indulging lust and having bombastic speech and being worldly.
And we are most certainly accused of causing division.
So reading Jude, to me, feels like reading the hostile comments on my blog posts or talking to a pastor on the phone who wants to explain to me why I am–we are–destroying his church.
Reading Jude just feels bad. And it makes me defensive. And I don’t want to listen to anything he has to say. And I want to have a few words with the guys who put this letter in the Bible to begin with.
It doesn’t help that the New Interpreters Bible Commentary assures me that the primary concern Jude has with these “intruders” has to do with sexual immorality, and possibly even homosexuality in particular since the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is cited. (Which, by the way, is actually about inhospitality in the form of gang rape, but that’s another sermon.)
So, yeah. Sermon prep was kind of rough this week. There I was with these antagonistic words; this ancient text that seemed to be shaking its finger at me across a 2000-year divide. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.
And then, just before I ripped Jude out of my Bible (it’s a small book, I could do it easily) I realized– that voice I was hearing wasn’t Jude’s voice at all. The voice I was hearing was the voice of other people using Jude to affirm their own preferences and prejudices.
Yes, the language (in translation) of Jude sounds a lot like the language of contemporary accusers. But I started to wonder, was Jude really talking to people like me? Were the “intruders” of Jude’s day really the ancient equivalents of contemporary proponents of inclusion in the Mennonite Church?
To begin with, Jude’s “intruders” were actually intruders. In early Christianity there were many itinerant prophets and teachers who would travel around from community to community. Some, I’m sure, were truly gifted speakers and teachers who ministered to the churches by the power of the Spirit. But many, it seems, were just out to make a buck. They swooped in, caused problems, took money, and left others to clean up their messes.
Scholars think that Jude was primarily concerned with this type of itinerant preacher; probably those who espoused a position called “antinomianism.” These folks took “freedom in Christ” to mean complete freedom; complete lack of accountability. They taught that there was no need to follow any ethical rules; no standards whatsoever for how people acted and interacted. Because we were free in Christ.
Rather than hearing these words from Jude in the voice of our accusers today, what if we listen to these words in the context of the developing first century church?
The intruders “pervert the grace of God into licentiousness.” The freedom early Christ-followers found in Jesus was breaking down barriers of class and gender and ethnicity. There was a deep understanding and living out of God’s grace among early Christians–it meant that all people were equally valued, that past sins were forgiven and life could start anew. The intruders dismissed this radical, other-centered freedom for a mundane and selfish teaching of “if it feels good, do it.”
Jude also says they “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” For the intruders, Jesus became secondary to their own desires for popularity and money and, apparently, sex. The teachings of Jesus were used only to support the lives they wanted to live–rather than the people living their lives as if Jesus were their true Master–the one in charge of all of their choices.
The intruders were “blemishes” on the church’s “love feasts.” The love feasts were sort of an extended time of communion–something like a potluck. These community gatherings were a sacred expression of the fellowship and joy and love of Christian community. We don’t know exactly how these intruders were disrupting the love feasts, but this accusation is connected with the statement that they are “feeding themselves”–as opposed to feeding others. Perhaps this situation is the similar to the one Paul addresses in Corinth where the wealthy were over-eating and getting drunk while the poor around the table went hungry.
The intruders were grumbling and blaming other people for all that went wrong. The problem was not that they spoke truth against injustice–the letter-writer himself is attempting to do that. The problem is that the intruders voiced petty complaints; words of discontent that could seep into the fabric of the community and begin to wear it down.
They indulged their own lusts–not loves, but lusts–using objects and people for personal gratification.
They bragged about themselves and they flattered others to get what they wanted. The problem was not in saying positive things about themselves or others, but that they were not sincere or honest in what they said. That they spoke for the purpose of selfish gain, not to build up the community.
The intruders were “worldly.” They were not seeking God’s kingdom first, but were working for their own self-interest.
And, finally, they were “causing division.” Quite literally Jude is addressing a problem of outsiders coming into a community not to join with the community and build it up, but to take from the community and tear it down.
Despite the parallels in Jude’s accusations and the criticisms often leveled against proponents of full inclusion in the church, it seems that Jude was addressing a very different kind of situation. In understanding the original context, I can read the book of Jude without imagining that he is shaking his finger at me–accusing me of indulging in lust and leading people astray by supporting full inclusion of sexual minorities in the church. That is not what Jude is about.
But that doesn’t mean Jude’s words are irrelevant. It doesn’t even mean that there is no accusation of me in this little letter. Ultimately, this letter is about the importance of the church community and the danger present when people within the community prioritize personal desires over the health of the body as a whole. That message, I think, is relevant to all of us.
Like the intruders, I am sometimes tempted to seek my own individual gratification over the needs of the church as a whole. I recently read about a Christian community where everyone maintains a basic standard of living, has a few hundred dollars a month for “spending money,” and pools the rest of the money for the work of the church and ministry in the broader community. And I thought, “Wow. I don’t know if I would do that.”
Sometimes I grumble–even about church. Sometimes I blame others. Sometimes I do not fully appreciate the radical depths of God’s grace.
Jude is writing to all of us because, like we said last week, being church is hard. There are plenty of accusations to go around.
Ultimately, though, this is not a letter of accusation and condemnation, but a word of hope and encouragement:
“You, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy.”
May it be so. In our church and in our world.