Mark 2:18-22 – Structuring for Mission

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (NIV)

The late newspaper columnist, Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby,” made famous the phrase, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s to remind, reorient, and reframe our call in this world and our charge for the church. Christ’s Church does not exist on this earth primarily for the healthy Christian’s benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the welfare of doctors or insurance companies.

The Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom in both word and deed. Jesus came to restore lost sinners, redeem wayward sons and daughters, renew bodies and souls, and reform calcified religion with grace and truth.

Physical, spiritual, and emotional sickness is ubiquitous throughout the world and even the church. Many people are just not healthy. Some are sick because of destructive coping strategies; some are brokenhearted and dispirited; others are plain sick and tired of being sick and tired. Jesus is the source of healing and change and he invites us to admit our needs and come to him. Conversely, others are healthy, spiritually alive, and well. For those folks, now is the time to roll up our sleeves and participate fully in the mission of Jesus for the church and the world.

Jesus came to this earth to set up a new structure that could embrace his mission. Christ used the occasion of John the Baptist’s disciples asking him about fasting to communicate that his mission of reaching people through mercy and forgiveness will need a significant structural change. 

Jesus was letting his followers know that after he leaves this earth, things will need to change for the mission to continue. For example, when my wife and I raised our girls, our family dynamic was a certain way because we had them in the house. But when the empty nest phase of our lives finally came, I can tell you there was plenty of fasting that went on in our home. We live differently now, just the two of us. Our daily life structures have changed significantly.

The two illustrations Jesus used, of cloth and of wineskins, emphasize that old and new wineskins are incompatible – old and new pieces of cloth do not go together. I frame it this way with my own metaphor: You don’t put a new collar on a dead dog.

The incarnation of Christ was neither about perpetuating the status quo, nor to make a few cosmetic changes and minor adjustments to what was already going on. Instead, Christ came to fulfill the old and do something new so that it could accommodate his mission on this earth.

The perspective from the New Testament book of Hebrews is that the entire sacrificial system and ritual laws of the Old Testament were:

“…superficial regulations that are only about food, drink, and various ritual ways to wash with water. They are regulations that have been imposed until the time of the new order.” (Hebrews 9:10, CEB)

“Because Christ offered himself to God, he is able to bring a new promise from God. Through his death he paid the price to set people free from the sins they committed under the first promise. He did this so that those who are called can be guaranteed an inheritance that will last forever.” (Hebrews 9:15, GW)

First, Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). Then he said, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. (Hebrews 10:8-9, NLT)

“When it says new, it makes the first obsolete. And if something is old and outdated, it’s close to disappearing.” (Hebrews 8:13, CEB)

The following three activities are necessary for Christians if the mission of Jesus is to occur:

  1. Develop intimacy with Jesus. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading, and meditating on Holy Scripture puts us in a position to know Christ better and affords the ability to know and respond to what is important to Jesus.
  2. Establish relationships with one another. That is, relations which avoid shallow interactions and instead help each other to spiritually grow, thrive, and flourish by holding one another accountable for the mission of Jesus.
  3. Build new relationships with those on the rim of society. People on the outside of power structures and lacking any leverage toward advancing their own needs could use some connections. Our world and our communities are filled with sick, underprivileged, hurting, lonely, oppressed, forgotten, and unhealthy persons. They don’t need slight alterations to their lives but the kind of radical change that comes from the strong meat-and-potatoes of God’s gospel of grace working through a wild bunch of sold-out-to-Jesus Christians. 

Are there any structural things we need to let go so that mission and care can happen in this world? How might the structure of our prayers change if we were to focus on what is important to Christ’s mission? In what ways will we work toward a structurally just and right society which champions the common good of all persons?

Gracious God of all creation, create generations of people transformed into wholehearted lovers of God, encountered by the living Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Contend with those who oppress others and multiply the good and the beautiful in us all. Bring the fullness of your benevolent rule and reign to this world. May we exist for the purpose of enjoying God, loving others, and joining Jesus in the restoration of all things. Amen.

1 Peter 5:1-5, 12-14 – Humble Leadership

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble….”

With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.

She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with a kiss of love.

Peace to all of you who are in Christ. (NIV)

Humility is the consummate virtue of the believer in Jesus. Apart from humility there is only a lack of authenticity and integrity. With humility there is a recognition of our need for God’s grace, guidance, and peace. Humility opens to us the wide vistas of God’s love and mercy. 

A humble spirit:

  • Makes leadership both possible and bearable (God is in control, not us). 
  • Helps relieve the anxious worries that wash over us (God cares for us).
  • Enables us to resist evil and remain strong in faith (God protects us).
  • Fortifies us to remain steady through suffering (God comforts us).

Genuine spiritual humility places us securely in the merciful arms of God. Furthermore, humility and meekness are what this old fallen world needs, as well, and to which we must reinforce in all our church leadership appointments, national and local political elections, and work staff hires. An abundance of smarts and grit cannot compensate for a lack of humility. God is always in control, and so, syncing our lives with divine providence and care will enable us to be better off.

Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas to embrace God’s agenda:

God blesses those people who depend only on him. They belong to the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 5:3, CEV)

Jesus said, “The truth is, you must change your thinking and become like little children. If you don’t do this, you will never enter God’s kingdom. (Matthew 18:3, ERV)

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3, CEB)

To be a humble leader means to have the intention, focus, and action of seeking God’s will and way in everything. Then, to have the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.

Therefore, our task as spiritual leaders is to pursue hard after God’s direction rather than relying solely upon our base instincts, pragmatic desires, and personal views. Humility provides us a radical openness to God. A meek and gentle spirit enables us to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading. The Lord is up to something and has plans for our world, our locales, and our faith communities.

We also need to recognize that not everyone is open to God. If our focus is primarily on molding a group of people to be what we want them to be, then we may have become closed to what God wants. This closed spirit comes out in a couple of different ways:

  1. Maintaining tradition at all costs. Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for some leaders, so they stick close to the status quo. Like Abraham, however, we are called to move and change without always knowing where we are going. (Genesis 12:1-5)
  • Getting rid of tradition like there is no tomorrow. To get what they want some leaders focus solely on their own needs and desires without considering those they are called to lead. Like Timothy, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around. (1 Timothy 6:20-21; 2 Timothy 1:13-14)

Humility-based leadership continually consults the divine will and others’ wisdom in a concerted effort to be collaboratively open to God. A humble spirit enables and empowers leaders:

  • To lead from a position of faith, not fear.
  • To seek divine help and resources through a posture of listening. 
  • To practice love in all things to all persons.
  • To make prayer and discernment the foundation of planning.
  • To read Holy Scripture as if life depended on it.
  • To consult and collaborate with others who are like-minded.
  • To honor and respect tradition while holding it with open hands, not closed fists.

If we cultivate a humble attitude and a deep openness to God, along with a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen. Let our prayer together be this: 

I am yours, wise God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be.  I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power and guidance of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

John 11:45-57 – Against Fear and Worry

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So, from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore, Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts, they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him. (NIV)

Effective ministry and service is risky business. Just ask Jesus. The Jewish ruling council (Sanhedrin) was deeply disturbed by all the hubbub Jesus was stirring. Rather than celebrating the healing of many people in both body and soul, the rulers were anxious, worried, and afraid. They feared the worst: The Romans will obliterate both temple and nation.

Wherever you find a group of folks living in continual fear that something awful is going to happen, there you will find a strict code of conformity and no allowances for difference. After all, rocking the boat only draws attention. If anything, or anyone, deviates from established protocol, the voice of fear says, the entire religious system and even its people will be destroyed.

Well, my goodness, Jesus was anything but a conformist to the status quo. He frequently operated outside of established religious norms. Thus, Christ was viewed by many religious leaders as a loose cannon that was making too much noise and needed to be silenced before something terrible happened.

One of the problems with living in the fearful worry of what horrible thing may occur is that we play an ignorant game of prognostication. We simply do not know the future. We can predict. We can become full-time pundits. Yet, when all is said and done, the future is not ours to see. Only God is privy to standing above time and space.

Churches, Christian organizations, and really any institution whose chief focus is keeping everyone in line out of a fear of losing influence, power, privilege, money, devotion, buildings, or people will likely experience a self-fulfilled prophecy of doom. It is necessary we define our ministries, services, and actions by who we are and not by what we don’t do.

Today’s Gospel lesson chronicles the forward progress to the ultimate suffering and death of Jesus. Within the Apostle John’s account, two streams run parallel with one another. There is a group of Jews who observed Jesus, listened to his teaching, saw his miraculous works, and believed in him.  Alongside them is another group of Jews who experienced all the same events and heard all the same words of Jesus – yet responded in a quite different manner by plotting how Jesus might be arrested and killed.

Fear can take such a tight hold on some that premeditated murder is planned and executed without any moral misgivings. Worry can worm its way so deeply into a group that verbal assassinations seem both justified and necessary. Anxiety can overwhelm an institution to such a degree that rationalizations for unethical behavior are rife. People cease to be looked at as people. They are referred to as threats, demonized as monsters who are trying to take away a way of life.

Christ before Caiaphas by Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst, c.1617

Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke to his fellow religious leaders, perhaps without even knowing the truth and deep import of his prophetic words: “You know nothing at all.  Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Indeed, not only did Jesus die for the nation of Israel, but on behalf of all nations, and all people. 

The implications of Christ’s death are magnanimous. The extent of his atonement for the people includes redemption from the bondage of sin; reconciliation between us and God; satisfaction of God’s wrath against the sin of the world; and, victory over the demonic realm, death, and hell. With all this incredible work of restoration and renewal, fear and worry take a back seat. Courage and confidence take the wheel.

Merciful Jesus, you are my guide, the joy of my heart, the author of my hope, and the object of my love. I come seeking refreshment and peace. Show me your mercy, relieve my fears and anxieties, and grant me a quiet mind and an expectant heart, that by the assurance of your presence I may learn to abide in you, who is my Lord and my God. Amen.

Philippians 1:3-14 – Unity Through Shared Purpose

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare even more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (NIV)

Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. In the same way, spiritual health and care for the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there are divided loyalties, unhappiness, and disunity. And this is precisely what happened in the ancient Philippian Church. They were spiritually sick and relationally fragmented through inattention to one another.

Unity is much more than the absence of division. It is a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others. In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others.

Every pronoun, each “you” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing or avoid tattoos.

The Apostle Paul knew that without a focus on mission, on sharing the good news with each other and proclaiming the gospel to others, that the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people just nit-pick one another to death with all their various opinions and wants.

Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find constant complaining, endless arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the good news of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes we just need to recall past days when this was true of us when we are facing animosity and acrimony.

In times of frustration, anger, demonstrations, riots, violence (both physical and verbal) and injustice, we desperately need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another.

When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the risen and ascended Lord strengthen our efforts to mend the ruptures of the past and to meet the challenges of the present with hope in the future. May we embrace the grace which a sovereign God holds out to us and to our world. Amen.