Spider-Man: Steps Towards Hope
As kids we grow up playing and understanding with the simple mindset of good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. And almost in every context we make ourselves the heroes. Even if we are doing the wrong thing, we see ourselves as the hero. That comes with the built in the concept that the way to be the good guy is to beat the bad guy. To be the hero, you must conquer, defeat, imprison, or even at times kill the bad guy. Batman 89, Joker died. Man of Steel, Zod died. End Game, Thanos died 2 times. Scott Pilgrim, all the evil exes exploded into coins. Victory tends to be the primary concern, redemption an afterthought. Outside of works like Dragon Ball Z or My Little Pony, the villain's redemption or healing rarely comes into the picture.
Among the multitude of things that Spider-Man No Way Home got right, presenting the concept of a Spider-Man that was more concerned with the healing of his inflicted enemies than their defeat, that was a beautiful thing. (For the sake of clarity, moving forward, I’m going to refer to Spider-Men by Peter, Tobey, or Andrew because the whole Spider 1 thing is gonna get confusing.) Peter was facing villains he had only just met. People he had no true investment in. Dead men who by all accounts had already met their fate and who Peter owed no responsibility for the actions that lead to their fate. While his initial attitude was par for the heroic course, Aunt May planted the seed that Peter wouldn’t be able to move past.
May: He's lost. And I don't mean just in the cosmos. I mean in his mind. Are they all like this?
Peter Yeah. Well, I mean they all have their own, mental or physical issues.
May: Well, he needs help, but maybe they all do.
Peter: What, you don't mean... No, May, this... This isn't my problem.
May: Peter, not your problem? Mmm?
Peter: May... Their chance of getting help is way better back where they came from. Sending them home, That's the best thing that we can do for them.
May: For them? Or for yourself? Look around you. This is what we do. We help people.
May planted the thought in Peter’s mind that helping them instead of just getting them out of his hair was the better option. Not just removing their problematic existence, but actually helping. Heroes can usually just punch their way through a plot line, but that rarely actually helps things on a whole. You can’t punch or web evil into submission. Scripture shows us clearly that evil is not overcome by defeat, but by helping, by doing good. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”- Romans 12:21
We can so often see those who are problematic, troubled, or suffering as an inconvenience more so than we see them as actual people who could benefit from help and compassion. The reality that a lot of people who give the homeless money on the street or at intersections aren’t doing it out of love, but rather they are trying to get them to go away as quickly as possible. Essentially bribing them to get their inconvenient presence out of the way. We see examples like this across correctional institutions and the justice system as well. Remove the person who is a problem, rather than see them as a person who has a problem. The same is honestly true in church culture as well. “All are welcome,” but if your issues are too public or problematic, you’ll get cold shouldered and pushed out. “Grace and forgiveness for everyone,” unless you publicly sin in a way the majority aren’t sinning daily, and then you’ll get cast out. Actually helping problematic people is a great step for a hero, but it’s a required step for the church.
Scripture teaches us that valuing others above ourselves is essential to being who we are meant to be, and we fail at that so often that we are our own J. Jonah Jamesons.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2: 3-4.
Valuing others higher than ourselves is a hard thing to do because we are selfish by nature, and often we don’t love others even close to the level we love ourselves, let alone higher than ourselves. Not that we need to be tricked into loving better but if we refresh our perspective to remind ourselves that what we do to others, we are in fact doing to Jesus in the eyes of God, it should help our focus to not drift so easily.
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ - Matthew 25:42-45.
This perspective shift is a straight up Jesus juke from Jesus. Jesus brought in the perspective of people who were lacking, people in need, and even people who were criminals and separated from society. “I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat” sounds simple, but that also applies to things like, “My marriage fell apart and you gave me no support.” “I was losing the battle to my addictive sin, and you didn’t give me grace or accountability.” “I fell short of the standards I was living by, and you didn’t help build me back up.” Or even “I was transported to a multiversal world and you sent me back to my own to die.” What we do to others, we do to Jesus and what we do to others matters. That goes for people we love, but that also goes for enemies.
So often when people make it to the divisive place in our lives that they are seen as enemies, we just write them off. We preach a gospel of second changes and life transformation, but in our hearts, we don’t really believe people will change. We think that they’ve made up their mind and that nothing is going to make a difference. Not only do we think that, so often those in opposition think that as well. They think they are set in their path, and that no argument, no evidence, no amount of grace or compassion will change how they see things. So, we’re left in this place where we are just circling around each other, both believing the other to be wrong and never expecting something to shift. That’s a horrible way to exist with people.
Strange: It's their fate. You can't change that any more than you can change who they are.
Peter: But what if we could? What if we can change their fate?
If we stopped writing off the people on opposing ends of life with us, if we started treating them like they are valid and worthy of love and effort regardless of where they stand in relation to us, maybe fates could actually change. Scripture teaches us that not only do we not mistreat people in opposition to us, we treat them better, and with great value.
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
One of the things that always stands out to me so much is that Jesus makes these statements not just about people who disagree with us, or are antagonistic, but against those who actually harm. He lists those who hate, curse, mistreat, attack, steal, and more. The people who have no problem loving their enemies, just have really crappy enemies. That one statement in verse 35, “He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” That’s the thing, kindness towards the wicked, and especially towards the wicked towards us, shows the type of love and mercy that God gives, and that He calls us to give. When Peter went toe to toe, or Web to Magic with Dr. Strange for the protection of his newly acquired rogue's gallery, that was mercy and kindness to the wicked and ungrateful and it struck a nerve. Doc Ock, who literally a few hours earlier tried to put a kill shot through the chest of Peter, stopped to ask;
“You could've just left us to die. Why didn't you?”
Because that kind of love stands out. Jesus echoes His statement from Luke in the book of Matthew, He makes it clear that those who are against us, and even Him, still deserve love and mercy.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
God gives goodness, love, and mercy to people who are against Him and far from Him. Not to ignore the fact that yes, He does desire their return to Him.
We see in 1 Timothy 2: 3-4. “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” and 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God wants His children home, safe, returned, and redeemed.
Paul asks, in what I assume is a tone like He’s asking Harry if he put his name in the Goblet of Fire, “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” - Romans 2:4.
But people are often wary of kindness that comes with a catch. When Peter was offering to help the rogues so they could live, it was met with quick disdain.
Doc Ock: Fix? You mean like a dog? I refuse.
Lizard: Trust me, Peter... When you try to fix people, there are always consequences.
People like the idea of grace, compassion, and love. People are all about second chances. But they don’t want any of those things to come with accountability or admitting the fact they might be broken, fallen, or even, dare I say, sinful. That’s why so many people are quick to abandon God, and start addressing “The Universe.” “The universe showed me this.” “The universe is watching out for me.” “I really need the universe to come through for me on this.” People gravitate towards that because it is a concept that something is watching over you, something is providing, but not someone who is going to tell you where you are wrong, or call you to repentance. Not someone who is going to clearly tell you that what you are doing, thinking, acting, or feeling is wrong, and is not what’s best for you. People don’t want God as a Father, they want the Universe as an uncle that shows up throws some cash at you and then leaves you alone. Which is also why people are cautious of when Christians are doing things because they think it’s about manipulation. They think Christians are only present to fix what’s broken. To lovingly strong-arm people into changing.
As Green Goblin stated;
“I saw how she trapped you. Fighting her holy moral mission. We don't need you to save us. We don't need to be fixed. These are not curses.”
It’s God’s desire that all would turn to Him and be saved 100 percent. But He still gives blessings to and loves the wicked and ungrateful even when they don’t. He calls us to love the same way. In doing good for others, you can be hopeful for change, but it can’t be manipulation. Your kindness and love can’t be solely based on an outcome. If you have to have an outcome or specific result in order to feel like your kindness is fruitful, then you are missing the point.It’s not a compassionate quid pro quo, or a loan of love.It’s not an exchange for obedience. We love our enemies well, regardless of their response.
We have failed in loving well, especially our enemies. They often see things that come from the church as manipulative, intolerant, and gatekeeping, rather than us letting the abundant love of Christ flow in us, through us, and on to them. We have failed in the past in being who Jesus call the Church to be. In reality we are failing today, but we can’t just look at our failures and abandon the family, calling, and mission we are given. The whole story of the Gospel is Jesus saving what’s broken and lost, and we need to be able to see and acknowledge our past mistakes so we can learn from them and better be the church God calls us to be.
When Peter was at his lowest point, M.J. and Ned brought him together with his multiverse counterparts.
Andrew: I lost... I lost Gwen. My... She was my MJ. I couldn't save her. I'm never gonna be able to forgive myself for that. But I carried on. Tried to... Tried to keep going. Tried to keep being the... ... friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, because I know that's what she would have wanted. But... At some point, I just... I stopped pulling my punches. I got rageful. I got bitter. I just don't want you, to end up like... Like me.
Tobey: The night Ben died, I hunted down the man who I thought did it. I wanted him dead. I got what I wanted. It didn't make it better. It took me a long time to... learn to get through that darkness.
Peter: I wanna kill him. I wanna tear him apart. I can still hear her voice in my head. Even after she was hurt, she said to me that we did the right thing. She told me that with great power... “comes great responsibility.”
Peter was given this snapshot of himself. He was able to see what it looked like to stand on the other side of his failure, and see it face to face. Most of us, we aren’t so fortunate as to be able to workshop our flaws and struggles with bonus versions of ourselves, but we do have a long history of the Church that we can look at, learn from, and grow from. We can’t deny or ignore the ways the Church has failed, but we can also see what we’ve done right, and how to take positive steps forward.Hebrews 11 is this Multiverse level chapter of scripture where a lot of people from the Old Testament are brought together in the discussion of how our faith should move forward. The chapter lists lots of people, but among them are Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, and others who were liars, thieves, murderers, people who couldn’t control their flesh, and people who represented God poorly. They weren’t always the best of themselves, or the best of their faith. But they are given to us as a picture of what we do when we look back. Imperfect people clinging to and living out a faith that is bigger than them. Facing Tobey and Andrew was enough to convince Peter to move forward, and when we face our past predecessors in scripture it should be a strong motivation for us. Not that they were perfect, but that their faith was worth it, flaws and all. After the author of Hebrews gave us that reflective pep talk in chapter 11, he concludes it with this statement at the beginning of chapter 12.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” - Hebrews 12:1-3
One last thought, After Peter was able to cure his broken foes, and deal with the rage within himself, the story brought us back to the first problem we started with. Clinging to the life you are called to vs the life you want. As Dr. Strange told Peter after the botched spell “Look, part of the problem, it's not Mysterio. It's you. Trying to live two different lives. And the longer you do that, the more dangerous it becomes. Believe me.” Peter essentially had to “One More Day” himself in order to save the world. He had to lay down his life. He had to lay down his relationships, his hopes, his dreams, he had to let it go. Because that great responsibility was outweighing his great desire. I know this is a familiar concept, and it’s something I've written about before, it’s not even the only time I've written about it in this book. I'm sure you’ve heard in more sermons about it than you can count, but laying down our lives is part of the job. It’s part of the family. It’s part of the relationship. We are laying down our desires to actually follow Jesus.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” - Matthew 16:24-26
Peter laid down his life that day. He didn’t physically die. He still gets to live on. His story will continue, but there was a sacrifice. That sacrifice was worth it, and every life saved that day, and all the days moving forward will be worth it as well. But there was a hefty cost. Being a hero always does come with a cost. A hero with no sacrifice isn’t much of a hero. If we are claiming to follow Jesus but not actually letting go of anything in our lives, we’re probably not following Jesus very closely. I’m not telling you that you have to erase everyone's memory of you, but you may have to let go of getting credit or compensation for everything you do. I’m not telling you that you need to idly stand by while loved ones are wounded by a glider, but I am telling you that you might have to learn to not get payback for every offense or loss you face. You might have to learn to let some relationships go. You might have to let go of the material things you cling to for security. You might have to make some fresh starts. You’re not going to be able to love your enemies well if you are still clinging to your pride. You’re not going to be able to move past your past if you are still concerned with the opinion of others or fear. There are parts of you that will have to be laid down for your life and future to be lifted up.
We can love our enemies better.
We can rise above the mistakes of our past.
We can lay down our lives while truly living.
None of this life is going to be easy or smooth, but when you are bold enough to follow through, amazing things happen.
“You're... You're Amazing. Just to take it in for a minute. You... You are amazing. You are amazing.” - Tobey