Life in the Middle
[This article is adapted from a sermon preached by Pastor Cole at Bethlehem Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. — Ed.]
Does Jesus make you nervous when he says hard things? Had I not been studying a book by Dr. Gerald Mann in which he discusses this matter, I might not have been brave enough to raise the question.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Go through the narrow gate; for the way that leads to destruction is wide and broad, and there are many who travel it. But the way that leads to life is narrow and hard, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13, 14).
Dr. Mann proposes that the middle way is the narrow way—not the way far left or the way far right. It has been traditional to interpret Jesus’ words to mean that the Christian is to take a rigid stance on one side of an issue—a stance which separates him or her from the “world’s” position. In other words, the “narrow way” has frequently been viewed as a way of narrow dogmatism and it has often been preached that the Christian’s duty is to stand for the absolute right against the absolute wrong.
That was not Jesus’ idea at all! On the contrary, a close look at Matthew 7 reveals that the Christian way is the way of moderation. “The narrow way” is that thin line between truth and error, right and wrong, liberal and conservative, rigidity and permissiveness. For instance, consider the fact that often the most difficult place to stand on an issue is in the middle. It’s relatively easy to take one side or the other, but if you try to stand between the two sides and do justice to both, you are likely to be subject to scorn and rejection by those on either side. Whether the matter at hand is ethical behavior, dogmatics, politics, or some other issue, the loneliest position of all is in the middle. And, it is precisely the place where Jesus calls us to live as His disciples.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to steer a middle course in human justice by rejecting violence on the one hand and a system of racial tyranny on the other. He had no patience with racists whether white or black. His was a lonely position. Years ago, we visited a former Pastor in Atlanta who was close to Dr. King. Very concerned for King’s safety, this Pastor firmly urged Martin not to go to Montgomery and “get involved.” But, as we know, marching in the middle way, he got involved indeed!
President Abraham Lincoln tried to steer the middle course between maintaining freedom for former slaves and punishing the South after the South was defeated—a lonely stance.
Jesus himself was a man in the middle. He angered nearly everybody before he was through. Though he upheld the law, the rigid Pharisees did not want him. Though he made the law flexible, the Sadducees did not want him. Though he talked about revolution, the Zealots did not want him. Though he preached obedience to Caesar, the Romans did not want him.
Jesus accepted truth where he found it but he did not, to the annoyance of many, accept any group’s way as the whole truth. The narrow way is the middle way which involves the effort to bring the world in and to keep worldliness out. Every subject Jesus treats in his sermon recorded in Matthew 7 illustrates the tension of living in the middle.
His first lesson in the Sermon on the Mount has to do with steering a middle course between judging and accepting the behavior of others. We may refuse to condone a person’s deeds—indeed we may condemn his deeds—but we must not condemn the person; we must not reject him and separate ourselves from him. Jesus tells us to live in that narrow place between rejecting deeds and rejecting persons, to walk the narrow line between judging and accepting! The narrow middle ground between accepting and judging is neither heroic nor easy, and few there are who live there. But it is the place to which Jesus calls us to live.
Jesus gives a second illustration of living in the middle when he addresses the subject of receiving what we ask from God. It’s interesting to note that all of the verbs in this portion of the text are in the future tense: “Ask and you will receive”—not immediately, but in the future. “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” The point is that the Christian lives in anticipation between partial fulfillment and ultimate fulfillment. Christians must learn to get by on glimpses rather than full visions. I like Bryan Jeffrey Leach’s hymn in our Hymnal called “Glimpses of Glory.” That is what we can expect as we live between the “now” and the “not yet,” that is, in the “meanwhile” which we call “today.”
The Bible says that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). If we received every time we sought, if the door of absolute truth were opened ever time we knocked, we wouldn’t need faith! As Christians we live in the narrow middle between doubt and certainty. My friend Flora quotes the verse: “Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” Sometimes those few glimpses of the Kingdom which God gives us are all that keep us from giving in to doubt entirely.
If we live between asking and receiving what we want from God, it follows that we must do the same thing with reference to what we want from others. In Matthew 7:12 we read the Golden Rule—“Whatever it is you want from others, do this to them.” What do we really want from others? Love, esteem, fairness, honesty, acceptance, good will—that pretty much covers it! Therefore, if that is what we want for ourselves, that is what we should give to others.
That’s a pretty tall order. It may be clear and simple but that does not make it easy. To give love to others makes us vulnerable and gives the other person the power to hurt and control us. Giving another power puts us in a weak position which may cost us. In short, the Golden Rule is a call to live in the middle—to give love without receiving love, to be honest without being treated honestly, to accept without being accepted.
Jesus, I wish you hadn’t said that. I don’t want to live in the middle. If I love, I want to be loved in return—now! I cannot live without love. It is true—humans have a deep basic need to be loved. But the Christian already has love—the love of God. We don’t have to be rewarded by others for the love God gives to us.
This brings us to the real reason many people cannot live in the middle when it comes to loving. They have not experienced God’s love and thus cannot love others without being loved in return. St. John says: “We love others because he first loved us.”
Thus, the Christian who is called to live between times, between the world as it is and the world as it is yet to be, must also be content to live between asking and receiving, between wanting and getting. These are difficult places to live!
Jesus finished the sermon with another illustration of life in the middle (Matthew 7:24 ff.). He asked the age-old question of faith and works. Does a Christian get into the Kingdom by believing right or by doing right? Some say one; some say the other.
It seems to me that Jesus once again presents us with the same tension he’s made us face before. Christians are called to live between faith and works. We cannot enter the Kingdom by merely believing, nor can we enter by merely doing. We live in tension. We believe and we must act on what we believe. Belief and action are equally important. What we are is determined by what we believe, just as what we believe is shown by our actions. The easy way, the way that is wide and broad, the way which leads to destruction, is the way of doing without believing, or believing without doing. But the narrow way which leads to life is the middle way of doing and believing.
To summarize, Jesus illustrated what “living in the middle” means (1) in his teaching about judging. When it comes to judging others, living in the middle means rejecting another’s deeds if they are evil while accepting him. (2) When it comes to getting what we want from God and others, living in the middle means giving of ourselves without receiving full measure in return. And (3) when it comes to believing and doing, living in the middle means doing both—that is, holding faith and works in tension.
If ever Jesus’ unnerving ideas were to become the norm—better still, when they do become the norm, so shall the Kingdom come. Even so come Lord Jesus!