In his autobiography titled Climbing the Mountain, actor Kirk Douglas recalls accepting a bit part in a Sylvester Stallone movie. His role was to play the father to Stallone’s character who was a wayward criminal. Laying on his deathbed, Douglas has Stallone come closer and closer to him under the guise of imparting some final words. Yet, when Stallone is within arms- length, Douglas whacks him across the head. “What was that for?” Stallone’s character asks. “It is for being a gangster – you lie, steal and shoot people!” Douglas, as the father figure, imparts.
Then, he continues by telling Stallone that he has brought shame to the family which leads a weeping Stallone to promise that he will try to do better. After his heartfelt confession, Stallone leans over to kiss Douglass, as his father, one last time before he dies. But, rather than an embrace, he receives one more whack upside the head. “And, what was that for?” Stallone again asks. “That,” Douglass says slyly, “is so you don’t forget!” (As quoted by George Mason in the sermon, “Gone Today, Here Tomorrow”, Wilshire Baptist Church, May 20, 2001)
In essence, the real life disciple Thaddeus, is very much akin to Kirk Douglas’ fictional character in this scene. He too, wanted to beat people into submission or to bring them to a higher ethical standard by waving an iron fist. I say this because most scholars believe that Thaddeus, as well as three others among the twelve disciples – James the Lesser, Judas Iscariot and Simon – were likely all what were known in the biblical period as Zeolots. Zeolots were a unique group within New Testament Judaism. They were the most ardent opponents of Rome as the occupying force in Israel at the time. Their hatred of the Romans even led them to violence and significant aggression against the empire. In fact, Zeolots were often known as “dagger men” because some of them would carry small knives under their cloaks which could quickly be pulled out if the opportunity presented itself for them to bring harm to someone representing the empire. As a result, it stands to reason that no one among the Jews was more excited about the possibilities of a military messiah who would establish an earthly rule than the Zealots. Such a figure’s arrival would without question be a welcomed sight for sore eyes battered by years of foreign occupation.
This all helps us, I think, to put into context the words of Thaddeus on the one and only occasion in which we hear from him in the gospels. It is our text for today from John 14 verses 22 and 23. The exchange between Thaddeus and Jesus takes place with the crucifixion looming on the horizon. Realizing that the time is drawing nigh, Thaddeus’ question of Jesus expresses his frustration. He wants to know when Jesus is going to make it plain as day and crystal clear that he is the Messiah. In essence, he presses Jesus as to way he has not demonstrated to the masses in some obvious, straightforward and impossible to deny way who he is. Thaddeus can’t figure out why Jesus hasn’t used his power to force the world to believe.
Jesus’ response is as intriguing, as Thaddeus the Zealot’s question. What he attempts to help Thaddeus to understand is that true faith is never a result of force. True faith is not what happens when we make people believe. Rather, true abiding faith is a by-product of love. Said another way, faith is not a result of being made to choose Jesus. Rather, faith is the result of being compelled by a loving example and in turn wanting to believe because this appears to be the very best way to live.
I think we all must admit that we like Thaddeus wish Jesus had simply forced belief. Truth be told, it seems like it would have been a lot easier. If Jesus had simply forced the world to accept him for who he was that would have solved everything right? We could have simply gone on with life and lived happily ever after and without question the world would have been a better place.
Yet, Jesus wisely wanted us to understand what he hoped Thaddeus would also understand. Forcing or making others to choose faith never leads to a genuine faith. Authentic faith, like so many other areas of this life, is ultimately a decision of the heart. It is the result of the compelling work of the Holy Spirit. Such an authentic faith is what stands the test of time rather than quickly fading away just as soon as the opportunity arises because it was something that we never wanted to do to begin with but rather something we were made to do.
For years, my dad played the banjo. When I was a kid, every Tuesday night, a group of men in our community would come over and gather in the upstairs room over our garage where they would play Bluegrass music for an hour or two and enjoy each other’s company.
One day, I admitted to my dad, that I had always wanted to learn to play an instrument. I also shared with him that the instrument that always caught my eye was the guitar and so I asked him about the possibility of my taking guitar lessons from the same man who had taught him how to play the banjo. This fellow was a bit of a musical genius who could play anything and who thus gave lessons on almost any stringed instrument you could name.
Dad, in his wisdom, suggested that maybe I would enjoy the mandolin instead. You see, they already had a couple of guitar players in the bluegrass group on Tuesday nights but they didn’t have a mandolin player. Maybe I was the answer to their prayers. Or, their worst nightmare — depending on how you looked at it!?!
To say that dad forced me to play the mandolin would be an overstatement. But, to say that he strongly suggested it and to also be clear that he was footing the bill for the lessons is very accurate. Thus began my short foray into the world of the mandolin. Again it was a short career, namely because my heart was really never into it. Oh it was fun for a while, but, it really wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was to play the guitar – that’s where my heart was and as a result it was only a matter of time before the mandolin lost my interest, enthusiasm and energy.
Do you see my point? Requiring, making, legislating or strong arming people into doing things — particularly forcing people in faith — rarely produces long term, authentic, real results. It may work for a season but rarely will it stick for a lifetime.
I must say also that the other reason we like the idea of a forced or legislated faith is that it really lets us off the hook doesn’t it? If we make people choose Jesus, if we legislate faith, if we require it, then choosing Jesus is no longer primarily incumbent on you and I as everyday believers.
The same would have been true for Thaddeus. If Jesus had simply made people believe, then Thaddeus and the rest of the twelve would have been relieved of their responsibilities. The case would have been closed. But, rather than solving things, Jesus actually put even more responsibility on Thaddeus and the shoulders of the others among the twelve. After all, for the life of faith to become a compelling choice for people it was going to require them to faith in action through the lives of the early believers. They would have to reach a point where they looked at the palpably unique nature of the early believers lives and through the work of the Holy Spirit become convinced that they wanted a similar life for themselves.
Today, the same responsibility to present a compelling argument for faith with our own lives rest squarely on our shoulders too.
My good friend Tony Hopkins from First Baptist in Greenwood had the chance to visit Israel this past summer. Recently while having lunch, he told me a story from his trip. He said that their group had a tour guide during their time there who was absolutely terrific. In fact, she had been giving tours to groups from all over the world for years. Over time, though she grew up Jewish, she had become a follower of Jesus.
Interested, several members of the group asked her to share her story with them. They really wanted to know what it was that had helped her to make the transition from Judaism to Christianity. Finally, one day she shared her story. And, the long and the short of it was the fact that her profession of faith was the slow result of meeting and getting to know Christians over all those years while giving them tours of Israel. Slowly but surely over time, the unique nature of their lives had compelled her to learn more about this faith that they professed.
In sharing that story, Tony admitted to me that it made him really stop and think. It may him reflect on the thousands of people she had met over the years and how their simple choices every day to treat each other fairly, to be kind each other and to her, to display mercy and love and to present a unique way of living in her presence had compelled her to want to know more. Their lives had become the argument that she ultimately could no longer resist.
Tony admitted as well, that in reflection, her story helped him to understand the responsibility that we all carry around every day. Since we don’t force people to believe, since we don’t make people believe, since we don’t legislate belief, choosing Jesus really does depend on us. Our lives really must present the compelling argument. We must exhibit a different way that is worth embracing.
Without question, Thaddeus had a point, making people believe would be a lot easier. But in the end, for us and for others, the work of compelling others to believe is much more authentic and long lasting. Amen.