When your system meets Jesus

Sometimes we just have to realise that Jesus upsets our systems

An uncomfortable thought, but it’s true. It’s uncomfortable because we are so good at creating systems. We like them because they help us organise our world and develop a sense of normality. We go to school on regular days. We get up in time to catch the train. We have regular habits and routines. Not everyone does the system thing to the same degree, there are some people that seem to hate systems. They have little routine. They sleep in. They miss the train. They seem to be OK with that. But they still want systems in place. They want the pay cheque in the bank when it should be, and they want the bank to accurately and securely manage their money. They want the driver in the other lane to stay in his lane and not cut them off. They want to be able to go through a green light without getting t-boned by some idiot running a red light. It’s true: even the most disorganised people still want some systems, or actually a lot of systems (i.e. the ones they like), and they want them to work and work well.

Churches also have their systems. They help people get connected, they allow for good ministry to happen, they support pastoral care, the help leaders lead with diligence. Most of the time these systems work well. And when they don’t work, people like me have a bad day, and sometimes people get hurt. I think we all realise that.

Today I am thinking that sometimes poor systems get exposed when they try to be more than what they should be. Maybe I should say it like this: you can tell when systems aren’t working when they start colliding with people.

Collisions to remember

Sue was a young woman, a faithful follower, and she formed a relationship with a guy called Adam, who at the time was not a follower of Jesus. Adam wasn’t opposed to Jesus or the church, but in the eyes of those who were looking he wasn’t showing a lot of interest either. Looking back now (and it’s about 15 years back or more), I think with a bit of effort I could have reached this guy. I could have got together with him and shared a bit of life. I don’t know why I never did that. I also think that people in my church could have been more open to Adam, but my guess is (and I’m ashamed now to say it) that because he was not a ‘regular’ there was no major effort to draw him in. Perhaps because he was not a believer he was seen by other young people as some kind of threat. Man, who knows how people would ever come to know Jesus if every Christian acted like that! Anyway, the church leadership decided not to allow their wedding to take place with the blessing of the church. As pastor of the church, I supported that decision. I never should have. We allowed the system to collide with these two people, and the inevitable drift away happened.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Bible is pretty direct about followers being ‘yoked’ to those who do not. I also believe this addresses more contexts than marriage. It applies to business partnerships, contractual arrangements, and other contexts where people are ‘bound’ together. The reality, though, is that we could have done a whole lot more to really open the door for Adam. We could have expressed selflessness in extending friendship. We could taken a real interest in his life. We could have invited Sue & Adam over for a BBQ, or shared a coffee. We could have celebrated their love and led them into an expression of transformed community. But we did none of that. We didn’t even try. And we allowed the system to squash a Gospel opportunity. I am ashamed to say it was my call, and I got it wrong.

A second occasion: some years ago one of my roles was an ecumenical visitor to another denomination very closely related to our own. In short, the church I work for had done some study on an issue and had come up with what I believed were quite sound, but yet unpopular conclusions. There are always debates about these things, and I guess some readers may remember the issues, and perhaps even disagree with what I say now. That’s OK. There have been disagreements before and the world is still spinning… So, the other church protested very strongly to my own denomination. Personalities got involved. Theological discussions became polarised. Various statements were issued by Synods and Assemblies. In all of this, church structures were used to apply intense pressure to tender parts of the body of Christ. It was ugly. People got hurt. People left churches. Teachers and educators became demoralised. It was a dark night of denominational soul.

I think about those days, and acknowledge quite openly that sometimes my own pain and confusion did not assist in clear, rational and humble communication. Even so, I believe that systems were used to exert pressure, to force decisions, and ultimately – though perhaps unintentionally – to hurt people.

Today I find myself wondering how Jesus feels about that debate. I wonder whether he is still to meet my gaze on The Day, and rebuke me for my part in a church dispute which hurt people, not to mention the church, so badly. I wonder how Jesus feels about all that energy devoted to some disputable point, which really has added no value to the mission of the church or done anything to bring people closer to Jesus. I think the only things advanced in that whole deal were personal egos – one of them was mine. And that is just plain sinful.

On the other hand…

Maybe you’ve read all this and thought there are still some times where you really do have to draw the line. You’re wondering whether people just get their way every time. I wouldn’t want you to get that idea. Jesus never worked that way. When people listened to him, they always changed for the better. So, sometimes we do need to sit down with people and in all humility do what we can to help them see what’s really going on. The Bible is pretty clear about that: ‘If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you.’ We need to understand that this action is never the application of a system, it is the loving counsel of a follower of Jesus. This is not about mechanisms and procedures. It is about common relationship in Jesus and the ongoing commitment and support of the body of Christ as we walk with someone toward restoration and reconciliation.

Transforming the system

So how do we know if the discomfort in situation is being caused by a poorly applied system or the Gospel of Jesus? That’s a pretty important question. Perhaps the whole ‘what would Jesus do?’ has been a little overdone, but I also think there’s something in it. Think of it this way: Can we picture Jesus standing in an interchurch meeting and waving an angry finger at representatives of another denomination? Can we imagine Jesus ignoring a guy like Adam, just quietly going soft on him, and not seeking to draw him into fellowship? Can we imagine Jesus not wanting to meet with Adam and talk about life, and what life in its fullness might mean? I don’t think so.

I can picture Jesus going to see a friend who is making some unhealthy life decisions and really seeking to speak to his heart, and doing that in the context of relationship and trust. This is how things get worked out. And more often than not, the result is not a parting of the ways, but a meeting of the minds. Psalm 133 reminds us that when that happens it’s like the Spirit’s oil of blessing being poured over people and into their lives. Nothing better, really.

A few helpful questions

I am no outstanding voice of wisdom, but I have been thinking recently that there are a few questions we can ask that might help us make better decisions when our systems start to hurt people.

One: Will the path we are taking ultimately help people to see Jesus more clearly, or will our path hurt and confuse them?

Two: Will the path we are taking help grace increase and grow? Will it deepen our awareness of who Jesus is and what he came to do?

Three: If we follow this path, what will the impact be on weaker Christians and the young in the faith? Will it draw them closer to God , or push them away?

People are more important than rules or procedures

I think the most important thing to remember is that people are always more important than rules and procedures. This is true every time. This was one of the main points of contention between Jesus and the religious legalists of the day. Rescuing people was more important than Sabbath obedience. Forgiving people was more important than throwing stones. Giving grace to people was more important than expectations and prejudice, even if the person was a tax collector, a Samaritan, or a thief on a cross. Jesus shows us that people matter. Every time.

When your system meets Jesus, your system will change.

…Thanks for listening

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