Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
….These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: …. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons….
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.…When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:1-20, selected verses)
There are a lot of people who live in a world of they. The world of they is a world of threat and fear. It is a world of constant antagonism and either/or choices. In the land of they, you are either “with them” or “against them.” All the time.
Jesus sent his disciples out into a world of they. Before they left, Matthew tells us, Jesus called them by name, gathered them around, and preached to them.
He began by talking about … they:
“They are going to haul you up in court.”
“They’re going to drag you into prison.”
“They’re going to haul you up before governors and kings.”
“They are going to hate you.”
These followers of Jesus must have been frightened by this world of they. Who are they?
What are their names? What is their point? What are they after? They… are going to do this to you. And then Jesus said, in essence, do not concern yourself about the world of they. That’s not your world – and it’s not to be your fear.
Jesus assures us that this is not a they world. God has created a you–world and calls you by name, as God calls every person in love to be a part of God’s world. There is no anonymous “they-threat” in the world created, redeemed, and sustained by God.
Our world – and often our churches – are consumed by “they-threats” today.
“They have fixed the election.”
“They can’t be trusted.”
“They won’t listen to reason.”
“They are pushing vaccines to manipulate us.”
“They are trying to change the church I know.”
Think of all the people who live in a world of they. Honestly, it’s all of us at least some of the time. “They say that they are really upset by what’s going on.” Who is upset? They are.
Who says? They do.
Do you know anybody who lives in a world of they? Have you found yourself visiting in the land of they these last many months? This is not the world that God made and redeemed. If you’ve been in the “world of they” – get out! You don’t belong there. No one belongs there.
And more seriously, as Peggy Noonan recently noted in The Wall Street Journal:
An online poll this week from Ipsos reported 15% of Americans agree that the government, media and financial worlds are controlled by Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Not 15% of Republicans or conservatives, but of Americans. That’s a lot. Twenty percent believe in “the storm.” Axios last weekend quoted Russell Moore, the evangelical theologian, saying he talks every day to pastors of virtually every denomination “who are exhausted by these theories blowing through their churches.”
The land of they is a powerfully toxic place, and it is counter in every way to the person and work of Jesus Christ. One role of the church that we need to reclaim – congregation by congregation, pastor by pastor – is faith communities as a potent alternative and counternarrative to the world of they. Living together without “they” means we stop before we treat our own opinions, indignation, and anger as more important than anything else. It means we are loyal to God’s promises and God’s purposes ahead of our political convictions or our personal preferences. It means those most marginalized and wounded by society are never – can never – be seen as they, but only as sisters and brothers together.
You cannot build a church in a they world. You cannot proclaim the saving truth of the gospel from the place…of they. Faith and hope do not take root and grow in a they world. The gifts of God grow in the world where God knows each of us, calls each of us, and crucially, calls us all into a community of blessing and purpose, where there is no “they.”
Maybe the imposed isolation of the last year has led us to forget the gift and power of community to keep us out of the land of they.
Maybe the pandemic has revealed our urgent need to renew our understanding of the nature and purpose of the church. The church is not brought together by a majority vote for things we agree on. We are brought together by the Spirit of the Living God and made into an “us.”
We live together.
We serve together.
We share joys and fears, hopes and dreams together.
We hope for, work for, and are guided by God’s new heaven and new earth – together.
Jesus shatters the land of they with a call to become together what we will never be able to be on our own. That truth is at the heart of what it means to be the church. Whatever else life in a church community is – it is a journey from they…to us. The tilt and arc of our whole life and the life of every faith community is likely at stake here, because when, once and for all, you and I depart “the land of they,” we will hear a clear voice proclaim: “Blessed are you – on you I will build my church.”