Sunday, 1 November 2015

A is for Acceptance: GRACE Sermon Series Notes

Twelve years ago, I went to Weightwatchers. It was the first time, as a twenty-something man, I had walked into a room where I felt like a total outsider. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to be there and get my bodyweight under control and everyone was very friendly, but all the leaflets I got, all the advice I received and all the motivational hooks, were set up for the majority woman audience. There were even a couple of awkward laughs when the meeting facilitator gave one of those "top tips" and then realized, it wouldn't work for me. I wanted what the company was offering, but the community it fostered, left me cold and awkward. If it wasn't for the fact that I was paying to get weighed and so wanted to drop the weight as fast as I could, I probably would never have gone back. It all seemed nice, but irrelevant, and I was out of place.

I'm sure Weightwatchers meetings have come a long way since the day I stepped across the threshold of that primary school hall 12 years ago. These days every trendy business or charitable cause is seeking to build an accepting and diverse community base; bending over backwards to flaunt and affirm their "accepting credentials" so that no one can accuse them of being bigoted. The church is no different and rightly so.

But whilst we can all talk in wishy-washy, inoffensive ways about acceptance, we also have to recognise that EVERY community has to have a unifying principle that puts people on the inside or outside of that community. If I turn up to Weightwatchers and want to be “in” their community, I have to at the very least pay my fee and agree with their mission that loosing excess weight and maintaining a healthy body weight is a good idea. Otherwise, why am I there? No one would think that Weightwatchers was an intolerant organisation if it kicked me out after turned up to their meeting and started slagging it off for not welcoming people who aren’t interested in living healthily or telling everyone they’re all hypocrites because they haven’t lost any weight that week.

The church is called to demonstrate the love and acceptance of Jesus, but in a cliché-driven and image-saturated culture, what does it really mean to be accepting or loving? What is the unifying principle in the church?

What binds us together is the love of God. But that love has a definition and that definition isn’t my feelings. It is the person, words and actions of Jesus Christ – the Son of God. Just as our words and actions are the evidence of the kind of love that is in our hearts, so Jesus' words and actions are the evidence of the kind of love that is in God's heart (Luke 6:45) because Jesus was and is God.

Receiving the love of God and receiving the words of God is one and the same thing. You cannot receive the love of God, separate from the words and actions of God. (John 1:17)

Jesus effortlessly moved amongst all ranks of society, meeting with the ruling elite, the common folk as well as the excluded outsiders - the lepers and the tax collectors. No one was left out in the cold. He loved them all, without distinction with his words and actions. He loved everybody and he challenged everybody both those who looked good on the outside as well as those who looked chaotic and messed up.

This love of Jesus brings hope to the down cast, but it also calls us up and out of ourselves and calls us into a much bigger reality than we ever realised was possible.

The reason he did that was because on little cross on a hillside outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago God removed EVERY barrier between us and him. EVERY BARRIER.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. 1 Peter 3:18

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

God has said that there is no barrier left. At the cross, God removed ALL the barriers that stopped God from uniting himself to the human race. Nothing that can separate us from the love of God, not our sin against him or against others nor other people's sin against us, not our shame, nor our self-loathing, not any demonic power nor our any human government, not our ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or nationality, not our weakness nor our illness, not our lifestyle choice nor the place that we live, not our education nor lack of education, not our political preferences nor our lack of it, not our body shape, not our past, our present or our future, not our ignorance nor our hypocrisy... NOT EVEN being polite, successful and middle-class.

God in Christ, throws his arms out wide to you, without qualification, he has accepted you and me with all our foibles and inconsistencies and hopes and fears. Nothing can stop him from doing good to you and for you. Will you now receive him, receive his words into your heart? The only reason anyone might possibly be rejected by God is because they continually refuse to receive him and put themselves beyond his welcome.

The problem is that even after we have been welcomed by Jesus and welcome him into our lives, are filled with his Spirit and desire to be like him, sharing what we have received from him with others, we still make a hash of it in all kinds of ways. There are many accusers both in and outside the church who are quick to remind us when we mess up.

The good news is that Jesus is not surprised or fazed by the laziness, fecklessness or even the plain nastiness of his people. If you have a bible, turn to Luke 18:35-43

Jesus has for a while now, been going around announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God, teaching people, healing people, casting out demons etc. Things like that don’t happen every day and his reputation precedes him. So when a blind beggar, sitting at the side of the road going into Jericho city, hears that the man who is the long awaited Messiah of the human race is passing through, he is not going to be passive about the possibility of receiving his sight.

But an incredible thing happens. Even though everyone knows that Jesus is a healer, something in the hearts of the crowd closes up and instead of saying… “Friend, what a great day this is, let us lead you to Messiah that you might receive your sight,” they tell him to shut up! What kind of heart does that?
  • Did they have a misplaced sense of purity that let them to think that – unlike them – the blind man was unclean and unworthy to come to Jesus? (Lev. 21:16-24)
  • Did they have a misplaced sense of order – that Jesus wouldn’t like it or would be thrown by it?
  • Did they not really understand the blessing of sight? – “Sight is overrated?”
  • Were they hypnotised by the fear of missing out? A noble desire to receive from Jesus becomes a dark and twisted thing as they pushed the weak and needy out the way just in case Jesus only had a limited amount of “power” to bless them with.
Do we have the same attitude as that crowd at times?
  • Do we due to some misplaced sense of purity in our hearts, think there are people who are too unclean and unworthy to come to Jesus?
  • Do we have a misplaced sense of order – that Jesus or church life would somehow be thrown off course by welcoming others?
  • Do we misunderstand the goodness of the gospel? – “Jesus is overrated?”
  • Are we so fearful of missing out, or just so plain selfish at times that a noble desire to receive from Jesus becomes a dark and twisted thing as we push others out of the way so that we can get a blessing.
But the guy is not silenced. Peer pressure will NOT stop him from getting a blessing from the Lord of the Universe.

On the surface, it probably looked like any ordinary crowd, but Jesus, fully aware of the dark dynamic going on, intervenes because he orders to the crowd to bring the man to him.

Jesus asks him what he would like, not because he doesn’t know, but because he wants him to confess faith. The blind man addresses Jesus as LORD –he knows who he is talking to, and the LORD of all creation gladly grants him his request.
The crowd go wild with joy at this miracle.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t rip into the crowd for trying to keep the blind man away from him. He doesn’t say “You stupid, wicked, sinful, heartless people, why did you try and stop him from coming to me?” Jesus would have been within his rights to do so. But grace rarely speaks of rights, it speaks of kindness and generosity to the undeserving. He knows that we are all weak, stupid, dark and fallen creatures who need his love and his help whether we look like it on the outside or not. We need to stop pretending that we have it all sorted and receive his words, and receive his love. The only perfect person around when any group of people gather, is Jesus.

Over a thousand years previously, after the Israelites had annihilated this Jericho, Joshua pronounced a curse over it (Josh. 6:26). Hiel of Bethel did rebuild it, and suffered as a result, (1 Kings 16:24) but in the miracle of that day, Jesus announced that he was reversing the curse on the city. No wonder it was a day of celebration.

A love that is overdue and overwhelming breaths through our town. The curse is done away with at the cross, the way to God is open, and life and blessing flow to all who will receive the words of Jesus.

Jesus has done what we could never do and brought the love and acceptance of God to us. He has filled us with his Spirit so that we might be transformed and come to a place where we can share what we have received from him with everyone.

Jesus-shaped acceptance can often look like the kinds of acceptance we see in the wider culture, but it is not the same. This is how he welcomes us and this is how with his help, we can learn to accept others.
  1. Jesus is not non-judgmental, he accepts us on the basis of truth (reality) and he full of wise judgement. He knows how bad we really are, but he knows also that he has the power to make us fit for his presence. (John 8:11)
  2. Jesus isn’t bothered about superficial behaviours or micro managing people’s lifestyle choices (Luke 15:2). He is most interested in our hearts and its allegiances and so his acceptance of us goes to the very deepest level and he has no problem sitting with people in seemingly “impure” settings.
  3. Life poured out of Jesus, (John 7:37-39) so he didn’t fear pollution by association with the non-Christians of the day and he wasn’t up tight around them. Neither is he fearful that moving towards us in love will somehow taint him. When he comes into contact with us, he joyfully transformed them, not the other way round.
  4. Jesus went looking for opportunities to bless people because his acceptance was not about maintaining a status quo but about looking to see what the love of God can do in the hearts of people. (John 10:16) He sent someone to speak the love of God into our hearts, and we can have the privilege of doing the same.
  5. We are not entitled to anything from God and Jesus doesn’t just tolerate those he accepts, he welcomes them as his very own family – he can’t wait to get to know them. (John 15:15)
  6. Jesus would be justified, as God, in feeling a sense of superiority about his acceptance of others, but he doesn’t – he is naturally humble (Matt. 11:29) and happily serves and sacrifices himself for the sake of others.
  7. Jesus is patient and enduring (Mark 9:19, Hebrews 12:2) – he accepts us with all our mess because he knows the future, the glorious new world that is coming, and the power of God that will be demonstrated in that time that will translate our weak, and floored bodies into glorious eternal ones.
Some of the Deacons put Jesus shaped acceptance this way:
“Having open arms to all, just as Christ has opened his arms to us.”

“Accepting others as we have been accepted ourselves by God.”

“Awareness of times when we focus our time and energy on those ‘like us’ – proactively step out of cliques to engage with those unlike us.
I can think of no better way of ending a message like this than with communion.

God the Father welcomes as his very own Family, all those who have welcomed Jesus into their hearts as Lord. Communion is not a funeral, it’s a family meal and just like any family meal, the dynamics can be messy, some members of the family can be happy, others sad, some family members can be grumpy and nasty to each other. But each has a place at the table and just as the Father welcomes us to his table, so we come to join him, not because we have earned our place, but because by God’s incredible kindness we have been given the right to come as his children.

So come, eat, drink and celebrate God’s love and welcome and accept one another as God has welcomed and accepted us.

Questions for Reflection:
  1. When have you ever felt out of place? Why?
  2. What do you think about the statement that the love of God/Jesus and the words of God/Jesus are the same thing? How does it change your view of God's love?
  3. Do you agree with the statement that receiving all the words of Jesus is the only qualification for coming into the presence of God. How does that change your view of the Christian life?
  4. What do you think of the crowd in Luke 18? Do you ever exhibit the same tendencies?
  5. What do you think of Jesus' (non) reaction to the nastiness of the crowd? What does that tell you about him, and about us?
  6. Jesus publically (by his actions) reverses the curse laid on Jericho over a thousand years earlier, what do you think that means for the place where you live?
  7. Communion is a family meal time. How does this statement help us to understand how we should interact with each other and our Heavenly Father as we take bread and wine together.