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Friday, August 24, 2012

Life Together (1 Corinthians 11)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

            Are you excited about the return of students to campus?  Amped up about the start of football?  We are excited with you because we’re all in this together.

            Are you hurting from the recent death of someone you dearly loved?  We are here to hold your hold your hand and patiently walk alongside you as you begin to navigate your way through life with that person now gone. 

Maybe the questions are not for you but for the one a few rows back.  He’s afraid his job will be canceled.  He doesn’t know what he’ll do.  We – his church -wait anxiously with him, praying, encouraging, and staying with him no matter happens.  We’re all in this together. 

Maybe the questions are not for him or you, maybe not for the freshman away from home for the first time, maybe not for the divorcee who a year later cannot make sense of it; maybe the questions are for me, the nervous parent of a Kindergartner about to ride the school bus for the first time.  We’re all in this together – the family, the body of Christ.

            By “this” I mean life.  We live life together.  Too many people are lonely, disconnected from others who can share burdens and walk in faith with them.  The explosive popularity of Facebook shows just how desperate for connection people are.  I know many unchurched people would think church is the last place to go for a solution to the loneliness they feel.  Though they are adrift, they would never look to church as a safe landing spot and a place of welcome and home.  Why?  Church has become a caricature and an institution.  This cannot be.

Church is not somewhere to go on Sundays and somewhere to leave behind if the music didn’t include my favorite songs or the preaching wasn’t very good.  Church is not the building where I had my wedding.  Church is not the voice from some unforeseen place sending forth moral edicts that chasten some public acts, commend others, and condemn others.  Church is family – the family of people who put complete trust in God and give themselves fully to following Jesus through all arenas of life.  We are in this – this life – together.

            Heather last week introduced the idea of the church as a sacrament or a sign, a visual depiction of the unseen eternal spiritual reality of the Kingdom of God.  The church is the sign of intimate union with God and the unity of humankind.  Church is where we meet Jesus and get into friendships – lifelong friendships – with others who love Jesus and follow him.  The church is the instrument by which the Holy Spirit will bring about this intimacy and unity. 

            But as we turn to 1 Corinthians 11, we see that while the church has a high calling, the church doesn’t always answer that call well. 

Imagine the day of worship in the Corinthian church.  It’s happened on Sunday evening.  There was singing, preaching, and like today, the Lord’s Supper, along with a full meal just like today.  Only that meal wasn’t served after the worship but during.  Unlike today in that worship service, not everyone came at the same time.  Wealthier church members had their servants prepare food and wine for both the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and also for the feast.  When the wealthy were ready, they came to church and got started.  They weren’t “in it together,” with everybody, but only with other wealthy people.

            The more impoverished church members rose at sunrise and were quickly on the job: cutting and laying stone; digging ditches and building roads and bridges; working endlessly in the kitchen of some wealthy person; sweating in the fields, harvesting crops that were owned by someone else.  They would only get a small percentage of the sale at the market.  The day consisted of exhaustion, bloodied hands and feet, sweat, and indignities for the poor.

            By the time they cleaned up and came to church, the feast was consumed.  They were lucky if enough bread and wine remained so they could take the Lord’s Supper before and join in the final hymn.  These poor church members would have scoffed at the “we’re all in this together” mantra.  The rich controlled the church like they controlled everything else in life.  The community was divided and in the Corinthian Church, the divisions were painful and hostile.  Is our church a place where people find backbiting, fighting, pettiness, bickering and division?  If it is, we’ll never be that “we’re in this together” place that so many unchurched people all around us desperately need us to be.

Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 1, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you” (v.10).  Then in chapter 11, he acknowledges that his appeal to unity has fallen on deaf ears.  “When you come together as a church, I hear there are divisions among you” (v.18).  Paul wrote to reinforce the unity of God’s church, but in writing He finds he has to address again the very problem he hoped to cut off. 

            Paul was the pre-eminent church planter in the first century Greek-speaking world.  A former Pharisee, highly educated, passionately driven by his love for and gratitude to Jesus, Paul wanted the church to be the institution by which human beings came to know God and came to salvation and a life of following Jesus.  Christianity is not a solitary endeavor.  Christianity is personal, yes, but never private.  It’s never “me and God.”  Christianity is God among us in Jesus Christ.  Part of Jesus’ claim on our lives is seen in the way we love, forgive, and walk with each other.  We are God’s church when we are a community of grace.

            In Corinth, some members had their own suppers and they are in plenty, while others were literally going hungry.  Their poverty was rubbed in their faces.  Paul says this brazenly elitist approach to worship brought contempt on the church of God. 

            Here, we bring the food to the kitchen, then sit and have the worship service.  No one knows who brought which dish.  No one knows if you brought seven plates of food or zero plates.  Everyone is invited to the meal. 


We’re all in this together.  All of us are sinners who mess up big-time, and by Jesus, all of us are forgiven.  In the bread and the cup on Jesus’ table we know that nothing comes between us as people because Jesus has suffered for our sins and removed our sins.  In Him we are new creations. 

We aren’t the same as the Corinthians Church, but we share the same call, to be a sign of the Kingdom and to be a place all can come to meet Jesus and receive the grace of God.  We exist to draw people to God.  Are we doing that or are we a broken community?

The question we face is, are we doing anything in the way we live as a community of Christ-followers to bring division the way the Corinthians did?  We might not corporately sin as they did, but do we sin in other ways?  Does our sin bring contempt on the Kingdom of God?

            When sin runs along, unchecked, Paul shows where it leads.  Verse 32, “When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”  The problem – inequalities in worship – leads to contempt brought on the church.

Unchecked this sin, ironically perpetuated in the practice of the Lord’s Supper, leads to discipline from God.  Punishment.  He’s not happy with us and we feel the heat of His anger. 

What does the church do when community is overcome by infighting, jealousy, greed, and meanness of spirit?  The solution is ridiculously simple but immeasurably important when we consider how brutal life can be.  People come to church broken.  They need healing and love here, not an environment that tramples them more.  Paul says in verse 33, “So then my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.”

            Thus Paul gives us two metaphors.  In one, we live life on our own, seek our own advancement at the cost of those around us (even at the cost of our friends in Church), and in this we have an unpleasant date with God’s discipline.  In the other, where we wait for each other, we have “Life Together” – a true community built on Jesus. 

The first metaphor is contempt for the church.  Self-seeking neglect of neighbor, prejudice and elitism, and lack of compassion and welcome and concern bring contempt on God’s church. 

The second metaphor is the picture of waiting, patiently, for everyone to catch up and be together.  When we consider the weakest among us – and at some point each one of us will without planning to step right into that role of weakest – we are waiting for each other. 

“Contempt” v. “wait for one another.”  In one, the church fails and is judged.  In the other, the church shows what God’s kingdom is like.

            Which metaphor is lived out in the HillSong family? Are we a sign of intimacy with God and unity with God and human beings?  Do hurting people find comfort here?  Do seekers meet God?  Are the lonely loved?  Do lonely people come and find they are no longer lonely?  What about those with a strong sense of God’s call.  Here are they equipped to follow God, and to they find people that will come with them as they follow God.  Are we living life together?

            I don’t know. 

Are we waiting for one another?  Are we upholding the weakest, receiving grace, sharing generously, and making sure that everyone realizes his or her potential and realizes that he or she has a seat and belongs here among us?  Are we living out life for our own appetites or for the glory of God and for the sake of love of God’s children?

            In Galatians 6:2, Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens.”  Help each other.  Eating the bread and drinking the cup, we are reminded that our greatest burden is sin.  Sin drags us down to death, but Jesus lifts it off us.  And He does this in the church, through the church, and with the church.  Jesus will accomplish His goals of salvation in spite of the churches that are places of division and contempt.  We would rather be a church in His service, working toward His ends. 

At this table, we come together, sinners, people from far and wide.  We come in our wounding.  We come in our confusion.  We come as people in desperate need.  All of us come that way and we can because Jesus invites us.  We have a place because He sets it for us. 

As the time for taking Communion comes, let a few images come to mind.  First, think about what you need most from Jesus – hope, forgiveness, comfort.  Think about your greatest need that only Jesus can meet.  Next, consider that you are surrounded by people who need Him as desperately as you do. 

Finally, as you chew the bread and drink the cup, ask Jesus to show you your role in filling the needs of the people around you.  Begin by thinking of your need, continue remembering that you are forgiven in Christ and that you are surrounded by needy people.  And finally pray for God to help you meet the needs of the friends around you. 

If we all do that, all our needs will be met by God working through the church.  We will truly have life together.


Are We Eating the Bread We Have? (Mark 8)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

            You’re in a National Park in the mountains – a day set aside to be revitalized by nature.  You hike in, the trail taking you gradually up the steep climb until you’re on the ridgeline.  You tell those aching legs it’s worth it, just a few more steps and then a couple of miles along the ridge until you get to the clearing. Reluctantly your legs comply and after 4 hours, you’re finally there.  The view is so vast, so breathtaking; you feel like you can see all the way to the Mississippi. 
            Basking in the joy of the birdsong, the expanse of the canyon, the hum of the river hundreds of feet below down in the valley, you feel alive.  Your body reminds you that living things eat and drink, so you tip back your canteen.  It’s still ice cold, so refreshing.  Then you open the pack for those delicious and enormous sandwiches that will taste incredible after all the walking. 
            To your horror you see a bag of chips, two apples, two granola bars, and no sandwiches. You look at your hiking buddy.  Didn’t you pack the sandwiches? 
I was in the garage putting ice in the cooler.  Didn’t you hear me yell in to put the sandwiches in the pack?
No.  I was upstairs looking for sunscreen.  … Our sandwiches!  They’re on the counter.

That sort of happened to me.  I was with four guys on a 5-day trip and we wanted our camp breakfast the first morning to be extra good so we brought some packaged ham.  We knew that for most of the week we’d be on ramen noodles.  Some nice meat would be a good beginning.  The bear that visited our food bag while we slept that night agreed.  He was quiet enough not to disturb us and he was completely uninterested in our ramen noodles.  But, he opened our packaged ham and polished it off like he done that kind of thing before.  The only thing he didn’t do was leave a “thank you” note. 

In Mark 8, for a third time, the disciples are out on the boat on the sea.  In the first instance, Jesus is asleep in the boat as a huge storm hits.  Fearing for their lives, they wake him.  He calms the storm and chastises them for lack of faith.  The second time, the disciples are without Jesus and are trying to make way in a heavy wind.  They are straining and making no progress.  Jesus walks on the water to them, revealing his divine identity.  They immediately arrive at their destination, but Mark offers an editorial note.  Their hearts were hardened.  Jesus showed himself to be God, but they couldn’t see it, not fully.
In this third instance, there are no heavy waves to scare the pants off them and no frustrating wind to impede their progress.  The problem is not the weather but the preparation.  The disciples all look at each other and realize that they are miles out to sea, but the sandwiches are at home on the kitchen counter.  What do they do now?  What does Jesus do?
This question comes at the end of our six-week journey of looking for Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and in doing so, we look for Jesus in our lives.  Yes, he lived 2000 years ago, but in His Word, in His church, and in the activity of His Holy Spirit we actively look for Him today and in looking, we expect to see Him, hear from Him, and be led by Him that we might follow as his disciples.
But can we truly be his disciples?  Not on our own ability, we can’t.  Last week we heard Jesus say it is what comes out of a person that determines whether that one is defiled or pure on the inside.  As we digested his words, we acknowledged that all of us our sinners, so if you hang around us long enough, you’ll hear something to show us to be defiled, not pure.  But, then we looked closer and found that Jesus surrounded himself with defiled people. 
In following him, they got a bit cleaner.  What came out from them changed over time because their hearts were made new by God – God at work in them, working through Jesus.  What happened to those first followers also happens to us.  Call it transformation of the heart that is seen in the living of our lives.  Call it being made new in Christ.  Call it dying to self and being born again. However we phrase it, this newness – us becoming new creations – happens when we actively decide to follow Jesus and he works in us.  It is His work.  We must be open to it and cooperative and receptive.  Saying this is not a way of saying we achieve our salvation or our growth in holiness.  Salvation and spiritual maturation are things accomplished by God.  Mark is showing that as God worked in Christ and works through Holy Spirit to save the world, we, the ones being saved participate by being open and receiving what God gives. 
This we requires us to let go of many of the expectations that our culture has imprinted on us, expectations about what it means to be successful or happy.  I am not just twisting words around here.  Our cultural world encourages us to seek our own happiness as a primary value.  The Gospel says we are to rejoice in all circumstances.  Our culture values winners.  The Gospel tells us to strive as hard as an Olympic athlete but at the same time to die to self.  Our culture affirms giving to charity from our excess, after our needs and wants have been satisfied.  The Gospel calls for extravagant, sacrificial generosity. 
On the boat, a third boat trip in Mark’s gospel, the disciples are fretting about not having any bread.  Jesus seems completely uninterested in their dilemma.  “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,” he tells them (8:15b).  They’ve heard so many amazing and sometimes to them incomprehensible things from him, this seems to be another.  Another odd teaching.  They whisper & mutter, “He’s irritated that we forgot the sandwiches.  We have no bread.” 
Whoops!  The disciples get it wrong – AGAIN!  Jesus unleashes a torrent of questions. 
Why are you talking about having no bread?
James: “Well you said the yeast, and we …”
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?
Peter: “No Rabbi, of course our hearts are not …”
Do you have eyes and fail to see?  Do you have ears and fail to hear
Andrew, elbowing Peter in the ribs: “I don’t think we’re supposed to answer.”
Do you not remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the 5000, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?
Philip, nervously looking to the others for helping and getting none, “um, 12.”
And the seven loaves that fed 4000, from that, how many baskets of leftovers did you collect?
James: “Well Lord, we all know it was seven, but we ate all those leftovers a couple of days ago.  Everybody knows John was supposed to go the market and …”
James, zip it.  Seriously, guys, do you not yet understand?

Jesus did not want his group worrying about lunch.  If need be, he would take care of lunch.  In this gospel, he allowed them to pluck grain on the Sabbath, technically a Sabbath violation.  He allowed them to eat without going through the elaborate hand-washing ritual.  Luke tells us that much of the time, a group of affluent women followed making sure the disciples never went hungry.  Twice, Jesus miraculously multiplied one person’s simple lunch and fed the population of a small town with leftovers.  Stop fussing over lunch.  Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees. 
David Garland writes that really, what Jesus said was beware of the “leaven,” not the yeast of the “Pharisees.”  Both leaven and yeast are used to make dough rise.  In Jesus’ time what was most likely used was leaven which had dangerous potential.  If the process for producing the leaven was tainted in any way, it would spread poison through the bread.[i] 
The teaching of the Pharisees was strictly on the Law of Moses – a good thing; a great thing.  The Torah, the Law, what we read in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, is a gift of grace from God.  Just as leaven fills the dough so it will become life-giving nourishment, the Law gives holiness to the community.  Our highest calling from God is holiness.  But just as tainted leaven poisons the bread, the way the Pharisees applied the law – paying attention to their spin on it while ignoring that it is a means of drawing people to God’s heart – leads people to death instead of life.  Legalism that neglects the heart kills the person.  Jesus offered a different way, but the disciples and the watching world and each one of us has to decide what we will choose. 
Would the disciples live under legalism and with the expectations of God that the Pharisees had imposed?  Prior to Jesus coming, their choices were the Pharisees or the Sadducees or the armed rebellion against Rome or full submission to Rome or retreat to the desert to live as a hermit while waiting for the end of time.  All these choices were awful.  With the arrival of Jesus, there was another choice – the true way of God, which is a way of love, invitation, forgiveness, inclusion, grace, and life. 
As I mentioned a moment ago, in our day and time, there are sets of values, priorities, and even thoughts about what is real and what is true – all dictated by various voices in our surrounding culture.  Much of this in direct conflict with what the Gospel says is real and true and important.  Which will determine how we live, the world around us or the Holy Spirit speaking through the Gospel?  The challenges we face in seeing Jesus and following Jesus are not identical to those the disciples faced, but the dynamic is the same.  Do we understand that Jesus is God and the only for salvation is in Him?  If we do understand that, then will we trust that truth to the point that when we have to choose between being of our culture or being of the Kingdom of God, we will choose being of the Kingdom?
Curiously, examine again how Mark describes the disciples in the boat.  They had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them (v.14).  To me it seemed that someone was supposed to plan for the journey and forgot or left the bread on the dock.  But, there’s always someone in the crowd who is a preparer, someone who is always ready for anything, always with a granola or a pack of crackers in the pocket.  They had forgotten to bring any bread.  But they had one loaf.
On a second look, it’s peculiar.  Garland, the scholar I mentioned, proposes that the one loaf Mark mentions is Jesus himself.  He writes that when Jesus quizzes them about the miracle feedings of thousands, they get the answers right, but they cannot see past the numbers of those fed to understand that they have, right there in the boat, a bread maker. 
This requires imagination, but by imagination, I don’t pretend.  I don’t mean if we all visualize bread, it will appear in our mouths and our and taste buds and bellies will be happy.   By imagination, I mean seeing the possibilities when we realize we are walking through life with Jesus, following Jesus, living in the power of Jesus.  Will he snap his fingers and suddenly the disciples all have the best bread they’ve ever eaten?  Will the water turn to heavenly wine as they consume it?  Or, will focusing on him and his way of submitting to God and choosing his way while rejecting the Pharisees way – will that mental/spiritual/emotional process occupy them?  They arrive at the next port with hungry bellies but with satisfied souls.
To see Jesus in our lives demands that we have the imagination to see the world on His terms and to live seeing his possibilities and participating with him as He brings His possibilities to reality. 
Here’s an example from preacher/writer Frederick Buechner:
You wake up on a winter morning and pull up the shade, and what lay their the evening before is no longer there – the sodden gray yard, the dog droppings, the tire tracks in the frozen mud, the broken lawn chair you forgot to  take in last fall.  All this has disappeared overnight, and what you look out on now is not the snow of Narnia nut the snow of home, which is no less shimmering and white as it falls.  The earth is covered with it, and it is falling still in silence so deep that you can hear its silence.  It is snow to be shoveled, to make driving even worse than usual, snow to be joked about and cursed at, but unless the child in you is entirely dead, it is snow too, that can make the heart beat faster when it catches you by surprise that way, before your defenses are up.  It is snow that can awaken memories of things more wonderful than anything you ever dream.

            If snow can do that in us, what can Jesus do, if we open ourselves to Him?  If the seeking of deep reality and mind blowing wonder has not died in us, what will Jesus do when we see Him?  See him requires imagination – not make believe; but, imagination that dares to believe that God is real and the hungry can be fed and the world can be redeemed and love can win because God is love and Jesus came to show us God’s love. 
            It’s a choice of the Pharisees’ leaven or Jesus’ wine.   It’s Martha in the kitchen worrying about hospitality, or Mary sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, drinking him in.  It’s fear of not enough v. seeing hope.  It’s missing out on the big things God as we succumb to tyranny of the urgent, or living with divine purpose every day.  It accepting that death on a cross ends the story, or daring to imagine that resurrection can really be true. 
            But!  We have to make the choice to look for Him.  We have to open our hearts and our minds to see Him.  From what we already know – in the word, in the church, in the Spirit – we have to say resoundingly “No!” to our culture when our culture defies God.  We love our world passionately and compassionately, but we say No when our world draws away from God.  And we say Yes emphatically, by submitting ourselves to His teaching and His love.  He is the bread of life and He has come for us.  We choose not even worry about what we are missing because He is enough.  We eat the bread we have.

[i] David Garland, NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.310.

Monday, August 6, 2012

"Suffer with ..."

I have spent this year writing about the practice of Christian evangelism.  What is a Christian who hears the call of God to follow Jesus and share the Gospel to do in light of these violent shootings?

In Oak Creek, WI, yesterday (August 5), a shooter entered a Sikh temple and killed six and injured four before he was killed by police.  Two weeks before that a random shooter several people in a theater in Colorado.  In February of this year teenager Travon Martin was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  And how many killings aren't in the national news?

What is a Christian committed to sharing the Gospel with a lost and hurting world to do?

We are to open our arms and offer compassion, comfort, love, and prayer to all who experience such tragedy.  Specifically regarding the shootings in Wisconsin, we need to love our friends who are Sikhs.  I do not know a lot about that faith.  There are Sikhs in North Carolina, but I do not know any personally.  What I know is Jesus loves them and calls us to love them.

In another time, a more peaceful time, that love can include sharing why Jesus is so important to us.  For now, with such psychological devastation and emotional pain inflicted on their community, not to mention the tragic, senseless deaths, we should reach out with compassion and love and with no judgment.  As human beings and as Christ followers, we express to our Sikh neighbors in our state, in Wisconsin, and throughout America our support and our care.  And we do the same for others who have had violence imposed upon them.

There times when God speaks through our words.  This is a time for God to speak through our acts and hearts of love.

Calling the Defiled (Mark 7:14-23)


            At Grace United Methodist Church in Southwest Florida, the pastor and church leaders pray a very specific prayer for whom they hope will come to their church.  “God, please send us the people no one else wants.”

            Has the prayer been answered?  Some of the members are recovering drug addicts.  Some are not exactly recovering.  Some who attend are in fact prostitutes.  Some are alcoholics. 

            Is God indeed sending those no one else wants?  A woman prayed to receive Christ after a Christmas Eve service.  She was filling out the info card.  “What do you do for a living?”  “I am a dancer.”  She did not mean she was a ballerina or a tap dancer.  She wasn’t the caller for square dancing.  This “exotic dancer” had just become a believer, asking Jesus into her heart.  Later that year, she wanted to volunteer to serve in Vacation Bible School.  She had not, to that point, changed professions or shown any interest in doing so.

            Quick, what’s the rule?  Nude dancing?  No, you can’t serve in VBS!  But wait a minute.  “God, please send us who no one else wants.”  I am here and I believe in Jesus and I am a dancer and I want to serve in VBS. 

            The author writing the story about Grace Church pressed Pastor Jorge Acevedo on the issue.  “Surely someone in that profession cannot be a children’s teacher.”  Acevedo responded, “Well, 75% of men, if statistics are true, look at online pornography regularly.”  So, when we are quickly responding to our rule as we evaluate this woman who is willing to serve in VBS, we have to come to grips with reality.  We say to no to her, but what are we doing about ¾ of the men whose hearts are as dirty as hers because instead of going to the club to watch her dance, they go online to see the same thing?  What are doing about them?  Making them chair of deacons?  Incidentally, Grace Church allowed her to serve in an auxiliary role, not working directly with children.[i]  

Saint Martin’s Community Churches (there are several, all started by the same group) in Australia welcome pedophiles into their church.  They are always accompanied by someone watching their behavior, keeping everyone else safe.  They cannot even go to the restroom without their chaperone.  But they are welcomed.  Pedophiles.[ii]


Are we appalled at these stories of exotic dancers, child predators, drunks in church?  Imagine the stories you might hear right here in your own church.  I have been here 6 years, but have heard most confessions only in the last 18 months.  It has taken that many years for individuals to believe it is safe to talk to me.  I can assure everyone, no matter the darkness in your life, in this church, you are not alone.  You’re surrounded by people who struggle mightily with sin.  You are welcomed and loved here.  Jesus loves you and yearns for you to come to Him and grow in Him and walk with Him in life.

We dare not judge those in Grace Methodist Church of Southwest Florida or St. Martins Church in Australia.  We dare not look with scorn on those around us who have admitted sin of the most serious type.  We’re too busy hoping that God will be loving and graceful with us in our own failings, every one of us.

            “He called the crowd,” Mark writes.  Jesus had something to say.  Often he’d teach knowing that those around him were overhearing.  He would not go to much effort to get people’s attention or to be understood or even heard.  The onus was on the crowd to do the work to listen and interpret.  Jesus was even intentionally confusing at times and those who really wanted to know what he meant would persevere and keep asking and following until they comprehended the message.

But here, Jesus doesn’t risk that they might miss it.  “Listen!” he says.  What is it they are to hear?  Jesus is saying I need you to get this.  What?  “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  Of all that Jesus said, why did he put such emphasis there?

            We have to back up all the way to the party in Mark 2.

14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of[a] the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat[b] with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

            Jesus did not condone prostitution.  He did not approve of tax collectors becoming rich by taking more than people could pay and keeping the surplus.  He was not “OK with” rebels murdering Roman soldiers.  He did not find sexually immoral behaviors like adultery and fornication acceptable.  He did not participate in gambling or encourage others to do so.  He did not give any place to violence or lies. 

However, Jesus looked at the party crowd, and he saw people who had been completely rejected by those in power both in government and especially in faith, then the temple/synagogue, today, the church.  Jesus looked at the party crowd and saw a people who knew themselves to be rejected by the decent, upstanding members of society.  Jesus looked at the party crowd and saw a group who had heard professional preachers and theologians condemn them for so long that they figured God had condemned them.  God certainly condemned some of their behaviors.  But they didn’t know that God just as much condemned the loveless attitudes and self-serving actions of the preachers and theologians and churchmen who had condemned them. 

            Jesus came to love and heal and restore the lost souls who made up the party crowd, those the NT describes as tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners.  Today we might say sluts, swingers, exotic dancers, drug addicts, porn addicts, gamblers, wife-beaters, brawlers, and cheats and liars.  “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Jesus has no time for us until we recognize our affinity with the base, reprobates of our world.  Until we realize we are them, Jesus doesn’t really have anything for us.

            This party in Matthew 2 shows Jesus is safe for people.  His church must be also.  I don’t know if HillSong is ready for the prayer, “God send us the people nobody wants.  I don’t know if we are ready for that or not.”  If we want to be Jesus-followers, we need to be, as a body, getting ready to pray that exact prayer.  Part of us being made new is us letting go of whatever conceptions of church we have that would reject anyone. We need to be ready to become a safe place for the people who’ve been kicked out everywhere else.  And, by the way, as we get ready to become truly a safe place where people meet Jesus, we have to be endowed with great grace because in the case of a few individual, there is a reason they’ve been kicked out so many times and that reason will be seen if they come here.  It will get very messy.

            At this point we join Mark 2 and 7.  In Mark 2, at the sinners’ party held by the tax collector-turned-disciple Levi, also known as Matthew, we hear the complaint of the Pharisees.  They don’t like the company Jesus is keeping.  The same note sounds in chapter 7. 

            The disciples eat food without going through the established hand-washing rituals and the Pharisees, legalists who guard tradition and control how tradition is used to govern all areas of current life, notice.  “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (v.5)?  They weren’t bent on hurting people.  The Pharisees believed the way to please God was by keeping the rules.  They earnestly wanted to please God and at the same time they disdained anyone who broke what they took to be God’s rules.  Jesus’ clash with these legalists was a clash over holiness.  Is God pleased by our efforts toward being holy?  Yes, said the Pharisees.  No, Jesus replied, God expects us to have a heart like His.  For Jesus, inner motivation and attitude was the most important thing.

            As a side note, if in church or in life, you find yourself disgusted with someone because they break the church’s rules or the Bible’s rules or some other set of rules, examine your own heart.  Why are you angry at that person?  Why are you so quick to complain or criticize or condemn?  I am not suggesting that rule-breaking is OK.  Obedience is an important but separate issue.  The matter at stake here, in our conversation and in Mark 2 and Mark 7, is heart attitude and how the heart attitude is conveyed toward people by each of us as individuals and us as a body of believers. 

            When the Pharisees complain about the disciples’ failure to do the ritual hand washing, Jesus condemns them as hypocrites.  He uses care of parents to show that the Pharisees are so committed to pleasing God by keeping the rules, they have utterly ignored care of persons and in doing so they cut themselves off from God.  It happens the same way today.  We don’t call leaders in churches and organizations ‘Pharisees,’ but legalists do what Pharisees did.  They identify the sinners, ignore their own sin, condemn the sinners, shames the sinners, and then either limit or completely ban the sinners’ participation. 

            Having heard enough, Jesus calls the crowd together.  “Listen,” he says (v.14).  It is what comes out of our mouths that reveals whether our minds are corrupted and our hearts are defiled. 

            Later, when the crowd weighing his words against the Pharisees’ teaching departs, he is with the disciples and expands on his teaching.  “It is from within the human heart that evil intentions come: fornication (which all forms of sex outside of marriage and is sin), theft, murder, adultery, greed (which buys into the lie that a product or an experience or an amount of money will make me happy so I must have more and more), wickedness, deceit, licentiousness (which includes all forms of sinful sexual fantasies – they did not have dirty magazines or the internet, but the same temptations that plague people, especially men, existed in Jesus’ day), envy (which is huge today – I have to have a bigger car or a new kitchen or a certain game system or the latest smart phone to keep up with my neighbor), slander (I’ll build myself up by putting you down), pride (maybe the most dangerous inner defilement of all because it can be disguised as something admirable), folly (the fruitless pursuit of happiness instead of a grateful receiving of Godly joy and abundance).  All these e evil things, Jesus said, come from within and they defile a person” (v.21-23).

            Once again, Jesus changed everything.  The disciples grew up in a world where the Pharisees imposed rules and you knew what they were and as long as you kept those rules or kept your violations hidden, you were acceptable.  Jesus came along and said, no, God looks right into the heart.  We can appear to have it all together, but we don’t and God’s knows it. 

            God’s desire is that what comes out of us – our words, our actions, our thoughts, our attitudes, our collective action as a body of believers – what comes out would show us to be pure.  This the key to the second bedrock of HillSong Church.  We want to be a safe place.  We want to be able to pray, God send those who no one wants.  Send all sinners.  Send them to us.  We want to get to that place where we truly are a place people can come.

            When they come and when we come, we want to meet Jesus here.  In the people who make up HillSong, the body of Christ, we want to meet Jesus.  In the word, our reading, study, interpretation and application of the Bible, we want to meet Jesus.  In our openness to the Holy Spirit, we want to meet Jesus; the same Jesus that said these words we read in Mark 7. 

Meeting him, it is impossible to be unchanged.  He did not leave the sinners in party in Mark 2 and just go on his merry way.  Levi became one of the twelve disciples.  It says in Mark 2:15, many followed him.  Did they all immediately give up their greed, licentiousness, and sin?  Does anyone ever stop cold-turkey and turn their lives around on a dime?  It’s a process.  In Mark 7, Matthew, the ex-tax collector turned disciple, is right there with the rest of the 12, confused, not getting it.  At the end of Mark, he along with the rest runs in fear when Jesus is arrested.  He stopped the theft and deception involved in tax collecting the moment Jesus called him, but he had a long way to go before what came out of him would show God’s holiness. 

We all do.  When we are called, like Matthew, like all Jesus’ followers we come with defiled hearts.  The defilement may include the sins that our culture readily condemns, but in God’s’ eyes, greed or gluttony or jealousy or pride are as abhorrent as porn-addiction or hardcore drug abuse.  It’s all sin.  We are all defiled.  And we are all called – called to salvation; called to be disciples; called to turn over every square inch of our lives to Jesus.

He is safe in that He welcomes all.  But once we come, the work begins and goes on throughout our lives.  We’re not made new one time.  We’re made new daily.  Transformation – the process in which our sinful selves die and we are born again as new creations – happens throughout life. 

After the events we read about in Mark 7, Jesus moves on to the region of Tyre where he heals the daughter of a non-Jew, a Syrophoenician woman.  Then, he heals a deaf man and it is a complicated healing.  Then he feeds 4000 people with a few loaves and fish.  A gentile.  Come.  A disabled person who would be pushed to the fringes of society.  Come.  A confused, directionless crowd.  Come.  You and me in all our secret sins, all our failings, all our dirtiness.  Jesus says, Come and bring the mess.  He welcomes us and if we are receptive and cooperative, he goes to work in us.  The things that defile are drawn out, sometimes painfully, and deep inside, we become new people – sons and daughters of God. 

Today, come.  Come to the one who will make you new.


[i] Brandon O’Brien, “Road to Recovery,” Leadership Journal, Winter, 2012, p.37-39.
[ii] George Hunter (2010), The Celtic Way of Evangelism: 10th Anniversary Edition, Revised and Updated, (Abingdon Press, Nashville), p.121.