The Goads of Christianity
"It is hard for you to kick against the goads." That's what Christ tells Saul the persecutor of Christians. A goad is a sharp, pointed stick used for driving cattle. There are goads, sharp things in Christianity that we find ourselves up against. It would be better if we didn't kick against them. However, that is another one of those things that is easier said than done.
For some, the goads of Christianity are things that seem to conflict with science. Some people are poked very sharply by such Biblical teachings as a six day creation, Christ really being present in flesh and blood in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the resurrection of the flesh, and the immortality of the soul. Teachings like these are sharp, pointed sticks to some people. How can what science tells us about evolution be reconciled with what the Bible tells us about creation? How can what an electron microscope would tell us about the bread and wine in Communion be reconciled with what the Bible says it is: the body and blood of Christ. How can what a coroner tells us about a dead body be reconciled with what the Bible tells us about the resurrection of the flesh and the immortality of the soul? How can science's pronouncement that what cannot be seen, measured, quantified, or detected isn't real be reconciled with the Bible's teaching about the invisible soul, invisible angels, and an invisible heaven?
These are goads to some people. Thorny questions that keep them tossing and turning rather than resting on the bed of Christianity. I don't propose to answer, address or even shave down a single one of these sharp points today. While I can see how these could me goads to some people in our scientific age, they are not to me. It's not that I have superior faith or a superior understanding of science. It's just that the things in Christianity that seem to conflict with science have never been that sharp to me. To me, a God who could fit nice and neatly in the box of science wouldn't be much of a God. The goads for me in Christianity are those that conflict with popular psychology.
I cannot reconcile what I read in my Bible with the tenets of popular psychology; can you? Go ahead then and reconcile self-esteem, self-confidence, believing in yourself with Jeremiah's statement, "Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength." Do you think that is just talking about everyone else BUT you? Proverbs 28:26 puts an end to that fiction saying, "He who trusts in his own heart is a fool."
You go ahead and be poked by the "unscientific" things of Christianity; I'm poked by the "un" and even "anti" psychological things of Christianity. For example, according to popular psychology, healthy people take care of themselves. Self-preservation is a dominate drive. Tell that to Jesus who says, "He who seeks to save his life loses it, and the one who loses it saves it." Or reconcile the non-spanking movement in popular psychology with the statement that the loving heavenly Father not "spanks" but "scourges" every son He receives.
Does this make good psychological sense to you? Can Christianity be reconciled with popular psychology? If you think so, then you haven't been singing our hymns. Didn't you just get done singing "in Thy service pain is pleasure?" Don't you know people who get pleasure from pain are called masochists? And don't you know that psychology says people are motivated by good rewards? Yet we sing in a hymn that the reward for following Christ here is "many a sorrow, many a labor, many a tear." So, don't only psychology sick people follow Christ? According to popular psychology, healthy people avoid pain and seek pleasure, yet we sing in "Nearer My God to Thee" that all we really want in life is to be nearer to God "even though it be a cross that carry me."
Maybe you can reconcile Christianity with popular psychology, but I can't. I bump up against goads everywhere I turn. Look at our Gospel reading for crying out loud! Can you reconcile popular psychology with what the Christ of Christianity teaches? Poverty is blessed; riches are woe. Hunger is blessed; fullness is woe. Weeping is blessed; laughter is woe. Being hated by all for Christ's sake is blessed; being well spoken of by all is woe. You go over to Shoal Creek and say these things. Just march in and say I've come to believe that being poor, hungry, tearful and persecuted is better than being rich, well-fed, happy, and liked by all. You won't have to wait long for your padded cell.
The goads of Christianity for me are those sharp things that conflict with popular psychology. I find there is absolutely no way to reconcile them; there is no way to explain the differences away. You are psychologically nuts if you hold to Christianity. By contrast, I don't think you're scientifically nuts if you're a Christian. I don't even think it's unscientific, but I sure do see it as un-psychological. And you have to admit that something mighty awesome must be going on in Christianity for Christians to sing that "pain is pleasure," and for Christ to say that poverty, hunger, weeping, and persecution are blessed while riches, fullness, laughter, and popularity are woe.
In Christ, pain and pleasure, poverty and riches, weeping and laughing, persecution and popularity get turned on their collective ear. Luke shows you this throughout his Gospel. It opens with the barren giving birth and lowly, outcast shepherds being visited by angels. Then a woman with a reputation as a sinner is forgiven while "holy" Simon the Pharisee is not. We move on to find that the despised Samaritan is good while the priest and Levite are not. Then the prodigal son who leaves is found while the son who never leaves home is lost. Lazarus who is disgustingly poor on earth is exalted to heaven while the disgustingly rich, rich man is sent to hell, and finally, the Pharisee who is sure of his righteousness is not justified while the tax collector who knows he has no righteousness is justified.
In Christ, through Christ, because of Christ poverty and riches, hunger and fullness, crying and laughing, excluding and accepting take on different meanings. This is the stuff of fairytales. I don't mean it is stuff not true but so wonderfully true that it can only be expressed in a sinful world by something above and beyond it. There is a place in fairytales where up is down and down is up, where left is right and right is left, where beauty is ugliness and ugliness is beauty. Likewise, there is a place on earth in Christ, that is in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion where poverty is riches, hunger is fulness, weeping is laughter, and being rejected by all is being accepted by God. But there is more. In this Christ, death is life, sinners are holy, the sick are well, and the lonely are in a family. In this Christ, water brings the Holy Spirit, words forgive sins, and bread and wine are the body and blood of God.
Too beautiful to be true, huh? Too wonderful for the eyes of man to see? The stuff of fairytales, huh? St. Paul would agree as Isaiah before him did: They both say, "Eye has not seen; neither has ear heard; neither has entered into the thoughts of man what God has prepared for those who love Him." Christianity is not limited by what science can measure or say; neither is it limited by what psychology thinks is healthy or even sane. Christ frees us not only from the confines of sin, death and the power of the devil but from the confines of what is poverty, hunger, tearful, and lonely.
Friends, no one is poor who has their sins forgiven for Christ's sake, and no one is rich who does not have their sins forgiven. No one is hungry who is being fed by the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, and no one is really full who is not being so fed. What is funny and what calls for tears also changes. Paul and Silas in cruel chains can sing the night away in joy rather than weeping. Christ on the road to the horrible cross can say there is no need to weep for Him, but there is reason to weep for those standing safely by watching.
What those outside of Christ MUST cry over, those in Christ can laugh at. On Easter Sunday, certain Pacific Island natives actually laugh at death in their Easter services. Christians with a horrible disease can laugh at it not because they are not sick, but because scowl, fierce as it will, the disease can't harm them. O it may take everything they have in this life, but it cannot even remotely touch their everlasting life. And what does it matter to those in Christ if they are excluded by all men if they are included in heaven's family?
Nothing is what is seems in Christ. Christ seems to be just another Man, but in reality He is God in flesh in blood. Sin, death and the devil seem to win at Calvary. There Christ hangs, dead, limp, powerless, but in reality, He has finished not just sin, but death and the devil too. If you can look at Christ hanging on the cross and see forgiveness, life and salvation, then you can look at poverty as riches, hunger as fullness, weeping as laughter, and being excluded as acceptance. In this "fairytale" world, the rule of science that says dead bodies can't live and sick bodies can only die, doesn't apply. In this "fairytale" world, the rule of psychology that says pain is bad and self-deprecation is evil, doesn't apply. Nor do the rules of finance apply that says poverty is bad and riches are good.
Friends, this fairytale world is really the real one. Angels really do flutter here and there about Christ and His people. Death really is on the run from us rather than stalking us through every passing year and every new disease. It is not a fairytale that Water washes away sins and gives the Holy Spirit; it is reality. It is not a fairytale that the voice of a man can send sins away from you; it is reality. It is not a fairytale that Bread and Wine are the Body and Blood of your God; it is reality. And these realities completely alter the real things of poverty, hunger, weeping and being excluded.
However, because we do live in a world that is outside of Christ, we will continually come up against goads, sharp, pointy sticks that conflict with what Christ says. Christ tells Saul in compassion, "Saul, Saul...it is hard for you to kick against the goads." Evidently, the things of Christ had been at work on Saul and he was resisting them, kicking against them. This happens to us too. We kick against poverty, hunger, weeping, and being excluded for Christ's sake even though we know as we sing, these "but drive us to Thy breast." It hurts us to kick against these goads as anyone knows who has ever kicked a sharp, pointy stick.
Rather than kick when we come up against the goads, may we instead be reminded that we are looking at something wrongly. We are seeing only the poverty, the hunger, the tears, or the exclusion. We are not seeing what these really ARE in Christ: riches, fullness, laughter, and acceptance. This is what the longsuffering Job finally realized, and then he repented and said that when he had questioned God about his poverty, hunger, tears, and exclusion from others that he had "exercised himself in things too wonderful for me." That's how it is in fairytales. They are so much more wonderful than life in an ordinary sinful world that we fail to appreciate them sometimes. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany 6 (2-11-01) Luke 6: 20-26