Philip Rieff writes, “There is something rather than nothing. The most empirical sociological version of that something may be read in Matthew 18:18.” I couldn’t remember exactly what this passage said, so I looked it up. It reads, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on the earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” This passage follows on the heels of Jesus telling his followers that whenever two or three are gathered together in his name that he is there in the midst of them. Rieff, who is very difficult to read, challenges us to consider the sacred/social order of our lives. I believe that what he is suggesting is that there is something profound in the way that humans choose to come together. Not only the desire to be together is important to the human condition, but likewise the methods we employ in these endeavors. Our devotion to community matters. As much as we like to think of ourselves as rugged individualist, we always default to seeking out community. Jesus teaches that in community there is a sacredness that binds us together, but also the gathering itself provides insight into the veiled sacredness that often escapes our attention. The attention of most of our energies and efforts is directed in the sphere of the earth. But our actions in this sphere have consequences in other spheres. Earthly actions have eternal consequences. What we do in the here and now also matters in the hereafter.
There is a certain power and authority that accompanies those gathered together intentionally “In his Name” on the Earth. Often, when we contemplate the Sovereign nature of God, we see him as the initiator of all events and actions. However, according to Jesus, we have power to initiate actions and make decisions that our honored by heaven. God ordains that communities would not only gather but also act in his name. This begs the question, what actions are earthly communities of faith taking, that will have eternal consequences? I think about this working in both positive and negative directions. How many times have communities of faith, with good intentions, negatively impacted the eternal consequences of others based up on myopic visions of what they deemed to be important? And how often have we ostracized others based upon our desire to please the group rather than answer to the sacred order of things.
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie is a detailed account of how earthly communities can indeed make a difference in this world and the world to come, when the devotions are rightly ordered. Less Innocent Blood Be Shed is the true account of Pastor André Trocmé and his efforts at the village of Le Chambon, France, in providing refuge for Jews seeking to escape deportation to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In Hallie’s book, Pastor Trocmé acts from conscience, courageously resisting both his own government and German occupiers to save many lives. Early in his resistance, Trocmé is questioned by the police chief, who says, “Pastor, we know in detail the suspect activities to which you are devoted.” Trocmé ignores the threat and simply responds, “I am their pastor, their shepherd. It is not the role of a shepherd to betray the sheep confided to his keeping.” Trocmé rightly identifies the object of his devotion as the people for which God has made him responsible. Pastor Trocmé is an example to all those who would take up the mantle of leadership and seek to be a voice of moral clarity in difficult times. The word “devotion” is a fitting description of what should motivate our service to God and to others.
Devotion is defined as “profound dedication, consecration, and an earnest attachment to a person or cause.” It was with this word that the Apostle Paul challenged his young protégé Timothy in 1Timothy 4:12-16: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (emphasis mine). Paul uses the word devote as a description of how the young preacher should live out his public ministry.
Unfortunately, too many have traded what should be their devotion for simple distraction. The distractions of our lives, both good and bad, have robbed us of the devotion that should belong to Christ and the mission He has given to all of us. Paul makes it clear to Timothy that he should devote himself to “…reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” And should not “…neglect the gift you have.” There is a direct connection between what Timothy is told to read as it relates to the subject matter of his exhortation and teaching. Timothy’s focus should be the word of God, Holy Scripture, and not the myriad of frivolities that so often occupy our heats and minds. In far too many pulpits, the instruction of Scripture is replaced with the novelties of entertainment, good advice has replaced the good news.
Devotion for the early church meant that many members would lose their lives for the sake of the gospel of Christ. For the 21st Century church, the gospel has become just another activity for which most are unwilling to lose an hour’s sleep. When I think of the passion that motivated Peter, Paul, James, John and Timothy, I am convicted of my own lack of devotion to a cause that I esteem to be holy. As I reflect on the courage and boldness of Pastor Trocmé and his parishioners, I am reminded of how often my passion for the gospel and for others falls woefully short.
The title of Philip Hallie’s book comes from the Old Testament concept of Cities of Refuge, places where those who were guilty of manslaughter could escape to safety until their case was heard and a verdict determined. The cities are established “….lest innocent blood be shed” (Deuteronomy 19:7-10). The pastors and parishioners of Le Chambon were so devoted to live out the Scripture they were willing to put themselves and the peace of their village at risk for the sake of others. May the same be said of us. May we be completely devoted to the cause of the gospel of Christ that liberates humanity from the bondage of sin and death, while seeking ways to live this out in what we say and how we live.
It is obvious that we have the power and authority to make the world a better place, but this can only be accomplished when we act together in sacred alignment with the aims of heaven. Indeed we should pray now and always, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.”