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.

Philippians 3:4-14 – On Knowing Christ

Welcome, friends! It is a privilege to be with you on this World Communion Sunday. We gather around Jesus, our highest joy, as Christians unite in the surpassing value of knowing Christ. Click the video below and let us discover together the heartbeat of the Church everywhere…

Let us partake of Christ together in heartfelt worship.

I pray that the Lord Jesus Christ will bless you and be kind to you! May God bless you with his love, and may the Holy Spirit join all your hearts together. 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.

Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So, when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NIV)

We as humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We want life to be fair. It disturbs us when there is favoritism, discrimination, and preferential treatment. When things seem askew and others seem more privileged, envy can creep in and settle in our bones.

The envy can go even deeper. For example, is it fair that any child should struggle with health issues like cancer, epilepsy, and mental disorders?  Is it fair to have healthcare disparities? Is it fair to have a spouse taken from you before their time?  Is it fair to lose your job because of a pandemic? Is it ever fair to be treated like a second-class citizen?

Pat answers to people’s genuine struggles will not do, such as “Well, you just need to work hard and hope for the best;” “We have to take what is given us and accept these things;” “Think of all those starving children in India;” or the more crass, “Suck it up buttercup; life was never meant to be a rose garden.”  Those statements simply do not help.

At the heart of envy is the belief that others are getting something that I deserve.

Plenty of jerks have healthy grandkids, grow old with their spouses, and retire in comfort with plenty of money. “It isn’t fair!” we cry.

God does not always operate according to our standards of fairness. God’s very nature is to be generous and full of grace. The parable which Jesus told about the vineyard workers is a story not of unfairness, but a story of generosity and grace. It is all in how you look at it.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt, 1637

A normal workday in the ancient world was ten hours, not counting breaks. The workday began at 6:00am. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for laborers. The landowner went out at the third hour, 9:00am; the sixth hour, noon, etc. He kept returning to hire more workers even up to the last hour of the workday. Laborers were always paid at the end of the day. In this parable, the last workers were paid first, which prompted the first workers hired to think they would be getting more, even though they had been promised a denarius. So, they grumbled about not getting more. They thought the landowner was not being fair.

Grumbling. Complaining. Murmuring. It is the bane of our existence. Decades ago, when gas station attendants still filled tanks for customers, I was working at a station and had a lady go berserk on me for not checking her oil and cleaning her windshield, because I did it for the car in front of her. Even though there was a sign right in front of her that said checking oil and cleaning windshields is only done upon request, the lady thought she was getting gypped. 

In truth, the landowner did not cheat or defraud the workers in any way. He paid the agreed upon wage, just like he promised. Should he want to pay everyone the same even though the amount of work was different was his own business. The problem was not with the owner, it was with the worker’s envy of the owner’s generosity toward the others. God distributes gifts because he is gracious, not because we have earned anything.

Our standard of fairness is not the rule of the kingdom of God – grace is.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was physically thrown out of a church one Sunday because of a sermon he was preaching on the grace of God. Afterwards, when Wesley wrote about this to a friend, he said, “There is no Christian Doctrine more repugnant than the affirmation that we are saved by the grace of God through faith.”

Deep down many believe we control our destiny, and that we save ourselves by what we do. We discern that if we serve God all our lives, in the end, God will reward us. We believe that our pious activities, our acts of service and our work for the Lord, will bring us salvation, or, at least a leg up in the kingdom of God over others who have not worked as hard or as long as we have. After all, we do the right thing.

So, what about those who have not figured out Christianity… those who do not have the correct or proper beliefs… or those who have not straightened out their lives? According to a worldview of human fairness, they are out of luck. They should be in church. They should work harder, faster, and better. Then, they could get their lives in order. If they would only understand fairness, we reason, then all would be well.

Parable of the Vineyard Workers from unknown artist in the Middle Ages

But there is a problem, because the parable of the workers told by Jesus seems to be saying that is not how it works, at all.  Jesus seems to be saying that grace and grace alone saves, that God’s amazingly naive and irresponsible grace is available to anyone and everybody. And that troubles the workers to no end. 

Whenever we run headlong into God’s unfair grace and see that God’s way of doing things is so far removed from our way, there is bound to be grumbling.  After all, if God is going to run a vineyard like the one in the gospel lesson and give everybody the same pay regardless of their actual work hours, then what’s the use of getting up early in the morning to work? 

What is the good of sitting in church, listening to sermons from a crazy preacher who is no better than us, if these outsiders, these Johnny-and Jane-come-lately’s can waltz in at the last minute and receive the same treatment as the rest of us?  For many church folks who diligently serve, it is not fair to pay so much attention to outsiders and build ministry around people who aren’t even here, who don’t yet know Jesus.

The conclusion and point of the parable: The last will be first, and the first will be last. In Luke’s prodigal story, the elder brother grumbles and gripes: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf!”  It is the firstborn son that complains. (Luke 15:11-32)

In both the parable of the prodigal son and the parable in today’s lesson, “good” people are the ones who fail to see the heart of the Father and of the landowner. The “firsts” got off track because, over time, they forgot the kingdom hinges on grace, not effort, on not simply doing the right things over a long period of time.

God controls the flow of mercy, not us. 

We will likely be surprised in heaven with those already sitting at God’s banquet table, and equally surprised with who is not there. Resentment can move us away from the table of mercy God is preparing. The problem comes whenever we think we are above other people.  We might be sinners, but we are not as bad as some other people are!  We commit ordinary sins, not mass murder!

Here is the unvarnished truth: God does not owe you or I a thing, and God cares about all kinds of people, not just us and people who think and live like we do. Our hearts need to be big enough to center ministry around other people who are different than us.

If our hearts are small, we easily get jealous when God pays attention to prodigals and profligates. Grace becomes too repugnant a doctrine for us.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about grace. Life is not all about being decent. It is not all about morality, and it is certainly not about our own goodness. The gospel is about being steeped in and surrounded by the grace of God in Christ, so that we, in turn, can show others grace. Grace is the way God deals with us beyond what we deserve or feel we have earned. 

Grace is unfair; we get what we do not deserve. 

May we allow God’s grace to so permeate our hearts and lives so that we will give it to others as freely as we have received.Praise be to you, almighty and everlasting Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, you have given us every spiritual blessing in heaven. In Christ, you chose us before the world was made. You chose us in love to be your holy people—people who could stand before you without any fault. And before the world was made, you decided to make us your own children through Jesus Christ. It pleased you to do it. And this brings praise from us because of your wonderful grace, given to us freely, in Christ, the one you love. We have forgiveness of sins because of this lavishly rich grace. Thank you, O my Father, for your grace extending to me in Christ! Amen