Grace (Like Never Before)

This week, we jumped back into Mark to continue exploring the stories of Jesus and how, when he showed up, he began to do things differently–like they had never been done before. We’ve taken a long look at joy, compassion, forgiveness, and hope. This week, we turned our attention to grace. This concept may have been the most shocking one of all, because it stood as an affront to everything they’d been taught–their entire way of life under the law. In the gospel of John, John writes it this way:

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”     (John 1:17)

But the people around Jesus, especially those who had built their lives upon the law, struggled to see this beautiful new way of being that Jesus brought into the world. The story we looked at on Sunday highlights the Pharisees’ focus on the law, and their lack of understanding about grace…

One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples began breaking off heads of grain to eat. But the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”  Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:23-28)

We find this story immediately following the one in which the Pharisees questioned Jesus about why his disciples weren’t fasting. Do you recall how that story ended, the words that Jesus said? He said, in verse 22,

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We have already seen, in the first two chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus introduce a whole new way of thinking and a whole new way of being in the world. He calls it the kingdom–and he takes his listeners one step further with every encounter they witness. The stories build upon each other (Jesus is a brilliant teacher!), but few were able to listen and learn in such a way that they could follow the plot line. In the verse above, Jesus eluded to the new that he brought into the world not being able to fit within the old containers they were accustomed to. John 1:17, the verse I started with, highlights the tension. The old way was the law of Moses. The new way, the way of the kingdom, included the perfect balance of grace and truth–grace that is only possible through Jesus, outside of the constraints of religious laws and rituals.

The Pharisees, though, weren’t interested in the new wine Jesus was offering…

…And sometimes we aren’t, either.

It’s not fun to look for ourselves in the personalities we’ve come to disdain on the pages of scripture. We’d much rather see ourselves in the faces of those Jesus healed, in his disciples who (albeit, imperfectly a lot of the time) followed him, and sometimes, in Jesus, himself. But if we’re honest, we might look a little more like the religious elite of the day–those who were considered expert and accurate expositors of the law. Those who followed Jesus and his disciples around looking for one misstep, pointing out each failure, and highlighting all the places the less-informed were falling short–

Those who really did not understand the power and the gift of grace.

This is the fourth story found in the second chapter of Mark. In each story we’ve seen the Pharisees in close proximity to Jesus and his followers, and repeatedly questioning them. First, they questioned Jesus’ authority in their minds when Jesus forgave the paralytic. Then, they questioned Jesus’ followers about why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners after the calling of Levi. Notice that they asked his followers about him, rather than asking Jesus himself. After that, they questioned Jesus about why his followers weren’t fasting in the way others were. Again, they didn’t go to the ones their questions were about–this time they went to Jesus regarding his followers. And here, in the final story in this chapter, they question Jesus about his followers again, this time making sure he sees what they see:

“…the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”

They begin their accusation with the word ‘Look’, alerting Jesus to what they are finding fault with, in case he is somehow unaware of the lawbreakers in his midst…

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Why were the Pharisees watching?” It’s an interesting question, especially as we look deeper into the story. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the teachers of Mosaic law as well as other traditional laws not found in the scriptures. Their strict adherence to laws regarding fasting, purity of food, and the observance of the Sabbath set them apart. Their focus was on the rules and the traditions–especially in regard to the holiness of the Sabbath. The one original law, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8, NLT), had become 39 individual laws. In the disciples grain-picking actions, they had broken four of the 39 laws.

The really sad part of this is, the Sabbath was given to humanity by God as a gift–not as a burden or a ritual. It was intended to be a day of rest, a day with no work, for the purpose of resetting our focus and connecting with our Creator. We see in this story that it had become something very different to the religious elite of that day. It had become a day of duty, ritual, rules, and control. The Pharisees may have been resting from their regular jobs that they held in society, but they were in full-blown work mode when it came to their religious duties. They weren’t resting and focusing on God. They were focused instead on the rules, and on critiquing and judging the followers of Jesus (and probably everyone else, too), pointing out the ways in which others were falling short of the law.

Sometimes, our attention to the law is the very thing that causes us to break it…

Jesus responded to their question. He responded a few different ways… He reminded them of a story that they certainly knew, about David, one of their hero-Kings. And then he said this:

 “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

He reminded them of the original intention behind the Sabbath commandment–rest from work and time to connect, refocus. He flipped what had become their script regarding the rules about this holy day. And then he tells them plainly that he has authority–even over the laws that they held so dear. Because he brought into our world new wine–the wine of the kingdom, wine that could not be held within the containers of the law–especially the impossible laws that had been added by the religious to God’s original instructions for his people. And this kingdom ushered in an era where grace would take over where the law had failed; where grace would make up for shortcomings and failures, and all the ways we could never get it right.

How sad that their focus on the traditions they held as sacred and holy prevented the Pharisees from seeing the Holy one standing among them…

How heartbreaking that religious duty and rule-following had so consumed their hearts and minds that their vision had become clouded with judgement and accusation, and they could not experience–much less offer–the extravagant beauty of grace…

Can we see ourselves making the same kinds of mistakes? Can we identify where church obligations and rule-following have become our focus, and ripped our vision away from the One we say we’re serving? Can we be honest about our judgement and critiques of other followers of Jesus who practice their faith differently than we do? Rigid respect of rituals will replace relationship–every time. Relationship with others–those we are to love–and relationship with Jesus–the One who calls us to that higher love and empowers us to live it.

We may not readily identify as those who hold fast to rituals and traditions, but many of us are consumed and controlled by our understanding of how things should be done–or how they’ve always been done before. We’ve talked since the first week of this series about the importance of being willing to “repent”–to change our minds. And this week, we have the same opportunity. To set aside our incomplete understanding and align our thinking with the mind of Christ. To allow his Holy Spirit to renew our minds. To accept that growing things change–and if we’re willing to embrace that, we’ll be changed day by day into those who look more and more like the One we follow.

Are we brave enough to take an honest look at ourselves, friends? To see where we look more like the ones focused on the law than like the One who offers grace? I pray that we can do this. I believe we have to do this–for the sake of the Church of Jesus everywhere, and for the sake of our witness to the world around us…

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote. Every word. We so easily forget how powerful grace is. We appoint ourselves as judge and ruler forgetting that in the new wineskin there is no place for that. Many in our church family have been through a study that begins by reminding us that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil leads to death. Jesus came to bring life, and in His life there is no room for judgement. That’s not our role in His Kingdom. Our role is to love God, to love ourselves with godly love, and to love all others as we carry this message of love everywhere we go. We get to choose which tree to live from, and sometimes we (I) swing back and forth between those trees multiple times in a quick minute. However, I’m probably not alone in being able to recognize that there is different fruit both in and around me based on which tree I choose to eat from.

What does that have to do with the message of grace?  Everything. I think that we all have a tendency to want the 39 rules that make everything black and white–do this, don’t do that. It feels easier to us that way. But it requires zero faith. We can follow rules without having any real relationship with God; however, life doesn’t happen in black and white–there’s a whole lot of gray, a whole lot that we don’t understand and will never understand. We’ve tried to systemize theology and tie it up in a nice neat explainable plan. I don’t think it’s that simple…

I was having a conversation with someone that my son was dating who said we have to learn to offer grace in the gray.  That phrase has stuck with me. Grace in the gray. God’s grace allows us connection with Him, the grace I extend towards others allows for connection with them. I feel fairly confident that picket lines, hateful comments, and feelings of superiority have not drawn people toward the love of God. Love extended, no matter the circumstance, has. We’ve got to do better.

A few days ago, a man with white supremacist ideology entered a mosque in New Zealand during prayer time and killed (as of this moment) 50 people.  That’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at it’s worst. The shooter thought that he and his ideology were good, that those who were praying in the mosque were evil, and that to kill them was a good thing to do. Last night I watched a video of Jews in New York lining the sidewalk outside of a mosque holding signs letting their Muslim neighbors know that they stood with them, that they love them, that they care. It’s easy for me to see which action will change the world for the better. It’s easy for me to see which action looks more like Jesus. Grace is love in action, and it showed up on that sidewalk between two faith groups that the world would like for us to believe hate one another. A few months ago when someone with white supremacist ideology shot Jewish people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, their Muslim neighbors showed up with signs, and support, and love. Grace is love in action. A year and a half ago, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a white supremacist’s life was changed because, as he spewed hate toward black clergy people, they responded by telling him that they loved him, that God loved him, and they attended to his injuries. A few days after the rally he sought out an African-American neighbor for a conversation, which eventually led to a friendship and a relationship with Christ. He is now trying to share the message of love with other people enslaved to white supremacy. Grace is when love shows up with feet, and hands, and heart, and tears, and joy, and solidarity, without judging, full of forgiveness, full of grace and truth. And what is truth? Jesus. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that He himself is the way, the truth, and the life. God’s truth looks like Jesus. It doesn’t look like anger. It doesn’t look like condemnation. It looks like Jesus.

Sabbath is a gift of grace. Sabbath is a gift of life. Our culture doesn’t receive this gift well. In 2010 I attended an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality conference in Queens, New York, and one of the sessions was on the beauty and the importance of Sabbath. I found myself longing for it and purchased a book about it. For a season, I very intentionally set aside time on Saturday from noon on to “Sabbath”.  I loved it. The author of the book that I read (I’m not home so I can’t reference the book or author), was in Israel with her husband and talked about how beautiful the Sabbath day was there. No commercial businesses were open but parks were full of families having picnics, couples strolling by lakes, groups of friends fellowshipping and communing with one another. It was a day of community and connection. Sabbath begins on Friday evening and goes until Saturday evening, so on Friday evening they would have had their time to light candles and connect with God. There is a lot of beauty in that rhythm.

One of the things that I learned is that our work is never done. Sabbath doesn’t begin when all of our projects are neatly wrapped up. Sabbath is an awareness that the world will not stop turning if I don’t get my work finished. Sabbath is a surrender of my “to do” list, an acknowledgement that it is God who is sovereign and in control, and it’s okay for me to stop. It’s life giving to stop and enjoy God and those He has placed in my life. I believe that if we figure out how to have a few hours of Sabbath for rest, connection, and enjoyment, that we will become more grace-filled people.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God makes us to lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside quiet waters, he restores our souls. Grace comes from people whose souls have been restored by resting with (and enjoying ) God.

The ways of Jesus, those beautiful, gray, incomprehensible, grace-filled, faith requiring,  life-giving ways that we will never fully understand, will change the world for the better. Are we willing to let go of all of the “rules”—except for the rule of love—and move forward in the rhythm of grace?

–Luanne

Related image

 

JOY (Like Never Before)

Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”  Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18-22, NLT)

This short passage, which can appear a bit confusing at first glance, was the foundation for this week’s message. These five verses, Pastor John asserted, point us to joy–and show us the danger in making our religious rituals our focus.

Some people came to Jesus and asked… Who were these people who questioned Jesus? Our passage doesn’t identify them. Some translations use the word “confronted” rather than “questioned”, which could give us a clue about who they were. I think it’s also pertinent to our discussion to glance back at the previous passage and to look ahead to what comes next–setting these five verses in context will help us see what’s going on.

Last week, we read the story of the calling of Levi (Matthew), and the subsequent meal Jesus shared with him and his friends–the other tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw his blatant disregard for the Jewish laws and customs, they attempted to sow seeds of doubt among his disciples, questioning them about why their leader would do such a thing.

This week, just a few short verses later, we see “some people” questioning Jesus about why his disciples don’t observe the ritual of fasting that John’s (this is John the baptizer, Jesus’ cousin) disciples and the Pharisees observe regularly.

If we look ahead to the verses that follow this week’s passage, we see the Pharisees question Jesus again–this time regarding what they considered to be his disciples breaking the law of the Sabbath by picking grain. After this encounter, we see Jesus heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath–once again disregarding a tradition that had become a burdensome rule to follow.

All of these encounters happen within nineteen verses. Jesus calls a tax collector as a disciple. Jesus eats with “unclean sinners”. Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And those who had made a life of keeping and enforcing the rules and rituals of that day had a big problem with what they saw as an affront to their traditions and laws. They wanted to silence this new voice that had exploded onto the scene; they wanted to catch him, defraud him, expose him… Somewhere along the way, they had forgotten that the rituals (which, as Pastor John pointed out, are not inherently bad things) were designed to point to–not to become–the real focus. Their traditions were originally intended to keep them aware of the God they served, and focused on his presence among them. Instead, it was their traditions that kept them from recognizing the presence of God sitting among them, as one of them.

In this week’s passage, “some people” asked Jesus a question regarding fasting, a ritual that the Pharisees had begun to observe twice a week–with very visible displays of their extreme devotion to “God”. Jesus answers their question a few different ways:

 “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 

He employs here an example that a Jewish audience would absolutely understand. A Jewish wedding was the culmination of great anticipation, and it was enjoyed by friends and family during a week-long celebration. The friends of the bridegroom shared in the couple’s joy–a joy that was made complete by their union, and celebrated in their presence. In the gospel of John, John the baptizer uses the same example when his disciples realize (with jealousy, confusion, and frustration) that Jesus’ following is growing larger than John’s. In chapter 3, verses 28-30, we read John’s response to his disciples’ concerns:

You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

Both Jesus and his cousin John use the context of a wedding to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers (what we now call the Church). Jesus was telling those who would listen: I am the groom and I am here. Now. Present with my collective bride. And my followers, the friends of the bridegroom? They can’t fast now, because they are celebrating the arrival of me, the groom, who has come to live among you and to bring you into union with my ways–the ways of my new kingdom that has arrived.

In the text, we don’t see Jesus giving them any time to react or respond before he launches into his next two examples:

“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We see Jesus, in these two examples, expand upon the first. He is doing here what we’ve seen him do throughout this study in Mark. He is inviting his hearers to change their way of thinking, to become aware of who he is and of the new kingdom that has now come. He distinguishes the new from the old not by calling the old “bad”, but by explaining–again, in terms they would understand–that the old ways could not contain the new. The old cloth of exclusive laws that had defined the Jewish culture up to that point was not compatible with the new, inclusive kingdom ways. The old wineskins that had held the wine of self-promoting ritual and tradition could not hold the new wine of upside-down, self-sacrificing love for God and all others.

His answer to their question was a progression. Why didn’t his disciples fast like the others? First, they recognized Jesus as the one they’d all been waiting for, and their joy was complete in his presence. He was there, among them, living life with them. Fasting was intended as a way to focus on God, a way to show devotion to him over the things of this world. And now Jesus, God in human flesh, was with them! Focusing on him meant being with him, listening to him, learning from him–to fast while he was in their presence would have been unthinkable. Secondly, because they recognized him as the groom–as the one they’d been waiting for–they were participating in the new way of living that he was teaching them. (The laws of this kingdom–love of God and love of others–were not new for Jesus. The way of self-giving love has always been the way of the trinitarian God among us. We couldn’t seem to grasp that, though, so Jesus came to show us what has always been his way…) Jesus was explaining to them that the original focus of their old rituals and traditions was present among them. But because their focus had shifted away from God and onto the rituals themselves, their old cloth was shrunken and could not be merged with the new fabric of his kingdom. Their old wineskins had lost their elasticity and had become hard and brittle. They could not hold the new, rich, full-bodied wine of the kingdom without exploding into pieces.

He was showing them a picture of their hearts and minds… They had shrunken. They’d become hard and brittle, unable to expand or bend. I see the example of the wineskin as yet another invitation from Jesus to those who continued to question him. He let them know that the new wine he came to bring would burst the old, would completely replace it.

Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if they had asked him for it? If they had said yes to this new wine and let it explode their immovable hearts and minds into a million pieces so that bendable, elastic flesh could grow where all the stone had been? 

Some of them did. Later, many stories down the road, we read the story of one such Pharisee, whose heart and mind were exploded by the new wine of the kingdom. We know him as Paul. These are his own words:

 You have heard of my career and former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to hunt down and persecute the church of God extensively and [with fanatical zeal] tried [my best] to destroy it. And [you have heard how] I surpassed many of my contemporaries among my countrymen in [my advanced study of the laws of] Judaism, as I was extremely loyal to the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 1:13-14, AMP)

Paul cared about the traditions and rituals more than anyone. He was consumed with zeal for the law. But we know him now as an apostle, as the author of much of what we call our New Testament. So what happened? What changed his mind? Once again, here are Paul’s own words:

The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ(Galatians 1:11-12, J.B. Phillips)

Paul experienced the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And rather than cling to the rituals and laws that he had been so focused on, he let the new wine of Jesus and his kingdom explode his old ways of thinking and being in the world into something brand new. And later, he would pen these words, that we have referred to a few times throughout this series:

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)

Hope. Peace. JOY…

Paul, when his focus shifted from the rituals and laws themselves to the One they were designed to point to, found that these–hope, peace, and joy–among many other things, are found only in the Presence of Jesus. They are cultivated by the power of the Spirit within us, but we cannot encounter them outside of the presence of the One who defines them.

We sang these words on Sunday:

I have nothing more than all you offer me;
I have nothing else that’s of worth to me.
I love you Lord, you rescued me
You are all I want. You’re all I need.

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. No ritual–regardless of how good and how holy it may be–can bring us real joy. Only Jesus can do that. Our joy has to be in him–not in anything we do for him. If we try to find him in what we do, we’ll end up detached and discouraged. He is here. Now. His kingdom lives and breathes among us. His disciples were experiencing the fullness of that truth as he lived and breathed among them. We can, too. If we realize that there is nothing else worth having apart from him, nothing more than what he offers to us. If he is all we want, we’ll find that he really is all we need. And our joy will be made complete in him.

What rituals are you clinging to, as though they can bring you joy? What old wineskins are you drinking from? Where do you need the new wine of Jesus’ kingdom to pour in and burst old ways of thinking and being in the world? I pray that we will all become more aware of what we’re focusing on; and if we find our focus is anywhere but on Jesus, I pray we’ll be brave enough to change.

–Laura

Image result for psalm 16:11