The Antidote to Worldy Power, Techniques and Methods:
The Fear-of-the-Lord

by Eugene H. Peterson

Against using worldly means in the church

A member of the Herod family makes an appearance in each of the trials – Herod Antipas at Jesus’ trial and Herod Agrippa Ii at Paul’s trial. They play mirror roles in the proceedings, mere walk-on parts, but the presence provokes this reflection: the Jesus community gave astonishingly little attention to the World. If any name was synonymous with the World in that first Christian century it would have been Herod, any Herod. The Herod epitomized the vanities of the World, what we sometimes refer to as “worldliness,” matters of influence and status, pomp and circumstance, self-indulgence, what still gets summarized in the phrase, “getting on in the world.” It is more than curious that the Jesus community continues to court Herod-like people in hopes of gaining their approval, recruiting them as allies, and using their influence in the cause of the kingdom.

Herod Antipas and Herod Agrippa have long since receded into history as more or less stock figures for spiritual dilettantism and sham showmanship. But in their own time Antipas and Agrippa were impressive. All the same, the Jesus community was not impressed. The presence of Antipas and Agrippa at the trials gave the community access to men in positions of influence…If you wanted to “get ahead” in that kind of world, you couldn't do better than take a lesson or two from the Herods. They wrote the book on “leadership principles” for the world in which the Jesus community was being formed.

But the community showed no signs of being interested in their “book.” Jesus and Paul on trial before the World could easily have interpreted the presence of a Herod at the trial as a link to influencing the Roman governors – the Herods, after all, were fellow countrymen with influential ties to Rome; the Herods could well serve as a bridge for getting the message of the gospel to the most powerful political and cultural leaders of the age.

The Herods more or less epitomize the kind of people that the Jesus community is so often drawn in hopes of gaining their approval, recruiting them as allies, and using their influence in the cause of the kingdom.

But neither Jesus nor Paul did it. Basically their attitude is one of detached indifference. There is no fawning, no sign of what so often comes out among us in the presence of important people as, “Oh what an opportunity! Let’s make the most of this…these are influential leaders.” Jesus virtually ignores them. Paul faithfully gives witness but with no attempt to adapt or curry favor.

What is significant here for understanding the community vis a vis the World is this: the Herods offer the possibility of influence with Rome. These men are masters at “influence.” Both Herods are curious about the men on trial: Antipas curious about Jesus, Agrippa curious about Paul. This curiosity is ripe for exploitation; it can be used for the kingdom. But neither Jesus nor Paul exploited it; they do not “use” it; they ignore it.

And why? Because Jesus and the Jesus community know that the conditions in which the gospel makes its way in the World have little to do with influence and wealth and power. The non-negotiable context from which they work is made up of Jesus, the cross and the Trinity. Neither celebrity nor “opportunity” distracts either Jesus or the Jesus community.

The world is a seductive place. Once we begin to cater to its interests, appeal to its curiosities, shape our language to its idioms and syntax, embrace its criteria of relevance, we abandon our basic orientation.

Too often what took place a the trials of Jesus and Paul, trials that put Jesus and Paul in contrast to the way of the World, recedes from our awareness and is replaced by assumptions dominated by opportunity, technique, and accomplishment. Jesus and Paul were not seduced… [the Herods] were people who knew how to get things done. For those who want to do great things for God, the Herodians obviously offer great promise. But nothing could be more obvious and clear than that Jesus and Paul took “the road less traveled,” the way ending in death and crucifixion for Jesus and imprisonment and death for Paul.

…After assimilating just what it is that God has done and is doing in creation and salvation, this is the most difficult and at the same time the most important thing to embrace in the Christian life: that we become willing participants not only in what God does, but in the way He does it. We have all grown up and been immersed in a pre-resurrection world of means in which power and money, information and technology. Lust and avarice, pride and anger are the usual and approved ways for accomplishing the work of the world. They work, as a matter of fact, very well. They work efficiently. A clever and determined person can get al most anything he or she wants by perfecting and practicing these ways. The Herods certainly did.

But if Luke’s last word is right and accurately represents Paul and the Jesus community, these ancestors of ours are well on their way to a perceptive, discerning engagement in using the means, the only means, appropriate for doing gospel work.

“Unhindered” is just the right word. It tells us that all the difficulties or obstacles that loom large in an unbaptised imagination are simply of no account in the agenda of the kingdom, where the resurrection, the Spirit’s action in bringing Jesus alive into this present, defines the means. “Unhindered” connotes a kind of effortlessness. Paul, representing the Jesus community in Rome and as such witness to the resurrection, is no longer competing with the world’s means. His being there is enough: available; accessible to others without raising his voice, without fighting his way free of the imprisoning chain, without being diminished by the unlistening, unseeing Jewish leadership; free to offer up in intercession the massacred bodies of the Christians on the altar of the cross of Jesus. It is not exactly doing nothing. Something like a sacrifice is involved – in the words of one of our better spiritual theologians, “the suppression of self-consciousness, and a certain precise tilt of the will, so that the will becomes transparent and hallow, a channel for the work.”

…Learning how to live as the community of Christ is largely a matter of becoming familiar with and disciplines to the means by which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit work formationally among us: namely by the Holy Spirit from God’s side and prayerful obedience from ours, by hospitably including the unwanted outsiders of the world into the community, and by cultivating a detachment from the world’s insiders and their ways, especially as these ways are exemplified in the leaders and celebrities.

The community of Jesus betrays its master far more often and damagingly by the way it speaks and acts than by anything it ever says or does. Anger and arrogance, violence and manipulation rank far higher than theological error or moral lapses in desecrating the holy, resurrection community.

So – unhindered. This is a remarkable and memorable last word that Luke uses to characterize Paul and, by extension, the Jesus community. And it is timely today for the Jesus community, which is constantly tempted to use the world’s means to do Jesus’ work…it is understandable that we will bring what we have learned in these various settings [from the world] into the church. But more often than not what we have learned isn’t appropriate in this community—worse than inappropriate, it is wrong. The community of the resurrection is unique. How do we participate appropriately in this holy community?... The short answer to the “how” question, as in the parallel areas of creation and history, is to cultivate the fear-of-the-Lord…Practicing the fear-of-the-Lord gradually but surely shifts our attention from a preoccupation with what we can or should do to an attentive absorption in what God has been doing and the way He continues doing it in Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

This is an excerpt from Eugene Peterson's book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. (pp. 294-301)