There’s a song that we used to sing all the time in church when I was a little kid:
Be careful little eyes what you seeBe careful little ears what you hearBe careful little hands what you doBe careful little mouth what you sayBe careful little feet where you goBe careful little mind what you thinkFor the Father’s up above and he’s looking down with love, so be careful little child what you do
I’m struck sometimes by the way things geared for children can so often capture something about our faith journey that we lose in the nuance and complexity of being adults. In this song the message is simple and clear – God loves you and the things you do matter, so be intentional with your thoughts and actions. Live a life pleasing to God.
We were in Psalm 51 this past Sunday exploring the importance of repentance as the entry point to sanctification. David had done some truly shocking, selfish and horrible things just prior to writing this Psalm, and from what we see in Scripture I think it’s safe to say that initially he was more interested in preserving his image than he was with doing the right thing. His pride drove him to have Uriah killed in order to cover the scandal he’d created.
However, when God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin, his response became very different. The light of God’s truth shone on his actions and David chose to repent before Nathan and before God. He acknowledged the depth of his bondage to sin, threw himself on the mercy of God, asking to be made a new creation because the old was incapable of committing to God’s purpose. David knew that he needed to be sanctified – made holy before God and continually conformed to the image of God. He needed a new heart.
That’s a great image to look to for anyone who wants to follow Jesus, but there’s something that we may miss as we focus in the need for a personal change of heart – we can miss out on how the blessing of being sanctified must extend beyond our personal salvation.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you. – Psalm 51:12-13 – NLT
We are saved so that others might be saved. This is what’s been going through my head. God cares about us and he wants the best for us. We know this from his Word. Read the book of Proverbs and you’ll see that the Bible offers wisdom for living in pretty much every facet of life – finances, work, learning, family, friends, health and community. God’s desire is that we would not suffer, even to the point of coming to offer himself as the payment for sin so that we can be eternally reconciled to him. He loves you deeply. What we can miss though in our personal journey of faith is that God also loves everyone else. When you decide to follow Jesus, you are not only entering into a personal salvation covenant with God; you are committing to fulfilling the redemptive mission of God for the world. This isn’t anything new in scripture – it’s repeated through out:
“I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Gen. 12:3
“Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.” – Gen. 28:14
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you. – Psalm 51:12-13
People from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob’s God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. – Micah 4:2
Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. – Rom. 15:8-9
This is one of the reasons why our actions matter so much to God – a sanctified life not only reflects an authentic inner change of heart because of the indwelling Spirit of God; a sanctified life stands as a witness to the world of what a life dedicated to God looks like. It’s never strictly been about personal piety or being superior to anyone; it’s about authenticity before God and the world.
So here’s the point I want to make, and I think Paul puts it best:
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. – Eph. 4:2
What you do matters to God. If anyone claims to be a follower of Jesus then it is imperative, not only for our own hearts but for the world around us, that we live out sanctified lives. The world needs Jesus too much for his followers to miss out on this.
Getting back to Psalm 51, it’s important to realize that we’re not always going to get this right. David used his power to take Bathsheba into his bed, violating her as well as her marriage in the process. David used his power to preserve his image and had Uriah killed. David wandered far from what God had called him to be and yet still we see in scripture that David is called a man after God’s own heart. How can that be? In a word: Repentance.
Followers of Jesus are not called to a life of perfect piety (although we do strive for holiness). Followers of Jesus are called to a life of humility, grace and reliance on the Holy Spirit in us. The witness that we have for the world around us is not a charmed life of wealth, health and moral perfection. Our witness is that we have been saved by grace and that grace overflows from our hearts. When we fail at that though, and we will, the way back on track starts with humble repentance.
In every aspect of our lives – work, leisure, shopping, social media – we need to be mindful of how our words and actions are speaking to others. A life marked by the Spirit is easy to spot – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s also clear when we are not living out of the power of the Spirit. Galatians 5:19-21 spells it out pretty clearly. When that happens, pride will push us to defend our actions either by justifying or minimizing or denying. Humility examines our actions in the light of God’s truth. Being humble and quick to repent is the gateway to the sanctifying work of the Spirit. It is also the outward sign of an authentic inner reality.
We’ll get into this from the pulpit soon but it’s worth saying here. In Ephesians 6 Paul uses the illustration of putting on armour for life by the Spirit. Each piece on it’s own is valuable, but it only works in conjunction with the whole set. Many of us have the helmet of salvation, but running around with only a helmet is not only dangerous for the individual, it’s uncomfortable for everyone who has to see it.
There’s a reason God cares about what we do. He cares for our wellbeing and he cares for the witness we present to the people around us.
We may not always get it right, but when we are quick to sincerely repent when we get it wrong, we are showing what it looks like to authentically follow Jesus into the peace, forgiveness, joy and purpose that he has to offer anyone who believes.
You are loved.
(Originally published Jan. 10, 2023)
I have to admit, the message this Sunday weighed heavy on me. Anytime that Jesus talks about authenticity and the values of his kingdom it will inevitably bump up against something that I think everyone values – our sense of security. I remember when I was young the anxiety I felt at the thought of not going to heaven. I recommitted my life to Jesus every night before bed for the better part of eleven months because I was not secure in my salvation. I don’t want to leave anyone with that kind of doubt, so I wanted to follow up and expand on the end of Sunday’s message to give some more clarity.
The message that Jesus desires to have all people reconciled to God but ultimately gives us the freedom to decide who our hearts belong to might be a bitter pill to swallow, but I believe whole heartedly that it is true. It is absolutely possible to have a correct theology and still miss out on the heart of the gospel. When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and teachers of the law, it was an unambiguous rejection of their leadership and their religious piety. He held nothing back, and because he held nothing back it can be hard to see the compassion behind his words. However, even as he called out their hypocrisy, Jesus did not lose sight of the love he had even for his opponents. Proverbs 3:11-12 says:
Do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. – Proverbs 3:11-12 – NIV
Like he said in Matt. 23:37, his only desire is to gather the people to himself; to see his covenant people reconciled to God. Despite their covenant relationship and their knowledge of God’s law and the prophets and everything they had access too, the people were led away from the heart of the gospel, and the only way for them to be reconciled would be humble repentance. Some responded to Jesus’ call to repent, many did not.
I finished this week with a call to action – pray through Psalm 139:23-24
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in my, and lead me in the way everlasting. – Psalm 139:23-24
I also said that if you feel resistance to doing this, it is time to ask some questions: What do I have to lose by praying this? If I am resisting this, what in my heart is trying to preserve itself?
This needs to be said – following Jesus is simple, but it is not easy. There is a reason that Paul describes life by the Spirit as dying to our sin nature. To fully devote ourselves to God, our old self needs to die, and that is a hard thing to do. We all have a survival instinct and so does our sin nature. It doesn’t want to go down without a fight.
The other thing that we may not like to acknowledge is that there is a part of us that actually loves our sin nature. It has been a part of us from the beginning, and even though it enslaves us to sin, it satisfies something that is at our core – the desire to define what is right for ourselves. The desire to justify our actions. The desire to take the place of God. That is the root of sin. If it wasn’t, then life by the Spirit would not require putting the old self to death. The strange thing that I have learned as I’ve wrestled with this is that even though I want to be totally devoted to Jesus and my sin nature stands in the way of that, a part of me loves my sin nature and I need to mourn it as it dies. It sounds strange, but even though I believe that following Jesus is infinitely better than the alternative, there is a real loss that needs to be acknowledged and laid to rest as God shows us the things in our hearts that need to be surrendered.
If you find yourself resisting the call to invite God to search your heart, consider this. Perhaps the reason you are resisting is because you really do stand to lose something. Perhaps you fear that Jesus will find something you have not wanted revealed like pride or bitterness. Perhaps there is a secret sin that you are ashamed of but can’t quite give up because, while it is harmful, it also fulfills a need or soothes a wound that it will be painful to deal with directly. Perhaps you have unknowingly accepted the lie that God will reject you. Or perhaps you are resisting because the loss of something that has been with you for so long is painful, even though it has hurt you repeatedly. These, among other things, are all real barriers to being fully committed to Jesus. It is simple but not easy to invite God to search our hearts because there is always something fighting to stay alive. There may be a reason why you don’t want to invite God to search your heart. Even as I spoke the words on Sunday, a part of me resisted the call. The resistance is real and the only way to overcome it is to acknowledge and repent of it.
Here’s some of how scripture responds to this resistance:
But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away… Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God… For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. – 2 Corinthians 3:16, 4:1-2, 6
Long story short, life by the Spirit is life that is brought out of the shadows. There is nothing beyond redemption when we turn over the things in our hearts to the light of God. It is true that there will be things we need to put to death because God hates all sin, but his desire is not to reject us. He always wants to see us reconciled to himself and his kingdom mission.
Here’s the other thing – we are not meant to do this alone.
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. – James 5:16
Jesus established the church as a body of love, support, accountability and authentic witness. I’m not saying we need to get on the stage each Sunday to make public confessions. What I am saying is that within the church body we can have those trusting, candid relationships where we are free to confess the things that are holding us back from following Jesus so that we are not alone in the struggle. Discipleship is not a solo endeavor, it’s done in authentic community.
I want to extend the invitation again to pray through Psalm 139:23-24, and this time I want to give you some other things to follow up with as you pray:
I want to encourage you with this. The sanctification provided by Jesus has justified you before God. By his sacrifice you have been made holy because your sins are washed away and you are separated from them as far as the east is from the west. By that same sanctifying work, we are being transformed daily by the renewing of our minds. That renewal happens as we humble ourselves to be examined so that we can surrender everything that holds us back from experiencing the freedom, hope, security and purpose that Jesus has to offer.
(Originally published Nov. 15, 2022)
And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. Matt. 16:19 – NLT
Hello friends. This week in the service we focused on Matt. 16:24-25, but in the passage above there is an important conversation that I want to spend a little time unpacking. Matt. 16:19 is a passage that requires some attention because, without consideration, the implications of what Jesus says to Peter can be confusing or the intention of his proclamation can be skewed. What does it mean that Jesus has given Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven? How far does Peter’s authority to forbid and permit things go? Does this passage have implications for the church today, or was it confined to the apostolic age? If you have similar questions about this passage or if you’ve been confused or haven’t tracked down answers that fit, I’ve got good news for you. You’re engaging with your Bible! I love it when people really dig in and wrestle with how to understand and apply scripture. Hopefully this little article will give you some tools that you will find helpful as you engage with the words of Jesus in this passage.
As usual, in order to gain an understanding of the passage in question, it’s important to put it into context with what is going on around it.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.Matt. 16:13-19
Peter’s recognition and confession of Jesus as the Son of God shows a unique clarity about Jesus that was not demonstrated by crowds or the religious leaders in Israel. Peter and the disciples had been given this revelation of Jesus’ identity directly from the Holy Spirit. It is their faith and acceptance of the truth of Jesus’ identity that has granted them the keys to the Kingdom.
As we’ve examined the Gospel of Matthew, it’s been made clear that when Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, he is not strictly speaking about a future promise. Jesus told his disciples that he is preparing a place for them which is the hope of future glory that we so often sing about. However, there is more to God’s Kingdom than life after death – the Kingdom is a present reality for God’s people now. It is established anywhere the work of the gospel is carried out by faith. It is that Spirit given insight that makes it possible for them to pass on the truth of God’s Kingdom to others. In short, we see in this passage that Jesus was giving them instructions to launch this new thing that would be his church. However, when Jesus gave Peter authority for binding and loosing things, it introduced something that has the potential to be a confusing and even controversial issue in the life and practice of the church if we are not careful to examine and understand his intention.
For example, Matthew 16:19 is directly referenced as the basis for the doctrine of papal infallibility in the catholic church. This doctrine essentially boils down to the belief and practice that the Pope, the direct authoritative descendant of Peter as the bishop in Rome, “is enabled by God to express infallibly what the church should believe concerning questions of faith and morals when he speaks in his official capacity as ‘Christ’s vicar on earth.’” (W.C.G. Proctor and J. Van Engen, 2001) This is a doctrine that protestant and evangelical denominations do not subscribe to and it is a major bone of contention for many. If you want to get into the nitty gritty on how this doctrine came about and the logic behind it, come grab a coffee with me some time! For now, it is important to note that catholic attitudes toward the doctrine of papal infallibility have shifted in the 21st century as scholars and clergy have taken an honest look at the historical rulings from the papal throne that have been both contradictory and erroneous (Proctor and Engen).
So, to come back to the matter at hand, how are we supposed to understand Matt. 16:19 and apply it in our lives now? If all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching the truth and preparing God’s people for every good work, how are we to understand this passage? I want to offer two suggestions.
First, we need to understand it within the historical context it was given. The church as we know it had not existed up till this time. God’s covenant people, the ones responsible for showing the world what a nation that followed God looked like, had been the people of Israel since the time of Abraham. They had been given the law of God and shown what holy living required. They’d also been unable to faithfully live out the covenant relationship they’d entered into. According to Romans, this was not a failed project. Instead, Paul teaches that the law exists to demonstrate our need for God’s grace as we live in covenant relationship with him (Rom. 3:19-20). The church which Jesus established with his disciples reached beyond the nation of Israel and was built on the fulfilled covenant made possible through his life, death, and resurrection. This new covenant built on the Gospel would require insight for living informed by Spirit empowered wisdom and guidance. When Jesus made the proclamation “upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” it is possible that he was referring directly to Peter, but it is more likely that the rock he is referring is the truth of the Gospel; the Spirit given revelation that only he is the way, the truth and the life. Men are fickle, and Peter would demonstrate this just a few verses later in Matt. 16:22, but the Gospel is a firm and eternal foundation on which the church is established. When Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, it was because of the Holy Spirit’s revelation to him and the disciples. That revelation is what made it possible for Jesus to invite them into the creative process of establishing what life by faith would look like. In rhythm with the beginning of scripture where God invites the first people in the garden to join him in the ordering of creation, Jesus invites Peter and the disciples to join him in the ordering of life as a new creation made possible by faith.
Second, I want to suggest that the modern application of this passage be seen in conjunction with Psalm 37:4, Matt. 18:8, and Matt. 18:15-20 as the precedent for accountability in church community. I believe that church discipline is something that is prescribed in the Bible and that it applies strictly to those who have proclaimed faith in Jesus (1 Cor. 5:12). When it comes to living by faith, it is important that we cast off anything that holds us back from making Jesus the Lord of our lives (Matt. 18:8). The practice of church discipline can range from guiding a fellow believer back to right living (Gal. 6:1) to dissociating from someone who is harmful and unrepentant (1 Cor. 5:1-5). The authority of binding and loosing is not the ability to change doctrine and belief based on cultural norms and attitudes, it is the solemn responsibility of Christ followers to ensure that our hearts are rooted firmly in the Lordship of Jesus so that we are able to live in a loving and graceful community of accountability. When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are given insight and power for holy living by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As we delight ourselves with the Lord, the desires of our hearts are brought into conformity with the heart of God. When that happens, the things we desire are naturally the things of his kingdom. When someone in our fellowship is straying, we are given the responsibility to guide them back into step with Jesus, provided we are not judging them based on human traditions and standards.
Here’s an example of what this could look like in church. If someone who has professed faith in Jesus in our community were to start sharing insights that they claimed were from God but were definitely not in line with scripture, then it is appropriate to discuss those insights with that person while comparing them to the truth of scripture. This does not need to happen in a debate or in front of many people, but it can happen within a loving and trusting relationship between fellow believers. The same is true if someone is living in sin. We do not need to threaten them or wrestle with their will, but simply express our love and concern for their wellbeing if they choose to continue indulging in sin. In this way, the church is a lot less like the paranoid, dystopian surveillance state of 1984 and more akin to a group of mountain climbers tethered together to keep each other safe as they strive for the peak.
This is an important feature of church community. We need to be very careful that accountability is practiced with the greatest sense of humility before God and loving grace for one another (Col. 3:12-13). If not, we risk creating a community driven by secrets, shame and performative religious living. We need to be a community marked by the sanctifying grace of Jesus where we are accountable to one another in love and unity (Eph. 4).
When it comes to understanding and applying scripture, I value exploration, asking questions and searching for answers that are supported in the rest of scripture. This is not meant to be a definitive article that closes the door on further exploration. I invite you to continue mining the Bible to discover more.
One last thing: I want to give my sincere thanks to my friend Steve who looked over this, gave his insight and provided some wise suggestions on how to clarify the context and application.
(Originally published Sept. 20, 2022)
When Jesus had finished telling these stories and illustrations, he left that part of the country. He returned to Nazareth, his hometown. When he taught there in the synagogue, everyone was amazed and said, “Where does he get this wisdom and the power to do miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just the carpenter’s son, and we know Mary, his mother, and his brothers—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. All his sisters live right here among us. Where did he learn all these things?” And they were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honoured everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” And so he did only a few miracles there because of their unbelief. – Matt. 13:53-58 – NLT
The last couple of weeks in church I’ve been asking some questions from the pulpit about what Jesus said and did in his ministry. We’re going to be moving onto Matt. 14 this week in the sermon, but I wanted to take a moment to examine what happened when Jesus returned to his home town to preach, specifically why the people rejected him and why he didn’t do many miracles around them.
It’s a pretty straightforward story. Where it gets very interesting though is that the Bible has two accounts of this story in Matthew and Mark. Matthew’s account of this incident says that Jesus did not do many miracles because of the people’s unbelief. However, Mark’s account (Mark 6:1-6) says that Jesus could not do miracles there because of the people’s unbelief. Whenever there seems to be a discrepancy in Scripture it’s worth digging in to see what’s going on.
First, let’s look at the response of the people in both accounts. Jesus came in and did exactly what he’d been doing in every other town he visited – teaching in the synagogue and showing miraculous signs. In most cases that we read in the gospel accounts, only the religious leaders seemed to have an issue with Jesus’ work because what he taught was so radically opposed to what they were expecting from the Messiah. In this case though, it’s not the teaching that seems to offend the people, it’s the source. For the people of Nazareth, Jesus was familiar and ordinary, and that familiarity made them skeptical and even defensive. He was Joseph and Mary’s kid. It’s altogether likely that people were aware that Mary had been pregnant before she and Joseph had been married, meaning that his origin might have been considered scandalous or at least illegitimate. They’d seen him grow up as the son of a carpenter, and so they questioned the source of his learning. They knew his brothers and sisters as ordinary people, so how was it that he was able to do miraculous things? The people of Nazareth were offended at the notion that someone so ordinary would have the gall to do and say such extraordinary things. They rejected the messenger and so they also decided to reject the message.
So far everything in the two accounts of this story are pretty much in line with one another. The crux of the problem comes from the discrepancy between did not and could not. It’s the difference between choosing not to reveal his power and a limitation on Jesus’ miraculous power. It’s important to examine these kinds of differences because these are the areas where we can get confused, bogged down or walk away with the wrong idea. The risk that I see in not closely examining these stories is that we can either see Jesus as petty because he withheld his power from the people, or we risk making faith a limiting factor in Jesus’ power.
As with everything in the Bible, it’s crucial to read this story within the context of the rest of Scripture. This story in both gospels comes after a long section of Jesus’ teaching in parables. I spoke last week on why Jesus chose to teach in parables – they are an invitation to discover more from him. The same is true of his miracles – they were done with a purpose. Every miracle story in the gospels and even throughout the rest of Scripture is meant to do two things – demonstrate God’s power and confirm the message of the person doing the miracle. You can look at the stories of many Old Testament prophets and see that God used miracles to show their legitimacy. So here’s the question we need to ask when we see something like this in scripture, especially in repeated stories: Why did each gospel author include this story with these specific details? I believe the purpose of this story in each gospel is meant to illustrate this point: How people respond to Jesus affects how they will experience God.
The people of Nazareth were aware of Jesus’ teaching and miracles. Even with that confirmation of his credibility, the people in his home town were offended by him and so they rejected him; signs, wonders and all. I think the purpose of this story in Matthew and Mark is essentially the same. They each bring to light what happens when people reject God’s revelation; they only differ in their emphasis.
Matthew focuses on Jesus’ response to the disbelief of the people – because they were offended and because they rejected him, he did not do many miracles there. This highlights that Jesus still wanted to bring people into the fold and that he still wanted to minister with compassion and power there. He did do that with at least a few people who came to him. However, if people are aware of his message and his work and still reject him, he’s not going to force the issue further.
In Mark, the emphasis is on the hearts of the people. The folks in Nazareth were so offended that they had dismissed the evidence in front of their faces. Like a person who is shown footage of them running a red light yet still refuses to take responsibility, there was no evidence or logic that could move these people. There was no miracle Jesus could have done that would have moved them past that rejection and offence in their hearts, and so nothing was going to be done among them. They were not open to anything, and so nothing happened among them.
I don’t think that Jesus had any real limitation on his power other than this – “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” – John 5:19. Jesus submitted himself to the leading of the Father. He didn’t pursue power or influence for himself. If he had, we might have stories of Jesus calling down fire or wiping out the Roman legions. His power during his ministry was given by the Holy Spirit in step with the will of the Father (Phil. 2:6-8). The Father’s purpose for Jesus’ ministry was to reveal the reality of his Kingdom and to extend the invitation to be a part of that Kingdom. The Bible says that the only way to be in partnership with God, the only way to have forgiveness from sin, purpose for now and hope for the future he promises is to submit to Jesus. When the people of Nazareth were offended by him, they chose to reject that invitation. John 3:16 tells us that God is gracious and merciful and wants everyone to be reconciled to him, but Romans 1:24-25 tells us that God lets people choose how they will respond to the revelation of his salvation. I don’t think this story in either Gospel is about limitations on Jesus’ power, I think it’s about how people experience God depending on their response to his invitation.
(Originally published Aug. 9, 2022)
Last Friday I tested positive for Covid 19, which is a real kick in the teeth for a pastor. If I’d been diagnosed on a Monday I would have been out of quarantine in time to preach! However, thanks to technology and a dedicated group of volunteers, the Sunday service still went off without a hitch. You can listen to the message by clicking here if you’re interested.
Since I’ve been staying in the last few days I’ve had quite a bit of time on my hands to sit and think about the message, and one of the things I’ve been challenged with is who I’m comfortable having around me. As a pastor it’s all well and good to give a sermon on how Jesus spent time with people considered sinners and condemned the Pharisees for their ceremonial hypocrisy; but the story I shared about a morning in my home church still lingers in the back of my head. Now, just to be clear, I won’t ever be doing that kind of test on our congregation so there’s no need to be nervous! However, the point still remains that a group of people who claimed to love Jesus failed to welcome and love a person who didn’t look like us.
To be sure, there are mitigating factors in that story. If someone unfamiliar walked into your home I’m sure you’d be slightly taken aback and maybe even a little bit understandably apprehensive about their intentions. It’s natural to have some fear of the unknown, and this student posing as a hitchhiker looked very out of place. However, we were not in our homes. We were in a church building during a Sunday service that was open to the public and I’m sure we were all hoping to welcome new people to add to our numbers that morning. The caveat apparently was that we were hoping to invite new people who were like us – people who would blend in and not cause a disruption. In that case, the values we claimed to hold to were not the values we were operating by. It’s tragic, but it happened. I don’t think this was something unique to my home church either. It’s something that we need to be honest about as we gather ever Sunday in Alberta Beach.
Having worked in ministry for the better part of a decade, I can attest the fact that ‘doing ministry’ with people who don’t fit into what we’d typically identify as the ‘church mold’ is messy and disruptive. Trying to show love and value to a teen who doesn’t have good hygiene is difficult for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the other students can’t handle being around them. Deciding who is eligible to serve on the worship team should be a matter of talent, but if someone is not a professing believer or if they are a professing believer but they are living with someone they’re not married to, can they really be on the stage? Doing a nice, clean, organized Sunday church service when there is a person with schizophrenia in the congregation is difficult because they will say and do things that make people feel uncomfortable. I get it; being around messy, disruptive people is hard, especially when all you really want to do is come to church, see some people you know, listen to the sermon and go home.
As we gather Sunday after Sunday, we need to be mindful of what it is we are in the church building to do. There is certainly a responsibility to provide a clean, healthy and safe environment for anyone who comes; and more than that there is a responsibility to be bold in our proclamation of God’s word. There was nothing about Jesus’ preaching and ministry that shied away from calling everyone, sinner or saint, to a life of holiness. However, there is something that we can easily miss in that picture of Jesus – he never required people to improve before he would be seen with them. If you are a follower of Jesus dedicated to becoming more and more like him daily, then we need to be mindful of those people who have come and who do not fit the mold. It’s important to realize that while Sunday morning is a day to be encouraged, equipped and spiritually fed, it’s also an opportunity to put the words of Jesus into practice. We cannot make the mistake of believing that the church is for church people. We need to make sure that our church is a place for hurting, disruptive, ‘unchurchy’ people to experience the love of Jesus through the authentic love of his followers.
It’s been a challenging week for me as I’ve thought about this, but the encouragement has been that no matter how many times I’ve gotten this wrong, Jesus invites me to get it right next time. I’m looking for the next opportunity to do that.
(Originally published May 18, 2022)