Wednesday, March 14, 2007

“The Tables are Turning”

Luke 6:20-26[1]

I think it is nearly impossible for most of us to fully understand the dilemma Jesus created for people like you and me in his day. On the one hand, his proclamation of God’s grace, of God’s kingdom of life and peace, of mercy for sinners and “righteous” alike must have sounded like the best news they’d ever heard. It excited them and inspired them. Kind of like us.

But on the other hand, the fact that he allotted all that to the destitute, the undesirables, and the down-and-out raised serious questions for them. Hadn’t they been taught that God blesses those who are obedient and punishes those who aren’t? Like us they had probably spent a lifetime of trying to live up to God’s expectations. And here comes Jesus telling them that the reward—is going to be handed to those who never even expended one iota of effort to gain it! That confused them. They struggled to even hear what he was saying. Kind of like us.

That’s where Jesus’ “beatitudes” place us, even though most of us don’t realize it. We are so used to identifying with the “good guys” in the story that we cannot even hear the edge that Jesus’ words present people like you and me—people who have played by the rules and have worked hard to make something of themselves and have tried to live by Jesus’ teachings.

Make no mistake about it—Jesus completely undercuts the tired, worn-out notion that God blesses those who obey and punishes those who don’t. And make no mistake about the fact that Jesus clearly allots the blessings of God’s kingdom to those whom we would deem “unworthy.”[2]

Part of our problem, I think, is that we have heard “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” so many times that we may be incapable of seeing the poverty that surrounds us. It ruins people’s lives. It destroys their souls. Kristi and I recently watched a program called “Waiting on the World to Change” on ABC’s 20/20, which follows children in Camden, NJ whose lives are being torn apart by poverty and its cohorts. [3] There’s Billy Joe, whose valiant effort to be the first in his family to graduate from High School is threatened by the fact that he has to work long hours after school. And there’s Moochie, who loves school, but whose family is being torn apart by her father’s alcoholism. And there’s Ivan, whose infectious optimism is constantly beaten down by the fact that he has no place he can call home.

Their stories are heartbreaking. But we don’t have to do to Camden, NJ to find stories just like theirs. We don’t even have to go to Houston. We are surrounded by stories just like theirs. And the Gospel calls us not only to empathize with the poor, but to share our very selves with them to alleviate their suffering. The Gospel calls us not only to share with the poor, but to identify with them and express our solidarity with them through social action. It calls us not only to identify with the poor, but to become “poor” ourselves by placing all that we are and all that we have at the service of the kingdom, which means at the service of those who suffer around us.[4] That is the awesome cost of discipleship!

One contemporary preacher puts it this way: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”[5]

The other part of our problem with Jesus’ beatitudes is that we have so identified ourselves with the “good guys” in the story that we can’t even hear him saying to us, “Woe to you who are rich now, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who laugh now.” I think we cannot hear his warning against being enamored with our lives and our money and our stuff because it drains the very life out of us.

I don’t think Jesus was warning us about some horrible fate in the end; I think he was talking about the fact that our prosperity, with all the comforts and luxuries and things it offers us, robs of us our very lives in exchange.[6] The reality is, for all our affluence, for all our technology, for all our independence and comfort, we as a society are more filled with despair than ever before. We have bought into the lie that our lives consist of what we have—whether it’s a bank account, or a career, or a reputation, or even a family. But for all that we have, we are deeply unsatisfied.

And here’s Jesus adding insult to injury—it’s bad enough that we feel empty with our lives; does he really have to come along and say “Woe to you!” Does he really have to threaten that we will be “left behind” when it comes to God’s kingdom just because we don’t suffer material poverty? But I think we also miss the fact that the promise of the Gospel that offers hope to the impoverished who despair of finding freedom from their poverty also offers hope to the prosperous who are also imprisoned in despair. The bottom line for all of us is that when God’s kingdom becomes fully real in our world, by the grace and mercy and love of God we will all be set free to live.



[1] A sermon preached 2/11/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, 104; John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 266-82.

[4] Cf. Doris Donnelly, “The Needle’s Eye: Christians and their Money,” in The Christian Century (April 27, 1983), 400-402; accessed at http://religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1669; Mel Shoemaker, “Good News to the Poor in Luke’s Gospel,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 27 (1992); accessed at http://wesley.nnc.edu/theojrnl/27-8.txt; J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 102-104.

[5] Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217–18; cf. Isaiah 1:16-17; James 1:27-28.

[6]J. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 75-77, 85-86, 88, 97.

“Unworthy”

Isa. 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11[1]

Jesus said it first: “whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26-27). Matthew’s version puts it even more strongly: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37-38).

In another context, Jesus is approached by three followers, and one by one he turns them away. To the third, Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk. 9:62)! We might read this as a challenge that weeds out the “wanna-be’s” and the “would-be’s” and makes it so that only the truly committed bother to apply for the position!

I would imagine that it didn’t take long for Christians like you and me to begin devising ever-more-rigorous strategies for ensuring that they were “worthy” disciples of Jesus. The irony is, however, that the point of Jesus’ sayings is that none of us is worthy! None of us is “fit” for the Kingdom of God! None of us is worthy to follow Christ! None of us is worthy to serve God’s cause in the world!

In fact, in Scripture those who were most “worthy” consistently judged themselves to be unworthy! In our gospel lesson for today, Peter responds to Jesus’ preaching and miraculous display of fishing expertise by saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk. 5:8). Peter doesn’t volunteer to join the campaign—he tries to take his name out of nomination right from the start! He considered himself to be unworthy of Jesus!

The same was true for John the Baptist: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” (Lk. 3:16). And for Paul the Apostle? The same: “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9). Ditto for David and Moses, by the way.

But that doesn’t stop God from going right ahead and using “unworthy” servants just like them to carry out his kingdom! As one preacher said it, every one of the original Twelve Apostles were “amateurs and rookies” when it comes to starting a new movement or leading an organization or even preaching a sermon![2]

Jesus ignores Peter’s protest—he doesn’t even really “call” Peter at all. Jesus simply replies with a promise: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Lk. 5:10). What Peter didn’t get is that the only qualifications we need to follow Jesus are to accept that we are accepted and then to be willing to give ourselves away for others.

The heart of the gospel is the simple truth that we are accepted by God.[3] The first qualification for following Jesus as his disciple is to accept that. Of course, that means that we recognize we can never be worthy or deserving in and of ourselves. But it also means that we don’t have to. The first step to becoming a disciple of Jesus the Christ is to accept that simple but life-changing truth.

It’s life-changing because, once we have come to that point, we are free from all the expectations and criteria and measures that simply keep us oppressed by our insecurities and keep us enslaved to the vain effort to “measure up.”[4] When we accept that we are accepted, we are freed from all that because we come to the realization that we don’t have to prove anything to anyone any more! That’s the true freedom that Christ offers us all. And as we go out with that freedom and interact with our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends and our family, in a very real sense we “infect” them with the freedom of Christ and his Kingdom.[5]

The other qualification for being a disciple of Christ is to be willing to follow him in surrendering ourselves for the sake of others.[6] That is in fact the single most powerful way to demonstrate the life-changing impact of the gospel. When we know that we are accepted by God, when we are freed from all the various artificial “measures” we are told we have to live up to, then we are set free to serve others sacrificially. The bottom line is that what qualifies us to be a disciple of Jesus the Christ is our willingness to follow his path of surrender and service.

No one is “worthy” of the privilege of being Jesus’ disciple. No one is “fit” for the Kingdom of God. But then, no one has to try to become worthy. It is God who qualifies us; it is God who equips us; it is God who accomplishes the work through us. We simply have to accept that we are accepted, and be willing to surrender ourselves in service to others.



[1] A sermon preached 2/04/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Frederick Niedner, “Amateurs and Rookies,” The Christian Century (January 24, 2001), 9; accessed at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2211.

[3] Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 153-163.

[4] J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 88-89, 98.

[5] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 104, 108, 278.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 92, 96, 97.

“Prodigal Grace”
Luke 4:21-30[1]
The recent movie “The Kingdom of Heaven” is a story set during the second Crusade. The Christian forces occupy Jerusalem, but they are divided. On the one hand are those who seek to maintain a tenuous but stable peace with the Muslims by sharing the various holy places that are sacred to all religions. On the other hand are the Christian zealots who are bent on a war with the Muslims, convinced not only that it is their duty as Christians, but also that victory is guaranteed. Their slogan is “God wills it.” “God wills it”—the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of people whose only crime is that they practice another religion.
I’m not sure what it is about religion that seems inevitably to make us think in those terms. Those who, like us, belong to the “right” religion are the chosen ones. If we’re honest with ourselves, we often expect and think we deserve God’s special favor as a result of our piety. Those who belong to other religions are condemned to eternal damnation —or at the very least are unworthy of our concern.
The “religious” people of Jesus day— the ones like us who regularly attended the synagogue at the appointed hour—thought that way too. When Jesus preached his sermon at Nazareth, they initially responded with proud approval for the “local boy” who made good. But Jesus knew that they were missing the point, and so he made it clear: God’s grace is for everyone, everywhere, not just for a select group. As one contemporary prophet puts it, Jesus “threw the book at them” by citing examples from OT scripture.[2] And as a result, they tried to kill him. Although they failed on that occasion, they would eventually succeed!
What scandalized the “righteous” people of Nazareth was the prodigal way in which Jesus offered God’s grace to everyone (“prodigal” meaning reckless, wasteful, and extravagant). What made Jesus’ proclamation “prodigal” was the fact that he offered the blessings of God’s Kingdom not just to the “righteous,” but also to “sinners.”[3] The religious people of Jesus’ day expected God’s blessings for themselves. They believed they had earned them by their good lives. They were convinced that they deserved God’s grace, while the “sinners” deserved punishment. But Jesus came along offering God’s blessings indiscriminately to everyone. It’s hard to imagine anything more scandalous in Jesus’ day.
We might be tempted to think that we have moved beyond all that. But the reality is that not much has changed. I’m often amazed the way people who have been Christians all their lives respond when they hear for the first time about the Bible’s hope for all people to be redeemed. The typical response is, “If everyone is going to be saved, why should we go to church?” I think part of the problem is that we get confused regarding who salvation is about. It’s not primarily about us making the right choices or believing the right things. In a very real sense, salvation is not about us at all! It’s about God. It’s about God’s love for all creation. It’s about God’s plan to draw everything and everyone he has made into his love and into his life through his grace.
We’re very much like the “righteous” people who were outraged by Jesus’ declaration of God’s prodigal grace—more so than we’d like to admit. We still think that by our worship and service and piety we are somehow making ourselves more deserving of God’s grace. We’re like the older brother who is angry because the Father is running down the road to embrace those who don’t “deserve” it![4] But what makes it grace is that none of us “deserves” it. Nothing limits the saving grace of God![5]
When we look at our world through the lenses of God’s grace, it changes everything. We can no longer view others as “competition” that we have to outdo in our piety in order to “make it in” to heaven. Everybody “makes it in” because God wills it.[6] Period. The whole creation is to be drawn into the peace and love and life of God’s kingdom.[7]
What this means for us is that we cannot view ourselves as God’s “favorites” who receive special blessing over and above others. It means that we all receive the gift of God’s grace that extends to everyone equally. It means that no one can be viewed as outside God’s grace—no one is excluded; all are welcome.



[1] A sermon preached 01/28/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.
[2] William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004), 20; accessed at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2955.
[3] J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 128-29, 175-76, 185; J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 81-82; J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 89-90, 112-16, 131
[4] James Sanders, “What Happened at Nazareth,” a sermon preached 6/20/1971 at Riverside Church, New York; accessed at http://www.religion-online.org/ showchapter.asp?title=800&C=1046.
[5] Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 190; J. Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 149.
[6] Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 2:2-4; 25:6–10; see also Micah 4:1-3; Luke 4:16–21; 7:20–22; 17:20–21; John 3:3, 5, 16; Revelation 11:15–19; 15:3–4; 21:1–5; 22:1–5. See also Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 139-151; cf. also J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope , 204, 216; Moltmann, Crucified God, 176, 242-43, 276-77; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 77, 83, 100, 134-35, 190-192, 216; J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40; J. Moltmann, God in Creation, 54-6, 288-90; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 104, 109, 133, 178, 190, 223, 225, 255, 263-64, 276, 278-79, 282-86, 303-7, 325; J. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 56-57, 94-95, 112, 212-13; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411; IV.3, 478; Emil Brunner, Eternal Hope, 61; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, vol. 2: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, 299; Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 181; cf. also Paul Tillich, “Salvation,” in The Eternal Now, 114; Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 166-67, 177-180; Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at http://www.pres-outlook.com/HTML/guthrie030602.html.
[7] Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145; cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 255.