Messy

Today is the third birthday of our little house church.  It’s been quite a journey.  I once heard someone say that house churches are “messy”.  You can’t just put on your best face for an hour or two a week and then go about your separate lives.  In a house church, you really share your lives with one another: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  And that gets messy.

In our culture where everyone is expected to be in control at all times, to present a happy, perfectly-pressed life to the world, messy can be uncomfortable.

But Jesus was all about the “messy”.  He dealt with illness, pain, heartbreak, and uncleanliness.  The sinners, the outcast, the broken.  He didn’t expect people to present perfect lives to the world.  He expected them to walk alongside one another, to carry one another’s burdens, to recognized brokenness and strive to meet needs.  And none of that is possible if we keep the “messy” swept under a carpet and only present a picture of perfection to the world.

So I think the “messy” is good.  It’s right.  It’s honest.

It isn’t always easy, but it’s where we’re meant to be.

So here’s to three years (and counting) of messy.  May God continue to give us the strength to share the messy in our own lives and to accept the messy in others’.

 

The Gospel of Offense

I often run into people who are unconcerned with the wording they choose, unphased if particular words or phrases mean something different to the hearer than was intended by the speaker.  I hear people presenting “hard truths” that drive people further from the gospel, rather than helping them to find the loving arms of the Savior.  I see people who believe that affronting people in the name of the Lord is appropriate.

All of this is supported by one faulty premise: the idea that the gospel is intended to offend.

In many circles, I’m told that my words don’t need to be carefully chosen or delivered with love, because it is God the listener is rejecting, not me.  And it appears that this is meant to be a comfort.  As though the idea that in response to my words, someone may reject God (and not merely reject me) means I feel less concern or responsibility.  If I have any love for my neighbor, this is not a consolation; it’s a reminder of just how much responsibility I have in choosing my words and representing my God well.

Jesus didn’t spend much of His time on earth offending people.  He generally extended love, compassion, and understanding to those with whom He interacted.  At times He presented people with challenging instructions or ideas, but that challenge nearly always was accompanied by gentleness.

With one exception.  The only group whom Jesus repeatedly offended was the extremely religious.  Those who were charged with drawing the people into relationship with God, yet were presenting a false picture of God to those around them.  Those who seemed to overlook the love, forgiveness, and restoration that God offers.

If I am following the example set by Jesus, then I will not find comfort in the offense of people separated from God.  If I am following the example set by Jesus, I will reach out in love and mercy, putting the needs of others above my own comforts.  (Even with something as seemingly minute as word choices.)

The gospel is not offensive.  It is good news!  It is good news to those who are living life without God and to those who have been drawn into relationship with Him.  It is good news to those who are broken and to those to whom God has brought restoration.

The idea that the gospel is offensive is an excuse.  It is an excuse to offend, to speak without love, or it is a shield to protect a fragile ego and deflect a feeling of rejection.

Our job is not to offend.  Nor is it to excuse careless speech with a faulty expectation of the gospel.  Our job is to love so well that people will experience God’s love and be drawn to Him.

Few Are Chosen

Yesterday we continued our discussion around the question:  Who does Jesus say will get into heaven?  This week we focused a lot of our attention on the parable that Jesus told in Matthew 22:1-14.

Jesus tells the story of a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent his servants to tell those who were invited that the time for the banquet had come, and they all refused.  So the king sent his servants out into the street to invite anyone they found, good or bad, so that the banquet hall was full of guests.  Yet one of those guests was not dressed in wedding clothes, so he was bound and thrown out “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

“For many are invited, but few are chosen,” Jesus concludes.

This parable confused me for years, and it appeared yesterday that I was not alone.

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In this first century world of honor and shame, turning down an invitation brought shame on the host, the act of which also brought shame on the potential guest.

So to avoid this pending round of shame for all involved, feelers were sent out before a party was ever officially scheduled.  The host, or servants of the host, would visit each potential guest to learn their availability for the coming week or two, or whatever timeframe was being considered.  Once all schedules had been consulted, the host would pick a day when the most people possible would be available.  The host would then let everyone who was available know when the party would be held.

This way, all shame can be avoided.  Those who are unavailable are excluded from the guest list. The host knows everyone on the final guest list is available before the invitation is sent, and the guests have already held that time in their schedules, so that when the invitation comes, they can RSVP “yes”.

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It was at this point that we enter Jesus’s parable.  The guests know that the king is planning this banquet, and know when to expect it to take place.  The king has communicated the plans.  And, if anyone had the authority to say “no”, their schedules were already taken into account.

Except, when the formal invitations arrive, the guests have better things to do.  Though they had essentially committed earlier in this process, they decline to attend when the formal invitation is issued.  When shame is at stake.

So, the king sends out his servants to fill the banquet hall with whomever they can find.  And, by virtue of their attendance, everyone who attended accepted the invitation.

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Accepting an invitation to a wedding comes with certain expectations.  It is expected you will show up, if you accepted the invitation.  It is expected you will be on time (whatever that means within the given culture).  It is expected you will dress and behave appropriately, and generally, it is expected that you will bring a gift of some sort.

Everyone who attended the king’s banquet accepted the invitation.  Yet one man chose not to meet the expectations that come with the acceptance.  He chose not to dress appropriately for the occasion.  And because he did not meet the expectations that accompanied the acceptance, he was tossed out.

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So what of this

“for many are invited, but few are chosen”?

Most explanations I’ve heard for this only consider the verse or two that precede it.  Many are invited, they say, yet one who came was not chosen.  So, with invitation in hand, he was tossed out.  The chosen are those with a guarantee, and without said guarantee, you may be tossed out.

Yet is seems a closing statement like this more appropriately applies to the full story.  It seems that Jesus is deliberate when He speaks and that each word is important.  It seems unlikely that Jesus would have told this whole story if the only key piece was the final few verses.

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According to the culture of the time, you choose the guests you want to attend before you ever schedule your event.  The details of the event are dictated by the availability and preferences of the guests you choose to include.

The king chose the guests around whom he would create this banquet for his son.  Yet those that he chose declined to attend.  So he sent his servants out to invite whomever they found.

Being chosen is not a guarantee.  In this story, the chosen were not even at the wedding banquet (by their own choice).  The focus of Jesus’s closing statement was not on the one who was tossed out.  It was on the many who were invited, even though they were not the original “chosen”.

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The Jewish nation prided themselves on being the chosen people of God.  Yet many of them declined when Jesus said, “Follow me.”

“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

The emphasis isn’t on the few; it’s on the many.  Although “the chosen people of God” was limited to the nation of Israel, many are invited!  We are invited!

Genealogy or “chosen-ness” does not limit our access to God.

Many, countless, are invited!

God’s Economy of Love: A Faulty Premise

I recently read a post in which the writer was talking about the “topsy-turvy Kingdom of God”, where the last are first and the poor are rich.  And just as we think we’re getting the hang of it – the first are last, the rich are poor – God turns everything on its head again, and we see a person of privilege who is pursuing God wholeheartedly and giving abundantly out of their wealth.  As soon as we try to label someone, God turns the tables again, so that we cannot boil a person down to a judgment.  Lots of great points.

And then I came to one of the comments.

One of these this-would-be-a-great-post-but-something-was-left-unsaid-so-I’ll-add-in-what-the-author-missed comments.  Sometimes, these comments bring greater clarity to the subject and enhance the conversation.  But often, these comments bring in steamer trunk after steamer trunk of baggage, all tightly wrapped around a single piece of (usually bad) doctrine.

This comment was the latter.

(Initially, I found this comment very confusing on a post talking about not judging our brothers and sisters because they are “too rich” or “too poor” or whatever other attribute we deem them to possess beyond reason.  The post merely said, don’t assume greed when you see rich.  Don’t assume something negative about a brother or sister in Christ just because you see something different than you.  My best guess is that this comment was intended as a justification for clinging to a judgmental spirit.)

Here is a snippet:

“If someone is truly a rich and greedy person he or she is of course loved by God in the sense in which he loves all of His creation, He even loves Satan and the demons on some level (not that I’m saying God loves unbelievers only as much as he loves the fallen angels, there is a strong difference in degree but not in kind)…Jesus of course did love [the rich young ruler] unconditionally on some level as was said earlier, but this does not mean that He loved the young man as a child of God…He made it very clear that this man needed to repent in a radical way.”  [emphasis added]

It appears that the commenter fears what will happen if we tell people that God loves them without also issuing a caveat. But this comment, and the theology behind it, is riddled with fallacies.

We know that God loves unconditionally.  (Although it appears we may know it only cognitively.  It’s not something we know deep in our soul.)  The commenter states: God loves unbelievers “unconditionally on some level”.  What does that even mean?: “unconditionally on some level”.  It’s as though this commenter knows that he’s supposed to believe that God is love and He loves unconditionally, but that clearly God can’t love all those people out there who are opposing Him.  God loves unconditionally, but He certainly can’t love them the same way He loves me!  He must love His creation in a general sense, and since this love is a sweeping generality, it’s unconditional “on some level”, in that the only condition of this general love is that you are part of creation.

But it appears, according to this commenter, that if we move away from this sweeping generality of love, if move down to the personal, individual level, God only loves each of us as much as is deserved.  Clearly, it seems, children of God deserve to be loved, because we are trying to follow Him.  And those who are not trying, are not loved in the same way.

In fact, it appears that this commenter has so figured out the countless gradations of God’s love that he is able to categorize and quantify the love given to each tier, starting with the fallen angels and ending with the children of God.

Additionally, it appears that the commenter believes that if God does not withhold His love until someone “repents”, then God is condoning the sin.  This also assumes that repentance is a single act, occurring once in a person’s life, rather than an on-going pattern of refinement as we grow to know God’s heart more and more deeply.

The saddest part is that a large portion of our nation is the casualty of this faulty theology, as we, the American Church, withhold love until we deemed that people are “deserving” of God.

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This commenter seems to have missed the TRUTH, the GOOD NEWS, of the gospel.  God loved us before we loved Him.  God loved us before we were following Him.  God loved us before we deserved it.  Which is really GOOD NEWS, because none of us deserves the kind of love God offers.  Not one.

Jesus told a parable about workers who were given charge over various things.  And of those who were given much, much was expected.  The more we are given, the higher the expectations are of how we will respond.  And we, as children of God, have been given the very Spirit of God.

His strength, His truth, His grace living in us.  With an advantage like that, the expectations must be huge.  In most cases, we aren’t doing better than unbelievers.  In most cases, we are miserably mishandling the power of God in our lives.  If God’s love is to be earned, those unbelievers operating on their own strength and still managing to be kind, generous, and loving are so outpacing us with our God-Spirit advantage that we deserve none of that love.

So praise God that His love is unconditional!  That it’s un-earnable.  That’s it’s freely given.

Creating “the Least”

Jesus spent a great deal of time with those considered “the least” in His community.  With tax collectors.  Women.  The unclean.  Sinners, Gentiles, and Samaritans.

He went to the marginalized, those the community had pushed out.  Some were pushed out due to the community’s understanding of the Law.  Some were pushed out due to prejudice or misunderstanding.

Jesus didn’t seem overly concerned about evaluating why someone was pushed out.  Whether it was a worthy reason.  Whether that person deserved to be there.  He just went to the marginalized and He lifted them up.  He gave them dignity.  He showed them love and that He saw within them a precious creation made in the image of God.

Jesus demonstrated this priority, and then He stated it bluntly in a parable about sheep and goats.

And Jesus charged us to do the same.  To have the same priority.  To lift up those whom society has pushed down.  To love them and give them dignity.  To affirm their worth.  To demonstrate that the greatest commandment is love.

And yet, we the American church are failing miserably.

Not only are we failing to lift up the marginalized, we are actually creating the marginalized!

We are pushing groups to the fringes, into marginalized status.  We are creating the very thing we are supposed to be fighting against.

We bring shame upon the abused.  We declare women to be inherently less capable than men.  We push people out of the Church who are pursuing God, if that pursuit doesn’t look like we believe it should.  We shower judgment on those who are different.

And we condemn those outside the Church for living as though they don’t know God.  For living as though they don’t have the power of the Holy Spirit inside them.  Essentially, we condemn them for needing God, when they haven’t yet discovered that need.

Many individuals are following Jesus’s example.  Many are extending love rather than judgment.  But as a whole, as the American church, we are failing.

It’s time for us to recalibrate.  To return to Jesus’s model.  To stop creating “the least”.

Instead, we must lift up those whom society has pushed down.  We must love them and give them dignity.  Affirm their worth.  And demonstrate to everyone who’s watching that the greatest commandment is love.

Deafening Silence

Why is it that in America the loudest Christians seem to be the ones communicating a god that is completely foreign to me?  Why are the loudest Christian leaders presenting God as something other than loving, merciful, and full of grace?

Where are the leaders who are standing up and saying, “This isn’t right!”?  “This hate and bigotry and ‘us-versus-them’ isn’t from God.”

Where are the Christian leaders who follow the commands that Jesus said were paramount?:

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:37-40

Where are the leaders who are speaking out and declaring that the Church should be a place of love and mercy and freedom for all people?

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The outer-most court of the Temple in Jerusalem was the Court of the Gentiles.  It was the place that people who were not of Jewish descent came to worship God.  It was in this court that vendors and money changers set up their market, far more concerned about their own interests than about the original purpose of that area.

And Jesus did not take it lying down.  He did not turn the other cheek.  He got angry.

God had set up His Temple, had set up the entire Jewish nation, that all people might be drawn to Him.  That all people might worship Him and experience the depth of life that can only be found in Him.

And the group of people that God had chosen to draw all people to Him had become the very obstacle that was preventing people from coming to Him.

So Jesus overturned the tables.

And Jesus cleared the Temple.  Cleared the way so that people could once again draw near to God.

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The Church is the new Temple, the new chosen people, to draw all nations to God.

These vocal Christian leaders, who are teaching anything but the love of God have become the vendors and moneychangers in the Temple courts.  They have become the very thing that is preventing people from coming to God.

Church leaders who recognize that this is wrong must speak up.

Many people are already speaking out.  But until leaders begin to speak up, it will be seen as individual opinion.  Our communities won’t recognize it as the Church speaking out against the hate until it’s our Church leaders doing the speaking.

They cannot avoid the topics.  They cannot choose silence to avoid confrontation.  To save face or save jobs.  Not when silence implies agreement.  Not when people’s lives are at stake.  When their eternities are at stake.

Now is not the time to turn the other cheek.  Now is the time to overturn tables.

Someone must speak.

The silence is deafening.