Tag: kingdom of heaven

Sermon: After 9/11, Forgiveness Cancels A Debt

Forgiveness Cancels a Debt

Matthew 18:21-35 NIV’84

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talentswas brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

The 10th Anniversary of 9/11

We are gathered here today as we usually are at this time on a Sunday morning.  But by this time of the morning  10 years ago, we knew that American was under attack.

For those of my father’s generation, the question had always been, “Where you were when you heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked?”  Of course, Pearl Harbor became the moment that our nation realized that it could not remain a spectator in the conflagration that had begun with Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the rise of the Axis Powers in Italy and Japan.  Pearl Harbor changed America.  Tom Brokaw correctly titled his book about those who faced up to the challenges of that time, The Greatest Generation.

For my generation of baby boomers, the question was asked 22 years later, “Where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated?”  I do.  I was in eighth grade social studies class.  Mr. Shannon, our social studies teacher, had left the room.  In a moment he returned and told the class that the President had been shot.  Televisions were turned on in classrooms that had them, and for the rest of the day we watched live television as Walter Cronkite tried to piece together the fragmented reports coming from eyewitnesses, reporters on the scene, and law enforcement officials.

The Sunday following the President’s death, my family, along with the families of other church members, were gathered at Dalewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  As the service came to a close that day, someone handed our pastor a note.  He stood and informed the congregation that Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President Kennedy, had himself been shot while being transferred at the police station in Dallas, Texas.  For my generation, President Kennedy’s death marked the first of many assassinations, and attempted assassinations of public figures.  In April, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.  In June of that same year, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed after celebrating his victory in the Democratic primary in California.

President Kennedy’s death marked the beginning of the end for my generation of an innocence that had seemed to pervade the 1950s, and the post-World War II prosperity of the United States.  The war in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights struggle, and the emergence of an alternative culture of “flower children” opened a new chapter in American civic life.  President Kennedy’s assassination changed our country, but in different ways than Pearl Harbor had.

And then came September 11, 2001.  Debbie and I were at our daughter Laurie’s home in Greenville, South Carolina.  We were there because that September 11, 2001 was the first birthday of our granddaughter, Vivian.  We had arrived the night before and had just finished breakfast when the phone rang.  Laurie answered it, and our son-in-law, Steve, told her to turn on the TV.  New York was under attack, he said.

We turned on the television, and watched in stunned silence as the twin towers of the World Trade Center burned.  And then the unthinkable happened.  The towers came down, one at a time, in an unbelievable cascade of steel, concrete, dust, and paper.  I think I remember the papers the most.  Hundreds of thousands of 8 ½ by 11 sheets of paper.  Papers that had been on desks, in copiers, in printers waiting to be sorted and filed, papers that floated to the ground representing for me those lost in the tragedy that day.

After the towers fell, Laurie, Debbie and I still had some birthday party shopping to do for Vivian’s party that night. We arrived at the mall near their home, and were only there a few minutes when we noticed that stores were lowering their security gates and closing.  We left mall and returned home.  By mid-afternoon we turned off the TV.  Despite the tragedy, and perhaps because of it, we decided to focus on Vivian’s first birthday.

Her party was that night, and her other grandparents were there, too.  Somewhere in the chaos and sorrow of that day, our daughter managed to write Vivian a letter.  She explained to her that something very sad had happened on her birthday, which had nothing to do with her.   But that from that day, and for all of her birthdays to come, the date of September 11 – 9/11 – would be remembered as a very sad day in the life of our country.  But, she told Vivian, there was still a future, a future that held promise and hope and love and possibility.  Laurie told Vivian that even though the events of 9/11 might have overshadowed her first birthday, that she was loved by her parents, her grandparents, and her family.  Vivian, Laurie said, could face the future knowing that there were those who loved her, and that her life could be a life of hope and promise.

That’s where we were on 9/11.  I’m sure you remember where you were, too.

Today’s Lectionary Gospel Reading

All of that brings me to the Gospel reading for today, Matthew 18:21-35.  One of the things I like about preaching from the revised common lectionary is that the passages that have been selected often seem divinely appointed for that particular Sunday.

But, of course, God uses even our unintended choices to communicate with us.

Today we read the words of Jesus about forgiveness.  Peter – isn’t it always Peter who asks about these things? – asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone.  But not just any someone, Peter asks how often he should forgive a “brother.”  Thinking that he knew the answer, and I’m sure also thinking that he would impress Jesus with his knowledge, Peter answers his own question by saying, “Seven times?”

By offering an answer to this age-old question of how often should we forgive someone, Peter exceeded the common wisdom of the rabbis of his day.  They thought no one should ask forgiveness of another more than three times.  I suppose their thinking went something like this:  If someone needs to ask forgiveness for a mistake that caused another harm in some way, that is understandable.  After all, we are all human and anyone can make a mistake.

The second time someone asks for forgiveness, perhaps he or she is struggling to get under control some character defect, or habitual behavior.  One can certainly understand how that could happen.

But the third time someone has to ask for forgiveness of the person they have twice wronged, they better get it right this time.  Although this was long before baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, the rabbis had a kind of “three strikes and you’re out” approach.

But Peter ups the ante.  He latches onto the number 7, and who knows why.  Some have indicated that this was also rabbinical teaching, but I think Peter was going for an answer to impress Jesus.  By doubling the rabbis common answer, and throwing in one more for good measure.  Perhaps Peter had the days of creation in mind.  Or perhaps Peter knew that the number 7 represented perfection and could not be improved upon.

Whatever Peter’s thinking, he poses a question, provides the answer, and then waits smugly for the amazed Jesus to commend him in front of all the other disciples.

Only, that’s not what happens at all.  Jesus tells Peter, “not seven times, but seventy seven times.”  Some translations have “seventy times,” or “seventy times seven.”  Either way the numbers are not the point.  The point is that forgiveness is to be infinite, inexhaustible, and always available among Jesus’ followers.

To further illustrate exactly what he means, Jesus tells a story, a parable, about what life is like in the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God.

And the story is meant to drive home the point of the infinite scope of forgiveness as it should be practiced by those who would come after Jesus.

A ruler is settling accounts, Jesus says, and calls in a servant who owes him 10,000 talents.  Okay, let’s stop right here, because this is the point of the story.  “10,000 talents” is a meaningless phrase to us in 21st century America.  We are used to much bigger numbers than 10,000, especially when it comes to our government.  As the late Senator Everett Dirksen is quoted as saying, “A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”  (Incidentally, there is disagreement about whether Dirksen actually said that, but it’s still a good quote.)

To help us understand what Jesus was saying, one talent, probably a silver talent, was the equivalent of 20-years’ wages for the servant in question.  Okay, you do the math.  Multiply 20-years by 10,000, and you get 200,000 years of wages!  Which makes one want to ask the question, “Why did the ruler loan this guy so much money, and what in the world could he have done with it?”  But that’s not the point of the story.

The point of the story is that the servant owed a debt he could not pay.  He could not ever have paid it, not in his lifetime, the lifetimes of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Which actually sounds like our national debt, but that’s not the point either.

No, the point was that this servant owed a debt he could not pay.  Ever.  The ruler, realizing this, ordered that the man, his wife, and his family be thrown in prison until he could pay.  (Which seems counter-productive to me, unless the earning potential of first century prisoners was much greater than it is today.)

But, the servant fell to his knees and pleaded with his master.  “I’ll pay every cent,” he promised.  And, did the master believe him?  Of course not.  Matthew says the master canceled the debt.  He knew the servant could never pay it, and I’m sure he knew that the servant would never pay it from jail either.  So, he canceled it.  Wrote “Paid in Full” on it in big letters, and gave the canceled note to the servant.  Or something like that.

Ecstatic the servant rushes from the master’s presence, out into the street, and whom should he run into almost immediately?  Why another servant, of course.  Only this servant owed our friend some money – about a hundred denarii.  Again, this is meaningless to us, until we understand that a denarius was about one days’ wage.  Of course, that makes 100 denarii about 100 days’ wages.  That is not a small sum by any means in the first century, but it is a debt that could conceivably be paid by a fellow servant.

But rather than share his good fortune with his fellow servant, our friend the now-debt-free servant has his debtor thrown in jail until he can pay.  Very unfair, it seems, and those looking on thought so, too.

These other servants of the master run and tell their master what has just happened.  “Sir, do you remember Jacob, your servant, whose debt you just canceled?”  (I made up the name Jacob, but seems fitting because the original was a schemer, too.)  “Of course,” the master said.  “Well, he just sent poor old Simeon to prison because he couldn’t pay him 100 days’ wages.”

With that news the master was livid.  He sent runners to find and bring back this ungrateful and unmerciful servant, whatever his name was.  “Didn’t I just forgive you?” I am sure he asked.  “And, now you have refused to forgive someone who owes you such a little sum?”

With that that master had the unmerciful servant thrown into jail, not just to be held, but to be “tortured” by the jailers until he could pay.  That’s the last we hear of the unmerciful servant.

Jesus does add one interesting footnote to this story.  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

I think the point here is not that God will hand us over to be tortured, but that God takes a very dim view of those who are shown mercy and forgiveness, but who do not show mercy and forgiveness to others in return.

Forgiveness Cancels A Debt

What does this mean for us today?  The story is a story that Jesus himself says represents life in the kingdom of heaven.  We have to ask ourselves in what way this story tells us about the kingdom of God and how life is to be lived in that kingdom.

First, we are the servant who is deeply in debt.  That should be obvious.  We owe a debt to God we cannot pay in many ways.  It was the same in the first century as it is in the 21st century.  Israel as a nation had returned God’s love with rigid legalism.  The rulers of Israel have betrayed their purpose and their calling as the people of God by aligning themselves with the Roman Empire.  They have sold out their own people by guaranteeing that taxes will be collected, and that the region will remain under Roman rule without incident.

Our debt, and theirs, to God was immense, unfathomable, and uncollectable.  There is no way they, or we, could ever set the account right.  As one preacher put it, “Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.”

Secondly, God is the master.  That should be obvious.  The master is infinitely rich, so much so that 10,000 talents, or 200,000 years’ wages, is insignificant to the master.  The master is so rich that even this mind-boggling amount of money is not going to bankrupt him, or even make a sizeable dent in his financial situation.  God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (which is a poetic way of saying “all of them”) is not threatened by our debt.

Thirdly, mercy and forgiveness is God’s response to our hopelessness.  While we might plead with God that we’ll do better, we’ll make him proud, we’ll pay him back, the fact is that we will for the most part continue to do exactly what we have always done.  That is, we will fail to be all that God has called us to be and created us for.  But rather than wipe us off the earth, God wipes our debt to him off his ledgers.  God’s mercy extends to us in our helplessness and hopelessness.  God forgives our debt, wipes the slate clean, and gives us a new start.

That’s the good news.  Jesus paid our debt.  Jesus died in our place.  Jesus did for us what we could not have ever done for ourselves.  And he did it willingly, lovingly, and intentionally.

Finally, now that we have been forgiven, and our debts have been canceled, we are expected to do the same for others.  We are expected to show undeserved mercy and grace to those who do not have the capacity or the will to repay our act of kindness and love.  That is what life in the kingdom of heaven is like.  That is one way in which we can “love God and love others” according to Jesus.

What Does That Have To Do With 9/11?

What does this have to do with 9/11?  There are a lot of things that you and I cannot control.  We are not the ones who decide if and when our nation will go to war.  We are not the ones who are privy to classified intelligence information.  You and I are not in a position to take on the safety and security of the nation as our responsibility.  We elect our leaders, and entrust to them the power and authority to make those decisions.  And we honor those who keep us safe and secure, even in this age of uncertainty and insecurity.

But there is something you and I as followers of Jesus can do.  We can extend grace and mercy to those who need it, because we ourselves are the recipients of God’s grace and mercy.

Jesus gave us examples of what that might look like. He told the story of the Good Samaritan at a time when all Jews thought the words “good” and “Samaritan” did not belong in the same sentence.

Jesus forgave a woman caught in the immoral act of adultery when the religious leaders who accused her were will within their rights to demand that she be stoned for violating the accepted Biblical standards of morality.  He simply said to her, “Go and sin no more.”

Jesus told Peter to put up his sword, and he healed the high priest’s servant whose ear Peter had lopped off.  And, later Jesus forgave Peter for betraying him and abandoning him to be flogged and crucified.

And, while he hung on the cross, Jesus last prayer was for those who were torturing and killing him.  He prayed, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”

In our own small ways we can extend to others the same mercy and grace that God has extended to us.  Rather than reacting in fear and anger to the growing number of Muslims in America, or the world for that matter, we might start to think of them as persons whom God loves.

Rather than rail against the working immigrants in our country, we might remember that most of us are from immigrant families, unless we are Native Americans, and that those who preceded us and made life in America possible for us endured the prejudice and unkindness of those who also called themselves Christians. I remember by grandmother telling me that her family name of Callaham, had been changed from O’Callaham because the Irish were discriminated against when her family first came to America.

We live a world that is flawed and dangerous, but we serve a God whose love, mercy, and forgiveness we have experienced.  And, we have the words of Jesus to remind us that God expects, as part of life in God’s kingdom, that we as God’s ambassadors will live our lives differently.  That we will extend to others the same forgiveness that we have experienced, that we will nurture the same mercy toward others that we have been shown, and that we will live our lives as grateful and merciful servants, rather than like the unmerciful servant of Jesus’ story.

Will that make a difference in our community and our world?  Will it prevent another 9/11, or another Pearl Harbor, or another presidential assassination.  Perhaps it will, but even if other horrific things happen, the presence of evil does not invalidate the purpose of God.  If anything, the presence of evil reminds us that love wins, that God is present with us, and that we are the ones who will demonstrate to the world that there is a way to live life as God has intended it, and that that life is possible through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The first words that came to Colleen Kelly’s mind when she realized that her brother was gone were, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Colleen’s brother Bill worked for Bloomberg as a financial services salesman.  He didn’t work at the World Trade Center.  But on that day, September 11, 2001, Bill was attending a conference held at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center.

After the Towers fell, and when she could not contact Bill, Colleen rushed from one New York City hospital to another in a desperate search for her brother.  At each hospital she saw scores of doctors and nurses, but realized that few were actually being admitted because there were no survivors.

According to Ellis Cose, who tells Colleen’s story in his book, Bone To Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Revenge, Colleen knew that the prayer of Jesus made no sense.  The terrorists knew exactly what they were doing, she would later learn.

But those words – “Father, forgive them…” – seemed to help her hold onto her faith and the values she cherished.  The terrorists took her brother, but Colleen was determined that they would not take anything else.

So, Colleen and others founded September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.  Colleen was determined to do all she could to stop the cycle of international violence and death.

That meant that when the United States was preparing to attack Iraq several months later, Colleen and other September Eleventh Families made the trip to Iraq to assure the Iraqi people they met with that there were Americans who did not hate them, or wish them dead.  They also met with the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, in an attempt at dialogue and reconciliation.

Did Colleen’s acts stop a war or prevent other suicide missions?  Probably not, but the point is not that we are successful as followers of Jesus.  We will not be judged by our success, only by our faithfulness. Only by the ways in which we have forgiven others because we ourselves have been forgiven.

Sermon: The Reconciling Community

The Reconciling Community

Matthew 18:15-20 NIV’84

15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.

19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

The Practical Side of the Kingdom of Heaven

Has anyone in church ever offended you?  Or have you ever made a fellow church member mad?  Or hurt their feelings?  Or said something unkind?  Or have you ever done something that could have reflected poorly on the congregation of which you were a member if that deed were known?

Probably the answer to most of those questions is at least a qualified, “Yes.”  After all, the most effective program Baptists have for starting new churches is a church split.  We are not called “the battling Baptists” for nothing.  As a matter of fact, disagreement to the point of separation is in our DNA as a denomination.  Southern Baptists got their start by disagreeing with their Northern counterparts of the unlikely issue of slavery and missions.

Northern Baptists would not appoint Southern slaveholders as missionaries, and so in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, splitting the ranks of Baptists in the United States over the issue of slavery.

So, we know a little about church fights, and we know at least one way to settle them.  But in our look at the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has repeatedly told us that life is different in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The conventional wisdom and common practice by which most people lead their lives — including both Jews in the first century, and Christians in the 21st century – gets stood on its head as Jesus reinterprets the Law, and illuminates what life in God’s Kingdom should be like.

So today we come to a very practical bit of instruction from Jesus about divisions within those who are seeking the Kingdom.

An Unfortunate Translation 

Let me first deal with an issue here that creates a problem for some people.  In the text we read today, Jesus uses the term “church.”  Of course, the “church” as we know it today did not exist at this point in Jesus’ ministry.  The “church” as we know her would not be born until the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost.  As we know from our own observance of Pentecost (we all wear something red, which is the liturgical color for Pentecost Sunday), Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church.

Because English versions of the Bible have used the word “church,” some have questioned whether this is an authentic saying of Jesus, or whether it was inserted later after the birth of the church during the apostolic age.

Let’s have a quick and simple lesson in New Testament Greek.  The word translated “church” is the Greek word ekklesia.  This word is compiled from two words:  ek meaning out of, and klesis meaning called.  In other words, an ekklesia is an assembly of the “called out ones.”

The original ekklesia, about 500 years before Christ, was an assembly of all male citizens to conduct the affairs of the city.  And, attendance at the ekklesia was expected.  Slaves were dispatched throughout the city carrying a rope soaked with a red dye or stain.  When they say an eligible male who obviously had not taken time or interest in attending the ekklesia, the slave struck the male citizen, staining his garment with red dye.  Those so identified and marked were forbidden from conducting business while the ekklesia was in session.

Later in the first century, the word ekklesia is used specifically to refer to the church.  Here, however, I think a better translation would be “the assembly.”  Because in the first century a gathering of the nation of Israel, or a representative gathering was called an ekklesia.

So, what is my point in telling you all of this?  First, I think the translation of ekklesia into church is probably unfortunate here.  Clearly, there is no New Testament church yet.  The disciples would have had no idea what Jesus was talking about because Pentecost had not come, the Spirit had not come upon each believer, and the apostles had not been empowered yet.

But, the disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking about “the assembly of Israel.”  They would have understood that Jesus was speaking of those who were following Jesus, listening to Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, and who gathered with Jesus and the disciples on several occasions.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes that Jesus appeared to over 500 after his resurrection.  After Jesus ascension into heaven, 120 were in the upper room with the apostles.  So the number of those who followed Jesus was larger than the 12 disciples, and on many occasions ran into the hundreds.

Jesus would have considered these followers an assembly of the new Israel.  After all, his ministry symbolically reconstituted the 12 tribes of Israel in the 12 disciples, reinterpreted the Law of Israel, satisfied the requirements of Temple sacrifice, and inaugurated the Kingdom of God with Jesus as the Messiah of God.

So, we can easily imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, “17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly; and if he refuses to listen even to the assembly, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Okay, now that we have that behind us, let’s look at what Jesus said about this business of division and reconciliation.

Sin In The Camp

In the Old Testament book of Joshua, there is a strange story of  “sin in the camp.”  Joshua had been leading Israel from victory to victory as they conquered the Land of Promise, but when they attempted to take the city of Ai, they were defeated.  To make a long story short, it was discovered that one man, Achan, had disobeyed God and had kept some of the spoils of previous battles for himself.  This one man’s sin affected the entire nation, and until that sin was dealt with and made right, the nation was under God’s judgment.

Now bring that same story forward about 1200 years or so.  Jesus had come proclaiming a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  Many have begun to follow Jesus, with the 12 disciples forming the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.

The disciples have increasing responsibility for the newer followers.  You may remember that we looked at the feeding of the 5,000, which demonstrated that in the Kingdom of God there was always an abundance.  Before Jesus fed the crowd that day with a little boy’s lunch, he told the disciples to feed the crowd.  That was Jesus’ way of saying that the disciples had an increasing responsibility for caring for Jesus’ followers.

So, 18 chapters into Matthew’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus, Jesus gives the disciples instruction for what to do when there is a problem of sin within the assembly of those who are following Jesus.

Jesus has just finished telling the story of the shepherd who has 100 sheep.  When the shepherd discovers just one missing, he searches diligently until he finds the lost sheep and returns it to the flock within the fold.  The lesson there is that everyone one of God’s sheep, those whom God has created, are valuable to God and God’s Kingdom.  None should be written off as lost and without hope of redemption.

Then Jesus says the same thing in a slightly different way:  15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

This saying takes the search for a lost sheep, and makes it a quest for a restored relationship.  In both cases something fundamentally wrong has happened to disrupt the way things should be.  In the case of the lost sheep, he is separated from the flock and the shepherd.  In the case of a member of the assembly of Jesus’ followers who sins, they have separated themselves from the followers of Jesus by their actions.

It is interesting to note that although the NIV translation from 1984 has the phrase “If your brother sins against you…” – the 2010 NIV translation drops the two words “against you.”  The reason is that the words “against you” are not found in the oldest manuscripts, and also Luke’s account of this same teaching of Jesus does not use that phrase either.

But any sin of one within the assembly is a sin against all members of the assembly, and a sin against God as well.

The very word “sin” brings us to another tricky question – What sins qualify for someone in the assembly to go to someone else and point out the mistake they have made?

This is exactly where church discipline in the past has focused.  Obviously some sins were more public, and more serious, than other sins.  I think I have told you about Zion Hope Baptist Church in Tifton, Georgia where I was pastor long years ago.  For the church’s centennial celebration, we brought out the old church minutes from the late 1800s.  It was not unusual for the congregation to “church” someone for the sin of dancing.  Nor was it unusual for them to reinstate that same individual the next Sunday after they had made an appropriate act of repentance.

That’s how the church historically has treated this passage.  Christians have focused on the “sin” part of Jesus’ teaching.  The Roman Catholic Church has categorized sin into either “venial” or “mortal” sins.  Venial sins are slight sins that can be corrected or rectified by applying love and loving action, such as an apology, restitution, or other act of contrition and correction.  Mortal sins are serious, have a total disregard for love of self, others, or God, and lead to spiritual death if not dealt with, and repented of.

But, focusing on how big the sin has to be before someone seeks to correct another is to miss the point.  Jesus could very well have focused on various sins.  He could have said, “If someone sins by committing adultery…”  and so on.  But, he didn’t.  The reason Jesus didn’t focus on the sin is because he was focused on the relationship.

That’s the same reason the shepherd goes after the lost sheep.  The shepherd isn’t concerned how the sheep got lost. He doesn’t blame the sheep for being stupid, careless, or willful.  No, the shepherd goes after the sheep as soon as he realizes that the sheep is missing.  And he does so because the main point is that the sheep has strayed, it is no longer in the fold, it needs finding and it needs finding quickly.

That’s why most attempts at church discipline have failed.  Either the church has narrowly defined what it considers sin – such as wearing jewelry, cutting your hair if you are a woman, or wearing pants instead of a skirt or dress, again, if you are a woman.  (Note that a lot of church discipline applies to women, not so much to men.)  I actually had a revival preacher I invited to preach at our church in Lilburn, Georgia spend an entire sermon on women wearing pants to church.  He thought he was doing me a favor.  I think Debbie had on pants that night.  But, you get my point.

Church discipline has largely failed because we have singled out individuals to straighten them out, but usually based on our ideas, not theirs.

No, Jesus didn’t focus on the sin here.  He just focused on the fact that a member of the assembly, a person who at one time had embraced the Kingdom of God, had turned aside, had gone astray, had offended either God or a brother or sister in the faith, or both.

In other words, the relationship within the community had been damaged.  Jesus concern is not just that one person has gone astray.  His concern is that a member of the community, the assembly, has gone astray.  And if one is missing, either physically or spiritually, then their life affects the entire community.

The Process for Reconciliation

The process for reconciliation is pretty simple.  First, the person who is aware of this person’s mistake goes to him or her privately.  If the sin was against the individual, then there’s no reason to involve others at this point.  And, Jesus says, if they listen to you, you have won your brother.  Case closed.  Things are again as they should be.  One person reaches out in love, the other listens, and takes appropriate action.  Relationships are healed, wrongs are made right, things are as they should be again.

Unfortunately, many cases do not resolved themselves so easily.  If the person refuses to listen, Jesus instructs the disciples to take one or two others with you to again seek to win this wayward brother over.  Why?  Because in Deuteronomy 19:15, the Law says –

15 “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

 Jesus is following the Law, while at the same time involving others in seeking to reclaim this lost brother or sister.  Hopefully, that step works, and the party who has sinned, when confronted in love by 2 or 3 people about their conduct, will see the error of their ways.

But if not, Jesus has a step three.  “Tell it to the church.”  Or, to use our word, “tell it to the assembly.”  Get more folks involved.  Maybe someone else can help.  Things are now serious.  The assembly, the community of Jesus’ followers, is at risk for losing one of their own.  Everyone needs to know about this serious situation.  Everyone needs to pray, to express their love to the estranged member, and to reach out to them with grace and care.

What definitely is not happening is that the church gets told so that it can expel the member.  That is not the desired result.  The member is already estranged.  They are already out of the fold of fellowship.  No, the idea is that the entire community will now reach out to reclaim this one who has been lost temporarily.

Failing those three steps, Jesus says something very strange – “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Of course, this is where many church bodies have gotten their doctrine of expulsion, or shunning, or excommunication, or withdrawal of fellowship.  All of those practices have the same end result:  the offending member is cut off, either permanently or temporarily, from the community.

But, that’s not what Jesus means, I am convinced.  Because if we are to take Jesus’ words both seriously and literally, we have to ask ourselves “How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?”

The tax collector question is easy to answer.  All we have to do is remember a little man named Zacchaeus, himself a tax collector.  You know the story, and maybe the song.

“Zacchaeus was a wee-little man, and a wee-little man was he.  He climbed us in a sycamore tree, the Lord he wanted to see.  And when the Lord came passing by, He looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, come down, for I’m going to your house today!”

That’s pretty much the story.  Except Zacchaeus realizes the error of his ways, confesses, makes restitution, and rejoins the family of God and the nation of God.  Jesus says of Zacchaeus after Zacchaeus’ confession and offer of restitution – “Today salvation has come to this house.”

That’s how Jesus treats tax collectors.  With redemptive love.  And so, the point of this whole passage is to redeem, reclaim, and seek reconciliation with those who started for the Kingdom, but somehow lost their way.

The Importance of the Assembly

But, that’s not all.  Jesus has involved the assembly in reclaiming the life of one who has gone the wrong way.  But, the assembly, no matter how small, has other important functions.  Jesus continues —

18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.

   19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 

It is the assembly of God’s people, now called the church, that demonstrates that what is done in heaven, can be done on earth.  The binding and loosing was an old rabbinical phrase that indicated which obligations the local synagogue was to be bound by, and which they were free to be released from.

The one thing that bound the followers of Jesus most closely, and to which they themselves were bound, was reconciliation.  The unrelenting pursuit of those whose lives have gone off-track, who have abandoned their place in the assembly of the Kingdom, so that they can then be reconciled to God and to the other members of the community.

But it doesn’t end there.  The reconciling community is also a praying community.  Jesus says —  19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

In other words, the power of our praying is directly related to our participation in the community of faith.  When we join with others, agreeing in our hearts and minds that God has this plan for us, then Jesus says, “…it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”

Of course, that is not to dimish the idea of individual prayer.  But Jesus is reiterating the importance, the centrality of the community as it relates to the Kingdom of God.

This community of followers of Jesus, this assembly, is the new Israel.  Not that the old Israel, the Jews, are excluded.  By no means.  Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 9-11.  But, this new community lives differently.  This new community follows the Messiah of God.  This new community recognizes that God has raised Jesus from the dead, making both Lord and Christ.  This new community is the expression of the Kingdom of God here in this place, until Christ comes again, and all things are made new.

And the reason for the importance of this new community?  Because Jesus says that wherever  2 or 3 of them are gathered, he’s there in their midst.  Jesus is not waiting for the crowd to grow, or the followers to increase.  Two or three folks is enough for him.  Two or three constitute a community gathered around Jesus for the express purpose of being a community of reconciliation.

Paul says in II Corinthians 5:18-20 –

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Jesus has called us to reconciliation.  Whether between ourselves and someone who has offended us; or someone who has left the community of faith; or whether in prayer; or simply in gathering in his name, we are ambassadors for Christ, and the credentials we present as representatives of the King and Kingdom are credentials that seek to unite rather than divide, that seek to save rather than condemn, that seek to win rather than to lose a brother or sister.

This is the community of reconciliation gathered here today.  We have that ministry according to Paul.  We have the instruction given by Jesus.  We have the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We are on a mission to invite all who will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The only question is, “Will we rise to the challenge?”  Will we reach out to others?  Will we be a force for reconciliation in our church, our community, and our world?

We have, we can, and we must continue as God’s agents of reconciliation.  We are the assembly, the church, the called out ones.  May we live up to that for which God has called us out of this world, and into to the Kingdom.

Sermon: Developing A Kingdom Mindset

As a young child, my mother would tell me to “Put on your thinking cap” when I had to solve a problem.  Jesus says something of the same thing to Peter, but much more directly.  How do we develop Kingdom thinking?  This brief look at the an encounter between Peter and Jesus might give us some clues.

Developing A Kingdom Mindset

Matthew 16:21-28 NIV’84

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life[h] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  — Matthew 16:21-28 NIV’84

From Demonstration to Decision

During these summer months we have been looking at various passages from the Gospel of Matthew, thinking together about the Kingdom of God; or, as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven.  We have looked primarily at the words and actions of Jesus that demonstrated the kingdom of God.

We have seen Jesus teach about the kingdom.  Matthew in chapters 5-7, records the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon is the compendium, the substance, of the Jesus’ Kingdom teachings.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to lay out the ethical and spiritual distinctives of the Kingdom.  These are characteristics that distinguish the Kingdom of God, which he has come to both announce and inaugurate, from the current practice of first century Judaism.

But Jesus does more in Matthew’s Gospel than just teach about the Kingdom.

We have seen him demonstrate what life will be like in the Kingdom of God by healing the paralyzed man by first forgiving his sins.

We have seen Jesus call disciples to follow him, to learn from him, and to embrace life in this Kingdom, which will stand in contrast to the world in which he and they now live.

We have seen Jesus describe the Kingdom of God using parables like the sower and the soils, the wheat and the weeds, and the treasure in the field.

We have seen Jesus demonstrate the abundance of the Kingdom of Heaven by feeding 5,000, and then on another occasion by feeding 4,000 people.

We have seen the King of the Kingdom, Jesus, exercise his dominion over the created elements by walking on water.

And last week we saw Jesus prod the disciples to verbalize who he really was.  And it was Peter who got it out first with his confession – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

So we have seen Jesus gently, yet persistently teach, demonstrate, and clarify the ideas and actions of the Kingdom of God before his disciples.

But today we come to the hinge point of Jesus’ ministry – the point at which he moves from demonstrating the Kingdom of God for his disciples, and begins to push them toward their own decision regarding their place in the Kingdom.

As I just mentioned, Peter’s confession of Christ was the first public acknowledgement by the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ.  But an acknowledgment is one thing for even Satan recognized who Jesus was.

No, Jesus needed for the disciples to do much more than acknowledge him as the Christ.  His teaching and demonstration of the Kingdom was to lead them to a point of decision, a point of commitment that heretofore they had not made.

I am sure the disciples were intrigued with Jesus.  I am sure they found his teaching amazing in its clarity and stunning in its restatement of the Law.

But, they needed to do more.  They needed to decide for themselves not only that Jesus was unique, but that they would link their lives with his, that they would follow him not only on the dusty roads of Galilee, but in the way they lived their lives, too.

What does that have to do with us today?  Just this – it isn’t enough to believe that Jesus is extraordinary, or even to believe that he is the divine Son of God.

In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religious Life reported that their surveys indicated that 92% of Americans believe in a higher power, a being that most would call God.  But, is that enough?  Is it enough to believe that God exists, or does that knowledge, that belief lead logically to the next step – a decision to live in accordance with God’s will?

That’s why this passage today is so important.  It is the point at which Jesus pushes the disciples past the stage of acknowledgement, past demonstrations of the Kingdom, to a point at which they must make a decision regarding their place in the Kingdom themselves.

Exposing Peter’s Mistaken Mindset

But before Jesus can push them to a decision about the Kingdom, he first has to expose the earthly mindset of the disciples.  Peter, as we might suspect, gives Jesus that opportunity.

Matthew says that after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the conversation changes:

“21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

Now Jesus begins to explain what is going to happen to him.  He is headed to Jerusalem and there he will have a showdown, a power encounter with the religious rulers of first century Judaism.

I think it’s interesting that Jesus says that he will “suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed…”

In truth, it is the Roman Empire that imposes the death penalty on Jesus, and carries it out.  But Jesus recognizes that the Roman Empire, with the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate as its representative, will only be carrying out the desires of the leading religious leaders of his day.

Jesus will be dealt with as they have already dealt with others who challenged their authority and power – they will marginalize him, and failing that, they will eliminate him.

So, we see repeated attempts to discredit Jesus.  They come at him with trick questions; with implications that he and his disciples are not following the Law, the Torah; and, finally, with charges of blasphemy and speaking against the Temple.

The disciples have witnessed this tension between Jesus, whose popularity is the only thing that has kept him from the hands of the Pharisees, Saduccees and other religious authorities.

So, when Jesus begins to lay out for the disciples, now that they have acknowledged who he is, that these very same religious leaders are going to cause him great harm, even to the point of taking his life, Peter can’t take it.

Matthew says that Peter takes Jesus aside.  That’s interesting because Peter ususally just blurts out whatever he has to say, just as he did with his great confession.

But, Peter takes Jesus aside to privately chastise his own teacher.  We miss the point of that because we don’t understand the reverence with which teachers, rabbis, of the first century were accorded.

It was kind of like when I was in the fifth grade at Johnson Elementary School in Columbus, Georgia.  In the fourth grade, I had a wonderful teacher who everyday after lunch read to us from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s prairie book series.  She was a kind and gentle teacher, who mothered her fourth graders with great care and concern.

But fifth grade was an entirely different story.  My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Cooksey, and Mrs. Cooksey believed it was her duty to take innocent fourth graders and prepare them for the rough-and-tumble work of junior high school.  Never mind that we didn’t get to junior high until seventh grade; Mrs. Cooksey was determined to make us grow up, fast and in proper form.  Needless to say, she did not read Little House on the Prairie to us, or anything else for that matter.

To her credit, Mrs. Cooksey was a good teacher.  I learned a great deal in her class because I had to.  I was too afraid to find out what would happen if I didn’t!   But she was stern, no-nonsense, and definitely not our mother.

I would no more have contradicted Mrs. Cooksey than I would have the principal of the school himself.

So, when Peter takes it upon himself to set Jesus straight, he at least has the consideration to take Jesus aside and rebuke him privately.

After he had Jesus alone, I am sure Peter repeated what he thought Jesus had said.  Something like this, I imagine –

Peter:  “Lord, let me get this straight.  Did I hear you right?  Do you think that when we get to Jerusalem that the religious leaders are going to give you a hard time?  Why that’s nothing new, they’ve been doing that to us for almost three years now.

But, this business that they’re going to kill you, I can’t believe you said that.  I’m not sure what all that business about rising on the third day was, but you’re not going to have to rise from anywhere on any day!  Wouldn’t that be better?

No, this will never happen to you!  I promise you that as long as I’m around nobody will do you any harm.”

At this point, I am sure that Peter is feeling pretty good about himself.  After all, he’s the only one, again, with the boldness and courage to knock this silly notion that Jesus is going to be killed by a bunch of effete, soft-handed religious leaders.  What match would they be for a fisherman, or a bunch of fishermen for that matter?

But unfortunately for Peter, Jesus response comes as a complete surprise.

Jesus: “Peter, I’ve just called you the Rock, but now I call you Satan.  Get out of my sight, quit blocking my way on the road to Jerusalem.  You’re thinking the wrong way, you’re thinking like they think, like the religious leaders I’m challenging.  All they know is power and force and violence and threats and intimidation.  No, you’re thinking like they are.  You need to think like you belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Of course, that is the Warnock Revised Version, but I think you get the point.  Peter has failed to grasp that what Jesus is about is not bringing in the Kingdom of God like the religious leaders of his day, by collaborating with the most powerful military juggernaut on earth, the Roman Empire.

Jesus is again telling the disciples how different life is in the Kingdom of God, and how Kingdom living requires Kingdom thinking.

Developing A Kingdom Mindset

Listen again to what Jesus tells the disciples.  I imagine that Peter hasn’t taken Jesus so far to the side that Jesus can’t turn and address them all.  I also imagine that Jesus has emphatically made his point with Peter, so much so that the firm and commanding tone of his voice has already gotten their attention.

Jesus must have turned and addressed them all:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life[h] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 

That is definitely not the way the world thinks.  First, Jesus might have pointed to a man hanging on a cross to issue his challenge to them.  When the Romans put down a minor rebellion in Jerusalem during Herod’s reign, they crucified 2,000 men, lining the roads into Jerusalem with their crosses on which they left their bodies to become food for the vultures.

So, the image might have been graphically before them.  “Here’s what happens when you follow me,” Jesus might have said.  “You take up a cross and follow me, because that’s my way.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, contains Bonhoeffer’s comment that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Bonhoeffer would give his life in a German concentration camp only shortly before the Allies would crush the Third Reich and liberate that Nazi death camp.

But to help them understand the significance of what he was telling them, Jesus added,

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 

In other words, the more we try to hold on to our lives, the more we seek to save ourselves, the more we operate as this sad world operates, the less chance we have of actually finding life, of being the people that God created us to be.

Kingdom thinking does not start with “I.”  Rick Warren began his mega-million seller, The Purpose-Driven Life with these words, “It’s not about you.”

Kingdom thinking, a Kingdom mindset, starts with Jesus.  If Jesus is not worthy of our lives, then we are not thinking Kingdom thoughts.

If we gain the whole world, and here I think Jesus meant all that the present life in this existence has to offer – fame, money, material possessions, friends, family, and so on – but have failed to understand that all of that is temporary, fleeting (a vapor as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it) then we have failed to understand the purpose for which God has placed us on this earth.

Kingdom thinking is not conventional wisdom.  The reason Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” was because they had always heard “an eye for an eye.”  The reason Jesus said, “Go the second mile,” is because they had practiced the art of obedient hostility toward the Roman soldiers who could compel an able-bodied Jewish man to carry his pack for  one mile.

The reason Jesus said to “love your enemies” was because they had heard they were supposed to “love their neighbors and hate their enemies.”

But the response to this is and has always been, “But that will never work in the real world.”  And yet, the individuals in history who have captured our imagination have been those who have showed kindness in the midst of hostility, love in the midst of hate, and who have given their lives for causes most of us think are impossible and pointless.

Mother Teresa who started a home for the dying, so those dying in the streets of India could die surrounded by those who loved them.  She captures our imagination because we would not do what she did.  We might start a hospital to help cure them, or give funds to those who build houses, but those who are dying are dying anyway, why waste time and attention on them?  And, that is the difference in our conventional thinking and Kingdom thinking.

So, how do we develop a Kingdom mindset?

First, by realizing that the life and teaching of Jesus is the basis for the way we live our lives.  Jesus said to the disciples that “…the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.”

I don’t think that means that Jesus is going to reward folks for doing a few good deeds. What I think Jesus means is that your reward will be based on what decision you have made, what you have done, in order to live your life by Kingdom values.  And, the first thing you must do in order to think Kingdom thoughts is to let your life be transformed by the King of that Kingdom.

Secondly, we must realize that there are times, quite a few of them actually, when the words of Jesus and the thinking of this world system in which we find ourselves will not agree.   Our decision then has to be to stay with Jesus.  Against the opinions of our friends, our family, our political party, and our neighbors.  Why?  Because conventional thinking, like Peter’s, is not Kingdom thinking.

Finally, we must remember that the Kingdom of God has already begun. We are not waiting for death to usher us into the Kingdom.  The Spirit of God has already done that when by the mystery of God we were, as Paul said, transferred from the Kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light.

We must admit things have gone terribly wrong in this world.  I don’t think I have ever seen a time in my life when there is so much violence, so much discord, so much conflict, so much poverty, so much hatred, so much discontent around the entire globe, as there is today.

Without faith in Christ, without a commitment to a different way to live, one would have to despair for the future.  But, there is another way to think.  Not the way that Peter was thinking.  But a new way to think.

That’s what Jesus meant when he would say, “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you….”  You’ve heard the old way to think and act, but there’s a new way, a Kingdom way, a way that is hard, involves sacrifice, and may lead to your losing everything.  But that is the only way you’ll gain anything.

If you want to enter the Kingdom, learn to think like the King.

Sermon: How To Feed A Big Crowd on A Small Budget

What does the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 tell us about the kingdom of God?  Just about everything, that’s what.  Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  I hope your Sunday is a glorious one!

How To Feed A Big Crowd On A Small Budget

Matthew 14:13-21 NIV’84

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

From Parables To Real Life

During the past several weeks we have been looking at some of the parables that Jesus used to talk about the kingdom of heaven.  We have thought about the parable of the sower and the soils; the parable of the wheat and the weeds; the parables of the treasure hidden in a field, and the pearl of great price, and the parable of leaven permeating the whole lump of dough.

As he began each of these parables, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” and then he added the sower, the field, the treasure, the pearl, and the leaven as examples of what the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God is like.

But today, Jesus moves from parables that describe the kingdom in its various facets, to a demonstration of the kingdom in the miracles that he performs – specifically the miracle of feeding the 5,000.

“How do you know this is a story about the kingdom of heaven?” you might ask.  And I would answer, “Because that is what Jesus came proclaiming.”  Remember the first pronouncement that Jesus makes in Mark’s Gospel?

15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”  — Mark 1:15 NIV’84

The very first words of Jesus, from the oldest and first Gospel record, depict Jesus as announcing the kingdom of God, which Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven, but means the same thing.

As a quick bit of information, Matthew’s Gospel is written primarily for a first century Jewish audience.  Jews took their use of the name of God very seriously; so seriously, in fact, that they did not use the name of God, but substituted another appellation for God’s name.  What Mark calls the kingdom of God, Matthew changes to kingdom of heaven so as not to offend his Jewish readers, and those who listened to his account.  But the terms are interchangeable.

As we move from Matthew 13, where we read 5 parables, to Matthew 14, we encounter Jesus applying the power and presence of the kingdom in real life.  Let’s take a look.

The Kingdom of God Is Not In The Temple

The first thing we must realize is that to first century mainstream Judaism, the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, existed in their midst in the Temple.  We talked about this a little last week.  But, that’s important because the Temple becomes one of the main points of contention between Jesus, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priest, the scribes, and the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling religious council.

Herod the Great, not a Jew himself but a Idumean, had sought to win the favor of the population of Judea, and surrounding areas including Galilee, by rebuilding Solomon’s Temple.

You might remember that the Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the invading Babylonians, and the Jews living in Jerusalem and surrounding areas were taken off to Babylon in what we call the Babylonian captivity.

As the nation begins returning home about 50 or so years later, attempts were made to rebuild the Temple, and restore the Temple to its former place as the worship center for all of Judaism.

When Herod the Great comes to power as the puppet king of the Roman Empire in 37 BC, he embarks on a 20+-year rebuilding project to give the Jews back their Temple.  The Temple is finished shortly before Herod’s death in 4 BC.

The Temple was apparently magnificent.  Gleaming white marble, gold adornments, including a solid gold grape vine over the entrance, dazzled residents of Jerusalem and visitors to the city alike.  The Temple was the focal point of the city of Jerusalem, situated on the highest hill, and visible from miles around.

But, it is what happened in the Temple that made the Jews believe that the kingdom of God was in the Temple itself.

We can only imagine the kind of devotion accorded the Temple, because we have no equivalent structure in our society.  While we value the United States Capitol, the White House, Jefferson’s Monticello, and other historic and symbolic structures, we do not believe that God lives in any of them.

But the Jews believed that God had God’s own residence literally, not just spiritually, in the Temple.  Specifically, in the Holy of Holies.

And, so when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, he entered the presence of God.  The Holy of Holies was where man met God, just as Moses had met God on Mount Sinai, and Elijah had met God in the still small voice, and Isaiah had met God in the Temple, so the High Priest met God once a year in the most holy spot in all of the world for Jews – the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

And, when God accepted the blood of the sacrifice sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest became the embodied presence of God, just as Moses had reflected the glory of God when he came down off the mountain.

But Jesus challenged all of that.  Jesus challenged the corruption of the Temple operation by driving the money changers out of the Temple.  Jesus challenged the permanency of the Temple by declaring that not one stone would be left on another.

But mostly, Jesus challenged the idea that the kingdom of God was contained in the Temple when he said, “The kingdom of God is near.”  Or, “The kingdom of God is within you.”   Jesus was freeing the kingdom of God from the control of the Temple crowd, and making it available to the people of God again.

For the whole point of the Temple, and the Tabernacle that had preceded it in the desert, was that God was camping – literally, “tabernacling” – in the midst of God’s people.  Granted there was a separation, but the presence of God was intended to be thought of as in the midst of his people.

That’s why when John sees the vision of the new heaven and the new earth, he writes –

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4 NIV’84

“The dwelling of God is with men…God himself with be with them and be their God.”

That was the point Jesus was making, and that is the point of the kingdom of God.  That God is present in the world He created, and not confined to a building made by man, magnificent though it may have been.

The Kingdom of God Means Shalom

But, Jesus wasn’t just arguing where the kingdom of God wasn’t.  His point was that the kingdom of God was with the people of God, not the religious leaders who had hijacked the Temple and kingdom talk for their own profit and position.

But, how do you tell people that the kingdom of God is with them?  By using very simple stories to tell them what the kingdom of God is like.  So, Jesus chooses common images – a sower, seed, farm fields, weeds, treasure, a pearl, and leaven.  All of these things point to the real life presence of the kingdom.

While the Pharisees, Sadducees, and chief priest pointed to the Temple with its gleaming marble and solid gold adornment, Jesus pointed to the dirt, the field, the common farmer, the plants, yeast, and things of great value like a hidden treasure or a flawless pearl.  These things common people understood.

But, was the kingdom just an idea?  Was it a future promise, or a present reality?  And, what was the foundation or basis for the kingdom?

Okay, let’s take the last question first.  The basis or foundation upon which the kingdom of God rested was the shalom of God.  We’ve talked about that before.  The idea of shalom, or peace, meant that everyone had enough, that things were as they should be, that the nation and its people were healthy, strong, and vital. And, when the Old Testament particularly talks about the “salvation of the Lord,” or God’s saving His people, it meant not taking them to heaven when they died, but restoring the balance of things, restoring the shalom of God, so that everything was as it should be.

Sickness and Death Have No Place in the Kingdom

Okay, if things are as they should be, why is there sickness and why do people die of illness, disease, and accident?  That’s a good question, and so Jesus demonstrates that in the presence and power of the kingdom of heaven, there is no sickness.

How does he do that?  Let’s look back at our scripture for today –

“14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”

So, the first thing Jesus does is to heal “their sick.”  And not just a few.  He heals lots of folks that day.  Why?  Because he wants to impress people, gather a crowd, and be famous?  No, because Jesus wants to demonstrate where the real kingdom of God is, and what it looks like when it is fully come.

John reveals that same idea, again in Revelation 21, when he says –

“4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  — Revelation 21:4 NIV’84

Note that John specifically hears the words, “…for the old order of things has passed away.”  In other words, the kingdom has come!

We don’t have an example of death being vanquished in this passage, but Jesus raises Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the only son of the widow of Nain.  And, at the crucifixion of Jesus, the tombs of the saints give up the dead and they walk about the city of Jerusalem because kingdom power is demonstrated even before the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself.

But, back to this passage.  Jesus heals people in this account and others because he is demonstrating the presence of the kingdom of God in all its “make-things-right” power.

The Kingdom of God Gathers Everyone At The Table

But, that’s not even the main point today.  The main point of this story is that kingdom power and presence is never more fully recognized than when people gather at the table to share a meal together.

The story says that at the end of a very long day, and out in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realize that it’s late and everyone is starting to get hungry.  Their solution is to disperse the crowd, break them up, send them away, fracture the bond that holds them all together as followers of Jesus at that moment.

But Jesus says to the disciples, “They do not need to go away.  You given them some food.”  In other words, their sustenance and salvation is not to be found somewhere else, its right here.

Unfortunately, that point is lost on the disciples.  So, Jesus has the crowd sit in an orderly fashion, and get ready to eat.

The disciples, in their mad scramble to find some food, any food, come up with 5 loaves of bread and two fish.  All small, and all a part of a little boy’s lunch.

A quick aside here:  There was a popular explanation floated about when I was a teenager that when the crowd saw that a little boy was willing to give up his entire lunch, they all felt guilty, and sheepishly pulled out their lunches, too.

Now that explanation is well-intentioned, and has a good motive.  The behavior of one little boy inspires others to do the same.  So, in a sense that explanation exhibits some good kingdom qualities – selflessness, giving, and concern for others.

But, as good as that explanation is, there is no way in the world that Matthew means for us to get that impression.  That explanation is a 20th century attempt to explain scientifically a theological story.  It’s like trying to explain love by saying it’s when your blood pressure rises.  While that may be true, it hardly does justice to the story.

No, Matthew as not presenting the first century readers, or the 21st century readers with a story that had a mundane explanation.

Matthew was telling a story about the kingdom of God, just like he did when he repeated the parables that Jesus told about the kingdom of God.

In this story of the feeding of the 5,000, the first lesson we learn is that there is always enough in the kingdom of God.  Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly.”  Abundant life doesn’t just apply to spiritual resources.  It also applies to God’s intention for His kingdom.  There is enough for everyone, including the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field.  No one gets left out, no one does without, no one has too much, and none is wasted.

We’ve seen that story before in the story of the manna that fell each day except the Sabbath for the nation of Israel while they were on their way to the land of promise.

The manna fell everyday.  Everyone gathered what they needed.  And, when they prepared it, it was enough, but not too much.  And, they couldn’t hoard it or keep it.

And, so Jesus taught us to pray, “Give is this day our daily bread.”  In the kingdom of God, God is the provider.

The first century church in Jerusalem got that, and they pooled all their financial and material resources, and everyone had enough.

But, the second thing we see here is that this miracle of abundance happens at the table.  Jesus literally invites 5,000 people over for dinner, and asks the disciples, “What’s on the menu tonight?”

In our 21st century world, we have lost the idea of table fellowship.   But it is still an art form in the eastern world of which Jesus was a member.  To invite someone to eat with you was an honor for the guest, and an obligation for the host.

So, when Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus house, he was giving Zacchaeus the opportunity to be host to the Son of God.  He was forgiving Zacchaeus, a disreputable tax collector, and publicly embracing him on a social level.

When we traveled in China, our hosts always went out of their way to take us to wonderful restaurants, with more food served than we could ever consume.  Dinners would last 2-3 hours, as we talked, laughed, and lingered over one delicious dish after another.

As their guest, I was always seated at the head of the table, at the right hand of the host for the evening.  And, in the course of the evening, the host would always do something to recognize the guest.  On one occasion, after we had already feasted on a number of exotic and delicious Chinese dishes, the next dish served featured small filet mignon steaks, a rarity in Chinese restaurants, and an obvious attempt to offer their American guest a familiar dish.

When Jesus invites 5,000 men, not including women and children to dinner, he is making several statements.  First, all are included.  No one is excluded because of his status, his wealth, his education, his social standing, his religious practice, or his piety.  All 5,000 there are invited to sit, to organize themselves, to prepare to eat.

Secondly, everyone is served and all have enough.  In the kingdom of God there is plenty.  Everyone is satisfied, Matthew says.  Full, we would call it.  Stuffed, we might add.  Can’t hold another bite.

Finally, so that none is wasted, they collect what was not eaten.  Now, these weren’t the table scraps.  My grandmother used to collect the table scraps to feed the barn cats at their farm in Piedmont, South Carolina.

But, no, these weren’t the table scraps – portions of uneaten bread, scraps of fish, bits of bone.  These baskets held the genuinely unspoiled left-overs – food that could be eaten the next day.

And most importantly, they gather twelve baskets full – one for each of the twelve disciples to take home, and eat from the next day.  Of course, I made that last part up, but what did they do with them if they didn’t take them home and eat them the next day?  What was the point of collecting perfectly good food, if not to save it for another meal?

All of this is pointing to the wedding feast of the Lamb, to the great supper where guests are invited from the highways and hedges, where there is enough and more for all who will answer the King’s invitation.

What We Learn From This Story

What do we learn from this very familiar story?  We learn it has a point.  We learn it’s a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven.  We learn that Jesus is teaching us that if we’re going to be part of the kingdom, then we need to learn how to set the table for others.  Its not just about us, all of this food and hospitality.  It’s about God, and God’s love for all people, everywhere, regardless of who they are, or where they come from, or what their diseases or stigmas are.

Jesus reminds us that this kingdom of God changes things.  That it makes things right, that it puts things as they should be.  That it demands faith, selflessness, sharing, care, concern, empathy, compassion, love, mission, and action.  That it means living differently, thinking faithfully, acting consciously, demonstrating love.

The question we have to ask ourselves today is – Are we like the disciples who said “send them away”  or are we like Jesus who said, “Have them find a seat at the table.”

Because only one answer reflects the kingdom of God.  The other reflects the old order of things, the way everyone else does it, the “let’s look out for ourselves” approach.

The downside is that the crowd is a lot of trouble.  Some of them are grumpy from hunger.  Some are picky eaters.  Some want their share and more.  Others forget to be grateful, and still others complain about the length of time it takes to be served.

But they’re all invited to the table, all 5,000 of them, along with the missus and the kids.  “Come on over and join us for dinner.”  That’s the kingdom way.  But is it ours?


When Jesus Invites Himself To Your House for Dinner

When Jesus Invites Himself To Your House for Dinner (mp3)

Luke 19:1-10

1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ ”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Luke 19:1-10 NIV

A Great Story and A Couple of Songs

Isn’t this a great story? When I was in the Beginner Department, I learned this song:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,

And a wee little man was he.

He climbed up in a sycamore tree,

For the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Lord was passing by,

He looked up in the tree,

And he said,

Zacchaeus, come down,

For I’m going to your house today!

This is one of those Bible stories that has something for everyone. If you’re short, it’s the story of the perserverance of a short guy, Zacchaeus, and the difficulty he had trying to see Jesus. Short people, like myself, are still smarting from Randy Newman’s hit song, Short People back in the 1980s. The lyrics went like this —

Short people got nobody,

Short people got nobody,

Short people go nobody

to love.

I am told that Randy Newman wrote that song to show how wrong prejudice of any kind is, but as you can imagine, not everybody got the joke and lots of people were offended by it, short and tall. Apparently, being short still has it’s difficulties. I found a website, Short Person’s Support, that among other things, has the Who’s Who of Short People, listing 300 famous short people in history.

If you’re a kid, you know exactly how Zacchaeus felt. You’re too short to see over adults, so you’ve got to get a good vantage point, preferably higher up than anybody else, so you can see what’s going on. So, Zacchaeus climbed a tree, which always has appeal to little kids.

But if being short wasn’t bad enough, in this story, we not only have a short man, we have a short man who was a tax collector. Double-whammy. Short and a cheat — not a good combination.

But there was something different about this short guy. He wanted to see Jesus. Despite his stature, despite his shady dealings, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus.

Why? We don’t know. Maybe Zacchaeus had heard that Jesus healed people. Maybe Zacchaeus heard that Jesus fed people. Maybe Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was standing up to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders, and he thought Jesus was taking up for the underdogs of society like himself. Maybe Zacchaeus heard that Jesus said some really unusual things about the kingdom of God — how the kingdom of God was right here, right now. Zacchaeus, for whatever reason, wanted to see Jesus.

If you’ve ever been in a crowd that was not well organized or managed, you have some idea of the crowd that Zacchaeus tried to make his way into that day. The word was out that Jesus was coming. Maybe some boys or young men had come running down the road shouting, “Rabbi Jesus is coming!” Today, that probably wouldn’t gather a crowd, but you’ve got to transport yourself back to the first century.

Life in Jesus’ day was hard. Days were long, people worked hard and diversions from the drudgery of work and the difficulties of everyday life were few. Villages were small and everyone knew everybody’s business. The woman at the well is an example of that. So, when the word spreads that Jesus is coming, I’m sure that many stopped what they were doing to catch a glimpse of this man, this enigma, who might free them from the oppression of the Roman system and the corruption of their leaders. After all, that’s what messiahs did, if he was the messiah.

The Significance of the Sycamore Tree

Here’s another interesting thing: the sycamore tree. This tree was probably ficus sycomorus, a rather large fig tree. This type of sycamore grew to be about 60-feet tall and had a canopy about 18-feet wide. So, it was a big tree. The tree was cultivated for its fruit (although not as good as some varieties of fig); and its timber (Egyptian mummies were buried in coffins of sycamore). This type sycamore is called The Queen of Trees in Africa because it provides shelter and food for creatures as large as the gray hornbill, Africa’s largest bird, to small wasps who help polinate the trees, and who in turn are sustained by the sycamore fruit.

The sycamore tree is mentioned a couple of other times in the Bible in Amos and Jeremiah. The Amos passage is particularly interesting, and has shadows of the coming of the messiah in it. It’s the story of God reaching out to save the people of Israel, despite the difficulties that are coming their way. Here’s what Amos says:

1 This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. 2 When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”

3 So the LORD relented.
“This will not happen,” the LORD said.

4 This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: The Sovereign LORD was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. 5 Then I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”

6 So the LORD relented.
“This will not happen either,” the Sovereign LORD said.

7 This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”
“A plumb line,” I replied.
Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.

9 “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed
and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined;
with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”

12 Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. 13 Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”

14 Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. 15 But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

Do you hear the portents of Jesus and Zacchaeus there? Amos pleads for God to forgive Jacob, meaning Israel, because “He is so small!” And God does forgive, but places a plumbline in the midst of his people to show them what is straight and true. Then, God promises that the high places and sanctuaries where improper worship is carried on will be destroyed. In 70 AD, the Roman legions will overrun Jerusalem, destroy the city and the Temple, and leave it desolate. The nation will again go into exile, not to return until 1948 when the political state of Israel is established. And all this prophesied by a keeper of sycamore trees, Amos. Now, I’m not saying there is a point-for-point parallel in the story of Amos and the story of Zacchaeus, but Jesus knew the Amos story and all the elements in the story of Zacchaeus, shadow the Old Testament prophet Amos. Those with “ears to hear” would understand and relate the two stories.

In the Zacchaeus story, then, there is a warning and a connection with the Old Testament prophets. And, remember where Jesus is headed — to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny, to make his sacrifice, to redeem the nation.

Dinner Conversation with Jesus

But there’s more to this story, too. I really like the part of the story where Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus had not planned on dinner guests, especially Jesus. But he quickly responds, swings gingerly down from his perch in the sycamore tree, and leads Jesus to his house.

We have what they call in the film industry a flash-forward. Actually, I don’t know if they call it that, but the point is the scene changes and Zacchaeus is talking, perhaps after they’ve had dinner. Perhaps after he’s heard Jesus talk about the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps after Zacchaeus has had the chance to ask Jesus a lot of questions, like — “Is there any hope for me?” or “Everybody hates me, what should I do?” or “How can I help you?”

We don’t know what the questions were, but we know Zacchaeus’ answer. “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

“Here and now” — Zacchaeus isn’t waiting, he’s acting. “Here,” in his own home. “Now,” while the crowd is still peering in the windows. Not later, not tomorrow, not after he calculates what he can afford to give. “Here and now, I give half my possessions to the poor.” But wait, there’s more — “…and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” If? Of course he’s cheated people. Of course he’s overcollected. Everybody knows that, even Zacchaeus. It’s the way the system works. It’s expected, anticipated, complained about, but ultimately complied with. So, there really is no uncertainty in Zacchaeus “if.” This is Zacchaeus’ way of saying, in a very eastern manner, “Okay, I’ve cheated a lot of you, but today I’m going to make it right.”

And there it is — real repentance — a turning around, a change of direction, an embrace of the kingdom of heaven here. Zacchaeus is caring for the poor. Jesus said when you do that — feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned — you do it to Him. It’s the new kingdom ethic, the new way to live life. And, the rest of it is — Turn the other cheek, treat others as you want to be treated, love your neighbor as yourself — all of those things that perhaps Jesus and Zacchaeus had a chance to talk about over dinner.

Entering the Kingdom

And so after Zacchaeus publicly repents — because repentance is the first step in embracing the kingdom — Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Salvation has come to this house — this house owned and occupied by a sinner — because Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, too. And what makes him a son of Abraham? Not just his birth, although that is the physical reason Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. No, it’s his rebirth. It’s Zacchaeus willingness, like Abraham, to follow God into a new kingdom. A land, like Abraham, that he’s never seen. A kingdom that is not like this world, but for now is in this world. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house because it is now an outpost of the kingdom of heaven, managed by kingdom ethics, and one more piece of the puzzle where God is making all things new.

What happens when Jesus invites himself to dinner at your house? You get the opportunity to repent, to turn around, to embrace the kingdom, to become a son or daughter of Abraham. Because Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost.

Jesus Has Invited Himself to This Dinner Table

Today we gather around the table to which Jesus invited himself 2,000 years ago. It is the table of fellowship. And if there were crowds looking in these windows today, as surely they must have looked into Zacchaeus’ windows with great curiosity, the people in the crowd would say, “Jesus is sitting at the table with sinners.” For we are all sinners, lost like Zacchaeus in a world that is the polar-opposite of the kingdom of God.

But as we come to this table today, we can say with Zacchaeus — “Here, now I’m turning around.” “Here, now I embrace the kingdom of heaven and will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, minister to the prisoners, treat others as I want to be treated, turn the other cheek, love my neighbor as myself.” All part of loving God and loving each other. All part of the kingdom of God. Here. Now. In this moment.

And we will hear Jesus say, “Today, salvation has come to this house for these are children of Abraham, too!”