Following Jesus

Walking with Jesus

The disciple and evangelist Matthew, the former tax collector, purposefully arranged his Gospel of Jesus to emphasize what it means to truly follow Christ. Matthew knew a thing or two about discipleship and following Jesus, having walked away from a lucrative business because Jesus called him. However, the hardest thing for Matthew was likely not giving up the money, as it was daily facing people who knew his past and many who held it over his head – except Jesus. Only grace has the power to change our lives and make us willing to face anything, for good or for ill.

For Matthew, the first sermon of Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), was meant to move the massive crowd of people physically following Christ to spiritually, ethically, and with heartfelt devotion following Jesus as committed disciples embracing the true way of righteousness – mercy, purity, and peacemaking.

In chapters 8-10 of his Gospel, Matthew narrates amazing events of miracles and healing including: the blind receiving sight; the lame getting on their own two feet and walking; those with leprosy being cured; the deaf hearing; the dead raised to life; and, the good news of God’s benevolent reign preached to the poor. Jesus was not only inviting people to be disciples; he was developing disciples through the sheer force of mercy. This was no sign-up sheet Christianity. This was deliverance from physical and spiritual oppression to a life of walking in the gracious way of Christ, no matter what the cost.

This was beautiful and wonderful ministry. It was life-changing and earth-shattering. However, most of the crowd who followed Jesus around observing the divine interventions were unfazed. In my mind, I picture the crowd like a bunch of social media followers who troll through others stuff and offer little except criticism when they see something that they do not like or agree with.

Jesus had his own comparison. He asked the crowd: To what can I compare this generation? Christ was angling for his listeners to consider the current state of the people and the society. He answered his own question with a saying that the people were familiar with: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” (Matthew 11:17)

The saying Jesus quoted pertains to weddings and funerals. He was saying that the crowd standing right in front of him, seeing him and seeing his works up close and personal, are like people who have their backs against the wall during a celebration dance at weddings. They are also like people who show no grief and don’t cry at funerals.  In other words, they are dull. They have Jesus right in front of their faces, and they do not see him because they are expecting someone else.

Most of the people could not get over the fact that Jesus hung-out with people who were not like them and kept focusing his ministry on folks who need it the most. Jesus was giving a stinging rebuke – and they knew it. Jesus was essentially calling the unmoved crowd a bunch of bratty little kids who sit around waiting for their idea of Messiah to come along.

Bottom line: Jesus had no acceptance for them simply because they were not willing to accept him on his terms and in his way. So, Jesus then clearly communicated who is accepted with him: Those who need him. They are accepted because the Father has revealed Jesus and truth to the least and the lost. Little children were always overlooked and forgotten people in the ancient world – low on the totem pole of human hierarchy and viewed mostly as potential adults who would someday contribute to society.

Kids need to be cared for. And that is the key to why Jesus spoke of becoming like little children: kids need the care of others or they will not make it. They know it. The plan of God is to bless those who are poor in spirit, not those who think they “already know all that stuff” and have no need for a Messiah who only meets the needs of immigrants, people of color, the aged and the infirm. Those who know their need for a Savior come to Jesus asking for help and find the open arms of God. Those who only know their spiritual pedigree and how much others need them, are glad they are not like people beneath them, and ask for nothing – these are the people who will find themselves looking at God’s back.

The needy are accepted because they humble themselves and come to Jesus and exchange their yokes. Christ’s invitation goes out to all those for whom religion and church has become a grind, for whom trying to always be a good Christian is like carrying a heavy burden. We are invited to replace our heavy yoke with the yoke of Jesus.

Simon and Jesus by Nicholas Mynheer
Jesus and Simon by Nicholas Mynheer

A “yoke” was a rabbi’s set of rules based in his interpretation of the Law. The disciples of a rabbi would follow him around everywhere and continually listen to his view of how to live the Scripture in everyday life. There were rabbis whose yoke weighed people down with endless rules on every detail of life. Jesus would later say about such teachers:

“They tell you to do things, but they themselves don’t do them. They make strict rules and try to force people to obey them, but they are unwilling to help those who struggle under the weight of their rules. They do good things so that other people will see them.” (Matthew 23:3-5)

Jesus, contrary to other rabbis, taught the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount as his yoke, which was a form of living from the heart, and not just to put on a good show for others.

Jesus said “learn from me” because he is gentle and humble in heart. Jesus is not going to turn us away when we sincerely and humbly come to him; in fact, he invites us to come so we might bask in God’s acceptance:

“Come to me, all of you who are tired and have heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Accept my teachings and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit, and you will find rest for your lives. The burden that I ask you to accept is easy; the load I give you to carry is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NCV)

If faith has become all too familiar, if you have lost your sense of awe and wonder about God, if you desire something more than just keeping up with the Christian Jones’s and fulfilling a checklist of Christian duty, then there is an invitation for you to come to Jesus – offered by Christ himself. We get to walk with Jesus.

3374b-thetable

For Christians everywhere throughout the world for two millennia the Table is the place to come in remembrance, communion, and hope. We remember the once for all sacrifice of Christ which unburdened us of our heavy load of sin. We commune with this same Christ now in the present. We anticipate our future hope with confident expectation that Christ is coming again. The Table is an invitation for us to eat and drink of Christ. The words of Keith and Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townsend’s “Communion Hymn” capture Christ’s acceptance of us and our need to receive such grace:

Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away,
Slain for us – and we remember
The promise made that all who come in faith
Find forgiveness at the cross.
So we share in this bread of life,
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of peace
Around the table of the King.

The body of our Savior Jesus Christ,
Torn for you – eat and remember
The wounds that heal, the death that brings us life
Paid the price to make us one.
So we share in this bread of life,
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of love
Around the table of the King.

The blood that cleanses every stain of sin,
Shed for you – drink and remember
He drained death’s cup that all may enter in
To receive the life of God.
So we share in this bread of life,
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of grace
Around the table of the King.

And so with thankfulness and faith we rise
To respond, – and to remember
Our call to follow in the steps of Christ
As His body here on earth.
As we share in His suffering
We proclaim Christ will come again!
And we’ll join in the feast of heaven
Around the table of the King.

Amen.

Galatians 3:23-29

            If you are new to this blog, or to the Revised Common Lectionary, or just need a reminder, here is a very small explanation of how it works.  The Lectionary is one way of reading through the Bible in a three year cycle (known as Years A, B, and C).  The daily readings of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday all anticipate the Scripture texts for Sunday; and, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday readings all reflect back on the previous Sunday.  And each year is attentive to the major events of the life of Christ and of the church.
 
            So, today’s New Testament text looks forward to World Communion Sunday, a day in which we intentionally celebrate the truth that we as individuals and local congregations belong to a much bigger Body of Christ – Christians from different cultures and nations all share Jesus together, symbolized and remembered through our common eating from the Lord’s Table. 
 
            The Apostle Paul needed to give the Galatian churches some remedial teaching on the basic nature of God’s gospel of grace in Christ.  The Gentile believers had begun to buy-in to the notion that they needed to become Jews in order to really be Christians.  Paul would have nothing to do with it because it betrayed the nature of the gospel that in Christ all are one new society, and not old Israel.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
 
            The gospel of grace is the great equalizer.  In Christ, God has created a new society in which all come together by faith.  That means people do not need to become Jewish to become a Christian; it also means that no one needs to become an American or any other type of person in order to truly belong to Christ.  The gospel of grace means we are not to only be around people who are just like us, looking for others to conform to us.  It means we appreciate and embrace the wonderful variety of people of all races, classes, ethnicities, gender, and cultures without demanding they be just like us.  In Christ, we are all one new society, one gospel culture celebrating and enjoying Jesus.  It would be poignant for us all to remember this wonderful reality when we approach the Table this Sunday.
 

 

            Gracious God, you established the church as a new egalitarian society through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  Help me to connect meaningfully with others very different from myself so that grace will be my only rule for life.  Amen.

The Lord’s Table

The Lord’s Table proclaims the gospel to us, and the good news of Jesus Christ is what we need to be molded and shaped into disciples.  Just as the simple routines of eating breakfast and getting ready in the morning shape our daily lives, so the ritual of the Lord’s Table is to set the tone for our lives by orienting us around healthy routines of learning to follow Jesus.  We need the Lord’s Table because our hearts are often thorny with cares and worries which leads to a weakening of faith.  A sermon is words; the Table is tangible.  Preaching may say the words “I love you!” but the Table seals those words and makes them real, like a kiss.
 
 
 
            The purpose of the Lord’s Table is to participate in the blessings of Christ by visually re-creating the story of Jesus.  There are three different terms for the Table in the New Testament, and each term is meant to convey a different aspect of the Table’s significance.  One of those terms is The Lord’s Supper.  The focus of The Lord’s Supper is remembrance, a memorial of Christ’s death that is deeply reflective and contemplative.  Paul said to the Corinthians:  A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.  Paul said this because at the Table whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).
 
            A second term for the Lord’s Table is called The Eucharist.  Eucharist literally means “thanksgiving.”  The focus of seeing the Lord’s Table as The Eucharist means that we are celebrating our victory over sin, death, and hell through Christ’s death.  At the Last Supper, the Gospel writer Mark said that Jesus took bread, gave thanks (Eucharist), and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”  Then he took the cup, gave thanks (Eucharist) and offered it to them, and they all drank from it (Mark 14:22-23).  We might say that observing the Table as both The Lord’s Supper and The Eucharist means that we will engage in a sober celebration.
 
            The third term describing the Lord’s Table is the term “communion.”  Communion means to participate in Christ and with other Christians.  Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?  And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).  This emphasizes that when we partake of the Lord’s Table, we ought to do so with unity and fellowship; we do not just participate as individuals, but together as the community of the redeemed.
 
            As we allow the Table to be a remembrance, a celebration, and participation with each other, we engage in a ritual that helps us to know Christ better and we are better able to realize his grace to us.
 
 
 
            One of the wonderful realities about communion is that believers all over the planet share in Christ together.  Communion and participation is important because we can easily be fragmented and not fellowship with one another, both in the local church, and the world-wide church.  Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians because they were divided among themselves.  He emphasized the work of Jesus on the cross as bringing reconciliation between God and people.  Christ’s work of reconciliation has restored a broken relationship between us and God, and also between one another.  The relations between the Corinthians were not good; they existed as a network of special interest groups, instead of being aware of each other and intentionally participating with each other.  They did not necessarily fight among each other, but simply ignored other people in the church.  Each group wanted their own way, and they had not yet learned how to talk to one another and work together in a unity and fellowship that reflects the gospel.
 
            One of the things we need to be aware of as we think of sharing in communion together is that we are not to approach the Table to be with people who are like us in the way we want them to be. We come because we have staked our souls on the fact that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the church is the best place, the only place, to be while we all struggle to figure out what that means. We come because we’d be hard pressed to say which is the bigger of the two scandals of God: that he loves me—or that he loves everyone else.  The Lord’s Table is the great leveler, where we all have equal footing and accept one another according to a common confession of Christ.
 
            So when we talk about the Lord’s Table as being communion, we are emphasizing that it is not just a remembrance, but a participation in the body and blood of Christ.  And since that is true, communion is participation with all Christians everywhere.  The Lord’s Table is not just to be an individual experience in isolation from others.  There is solidarity not only between the individual and God, but between all believers.
 
            Therefore, we are not alone.  Communion lets us know that God is with us, and that he has so closely identified with us that he took our place on the cross.  As a result, every believer in Jesus is linked to all the others so that, when one suffers or rejoices, all suffer or rejoice, whether it is an African pastor rejoicing over newly saved persons out of animism, or a suffering Syrian Christian trying to survive in a refugee camp.
 
            We must live up to what we profess.  Our participation in Christ results in participation and unity with each other.  Since we are God’s forgiven people, we are to work at living the Christian life together.  This unity is symbolized by partaking together of the same loaf of bread, and drinking from a common cup.
 
            On one Sunday, a group of missionaries and believers in Papua New Guinea were gathered to observe communion together.  After one young man sat down, one of the missionaries recognized that he seemed to be quite upset.  But, then, in a while, the young man seemed to be fine.  The missionary leaned over and whispered to him, “What was it that troubled you?”  The young man replied, “The man who just came in happens to be the man who killed and ate the body of my father.  And now he has come in to observe communion with us.  At first I didn’t think I could do that.  But it is all right now.  He is washed in the same precious blood as I am.”  And so together they had Communion.
 

 

            We have peace because of Jesus.  His death has brought reconciliation not only between us and God, but between each other.  As we approach the Lord’s Table, let us be aware not only of our personal relationship with God, but our relationships with one another in the local church, and our unity with the world-wide church.  May our lives be shaped and formed around the cross of Jesus Christ, as we remember, celebrate, and participate together.

Healing at the Table

            We live in a broken world.  Broken families, broken relationships, and broken human systems all create fundamentally broken people.  Broken people bring all of their brokenness into the church.  Instead of wishing that people wouldn’t do that, I insist that it is a good thing.  It is a good thing because the church ought to be the one place where broken people can begin to make sense of their lives within the grace of Christian community.  That means that community is not always pretty and shiny but, well, messy.  And it isn’t just the “outsiders” who bring in their problems.  There are plenty of problems to go around in the folks who are “lifers” at your church.  Chronically neurotic parents raise kids full of false guilt; people who are never pleased seem to make everyone around them unhappy; unpredictable neighbors, bosses, and co-workers foster environments where others constantly walk on eggshells not quite knowing if they will get hugged or slugged.  In short, we all have some degree of damaged lives and emotions as both victims and perpetrators.
 
 
 
            The best place of healing for every person is at the Lord’s Table.  That’s right.  Communion is a sacrament, a sacred event, in which the worshiper can find more than just a reminder of Christ’s death – he or she can find the grace of healing from all the damage.  The Table brings one face to face with the cross of Jesus.  The past act of Christ’s crucifixion has settled the sin issue once for all.  To put it another way:  there is healing in Jesus Christ.
 
            In the cross God demonstrated his total identification with us in our own suffering.  Our healing is found in the spiritual reality that just as we may have been victims of another, so Christ was the ultimate victim who did not deserve the punishment he got from all the people with all their broken ways.  It was unjust.  But the good news is that God has justified the believer by sheer grace.  Jesus is our Wounded Healer.  On the cross God in Christ has absorbed the world’s brokenness and our painful feelings into his love.
 
            Therefore, we ought to come to the Table with joy and find both hope and healing.  The Lord’s Supper is not just some ritual to go about doing every so often in order to be obedient – Communion is a powerful means of grace that God uses to heal and nurture.  As we take and eat of the bread, and drink of the cup, from Christ’s broken body and shed blood we receive healing and wholeness for our own brokenness.  By faith we eat and drink to receive God’s forgiveness and love into both body and soul.
 
            If this chance at spiritual and emotional healing sounds too good to be true, you have grasped the meaning of grace.  If Communion can play such an important and significant place in the lives of people, maybe we all need to re-think the practice of only doing it occasionally or once a month.  I don’t know of any church board that would be okay with a pastor only preaching and praying once a month in a worship service, so why are we okay with Communion once a month?  We are okay with it because we don’t typically think of the Table as the place of healing and spiritual health.
 

 

            It is, I believe, high time we allow the sharing of the Table to not only inform us, but form us into the people that God wants us to be.  The Lord’s Supper brings us back to the centrality of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ, and to the means to which true healing comes:  the cross.  So, may the Table of Christ not only remind you of the cross, but change you, transform you, and reform you as you participate with God’s people in a ritual that brings life.