Jesus unfriended

Galatians 1:10-24; 2:11-14

Oct 17, 2014 by

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People often tell me in the hushed tones of a dirty secret, “I’m not sure I like the apostle Paul.” I reply, “That’s OK. The first Christians didn’t much like him either.”

But what really interests me about these conversations is that we think it matters, our liking or our not.

No book better illustrates what rubs us wrong about Paul than Galatians. His rhetoric is strong and passionate to the point of offense (5:12 — “I wish those agitators would go all the way and emasculate themselves!”). He goes out of his way to emphasize how little he cares what anyone else thinks about his ministry (1:16 — “I did not consult any human being”). He doesn’t hesitate to publicly call out other Christians where he perceives hypocrisy (2:11 — “I opposed Peter to his face, because he stood condemned”).

In short, Paul appears to fail the fundamental test of ‘niceness.’ This, after all, is what we tend to judge other Christians by first — not by their truthfulness, justice, generosity, compassion or moral courage, but by their ability to avoid crossing our lines, hurting our feelings, or otherwise disrupting our lives. It’s as if we believe the highest spiritual obligation of our fellow believers is to please us. If they fail to do so, they have somehow failed as Christians. And in turn we ourselves feel intense, relentless pressure to make ourselves pleasing to all.

But while some of us are more naturally skilled in the art of pleasing than others, Jesus once said that no one can serve two masters. Paul seems to recognize the implications of this statement in a visceral way. God is too consuming, too demanding for him to divide his energy chasing his neighbors’ approval. Where God moves, he must go. Where God instructs, he must obey. Where God speaks, he must reply. Paul has committed his life to the service of Christ’s pleasure, and this pursuit takes absolutely everything he’s got. He makes no apologies for this, and Christ asks for none.

Here’s a fact: it is supremely dangerous to be more well-liked than Jesus. And the truth is, most of us are. Most of us are. At best, we divert a great deal of our energy trying to ensure that no one is discomforted by a gospel meant to discomfort, that no one is disrupted by a gospel meant to disrupt. At worst, we become like Cephas, purchasing the scrupulous approval of our fellow believers at the expense of God’s own missional investments.

Jesus says in John 15 that no servant is greater than their master. If Jesus was hated, so sometimes will be those who devote themselves to following him. And as Jesus’ own story illustrates, this hatred is not always or only a matter of the world outside. It will include even many within the community of faith who resist the unsettling voice of truth and the radical call of the gospel.

Now is the time for us to learn: we can only please one at a time. If, by God’s grace, our choice is Christ, it will cost us. It will cost us good opinions. It will cost us more than a few “likes.” Sometimes it will put us at odds even with those whose approval we most crave. But this is what it means to be a servant of Christ: to speak, to act, to stay, to move at his pleasure alone.

Lord Jesus Christ, our Master, we repent of our desire to be better liked than you are. Deliver us from the tyranny of “nice” so that we may truly be servants of your disruptive passion.

Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church. She writes at MudPieGod.com where this first appeared.


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