Good Faith: Are You Some Sort of Extremist?
Are You Some sort of Extremist?
1 john 4:7-21
The word “extremist” is surely being thrown around loosely these days. The label of extremist used to only be reserved for terrorist activity, such as violence perpetrated in the name of religion. Or isolated cults out in the desert who have suicide pacts. Or fringe religious groups that picket funerals. Or even groups that actively and often violently seek to persecute because of prejudice. Whatever the case, all of these activities would be considered objectively extreme.
Extreme is a word that goes back to the Latin extremus which literally means outermost or furthest. If we were to trace back to the usage of the word “extremist” the earliest use comes from the 1840’s and refers to someone who believes “extreme doctrines.” An extremist is one on the outside of the margins.
So even though we get images of extreme violence, hatred, and prejudice when we think about someone being “extremist” the basic definition of the word simply points to someone who thinks outside of what is often considered normal and socially acceptable and believes what he or she believes with such fervor that they cannot be swayed by society. If you think about it, followers of Jesus could fall into that category pretty easily. We just don’t like the word because of what it is typically associated with.
In a poll conducted by Barna, they found that 60 percent of all adults in America believe that sharing your faith with someone else is considered extreme behavior. 83 percent of religiously affiliated feel this way. Even 30% of practicing Christians believe that this is considered extreme behavior.
It makes me wonder what sharing one’s faith means to people. What do they think of? Do they think of the bullhorn guy shouting hellfire and brimstone from the street corner? If so, then many of us would vote for that being extreme behavior.
In this poll did they view evangelism as sharing your faith over time as you build a relationship with someone? I’m thinking not, because it’s doubtful many would think that such behavior would be extreme.
Nonetheless, Christians are lumped in with being extreme far too often for our comfort. But I believe we can reclaim and redefine the word extremist. Repaint the image that comes to mind when we see an extremist. My hope is that today we can see how the “extremist” label makes our faith that much more credible and enduring.
I mean just look at the cross. Jesus was considered an extremist. A group of citizens and Pharisees corners a woman to stone her and rather than just going along with what would have been perfectly legal at the time, Jesus gets her accusers to look at their own sin. And lets her go. That is extreme according to the standards of first century Israel.
Jesus was called to the carpet again and again for his extreme behavior and beliefs. Healing people on the Sabbath. Letting unclean women wash his feet. Even talking to a woman alone would have been considered inappropriate or extreme. Holding up the behavior of a Samaritan over that of a priest and a Levite in a parable. Claiming that “I and the Father are one.” All of this was considered extreme and he was crucified for it. Although, that was the plan all along, right?
Another aspect of Christ’s message that would have been considered extreme is this idea of the powerful being cast down from their thrones. The first being last. The, I was naked and you clothed me, message. The message of the kingdom was way outside what anyone was predicting or hoping for. Even the Gentiles were considered outside of God’s love. Yet Christ came so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female that all are one in Him.
The early church, which grew exponentially and was sparked at the day of Pentecost was built on people who were considered extremists. Followers of Jesus were so extreme they would hold onto their beliefs even to the point of death. In fact, when Rome would martyr Christians, the Christian community would increase exponentially. People would start following Jesus because if Jesus’ followers were getting killed for their beliefs and not letting go of them, they must be true. I mean, no one was getting martyred for Zeus.
So Rome decided not to inadvertently fuel the church by the blood of the martyrs, but rather torture those who would refuse to recant their beliefs. These were called Confessors. And this backfired hugely for Rome. Because now you had someone who was a living martyr. Someone who limped into the small Christian gathering wearing his/her scars like trophies. “This I endured because I believe that my Jesus is savior and Lord and has risen from the dead and is setting up his kingdom, and I refused to deny Him.” In an ironic way, what was considered by the broader culture to be extremist actually brought greater credibility to the faith? Again, rarely do people die for things they know to be untrue.
How about a German monk who dared defy the almighty Catholic church who had the emperor on its side? Who started the emperor in the face and declared that unless you show me that I’m wrong from these Scriptures, I will not recant. In the face of intimidation and ultimately a death warrant that was never fulfilled, Luther refused to be intimidated. He was considered an extremist far and wide, yet these views that were outside the margins were eventually brought closer center. Though an extremist, Luther’s movement gained credibility. If he’s willing to defy the pope and the emperor, perhaps there is something to this.
So if we’re followers of Jesus, then why would we be afraid of being labeled as extremists? He certainly was. The church fathers certainly were. The namesake of our denomination followed in those footsteps. We must not be afraid of the label, but rather reshape what extremism actually is.
And let's be honest, Christians who do talk about their faith today threaten a fragile cultural consensus that typically sees faith as something that is meant to be kept to yourself. As soon as you share it, you’re starting to act like one of those people outside of knowing what is socially acceptable. And it can be intimidating to share your faith, right? But why should it be? Especially if our identity is now in Christ. If our faith is a part of us, why would we compartmentalize it or censor it? I run into people every day who are not the least bit afraid of sharing their beliefs. Their ideologies. Their conception of how the world should be. Why can't we as followers of Jesus do the same?
We can. In fact, we’re called to. And I am not talking about bullhorn on the sidewalk guy. That guy is in his own strange, little world. I’m talking about just being who we are as Christians. Living life in the various vocations God has entrusted us with. I’m talking priesthood of all believers. We each have been called as Ambassadors of God’s Kingdom to live out a Good Faith in the places where we live, work, and play.
How many of your coworkers know that you are a Christian? Do any of them know that you’re a follower of Jesus? Some questions to consider. But I can see why it’s intimidating to let it be known that you go to church. Or that you pray over your lunch. No one wants to be labeled an extremist.
What I’m telling you is that the “extremist” label places you in good company in the history of the church. Let’s rescue the word from the baggage and wear it with scarlet-lettered pride because authentic practice and fervor for the love of God enhance credibility.
And ultimately there is no reason to be afraid. For as the writer of our epistle lesson tells us Perfect love casts out fear. There is no fear in love. It’s kind of an interesting cycle if you think about it. Love your neighbors. If we do not love them then we have the chance of succumbing to fear. For the love of God that is being perfected in us comes from confessing and believing that Jesus is the Son of God and was sent to be the savior of the world. God has got us. We need not be afraid. God’s perfect love is casting out fear in each of us in this very moment.
In Conclusion: Let’s not worry about labels. Let’s just live. Knowing that we have a Risen Christ going before us into those places we live, work, and play. Extremist is a compliment. We’re in good company.
Secondly, I don’t think the church is in as bad a shape as we may think it is sometimes. God has us. He’s still working. He’s just moving us out and waking us up to see the reality that there are a lot more areas today where the church’s influence is being called into question or being dismissed. We need to not worry about such dismissal. God’s church has been through this before. We worship a Risen Christ who takes us with us. Not only out into the community, but also from death to life.
Several excerpts, statistics, and inspirations for this message come from the book Good Faith, by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman: Check out goodfaithbook.org for more info.