Acting in name of God


Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Not everyone who claims to follow God or be in favor of God has an accurate understanding of discipleship.

Historically, much violence and heartache has been caused by those claiming to act in the name of God. Examples: the crusades, the inquisition, slavery, etc. God never supported such atrocities. The trouble is – our understanding of God (and God’s purposes for life) is always incomplete.

Although we must be cautious in generalizing, we can suggest that the Old Testament’s major emphasis is on the law, with the Ten Commandments its cornerstone. Throughout the time of our spiritual ancestors, those ten commandments evolved into hundreds of laws, most of which were “Thou shalt not(s).”

Fortunately, throughout history, God increasingly revealed self, providing us with a better image of God’s nature and expectations – especially in the person of Jesus Christ. Not only was Jesus often at odds with those ancient laws, but his Beatitudes became, essentially, his new commandments. The difference between the two sets of laws is more than substance. The commandments seek to control one’s actions. The Beatitudes seek to transform the heart.

Yes, it’s important how a follower of Christ acts. In his encounters with the religious leaders of his day, however, Jesus found that their actions might conform to the religious laws of the time, but didn’t live up to Jesus’ concern for love, forgiveness, and other transformations of the heart.

There’s another subtle distinction between Old Testament legalism and New Testament demands of discipleship. Many Old Testament laws, and indeed many religious demands of that day, were demands and limitations placed on someone else. In contrast to that, the discipleship Jesus asked of his followers – was what was expected of them, as individuals.

In addition, note how often Jesus sought to divert attention from the outward act which seemed to violate an existing law. Instead, he questioned what was in the person’s heart. We often giggle over Jesus’ words about a man lusting after a woman. Instead, Jesus wanted us to understand how our conduct – good or ill – begins in the heart and reflects our real integrity.

I want to have confidence in the person who claims to “follow God,” but I’d have more confidence in one whose loyalty is focused more on God’s living example in Jesus of Nazareth. In his life and teachings, Jesus helped us to see and understand that God wants us to move beyond laws that limit — to embrace love that enables.

Jesus did this again and again. We see it in his Parable of the Good Samaritan prompting us to see God’s loyalty even in the “alien” person. He made forgiveness come alive in the Parable of the Prodigal Son – and in his own willingness to forgive those about to execute him. He cast a condemning eye on greed seen in parables about wicked business persons. He valued humanity’s least, its outcasts, when he cured lepers, spoke with the sinful woman at the well, called the children to his lap, and turned aside to heal a woman who dared touch his robe in search of a miracle.

The most significant element of Jesus’ ministry was the inescapable image of sacrifice and servanthood that he demanded of those who would be disciples. Thus we are asked — we are being asked each day – to take up our cross to follow Jesus.

I don’t want people who simply favor God. I want those who understand the complexities and demands of discipleship – and take up their cross anyway.

By William McCartney

Your Pastor Speaks

Rev. William McCartney is a retired United Methodist minister and a professor emeritus of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

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