Two Realizations That Help Christian Unity

In Luke 14 Jesus tells the parable of an influential man who throws a dinner party. He sends out the invite to all the choice people, the in-crowd. As the RSVP’s come back he gets nothing but excuses…One guy says he just bought a field and wants to go look at it. Pretty lame…don’t you think he has already seen the field and don’t you think it will look pretty much the same next week? Another guy says he just got married and can’t make it…wise fella right there…still another guy says he just bought some oxen and wants to try them out. You know people couldn’t care less about you if they don’t come because they are test driving their oxen. Oldest excuse in the books. None of the people you might have thought would have been first in line come to the banquet.

So what does the man do? He sends out a second invitation, “‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’” Bring them in. Bring in anyone who will come! The servant goes out and brings in all who are willing. There is still room at the banquet. So the man sends out a third invitation, “‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”

Why does God fill his banquet with such a motley crew, such a rag-tag bunch of unworthy people? Not only does he invite them…he orders his servant to compel these people to come to the banquet. This is a big deal. These people have nothing to offer the man. They won’t increase his status or make him look good. When you look at the room and see who is there you can’t help but realize the man who is running the banquet is full of grace and compassion. The shocking thing is this, these people are you and me. We are the ones who don’t deserve to be at the banquet. We are the spiritually crippled and lame and poor and blind. We have been given a seat at God’s banquet table. We have gone from the margins to the inner circle.

So what are the two realizations that help develop Christian unity?

Realization #1 – None of us deserve to be Christians. That should humble us and bring us to our knees. So much disunity springs out of a since of spiritual entitlement and arrogance. The truth is, none of us deserve any of it. Yet God, in his infinite mercy is the one who brings us together.

Realization #2 – When you really understand you have been saved by God’s grace, it should make us graceful toward others. Grace is a key ingredient to unity. Arrogance and pride magnify mistakes and differences. Grace helps us iron over differences and mistakes in healthy ways. So much disunity comes from having an ungraceful attitude. Being ungraceful and ungrateful leads to unforgiveness that often leads to unending, bitter disputes that tear brothers and sisters in Christ apart.

Try this: The next time you are feeling disunity with another Christian picture you and that other person as blind, crippled beggars eating next to each other at God’s banquet and see what is left that is still worthy enough to tear your relationship apart. Not too many things will pass that test.

New Free Study Uploaded – Parables and the Kingdom of God

I just uploaded a new 13 lesson series on the parables of Jesus entitled “Parables and the Kingdom of God”

Here are the stats on free curriculum on this blog:

  • 937 total lessons
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  • 75 lesson series
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Do We Recognize Redemption When It Happens Right in Front of Us?

In Luke 7 Jesus is in the house of Simon the Pharisee. While they are reclining at the table a “sinful” woman comes in and anoints Jesus, first with her tears and then with some perfume she had brought with her. Luke tells us she had learned that Jesus was in the house and she knew exactly where she needed to be and what she needed to do. We know that because she came prepared with a bottle of perfume. First she wept at his feet and began putting her tears on Jesus’ feet. Then she started kissing his feet and poured perfume on them. I am sure this was quite uncomfortable for those who were there watching this unfold but what made it even more difficult for them was who the woman was who was doing all of this. She was a “sinner”. The worldly part inside us tells us that sinners and Messiah’s shouldn’t mix. But the part inside us that says things like that has it all wrong. There was no better place for her to be, in all her sin…in the messiness of her life than in the presence of Jesus Christ. What as happening was redemption right in front of their eyes but they were too blind to see it.

In order to open their eyes to the significance of what was happening before them, Jesus tells them a story about two men who had much debt. One guy owed a year and a half’s wages and the other guy a month and a half. The lender forgave them both. Jesus asks them, “Now which of them will love him more?” The obvious answer is the one who owed more. It seems like Jesus is saying that this woman actually loves Jesus more than they do. Ouch. In the story, Jesus doesn’t get into why they owed all of that or all the bad decisions they had made that led up to that point. The lender doesn’t owe explanation to anyone when it comes to forgiving debt because forgiving debt rarely makes sense from a worldly perspective. From Jesus’ perspective it makes all the sense in the world because Jesus came to bring redemption to a world full of the debt  and weight of sin and death and release us into a great freedom that we find only through Christ.

What is most frightening about this story is that all of this was unfolding before Simon and company but they couldn’t see it. Jesus was trying to open their eyes so that they could understand the significance of it all. Are there things Jesus is trying to open our eyes to see accurately? There are a few questions for us that come out of all of this. The first question we must ask ourselves is this, are there times we pre-judge people? Second, are you currently holding someone’s past against them? Third, how do we make our attitude toward people we have a hard time with the same attitude Jesus would have toward them?

Let us have eyes to see things clearly like Jesus did so that we can rejoice when Jesus rejoices and mourn when he mourns. Let us never get the two confused so that we weep when Jesus rejoices or rejoice when Jesus mourns because that means we are seeing things from a worldly perspective and not as Jesus sees them.

Jesus, Seeds and our DNA

I have been writing small group material on the parables and I was surprised to see how many of Jesus parables are about seeds. You have the parable of the sower, the mustard seed, the growing seed, the wheat and the weeds and so on.

In these parables, the seed usually represents God’s Word. When it gets in the soil produces something because that is its kingdom DNA. Like DNA It is designed to produce life, to grow and to reproduce itself…that is what DNA does. God’s plan for humanity is carefully written on every strand…every seed that hits the ground. It is a powerful, graceful and beautiful thing. It is God’s vision for where he is taking this world and the redemption we find in Christ Jesus.

If you ever get a good close look at a seed, they often resemble the plant they will become. I can’t help but think about how that parallels how we become confirmed into the image of Christ as we seek him in faith.

John 12 and 1 Corinthians 15 give us one last insight on this. Seeds must die before they can bring life. So it was with Christ and so it is with us. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Paul tells us in Romans 6 that our baptism is death to self and resurrection with Christ. Once the seed penetrates your heart, this all becomes part of your spiritual DNA.

Will Willimon on The Parable of the Mustard Seed

“Jesus was preaching one day, preaching on the kingdom of God. ‘The Kingdom of God is like…It’s like a tiny mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. but if you plant that tiny seed, water it, care for it, it will germinate and grow, and grow—and produce a weed about a foot high.’

The dumbfounded disciples surely said, ‘Well, Jesus, that’s really impressive. We don’t like thinking of the church as a weed.’

‘Pity,’ says Jesus, ‘I guess God is impressed by different things than you are.’

The challenge of being an evangelistic preacher is the precarious willingness to allow God to use us to assemble the church, which is often a church we would not have assembled if assembling a church were only a matter of methods of church growth rather than a matter of God’s grace.

One reason why I’m for growth is that evangelism has a way of making Christians out of those who are already in the church as we are shocked by the folk God calls to be the church.” – The Intrusive Word, 106

The Difference Between Myth and Parable & How That Informs Our Preaching

In Will Willimon’s outstanding book on preaching, The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized, he mentions a distinction that John Crossan (in his book The Dark Interval) makes between myth and parable. Willimon sums up Crossan’s view like this,

“Myth attempts to mediate opposites, explain mystery, reconcile polarities, to take the randomness of life and weave it into a believable pattern. In myth, bad guys get what they deserve, and the good are rewarded. Through myth, there are explanations for the apparent incongruities of life, reasons given by the gods.

Why is there evil in the world? Well, this woman, Pandora, you know how nosey women are, wouldn’t stay in her place, opened the mysterious box, and evil and heartache were unleashed on the world. That’s why there is evil in the world. Any more questions? Myth explains, settles, closes the gaps in our consciousness.

Crossan says myth’s polar opposite is parable. ‘Parable brings not peace but the sword…parable casts fire upon the earth.’…Parable is meant to change us, not reassure us. Parable is always a somewhat unnerving experience. The standard reaction to parable is, ‘I don’t know what you mean by that story, but I’m certain I don’t like it.'” (p.64-65)

He goes on to say that myth attempts to reconcile seemingly unrelated and incongruent things, while parables hope to “create contradiction within our complacent securities.” (p.65). What he means by that is that parables challenge the world as we know it while myth attempts to explain what we see and offer no real alternatives. Myth aims to make you feel settled. Parable aims to upset and provoke you to change by challenging the very structures and schemas that make up your thoughts, values and identity.

What does all this have to do with preaching? Williman says that us preacher types love myth more than we love parable. We love to fill in gaps with what we do know and avoid awkward gaps in our knowledge and experience whenever possible. It can be a prideful way of doing things to not recognize the humility that comes with recognizing just how much we don’t know, just how little we can do on our own, and just how much we really do rely on God and not our own ability to systematize away the theological gaps that our preaching can get easily upended by but we creatively weave our way around. We don’t like to be unsettled but Williman’s point is, that is exactly what the Gospel is supposed to do. We grow up thinking the Gospel is about settling us with answers but far too often those answers are too in tune with the world and not in tune enough with God.

I don’t know about you but I needed to hear that. I like being the answer man. Being an authority on things seems like a pretty sweet gig until you read Willimon and realize that we are all small potatoes. If you preach you really need to read this book because no matter what your approach is you will find something in this book that will offend you enough to make you a better preacher.

Grace in the Parables – Two Debtors

In Matthew 18:21 Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive his brother, seven times? It seems to me Peter is asking Jesus what the limits of grace really are? Just how far does God expect his people to extend grace to others? So Jesus tells them a story about a man who owed a king umpteen zillion dollars. What is hilarious about the story is the man asks for patience, saying he will pay him back in full. The point is, paying it all back within the next 5000 years was an absurd thought. The king not only has patience with the man, he forgives the debt in full. He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t earn it. He should have walked away with so much joy over the grace God had extended him that the only possible response would be to be more forgiving and graceful to others.

Sadly, he hadn’t learned anything. Immediately he sees a man who owes him something…a few hundred bucks at most. He seizes the man, chokes him and demands repayment! The whole point of grace was lost on this man even though he had been forgiven so much. Jesus point is, if we understand just how much God has forgiven us, the things others owe us will pale in comparison and our generosity and graciousness should overflow toward those indebted to us (not just monetarily…remember Peter’s question, which Jesus was answering here, was not about money).

Now comes the scary part. Most of us would not physically choke another human being in order to squeeze a few bucks out of them. But when we withhold forgiveness for a wrong done that is exactly what we are doing. There is no way to justify that. Instead, God wants us to pass on the forgiveness the king has extended to us to as many people as possible. When we do, we show that we understand what grace is all about. When we don’t, we show that God’s grace in our lives has taught us nothing (see what happened to him at the end of the story).

The Best Sermon on The Prodigal Son That I Have Ever Heard

If you like good preaching and want to hear the best sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son(s) that I have ever heard go to the Tulsa Workshop order page and purchase Rick Atchley’s sermon from the Tulsa Workshop 2010. It is phenomenal. The first few minutes made me think this was going to be just another sermon on Luke 15 pointing out many of the things you have heard in sermons in the past. But about 10 minutes in Atchley really starts pulling it together to make a dynamite, hard hitting and eye opening sermon that is worth hearing.

The Shortcut of Changing the Labels – Christian vs. Christ-follower

In John 10 Jesus has some tough words for the Pharisees in response to their poor reception of the man he healed from blindness in John 9. I wrote up quite a lengthy post detailing what was going on in John 10, Jesus as the good shepherd and the gate and all the rest…context, historical background, etc. But then I realized I wanted to say something that is really needs to be said. Instead of speaking to the Pharisees, I think there is a message for us as sheep today.

I am sure I am not the only who has noticed the trendiness of moving away from the terms Christian and Christianity. It is everywhere from youtube Mac vs. PC parodies like this one where Christians are made to look stuffy and “Christ-followers” as cool.

But it isn’t just on youtube in some clever spoof. It has been addressed in mainstream Christian websites like Out of Ur’s article by Jason Byassee, “Not a Christian, But a Christ Follower?” where Jason writes,

“Anyone can understand the desire for an alternative to the word “Christian.” There are plenty of “Christians” I’d rather not be associated with. I’d much prefer to maintain my relationship with Jesus while making clear to others I am not in relationship to Pat Robertson or Jack Spong.” This took me back a bit until I read the rest of his piece where he makes some excellent points about the absurdity of changing the labels as if it changes the contents in the container. He writes,

“More power to the people looking for alternative biblical descriptions of Christians. We can all use those—they awaken our imagination to fresh evocations of our faith. But the choice of one such term need not—can not—excise another.

Those who disagree are still members of this family. They can’t disown me anymore than I can them. Weekly we have family reunions in buildings, big and small, all over the world. And I sure hope they’ll join the rest of us at one of them from time to time. The rest of us aren’t complete without them.”

This brings us back to John 10 and what we find inside the sheep pen. What bothers me today is that it is somehow trendy to claim Christ but not the church or Christianity. This is the shortcut method for evangelizing and feeling relevant. Dan Kimball points out in his video and book They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations that many in mainstream culture connect with Jesus as a man and great moral teacher but think his followers are angry and abusive hypocrites. So why not just toss out the church and Christianity and just connect them with Jesus without all the baggage, right?

It is like saying we want to hang out with the shepherd but not be bothered by all these smelly sheep. Sorry but you can’t have both. What makes this more palatable is when we recognize that we, ourselves, are just as bad as those we are trying to distance ourselves from AND that they are just as redeemed and holy as we are! People point to all kinds of Christian evils from the crusades, the silence of Christians over slavery, and the lack of concern for global environmental matters today. But in the middle of it they fail to realize they are also a smelly, stinky, redeemed sheep as well!

The Great Sheep Meeting of 2009:
One day some of the sheep got together and had a meeting. They were worried about the lack of new sheep in the pen and figured out the primary reason for lack of the flock growing was all the old stuffy, stinky sheep they didn’t get along with. So they came to consensus. They deciding their terminology was out of date and needed an update. The first thing they decided was that the term “pen” sounded to much like a facility. So they decided to give their quarters a face lift by calling their assembly of sheep, “The Flock”. Next they agreed the term “sheep” was derogatory with all kinds of bad connotations. So their next resolution was to call themselves “shepherd-followers” because they all agreed the shepherd was way more hip than all the smelly sheep on the other side of the pen that they didn’t agree with. The sheep pen had never been so divided and yet still so very much the same. New labels, same sheep, same pen, same shepherd. The sheep across the pen kept using the words pen and sheep and the in-crowd sheep, I mean shepherd followers, thought they had found better alternatives. But in the end they were all still just sheep in a pen trying to follow the same shepherd.

The Prodigal Son – Servants or Sons?

Yesterday Northwest celebrated our 52nd anniversary with a Homecoming Sunday. It was a really uplifting day with those leading the worship being ministers who grew up at Northwest as children and later went on into ministry. Our theme focused on Luke 15 and the prodigal son. As Donny Dillon preached to us from that passage he mentioned something that had never dawned on me before. He mentioned the difference between how the two sons addressed their father. The younger, despite all his failures, addressed him as “father”, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). A few verses earlier the young man mentioned his plan (15:17-20). His self-dialog revealed a lot about his view of his father. He realized that his father treated his own servants better than his current living situations. He planned to go back, renounce his role as son due to his unworthiness, and become like the hired help or slaves.

Then there was the older son. The older son addressed him disrespectfully, more like an angry servant than a son, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends…” (15:29). He goes on to disown his brother calling him, “this son of yours…” His view of himself was more a servant than a son. If he understood his relationship with his father he would have addressed him as such and not talked of his brother that way (you can only understand who your brother is by understanding who your father is). He served his father out of obligation and expected his hard work to be rewarded with a wage. Yet, the father responded to him with love and still as a son, “My son…you are always with me and everything I have is yours [because son #2 already got his]. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Remember the context, Jesus is telling this in the presence of both tax collectors and sinners as well as the Pharisees and teachers of the law. We often give the Pharisees the shaft in our preaching and teaching. But Jesus is saying here that ultimately both the “sinner” and the Pharisee are still considered children of God. The difference Jesus is pointing out is not how the Father views the sons but how they view themselves. The difference is due to attitude. Do we serve God out of love or out of obligation. God wants all of his children to treat each other like brothers no matter how far we have come from or how close we have stayed and no matter how rotten our attitudes were or how rotten they are. He has room, gracefully, for all. And the only way we can really view each other as brothers is to have the proper view of the father and to see ourselves as sons rather than servants.

There are several things this story does not teach:

  1. That if you run from God, lose it all, and return that God has no place for you.
  2. That if you have a rotten attitude God will no longer call you “my son”
  3. That you have to have it all together to be in relationship with the father
  4. That fattened calves are only for the prodigal., He said to his older son,  “All I have is yours”…all he had to do was ask a favor. The older brother should have realized if the father was gracious enough to give the younger his share, certainly he could have had a calf if he just asked.
  5. That the goof ups get relegated to servant status or second class sons
  6. That it is cooler or receiving of more love and attention of the father if you run off, come back and have some awesome, moving conversion/repentance story that sounds more like bragging than remorse.

God wants everyone to be home where there is no place for treating sons as servants or arguing over who did what. We are all just glad to be with the father and be accepting and welcoming to those he is accepting and welcoming too. Far be it from us to have stricter standards of sonship than the standards set by our Father.