Sunday, 24 September 2017

It's not fair, but it is grace

I didn’t go to church much as a kid, but I remember pastor Bill calling up one day. He invited me to the church for a class. I think we played basketball, but there was a teaching part too. I remember him sitting us down around the table and he gave one jelly bean to one person, then 4 to another, 2 to another kid, and 6 to another. Then he asked, “is that fair?” “No way”, I replied. “But, they’re my jellybeans”, was his reply. And that moment was fixed in my mind. Something seemed wrong about it, but I couldn’t figure out what. He was trying to teach us about the grace of God, but I wasn’t getting it. All I could think was “that’s not fair”.

This idea of fairness has been deeply ingrained in us- Give people what they deserve. The parable Jesus tells us today isn’t about fairness, though, it is about grace and mercy. It is about God’s generosity towards those who deserve much less.

In our parable a vineyard owner hires people for the harvest. He hires people in the morning who work for him for 12 hours through the heat of the day. He returns to the market a number of times throughout the day and hires whoever he sees. Near the end of the day he still hires those who he meets in the market even though it means they would only work an hour or so.

This last group that gets hired is interesting. They have been standing around in the market all day and no one has found them suitable for hiring. They are the people who never get the job. They stand in the market reminded that they aren’t wanted any time an employer comes through. But, they dare not miss an opportunity for work. No doubt they have a family to feed back home just as most of the others do. And in that economy what you got paid that day equated to what your family ate that day.

What would have been expected would have been proportionate pay according to the amount of work put in. That’s what would have been right and fair. And yet, that’s not what happens. Those who only worked an hour are paid a full day’s wage. They don’t deserve it, but it means their family will eat tonight as if a full day was worked.

The vineyard owner is a generous man. He pays on the basis of his compassion, his generosity, and the need of a hungry family. He doesn’t necessarily pay on the basis of what is fair. Those who worked the full day were given a full day’s wage, which was what was promised. No injustice was done to them, though it feels like there has been an injustice done. If they didn’t know what the other workers were paid there would be no problem. The problem is that they know about the vineyard owner’s generosity. The problem is that they compare themselves to those around them. They think they should get paid proportionately. They should get two days’ worth of wages.

Those who worked all day are a bit like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The older brother did what was right. He bore the weight of the responsibility of the farm. Yet, when his irresponsible brother shows up after squandering his Father’s wealth he is showered with his Father’s generosity. It is underserved and unexpected by the younger brother. The older brother is annoyed by his Father’s generosity, just as those who worked the full day were annoyed by the vineyard owner’s generosity.

Of course how you feel about this parable will depend on which category you see yourself in. Are you the one nobody wants? Are you standing in the market all day, watching employers pass you over again and again? Do you know what that feels like? Have you ever been picked last when you’re on the playground and neither team captain wants you on their team? ... Suddenly God shows up and says you are wanted. You are picked up by God and blessed by God’s generosity far beyond what you deserve? … Throughout the gospels we are constantly told that God’s generosity towards those that don’t deserve it will be shocking and even scandalous. If we are those who are the forgotten and looked over, the picked last or not picked at all, that is good news and this is a beautiful parable.

We might see ourselves as those who have worked all day, though. We have endured the full heat of the day. We are dirty, our back is sore, and our hands are bleeding. We are tired. We see how generous God is towards those who deserve much less and we start to build up in our mind what we deserve in proportion to the generosity shown to those who worked less. But we are given what we need for the day, which was what was agreed upon. We expected more. We believe we deserve more from God. … We think about the hours we give to God volunteering for various ministries. We think about the money we have given to the church and to charity. The hours we have spent reading and studying the Bible… and yet, that person who has been drinking their life away has a profound experience with God. Or that person experiences a healing. Or they seem to have health in a way we don’t. It’s not fair. They get to be in the same category as us, who have worked so hard for God?

From that point of view it isn’t a good parable at all. We feel robbed. We feel like God isn’t fair. We are faithful and these others seem to get the benefit we deserve.

Of course it isn’t very hard to shift our perspective on this. … Imagine the early Christians living in times of persecution. You know people that have been jailed or executed for being a Christian. Your life and the life of your family is threatened constantly for being followers of Jesus. We don’t even have to go to the early church, we could just think about our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq as ISIS is coming to power. The cost for them to believe is high. All they had to do to get ISIS off their back was to convert. But many chose not to and suffered and died for their faith. …Now how do those Christians look at us? We get to be a part of the kingdom of God the same as them. Is that fair? After all they have sacrificed we get to be in the same category as them?

Our problem with the parable really comes down to how we compare ourselves to others. One of the 7 deadly sins is envy, which is a kind of disgust we have towards someone who experiences some good. This is highly comparative. We think we deserve more, or they deserve less- we see what they receive as saying something about our worth in comparison. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, 
“Envy is sadness at another’s good and joy at another’s evil”. The good they experience makes me feel worth less than them. The workers who were hired first were upset because they saw the equal pay as making those hired last equal with them (20:12). Envy is competitive. 

God gives His grace to people not as they deserve, but as they have need of it. As Jesus says, it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick (Matthew 9:12). Jesus’ attention to those on the margins who everyone called “sinners” was not palatable for the Pharisees and those who dedicated their lives to trying to please God.

Thinking of our life with God as an economic transaction isn’t really all that helpful, which is what Jesus is exposing with this parable. The problem is that we sometimes do think this way. I have sinned 5 points this week, so I need to do 5 points of good to make up for it. I have volunteered for the church 10 points, so God owes me. This isn’t really a healthy way to view our life with God.

There is an Eastern Orthodox teaching that says the followers of God fall into 3 categories. First, there are the slaves of God. The slaves of God follow God out of fear of punishment. They worry about the master’s whip if they do something wrong. Their primary relationship with God is as slave and master. Secondly, there are the employees of God. This is the group our parable is talking about today. They are primarily motivated by the reward they will get from serving God. The work they do equals pay. Finally, there are the children of God. These believers are motivated by being a part of the family of God. They are motivated by the love of their heavenly Father. They do the dishes because they are part of the family, not because they will be grounded, or because they will get an allowance for doing so. They do it out of love.

This is usually seen as a progressive model. The hope is that those motivated by fear or reward would eventually mature towards being primarily motivated by love

In John 15 Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants,… but I have called you friends”. We can’t really think about our life with God as an economic transaction. It’s not about earning and owing. We serve and give because we love God. It’s not about earning anything. It is a relationship. We don’t keep track of the hours we spend with our friends and then think they owe us something for the hours we put in. You don’t earn a wage for spending time with a friend. That is just what friends do. Being friends with God means we will pray, and serve, and give- Not to earn anything, but because we love God. …

Sunday, 17 September 2017

wiggle room for our brothers and sisters

The Early Church had an incredible amount of diversity to try to hold together. It was a movement that was supposed to transcend human barriers that usually divided the rich and the poor, free and slave, men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish. In Christ a new humanity came into being. All people were invited to be embraced by the one Kingdom under Christ. The church is the embassy of this kingdom.

This one new humanity is the spiritual reality, but there is a lot of work to be done to live it out. In Christ they were all one new humanity, but there were practical issues that needed to be worked out.

Say you grew up in a Jewish home never eating pork as a part of your commitment to God. Not only that, but you never even sat at a table with someone who doesn’t eat kosher. Then you become a follower of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and you have these non-Jewish people becoming followers of Jesus, but they are still eating pork and maybe eating pork they got from the market that came from pagan temple sacrifices.

And eating kosher is only part of that picture. There are also Jewish festivals, which are mentioned in the Bible. There is the mark of circumcision, which is the symbol of the covenant of Abraham, a mark Jesus himself had. Now you are in a Christian community that includes non-Jewish people who aren’t eating kosher, aren’t celebrating the festivals, and aren’t circumcised.

Maybe some of your Jewish-Christian friends stop eating kosher. It seems like Paul had stopped eating kosher, particularly when he was with non-Jewish people. What does it feel like to be a part of that community? Wouldn’t it feel like people aren’t really dedicating themselves to God? Wouldn’t it seem like they want to have their cake and eat it too? Wouldn’t it seem like they want to follow Jesus, but they don’t really want to change their lives that much?

For others they felt freedom in Christ to eat whatever they like. Jesus said, 
“there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mk 7:15). To them they weren’t concerned about food as much as they were concerned about what their words exposed about the inner recesses of their hearts (Mk 7:21-23). They were more concerned about words spoken in anger or gossiping. The person who seems obsessed about food and festival days might seem a bit spiritually shallow. 

The church is full of issues to disagree about. Take music, for example. Some love the older hymns. They love the majestic language and the profound theology. They are songs that have lasted the test of time and have shaped the worship of the church for many years. They look at the new worship songs and they think they are shallow and repetitive, both musically and theologically.

Those who like the newer music think it speaks more to contemporary life using modern language. It is more upbeat and has a greater emotional impact. The repetition allows the words to sink deeper into the soul as we have opportunity to meditate on them and aren’t constantly being confronted by new thoughts. To them, the older hymns are often boring and use too many archaic words. The older songs don’t always connect to our contemporary culture and can be alienating to those who come in off the street not even sure if they want to be Christians yet.

In the Christian world we can disagree about how we pray- do we use written prayers or should they all be spontaneous. We can argue about liturgy- should our worship feel informal (like a family gathering with our loving Father) or should our liturgy be more formal (like we are gathered respectfully before our Holy King). Is it okay for a Christian to smoke tobacco? Drink alcohol? What happens when weed is legalized?

There are some things that we should agree on as Christians. There are some things that cause us to say this person is a Christian and that person isn’t a Christian- not as a judgement, but just as a description. For example, I would say that belief in God, and belief in Jesus as a historical person, are pretty essential to being a Christian. I would also say that belief in the resurrection and in the authority of the Bible to guide our lives should be essential, as well as a number of moral actions. For example, we should all agree that murder is wrong.  Deciding which issue is essential and which is not can be tricky sometimes.  Paul’s point is clear that there are some things we should agree on as Christians, but there are lots of gray areas that we don’t have to agree on.

Paul said, 
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom 14:1-3).
 (It might be helpful to say that the easiest way to eat kosher is to be a vegetarian, which is probably what the reference to vegetables is about.)

Paul obviously has an opinion on the matter. He sees the “strong” faith person as being the one who isn’t bothered by the food laws, and the “weak” faith person as being the one who is keeping the food laws. Paul doesn’t say that the person should be thrown out of the church. He says there should be room for a difference of opinion.

He’s actually giving a warning to both of them. Those who don’t consider the food laws important anymore should not despise those who still follow the food laws as if they are backwards thinking people who don’t take the New Covenant seriously. Similarly, the person who follows the food laws shouldn’t judge the person who doesn’t eat kosher as somehow not taking the biblical law seriously, or as being unwilling to stand out from the culture.

Later in chapter 14 we read, “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Rom 14:15). And in the next chapter Paul says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up” (Rom 15:1-2).

What Paul is saying is we have an obligation to one another. Our freedom is not to be selfishly used for our own gratification. We don’t use our freedom and rub it in the faces of those who disagree with us.

Imagine you go out to dinner with someone and they are a recovering alcoholic. Do you order wine with your meal? You certainly have the freedom to do so. You aren’t the one with the alcohol problem, after all. … Paul might say that if you chose to have the wine and the other person is bothered by what you drink “you are no longer walking in love” (Rom 14:15). Those who have freedom have an obligation to bear with those who are bothered. They should not use their freedom to offend others.

C.S. Lewis says something about this in the Screwtape Letters. The demon Screwtape is writing advice to a demon in training who is trying to tempt a man away from God. He says this, 
“I think I warned you before that if your patient can't be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don't mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. … The real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say ‘holy communion’ when neither party could possibly state the difference … . And all the purely indifferent things-candles and clothes and what not-are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men's minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials-namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the ‘low’ churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his ‘high’ brother should be moved to irreverence, and the ‘high’ one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his ‘low’ brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour” (Letter XVI).

This is a pretty tricky teaching in our society. We are swimming in consumerism and individualism which means we are constantly surrounded by messages that tell us that we should be able to have things our way. Our society tends to emphasize my rights, rather than my responsibility to others. The churches in North America are often churches of the like-minded- Churches full of people who like a particular kind of music, a particular style of worship, or who are from a particular ethnic background.

Whatever it is that we think divides us, it cannot be allowed to be more powerful than our unity in Christ. We are called the “body of Christ”. That is not just a metaphor. We are in a mystical unity with the very life of Christ. We have a unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ that has transcended all kinds of barriers to get to us here in Red Deer. We dare not insert new divisions when Christ has transcended so many. When we are not dealing with essentials we should allow freedom of conscience. Whatever our sister or brother thinks will honour the Lord, we should give them the freedom to do so. We might not agree on everything, but as Christians we all agree on honouring Christ.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Conflict in the Church

We can sometimes have a tendency to be a bit romantic about the early church. That is probably because we read passages like Acts 2:42-47: 
“[the believers] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Just about every serious Christian I know wants to have a church like that. They are devoted to the teaching of the apostles, which for us is found in the Bible. They are also dedicated to the community, so they have strong relationships in the church. They even held property in common. They would sell things to help the less fortunate among them so that poverty in their community was eliminated. No one lacked necessities. They lived with each other rather than just knowing each other as acquaintances. Miracles flowed from their leaders, the Apostles. They knew God was with them. They worshipped and prayed together. They had communion together. They ate together, and their community seemed to keep growing. … Imagine being a part of a church like that.

What we usually do is we imagine that early church and we compare that image to the churches we are a part of and we start beating ourselves up. … We don’t study our Bibles deeply or often enough. We aren’t very dedicated to the community- We don’t really know each other’s stories, and we don’t really spend much time together. We aren’t as engaged as we could be in changing the practical living conditions of those around us- there is too great a gap between the rich and the poor even within our own congregations. The miraculous doesn’t seem to be very commonplace in our churches- Maybe there is something wrong with the spiritual life of our leaders, or something wrong with the way we worship, maybe we haven’t really given our hearts to really truly worshipping God. Our churches are usually shrinking and not growing- God doesn’t seem to be adding to our number day by day. … As faithful Christians we long to be a part of the church described in Acts.

No doubt the early church had amazing moments, but we should be careful about being overly romantic about that time. If we read through the New Testament we get a more full picture of a very human church. God works through it, yes, but I suspect that was often in spite of the messiness. We see Peter and Paul fighting about circumcision and how the Gentiles are to be included in this Jewish Christian movement. Paul writes his letter to the Corinthians because of numerous divisions in the church there- some say their spiritual gifts are more important than others, some have an issue with eating meat dedicated to idols. There’s even a guy in a sexual relationship with his step-mother. Similarly, Paul’s letter to the Galatians seems to be written because of some people who were coming to the church and teaching them they have to essentially become Jewish before they can become Christians. So there is division there around how to deal with the Mosaic Law. …. It can make you wonder how much of the New Testament we would actually have if it wasn’t for conflict in the churches that gave rise to these letters.

So while there were beautiful and inspiring pockets of the early church, we have to be careful about assuming that every church was a utopia where there was no conflict. The early churches dealt with its own issues, just as we deal with our own issues.

Personally, I find that strangely comforting. We like to aim at that utopian vision from Acts, but it’s also good to know that we aren’t as bad as we sometimes think we are. God’s people throughout the ages have grumbled in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. We can be like God’s people who turn to God, then take God for granted, then turn away from God, then turn towards God when life gets hard. We can be like those who approached the prophet Samuel asking for a king so they could be just like all the other nations. God’s people have a long history of messiness.

Given the history of God’s people, we are going to deal with conflict at some point. We are going to deal with sin and differences of opinion and hurt feelings and just the messiness of living life together. I think it is comforting that this was not a shock to Jesus. Jesus knew it was going to happen so he gave us a way to deal with it. In our Gospel reading today from Matthew 18 we are given a way to deal with someone who sins against us.

We don’t usually talk about someone “sinning against us”, so I’m going to talk about being hurt by someone. However, “feeling hurt” doesn’t necessarily mean someone has sinned against us. It might be a misunderstanding, for example, but for the sake of what we are talking about let’s say we are hurt because someone has sinned against us.

When we feel like someone has hurt us we often react in a few unhelpful ways. We might suck it up and do the nice thing and try to forget it happened. It festers inside us, but we don’t want to create conflict so we don’t bring it up. We might even spiritualize it and tell ourselves that we have forgiven the person. … The other thing we might do when someone has hurt us is talk about it with all our friends, maybe we send out a mass email describing the horrible things the person has done. Maybe we post something on facebook.

When someone hurts us Jesus gives us a pretty specific method for how we are to respond. First, we go to the person and bring it up with them. If they don’t listen, then we bring along one or two others, if they still don’t listen then we bring it to the church. If they don’t listen to the church, then we treat them like someone who doesn’t belong to the church. … It is a pretty simple process.

When we are hurt by someone the first person we should go to is the person who has hurt us. Just the two of you. … That is not usually our first instinct. We want to tell our family, or our friends, but confronting the person who hurt us is uncomfortable and stressful. … Even if we were to talk to the person who hurt us, we usually want to wait until they come to us. We want them to grovel and apologize, and then we MIGHT accept their apology and forgive them. … But Jesus tells us that when someone sins against us we are supposed to go to them and confront them with their fault.

And what is our motivation for us going to them? The motivation isn’t our own healing, or some sense of justice… Our motivation is to regain our brother or sister. … Which means they lost, in some way.

We don’t regain them by coming to them and pretending we weren’t hurt or by pretending they did nothing wrong. The hurt is real and the sin is real and we only regain them when they are willing to admit that.

Jesus cares about the person who has been hurt as well, but Jesus often calls us to endure all kinds of wrongs as a part of living as disciples of the one who was crucified. Being wronged does not necessarily damage your soul. Sinning and not being willing to repent does great damage to your soul, so that person seems to be the one Jesus is concerned about. That person has put themselves in great peril. That person needs healing. That is the attitude we come to them with.

One of the Early Church Fathers St. Chrysostom (who lived in the late 300’s) once pointed out that Jesus does not say, 
“’accuse him’ or ‘take him to court’. He says ‘correct him’. For he is possessed, as it were, by some stupor, and drunk in his anger and disgrace. The one who is healthy must go to the one who is sick… be earnest toward his cure, not toward satisfying your anger and hurt feelings”. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 60.1).

Similarly, St. Augustine says, 
“If you fail [to confront him], you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse. Therefore, when anyone sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves. For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. Just set aside your own injury, but do not neglect your brother’s wound. … for the harm he has done is not primarily to you but to himself” (Sermon 82.7).

We don’t want to ignore the person who was sinned against, but the assumption is that they are still in a good position before God and are able to endure wrongdoing because they are united to Christ. The person who has sinned has begun cutting themselves off from Christ and is the one in more danger.

That is the attitude we are to adopt when we go to someone who has hurt us. It will probably take time and prayer to get ourselves into the right attitude before we approach the person. … Usually talking to the person who hurt us (with the right attitude) is enough to restore the relationship.

If this doesn’t work and the person is unwilling to own up to the wrong they’ve done, then we are supposed to bring along one or two witnesses. … Who should we bring? Well don’t bring your friend who you’ve known since kindergarten who wants to tear a strip off the person who hurt you. Bring someone who was saw the situation. That way they can say what they saw happen. Or bring along someone who both of you respect. They might be able to bring some level of objectivity. You might find that you both need to apologize to each other. Maybe there was a misunderstanding that this other person can help identify.

If that doesn’t work then bring the issue to the church. We have a Corporation (made up of the Wardens and the priest) and a Parish Council that represents the church and acts on its behalf. The church leadership will then look into the issue and talk to those involved. It might be that a members of the Parish Council knows something that might bring clarity to the issue. Or maybe the person who has sinned will have a sense of the seriousness of what they’ve done since the church leadership is now involved.

And if they still won’t listen, then they have basically excluded themselves from the church by not being willing to acknowledge their sin and not being willing to work towards restoration of the wounded relationships. This step will make a lot of us squirm, but Jesus basically says we treat them like someone who isn’t a part of the fellowship- like a stranger.

So they are to be treated like a Gentile who was usually a Pagan that did not follow the Jewish God. Similarly, they are to be treated like a tax collector who betrayed their own people to make a profit for themselves while working for the occupying forces that were oppressing their people.

Now this is not going to happen over something small. This is going to be real evil in the midst of the community that someone is unwilling to recognize and seek forgiveness for.

Paul suggests this to the church in Corinth regarding the man who is in a relationship with his step-mother in 1 Corinthians 5. “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:2). But what is the reason Paul gives- “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). The idea is that the shock of not being a part of the community will help the person recognize their sin and seek forgiveness. It is for the person’s own good. We might think keeping them in the fellowship is merciful and kind, but if it keeps them in their sin and they are not willing to deal with it, then have put themselves in a place where their soul can’t receive healing because they are unwilling to admit they have a wound.

This was probably more effective when there was only one church in the city and you couldn’t just go down the street to another church where no one knows who you are. So this step and the motivation behind it can sometimes be more complicated in our situation.

This sounds very harsh. Treat the person that sinned and refused to listen to you like a gentile or a tax collector. It sounds like we turn our backs on them and refuse to have anything to do with them, but then we have to think about how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. The Apostle Matthew, who tradition tells us wrote this Gospel, was called by Jesus when he was a tax-collector. Jesus was primarily called to Israel, but he also worked miracles of healing for Gentiles and applauded their faith. After the resurrection he commanded his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all people. So, to treat a person like a tax-collector or a Gentile is to love them and go to great lengths to help them be restored to a strong and healthy relationship with God.

Sin in the church is a spiritual matter that has an effect beyond just the immediate people effected. The sin of Christians presents a particular image to the rest of the world- We have the label of “hypocrites” in our society because sin is often left unchallenged within the church. … Sin also effects the culture within the church. It changes how much we trust each other and how safe we feel with each other. So really every Christian has an invested interest in the sin of other Christians for a variety of reasons, including concern for the sinner. Paul talks about the Church as being the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). We are all parts of that body and we have an effect on one another. If we stub our toe the rest of our body reacts.

I know a theologian and pastor named Gordon Smith who served a church where two people had a long standing feud that stemmed from a church split over 30 years before he met them. The two did not interact at all, but still came to the same church. They just avoided each other. On one level they might have believed that their issue was between the two of them and it was no one else’s business. But, he and others at the church were convinced that their feud was a sickness in the church that had a spiritual effect far beyond the two of them. Sin has an effect on the church that runs deeper than our individualism wants to lets us believe.

This process is really about radical love. How do we live a life of compassion for everyone around us, even when they hurt us? Can we love the sinner even when their sin burns us? … If we think about it from the other side, isn’t this exactly how we would want to be treated if we were the sinner? How would it feel to have someone genuinely approach you with compassion when you have harmed them through your sin? The church may not be a utopia, but if we learned to treat each other with this kind of love then we would truly be light shining in a dark world.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Way of the Cross- Matt 16

It is a great privilege to be here with you here at St. Leonard's and to serve Christ with you.

 The lectionary gives us a bit of a rough reading for my first Sunday with you. Peter Rebukes Jesus and Jesus in turn calls Peter “Satan”. That is a hard Gospel reading to ignore.

You might remember that just last week Peter declared Jesus was 
“the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). And Jesus gives a glowing response to Peter’s decoration of who he is- 
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [which means Rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:17-18).
Any of us would be thrilled if Jesus said this kind of thing about us. Jesus declares Peter to be receiving insight directly from God and is then called the rock upon which the Church is built. That is a big deal!

The gospel of Matthew then tells us 
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21).
Peter experiences a kind of whiplash here. Immediately after declaring Jesus is the much awaited messiah, Jesus says he is going to die.  Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. “Rebuke” isn’t a word we use very often. It’s not something you want someone to do to you. Peter is basically scolding Jesus. Jesus rebukes a demon in the next chapter (Matt 17:18). So this is a pretty strong way for Peter to speak to Jesus.  Peter is obviously shaken up.

There are a few reasons this has hit Peter so hard. One, is that Peter just loves Jesus and doesn't want to see him suffer and die. 
But another reason is that it doesn’t fit the traditional ideas of the messiah that Peter has grown up with. In Peter’s culture the messiah was the Son of David and so he was a warrior king like David was. He was supposed to raise up an army, kick out all foreign oppressive forces and unite the people of Israel under one powerful king. 
The idea of suffering and dying was in direct contradiction with Peter’s understanding of the messiah. The messiah was a superhero who beats the bad guys, he isn’t someone who dies by their hands. A cross is not needed in Peter’s understanding of the role of the messiah. 

Jesus receives Peter’s rebuke as a temptation to live out his calling without the cross. It has the ring of an earlier temptation in Matthew chapter 4, where the devil offers to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world without having to go to the cross. Jesus’ response to Peter “Get behind me, Satan!” (16:23) is an echo of Jesus’ earlier reaction to the temptations of the Evil One. Peter, unknowingly, is filling the role of Satan, God’s adversary.

We shouldn’t be too quick to scold Peter here. It is a presumptuous way to treat his master, yes. But, this is the way disciples have often treated Jesus throughout the church’s history. (you may want to look to the Grand Inquisitor by Dosteovsky-
The followers of Jesus often have a vision that is too small. Peter sees the Roman Empire and a unified country of Israel. Jesus is looking to the defeat of Sin and death (not just the Romans) and to the salvation of all humanity (not just the people of Israel). Peter’s idea of the messiah was too small. 

So one reason Peter rebukes Jesus is that he doesn’t conform to the traditional image of messiah. But, it might also be that Peter understands that if his master is supposed to suffer then he is going to suffer as well. Jesus confirms that this is the case because right after rebuking Peter he says, 
“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 will find it” (Matt 16:24-25).
This is bad PR for a new movement. If Peter is going to be the rock on which this new movement is built, then it is his responsibility to help direct it. Jesus should know that this is no way to build a church. Who is going to join a movement where you are promised a cross? … Paul recognizes this when he says that they “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).

The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, 
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).
 The church is often with Peter in rebuking Jesus for his hard call. Bonhoeffer spoke about churches that offer “cheap grace”. It is an easy Christianity where we are never challenged. He says, 
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without … discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”.
 Bonhoeffer recognized that you can’t chose to be a Christian without being a disciple. And being a disciple requires picking up your cross and following Christ.

For many in the early church this was a literal death. The tradition tells us that all except one of the original apostles were martyred (see CT article). We are told that John was exiled to an island. For the early believers picking up your cross and following Jesus could have been a literal possibility. And we should not forget that it is a literal reality for some of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world- we have seen a vicious example of that under ISIS.

This call of Jesus confronts our desire for a comfortable life. A Jesus that doesn’t expect anything of us is a pretty attractive Jesus for many in our culture. A Jesus that allows me to live the way I like, but then grants me an afterlife in paradise is a pretty attractive Jesus. A Jesus that gives me comfort in the midst of my trouble, but never expects anything from me is an attractive Jesus. ... However, that is not actually the Jesus we have. The Jesus we have is the Jesus who calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him. He expects that there will be a cost to our discipleship. We don’t want burdens that Jesus doesn’t actually want us to carry, but he does call us to follow him. And the path he calls us down… well, he almost promises that suffering is awaiting us.

And that is where Peter inside us wants to pull Jesus aside to rebuke him. “Jesus, you want these people to come back next Sunday don’t you? They aren’t going to if you keep talking like that! Say something about you being the good shepherd and how you take care of them! Don’t talk about them having to pick up a cross and follow you!”

That is a hard message to hear. It is an even harder message to try to live. What does it even mean in Red Deer to pick up your cross and follow Jesus? It doesn’t just mean suffering of any kind. It means suffering because of Jesus.

I met a man who became a Christian in Iraq. He was being trained to be an imam and take over the mosque from his father that had been in his family for generations. He was kicked out of his family and was on the run for fear of his life, but didn’t deny Christ.

I know a woman who inserts herself into a family to help care for children who are living a very difficult life. She has become a kind of aunty. She could have ignored this family and done all kinds of other things with her time that her peers are doing, but she has decided to love these kids by being a part of their lives. Even though it is emotionally difficult and messy.

I know a man who owned a garage. Being a disciple of Jesus made him operate with integrity and to give people help who needed it who sometimes had a hard time paying. He would sometimes volunteer his own time to help people out with his skills.

There are many other examples of people around us sacrificing for their love of Jesus. It is not easy work. It requires effort. It sometimes means not making as much money as you could. It sometimes means being involved in the emotional drama of the people you are around, but could easily ignore and walk away from. It might mean being wronged. They do these things in Jesus’ name and the suffering attached to it is in his name too (as big or small it seems).

Picking up our cross is important. It is essential, even. It is so important that Jesus attaches these questions to his statement to amplify his direction to deny ourselves- 
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” 
Jesus says it is so important that it is like gaining or losing your soul. In a sense, picking up your cross and following Jesus is the most important thing you can ever do.

There is a cost to being a disciple, but we should never forget that there is also a cost to not being a disciple, and that cost Jesus seems to imply (frighteningly) is our soul. So as intimidated as we might be about picking up our cross, we should be even more intimidated by the alternative.

Jesus doesn’t ask this without some sort of promise. He says, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25). There is a death needed for our false self, so that the true self can live. The false self that is deceived by the ways of Sin must die and give way to the self that reflects the ways of Jesus. Jesus wants our joy to be full (Jn 15:11). Jesus wants nothing less than a full life for us, but to get there requires self-denial.

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