A Place to Belong

“A Place to Belong”

July 22, 2018*

by Pastor John Partridge

2 Samuel 7:1-14a              Mark 6:30-34, 53-56               Ephesians 2:11-22

 

What does it mean to belong?

Last week we talked a lot about belonging, and that resurfaces again today, but what does that mean?  How do we know when we belong somewhere?  What is it about a place that tells us that we have found a place to belong?  What is it about our families, or places of business, or our communities, or our churches, that help us to know, or to feel, that we belong?  And even more than that, who is it that can belong there?  Can anyone belong?  Or can only certain kinds of people belong there?

These are tough questions, so let’s take them in smaller bites and walk through it just a step at a time.  We begin this morning once again in the story of David.  This time as David realizes that his house is a lot nicer than the tent in which God “lives” after his arrival in Jerusalem.  (2 Samuel 7:1-14a)

7:1 After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.”

Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”

But that night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

“Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth. 10 And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning 11 and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies.

“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: 12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son.

There are several points that are worth noting from this passage this morning.  First, as much as David has loved God and been passionate about following and worshipping him, and as joyful as it made him to welcome God into Jerusalem, it only now occurs to David that God’s house isn’t nearly as nice as his own.  And so, David begins planning a new home for God so that God can belong.  To David’s way of thinking, having a home is a part of belonging, but God sets David straight.  For God, having a nice house among his people has never been a priority nor has it ever been a part of belonging.  God says, I have never once lived in a nice house, but I have always been a part of my people.  They have always belonged to me, and I have always belonged to them.

We also notice that God sometimes says no, even to the people that he loves the most.  Remember, this is David, one of the Bible’s greatest heroes and the one who was described as “a man after God’s own heart.”  But God tells David, “No.”  David wants to build a temple for God and God says, “No, not yet. No, not you.”  But if we continue to read, we discover that God says “No” because God wants something that is even better than what David wants.  God intends to give David something better than what David had planned, and God also intends to give a great blessing to David’s son, and to David’s descendants.

From this we can understand two things about belonging.  First, belonging isn’t about a specific place, or about money, or about power.  Instead, belonging is about our relationships with one another.  Second, if we follow the example of God, we know we belong when we discover a place where the people want what is best for us, and we become a place of belonging when we desire what is best for others.

But what does that look like?  What does it look like to be a people who want what is best for others?

And to answer that question, we can have no better example than to look at the life of Jesus.  In Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, we read these words:

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

53 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. 54 As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. 55 They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

John Wesley once said:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

And that’s exactly what we see here.  Jesus was doing ministry.  He was doing all the good he could, for all the people he could, as often as he could.  They were so busy, they didn’t even have a chance to eat.  And even though Jesus was trying to take care of himself, and his disciples were trying to care for him, by taking him to a quiet place to take a break and get some rest, people guessed where he was going and got there ahead of him.  And so, even when he really needed a break to get some rest, and to pray, and to be refreshed, he still had compassion and taught them anyway.  Everywhere Jesus went, people recognized him, and they brought the sick to him.  And even the people who could only reach out and touch the fringe on his robe, were healed.

These are remarkable stories.  But once again, the Apostle Paul teaches us what these stories mean to the church, to us, in the twenty-first century.  In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul says (Ephesians 2:11-22):

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Paul reminds us that all the healing, and all the crowds, and all the ministry of Jesus was a part of God’s invasion of the earth and our culture.  The arrival of Jesus was a demonstration of how God intended for the church to radically upend the culture of the world.  Jesus came to tear down the walls the separated people so that there would no longer be insiders and outsiders, citizens and foreigners, members and strangers.  Each one of us was once a stranger, or a foreigner, or an outsider, and every one of us was invited in by Jesus so that we could belong.  We were invited in to belong to Jesus’ family, belong to Jesus’ church, and belong to Jesus’ mission.  Jesus tore down the barriers that divided people between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, black and white, the ‘in’ crowd and the outsiders, the ‘A-list’ and the ‘B-list,’ and any other division between us.

Jesus invited all of us to a place where we could belong.

And Jesus intended for the church to be that place.

Paul said that in Jesus Christ we are being built together so that we can become a place where God lives.

This is a big deal.

You see, last week’s message reminded us that we were adopted into God’s kingdom and had been given a place to belong.  But this week’s scriptures remind us that not only were we invited to belong, our mission, as the church of Jesus Christ, is to create a place where others can belong.

But how do we do that?  How do we make our church, our homes, our community, our very lives, a place of belonging?  Let’s review what we already heard today.

First, the story of King David reminds us that we need to start by inviting God to be at the center of our lives and at the center of all that we do.

Second, we need to remember that belonging isn’t about a specific place, or money, or power but it is about relationships with one another.  We become a place of belonging when we build relationships with the people outside the church.

Third, a place of belonging is a place where the people want what is best for us and where we desire what is best for others.  We become a place of belonging when we reach out and help others, lift them up, and help them to become a better version of themselves.

Jesus and John Wesley both taught that while we need to care for ourselves, we need to do all we can, for all the people we can, in all the ways that we can, as often, and as long, as we can.

But Jesus’ life also teaches us that we can’t make distinctions that divide people.  Paul said Jesus came to tear down the walls that divide us and invite the outcasts, and the outsiders, the strangers, and the foreigners, to come in, be a part, and belong.

Our job, our mission, is to become the kind of people, and the kind of church, invites and attracts the community in which we live and the people around us to come in, to belong, and to be adopted, like we were, into God’s family.

My prayer, and I hope yours is too, is that we would all be passionate about becoming the place of belonging that Jesus has called us to be.

 

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Belonging: A Tale of Two Kings

“Belonging: A Tale of Two Kings”

July 15, 2018*

By John Partridge

 

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19                        Ephesians 1:3-14                   Mark 6:14-29

 

Sometime between 1990 and 1991, just as the U.S. and coalition forces were building up to what would eventually be called Desert Shield, I found myself with a day off in Paris during a business trip.  Wanting to see as much of the city as possible, I bought a map at the first bookstore I found and walked from one end of the city to the other.  I saw the Eiffel Tower and the outside of the Louvre, the palace, and many other places.  But just as I was nearing the cathedral of Notre Dame, I encountered a street full of protesters carrying signs and banners speaking out against American aggression.  I wondered, if I were approached, if I should pretend to be Canadian.  In any case, I took the next right and made my away toward my destination on another street.  Although I was never in any danger, that protest was a reminder that I was far from home.  Later that afternoon, as I walked back to my hotel (in the pouring rain) I went past the US Embassy.  In that place, far from home, even without going in, I felt a renewed sense of safety.  This was a piece of home.  This was a place, where I belonged.

 

About eighteen months ago, while we were visiting Liberia, I had a similar feeling as we passed embassy row.  I never felt as if we were in any danger whatsoever in Liberia, but there, where we could see the stars and stripes flying over the embassy compound, I knew that even though I had never set foot inside, this was a place where I belonged.

 

We all have places where we belong.  We belong to families and to groups of friends, in homes, in schools, in businesses, and hopefully here in this church.  But there is another, far more important, place of belonging that we should know and should never forget.

 

We begin this morning with a story from the life of King David.  The Ark of the Covenant had been stolen by the Philistines and had been kept by them for many years, but wherever they kept it, it brought plague and pestilence.  Eventually the Philistines determined to get rid of it, and although the story is a long one, eventually David determines to bring the ark to the tabernacle in Jerusalem.  This is where we join the story in 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19.

6:1 David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

12 So David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. 13 When those who were carrying the ark of the Lord had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. 14 Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, 15 while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

16 As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.

17 They brought the ark of the Lord and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the Lord. 18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord Almighty. 19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.

David’s wife, Michal, watched David entering the city and she did not like what she saw.  David was dancing before God with everything that he had.  I suspect that this was not a gentle ballet, but far more energetic like hip-hop, or boogie-woogie, or maybe slam dancing.  There was dancing, and music, and shouting and David gave gifts to everyone in the entire crowd.  And Michal was unhappy with her husband, the king, because his behavior was too passionate and too improper.  David had left his ego behind.  He was so full of joy before God that he poured out his love in ways that she thought made him look foolish and did not conform with how she thought royalty should look or act.  But David knew that the ark of the Lord was a symbol of God’s presence among his people.  For David, they were literally welcoming God into their city and inviting him to live among his people and share life with them.  There could be no better reason to throw an ecstatic, knock-down, drag-out, celebration, and David gave it everything that he had.

But in comparison, let’s look at what I’d like to call, the Nightmare on Herod Street.  This happens immediately after the passage that we read last week in Mark 6:14-29, in which Jesus had been teaching, and performing miracles, and then sent his disciples out, and they also were teaching, and healing, and casting out demons.

14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”

And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”

“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.

25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

For precisely the opposite reasons that David angered his wife, Herod gets in a real mess and it costs John his life.  While David’s joy and passion for God allowed him to leave his ego behind, Herod is so focused on physical pleasure, desire, and lust, that he drools over his niece and offers her, in front of a roomful of people he wanted to impress, “anything she wanted.”  Even though her answer was unexpected, and even though it was something that Herod didn’t want to do, Herod had painted himself into a corner.  He allowed his passions for flesh and power to control him, and now his ego and his embarrassment compel him to follow through so that he can save face.

The difference between these two kings, the difference between these two men, can be seen fundamentally as the difference between the two kingdoms to which they belong.  While David belongs to the kingdom of God, Herod’s loyalties are exclusively and unrepentantly dedicated to the kingdom of the flesh.  While David loves God, Herod loves only himself.  While David is passionate about pleasing God, Herod’s passions are all about money, and sex, and power.  While David’s worship of God allows him to leave his ego behind as he expresses his joy at the arrival of God in Jerusalem, while David is willing to look foolish before men so that he can bring honor to God, Herod is willing to take an innocent life, the life of a man that he knew to be righteous and holy, because his ego demanded it.

So, what does this have to do with us?

Everything.

Three thousand years after David and two thousand years after Herod, we are still divided by our loyalties to these same two kingdoms.  We are constantly pulled back and forth between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of flesh and we struggle to know where we belong. But in his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul reminds us that we need not be confused. (Ephesians 1:3-14)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

There are several repeated ideas in this passage.  You are blessed by God.  You are not an accident.  God knew you before the creation of time.  God chose you.  God predestined you, which we understand to mean that God knew, before the creation of time, that you would accept his invitation. God has not only invited you to be a part of his kingdom, he has adopted you, and not just adopted, but “adopted to sonship.”  That means that we are adopted and given full and complete legal rights as if we were genetically, and biologically, born into his family.  Even though we were born two thousand years after Jesus, Paul tells us that we were included in the kingdom of Jesus Christ as soon as we heard the message of truth and the gospel of salvation.  When you believed, God marked you, indelibly and permanently, as his own.  The Spirit of God is a down payment, a deposit, earnest money, guaranteeing our inheritance until we finally arrive in the kingdom to which we belong.

You see, although we have never set foot inside the walls of the fortress of God, it is, absolutely the place where we belong. It is our home.  It is the place where we will meet our extended family and everyone else who has been adopted as brothers and sister of Jesus Christ.  This is the place that God has prepared for us.

But we are constantly pulled between these two kingdoms.  Just like Herod, we feel the pull of the kingdom of flesh, calling us to a life of ego, self, lust, violence and death.  But, like David, we also hear the invitation of God.

The way of Herod leads to death.

But the way of David leads to life eternal.

To which kingdom will you belong?

 

 

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at Pastor@CUMCAlliance.org.   These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Easter Sheeple

TRAVELER DIGITAL CAMERA“Easter Sheeple”

(Easter, So What? – Part 4)

May 14, 2017

By John Partridge*

 

Acts 2:42-47                           John 10:1-10                            1 Peter 2:19-25

 

Sheeple.

In in the midst of our polarized and inflammatory political debate, if you are on the internet you have probably heard the derogatory and disparaging term “sheeple.”  The word “sheeple” is intended to refer to people of an opposing political viewpoint and accuse them of blindly following the leaders of their political or religious organizations without giving any thought to whether those leaders are right, wrong, just, or unjust.  The difficulty for us, as the followers of Jesus Christ, is that Jesus, as well as the writers of the Old and New Testaments, often describe the followers of God as sheep.  And so, as we conclude our examination of the meaning of Easter, I want to spend some time today struggling with how being a sheep can be such a bad thing, if that is almost the same sort of language that Jesus used to describe us.

We begin this morning with a fairly typical statement of this type from John 10:1-10 where we hear Jesus address the leaders of Israel saying:

10:1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus describes his followers as sheep but he also draws an important distinction by saying that he is the only good shepherd.  Others will act like shepherds, portray themselves as shepherds, describe themselves as shepherds, insist that they have been elected as shepherds, and even demand that the sheep follow them, all so that they can attempt to steal the sheep from the one true shepherd to whom they belong.  These false shepherds, Jesus said, only come as thieves and their goals amount to no more than theft, murder and destruction.  In stark contrast, Jesus, the good shepherd, came so that his sheep might have life to the fullest.

In his pastoral letter to churches in the Mediterranean, Peter touches on this same theme.  Peter teaches and encourages the followers of Jesus whose beliefs are in the minority and who they have begun to face increasing persecution. (1 Peter 2:19-25)

19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Peter reminds us that as followers of Jesus, we are called to live our lives according to his example.  Because Jesus was insulted, abused, and even killed, without any retaliation on his part, despite his total innocence, we are expected to do the same.  We are called to do good no matter what.  We are called to do good, even when we suffer because of it.  Regardless of our suffering, regardless of the criticism we might receive, we must not stop doing good.  Peter understands that it is possible, even easy, to stray from the flock like sheep but he is clear that being a sheep, or being sheeple, can be a good thing but only if we follow the one true, good shepherd.

But so what?

That’s the question we’ve been asking for the last four weeks.

What difference does any of this make?  What difference does Easter make in our lives two thousand years later?  What does the Easter story tell us about how we should live our lives?  And again, we return to the book of Acts where we can learn from the eyewitnesses who watched the crucifixion and who saw Jesus, and ate with him, after his resurrection.  What they did tells us everything we need to know about what we should do. (Acts 2:42-47)

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Because of what they had seen, what they had heard, and what they had experienced, the followers of Jesus dedicated their lives to four things; the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  Let’s review that list for a moment.  The followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and, as simple as that sounds, we remember that what the apostles were teaching was nothing more than what Jesus had taught them and nothing less than what they have recorded and passed down to us.  What the disciples taught is what we find in the gospels, the Old and New Testaments, and what we regularly study today.  They also devoted themselves to fellowship, to simply being together, to friendship, to worshipping together, to studying and learning together.

They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.  This might be interpreted was sharing communion together, but what is more likely is that it means that they shared meals together.  Sharing meals is something that we do with people with whom we are both friendly and familiar, and in ancient societies this familiarity is implied even more strongly.  There are few things in the time of the New Testament that demonstrated closeness better than sharing meals together.

And finally, they devoted themselves to praying together.  Two things stand out in that one simple phrase.  First, they prayed whenever they were together, which we often do, but second, their prayers were not simply cursory, or routine, or a mere formality, they devoted themselves to prayer.  Their prayers were common, deep, frequent, fervent, and filled with dedication and devotion.

All of the believers were together, they shared what they had… together, and they even shared with people who were in need, even if they weren’t believers.  Every day they spent time… together in the temple courts worshipping, teaching, studying, and learning… together.  Over and over and over we hear this story about people who not only followed Jesus but whom together, created a place where everyone could… belong.  You didn’t need to be rich, the poor could belong.  You didn’t need to be Jewish; Greeks, Romans, foreigners and other Gentiles could all belong.  Both the educated and the uneducated could belong; both men and women could belong.  One of the substantially distinctive elements of the early church following the resurrection of Jesus was that it was a place of belonging.  The things that they did together were so well known by the people of their community that everyone who knew them, or who knew about them, had a favorable opinion of them.  Everybody liked them because they did good for everyone.

So, as we live in a culture where behaving like sheep, and being criticized as “sheeple” is clearly not a good thing, how are we to understand it when Jesus himself refers to his followers (and everyone else) as sheep?

First of all, Jesus described people as sheep because it was a handy metaphor that everyone could understand.  More often than not, throughout history, our human nature causes us to behave in ways that are much like sheep.

We’ve earned it.

We wander away from the truth.  We lose our way.  We follow politics, political parties, and political leaders, Democrat and Republican and everything in-between, when they lead us in directions that aren’t good for us, and even when they follow paths that run contrary to the teachings of Jesus.  We follow religious leaders even when what they teach is not based upon, and sometimes totally contrary to, the teaching of Jesus or anything supported by scripture.

However, there are those people who act like wolves and the results, among humans, can be just as dangerous and just as deadly, as they are in the animal kingdom.

So are we sheeple?

Is that a bad thing?

Yes, it’s bad.

And yes, sometimes we earn the criticism that is directed at us.  But here is the difference: Jesus described us as sheep because it was a handy metaphor to describe how prone we are to wander away but also to describe our need for leaders that care for us at the risk of their own lives.  At the same time, Jesus recognizes that we are a lot smarter than sheep.  We make poor choices because we simply aren’t thinking.  We get into trouble because we aren’t careful and because we are not using the intelligence that God gave us.  We are capable of making good decisions and we can return to the right path when we make mistakes.

 

There are three lessons from today:

 

First, there is only one good shepherd.  Our real leader is not an elected official, or a country, or even a pastor or bishop.  The one person, the one example that we trust, is Jesus.  Everyone else should be followed with significant skepticism and regularly compared to Jesus, and what he has taught us, to make sure that we are staying on the right paths.

 

Being a sheep is not a bad thing, as long as we follow the right shepherd.

 

Second, do good always. Even if people criticize you, or persecute you, or harass you, or cause you suffering and pain, do good anyway.  Everyone around you should know who you are because of the good things that you are doing.

 

Third, we must dedicate our lives to learning what we have been taught, to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayer.  We must dedicate our lives, together, to creating a place where everyone can belong regardless of where they came from, what they may, or may not, have done in the past, or anything else.

 

The church must be a place of belonging.

 

If we can do these things, then I don’t care if someone wants to call us sheeple…

 

Because when do that, then we will truly be…

 

…Easter sheeple.

 

And that’s a good thing.

 

 

 

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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

 

Less Than Perfect

“Less Than Perfect?”

March 06, 2016

By John Partridge*

 

Scripture: Joshua 5:9-12                    2 Corinthians 5:16-21                       Luke 15:1-32

 

Do you pay any attention to the models that they use in catalogs for practically everything?

Men, women, cars, it doesn’t matter; most of them look beautiful and perfect.

Hollywood and Madison Avenue have created an ideal for us that we cannot hope to live up to.

We can never be handsome or pretty enough, we can never be thin enough, and our skin can never be clear or smooth enough.  During our entire lives, we are constantly confronted by people who are better than we are and told that they should be models for us.  While this can, in one sense, be motivational, if it is done poorly, especially during times in our lives when other people are already making fun of our shortcomings, it can cause us to doubt ourselves and think that we can never be good enough.

That is exactly the kind of feeling that the people of Israel had as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.  For hundreds of years they were told that they were “just slaves,” that they were too stupid, too slow, too inferior to be true Egyptians.  But then God did something special and brought them safely out of Egypt, and then guided them through the wilderness for forty years and into the Promised Land.  As he did so, God said this to their leader Joshua: (Joshua 5:9-12)

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal [Gilgal sounds like the Hebrew word for “roll.”] to this day.

10 On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover.11 The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. 12 The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.

God gave Israel amazing gifts, but he only gave them what they needed, when they needed it.  As they arrive in the Promised Land and begin to work, to harvest, and eat the food that the land had produced, God’s provision stops.  But even as the gift of free food stops, a new gift comes.  God gives Israel a new land where they can support themselves and be proud, a land where they can be independent and productive., a land where they can put away the ridicule of other nations and stop doubting that they are good enough.

We find that same kind of story throughout scripture and we even find it in one of the stories that we have nearly committed to memory.  (Luke 15:1-32)

15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable:

 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

The story begins with the Pharisees looking down on Jesus, thinking that Jesus wasn’t “good enough” because he spent time with “those people.”  And then Jesus tells them a story about a prodigal son who disrespected his father, took his money, and went off to “do his own thing.”  And all of us can see ourselves in the character of both of these brothers.  The younger son was “less than perfect.”  He messed up; he made a wreck of his life.  But still his father finds value in him.  The older son looked down on his brother because he was less than perfect and didn’t do everything that everyone expected of him.

We are simultaneously both of these brothers.  We often feel as if we aren’t good enough, but, at the same time, accuse others of not being good enough.  But the powerful message of the story is that the father loved them both anyway.  In all of these parables, the thing that is lost, whether it is a coin, a sheep, or a son, is not somehow less valuable because it is lost, but is valuable simply because it belongs and is wanted.  And in each story, the thing that is lost is reconciled, returned, and reunited with the one to whom it belonged.

But how does that apply to us?

Since Jesus is the model upon whom we must try to pattern our lives, the answer to that is easy and in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul explains it as clearly as anyone.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

You might have noticed that in one sentence, Paul used the same word no less than four times, reconciled, reconciliation, reconciling, and again, reconciliation.  When a writer does that, we rightly suspect that there is something about that word that is important and that the author intends for us to understand.  So let’s hear that again, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

This is a two-part message.  First, God reconciled us to him.  God took away our shame, took away our sin, took away our reproach, took away our slavery, and set us free.  God cleaned us up so that we never have to be ashamed or embarrassed because we think we aren’t “good enough.”  God adopted us into his family, making us sons and daughters of the creator of the universe, so that we could belong.  We are valuable, we are “good enough” because we belong and because we are wanted, and loved, by the King of Kings.

The second part of Paul’s message is that we are now committed, by God, to a message of reconciliation.  Paul says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”  Because we have been reconciled, we have now been sent out to tell the entire world the Good News of God’s love and reconciliation.  And if that is our mission, there is no way that we can look down on others and think that they aren’t pretty enough, or smart enough, or rich enough, or talented enough, or that they somehow aren’t good enough.

Hollywood and Madison Avenue have created an ideal for us that we cannot hope to live up to but we have been sent, by the King of Kings, to rescue everyone who has been told that they aren’t good enough.  We have been sent to invite them to belong.

 

 

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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   These messages can also be found online at http://www.scribd.com/Pastor John Partridge. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.