Pledge allegiance to the King
Imagine standing on an eastern battlefield some 160 years ago. Visualize the tens of thousands of young men, some in blue, some in grey, lining up with a dreadful mix of anticipation, fear and fatigue.
Some are standing opposite sons, fathers, uncles, brothers and friends. All have come, ready to give their lives for a cause to which they are loyal.
One side gathers under the newly created Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America. Others, Union Men, rally under Betsy Ross's Stars and Stripes.
Over the course of four bloody and brutal years—arguably the most divisive in our nation's history—more than half of a million Americans gave, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it, "the last full measure of devotion" to disparate causes in which many of them passionately believed.
Shockingly, we live in a cultural moment which feels similarly divided. The chasms are deep, the rhetoric venomous, and the violence swelling. Everyone is being pressured to pick a side and take a stand, then to yell as loudly as they can, drowning out the voices of the opposition and any kind of reason. Throw social media in the mix, and the freshly fueled fire needs only a spark.
Interestingly—just as those opposing armies gathered proudly under their chosen standards—flags seem to have made a comeback. It's difficult to drive through town and not see someone flying a flag, communicating their allegiance to a side, a cause or a candidate.
Prince of Peace?
As a pastor, I should be writing about Jesus, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). I should be reminding everyone that he's the only one who can bring true unity and peace to our nation.
But I'm not going to do that. Because if you're not aware, "the Lord is a man of war" (Exodus 15:3), and even though Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11), he will one day lead the armies of heaven, riding on a white horse, and ruling the nations with a rod of iron, having "tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty" (Revelation 19:11-16).
Many of us have an image of Jesus as a smiling, white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian holding children on his lap and carrying lambs in his arms. It's difficult for us to imagine him as anything but gentle and mild. We like Jesus to be kind, loving and quiet. Tame even. We prefer a safe Jesus who doesn't threaten any of the things we hold so dear. But Jesus was anything but safe.
He did crazy things, like turning over tables at a public bazaar that had been set up in the Temple (John 2:13-22). He openly debated the religious authorities, called them insulting names (Matthew 23), challenged their teaching, and angered them by equating himself with God (John 5:18; 8:58-59). He made powerful people so angry that they plotted to kill him before his ministry had barely even begun (Matthew 12:14, Mark 3:6, Luke 6:11, John 5:18), finally succeeding by hanging him on a Roman cross.
But Jesus didn't just say shocking things to his opponents. He turned around and let loose on his friends, too. How about this one: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell" (Matthew 5:29). That's pretty intense.
Or listen to this: "To another [Jesus] said, 'Follow me.' But he said, 'Lord, let me first go and bury my father.' And Jesus said to him, 'Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God'" (Luke 9:59-60).
Or consider the high standards he set for following him: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt 10:37).
Allegiance to the King
You see, Jesus didn't get killed because he was nice. He didn't get killed because he was gentle.
He got killed because he claimed to be the King. He got killed because he unflinchingly confronted people's allegiances. He continues to do so.
Unfortunately, most of us are unwilling to lay down our allegiances for the sake of King Jesus. We will do most anything to protect what is most important to us. Which is why there's so much division in our world right now as we gather under different "flags," and pledge our allegiance to them. Whether the "flag" is our nation, our preferred political party, our favored candidate, or simply our family, comfort, or financial stability. No matter what it is, if it claims our allegiance, it's a potential competitor to King Jesus.
So, no matter what dividing line you toe up to in this current moment, recognize that the true dividing line in the universe isn't between political parties, economic philosophies, worldwide pandemics, racial identities or nationalistic loyalties.
The dividing line is King Jesus. And he tolerates no competition: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…" (Matthew 10:34). The sword he brings will make a very clear distinction between those who bow the knee to him and those who don't.
A new flag
So, Jesus call us to pledge allegiance to him over anything else, to follow him as King and to pursue his Kingdom. To pledge allegiance to Jesus is take up a new flag—a new standard—called the cross: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:34-35).
As the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote: "When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die." One point he was making was that we should be a little concerned if following King Jesus doesn't cost us anything.
So, what flag do you wave? Where do your loyalties lie? If they lie with King Jesus, then he bids you come and die to all of your old allegiances. And as you pick up your cross and follow him, you may find the lines between you and your neighbor disappearing and peace overcoming division after all.
Mike Phay is the pastor of First Baptist Church. He can be reached at 541-447-7717.
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