Turning the Tables, Part 8: Adjusting the Guest List (Luke 14:1-24)

After the near “food fight” we saw during the last meal Jesus attended at the home of a prominent religious leader, another Pharisee is brave enough to have Jesus over to his place on a separate occasion. Once again, Jesus serves up a spiritual meal in his teaching, and it’s piping hot for those who are listening.

In this encounter, we see that Jesus stands against religion-based unkindness, hostility, and neglect of the needy. Moreover, he frowns upon self-promotion, self-exaltation, and jockeying for position. Most prominently, Jesus detests using disadvantaged people for personal gain rather than loving them as they are.

By chance (or perhaps as a trap) a man with an illness enters the house. Typically an unwelcomed guest, this man is now welcomed by Jesus who heals him. Jesus then takes the opportunity—by way of a parable—to teach the inhospitable Pharisees about the generous hospitality of God’s Son for anyone who will accept his invitation. Through his actions and teachings, Jesus demonstrates gospel opportunities increase in proportion to our gracious hospitality. 

Quite significantly, on the timeline of Jesus’ life, we’re not too far from the cross. The crucifixion is starting to come into view, so this argument between Jesus and the religious leaders has been going on for several years now. And yet, Jesus is not finished dialoguing with them. We might have been, but not Jesus. Whatever frustration he has with these cold-hearted religionists, he seizes yet another opportunity to make the gospel known to them. He’s making it known to us, too.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 6: When Jesus Burns the Meal (Luke 11:37-54)

The problem with legalism is that it doesn’t feel like sin. It feels like holiness. It feels like true commitment and genuine devotion. It feels like something God should be pleased with. That’s why religious people are especially prone to it. Their perceived sense of spiritual goodness and moral superiority become an obstacle to receiving God’s grace (as well as giving it to others). Besides, they don’t really think they need it—at least not as much as other people do. In Jesus’s mind, however, legalism is just an ugly sin to be avoided.

Surprisingly, Jesus had more conflicts with the legalists of his day than any other group. They were constantly at odds throughout the Gospels. In the end, it wasn’t the “general issue sinners” who put Jesus on the cross; it was the legalists—those overly zealous, hyper-critical religious folks who looked down on everybody else. Later, the Apostle Paul had a similar experience. The legalists dogged his every step, distorted his message of grace, and then eventually beheaded him.

Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has shared lavish grace and gentle correction with those at his table. This meal, however, shows us something different. Jesus unleashes his anger on the religious leaders of the first century, and it’s not pleasant. In fact, the encounter is downright confrontational. We might say Jesus “burned the meal” this time. But why? What made Christ so angry that he would issue six “woes” to the religious leaders he was breaking bread with? The passage tells us that Jesus gets “steamed” when:

  • we value external ceremonies over internal cleansing. (37-41)
  • our religious traditions become more important than God’s priorities. (42)
  • we’re driven more by the praise of others than by the praise of God. (43)
  • we lead others away from God and nobody seems to realize it. (44)
  • we raise people’s moral standards but offer no help to meet them. (45-46)
  • we claim to honor the very people whose message we violate. (47-51)
  • we obscure the beauty of God’s revelation with our own distortions of it. (52)

Sadly, the Pharisees didn’t see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. They saw themselves as jolly good fellows who kept the law; therefore, God should accept them. To make matters worse, they imposed their “fence laws” (i.e., their own tedious additions and traditions to God’s simple laws) on everybody else—which just made life drudgery for everyone. They then looked down on people who didn’t keep the fence laws like they did, thus making them feel inferior to the religious elite. 

That’s why Jesus saves his most stinging rebukes for the hyper-religious. They, more than anybody else, misrepresent the gracious heart of God. Even today, Pharisees offer a religion of “DO!” while Jesus offers a relationship of “DONE!” That’s why he announced from his cross, “It is finished.” Jesus paid it all, and now he gives salvation full and free to all who know they need his grace. 

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 5: Hospitality at Mary and Martha’s House

We might have expected that with Jesus in their midst, Mary and Martha would have been able to contain their spat with each other, but they don’t. In fact, it’s the very presence of this special guest that gives rise to one sister’s annoyance with the other. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” How will Jesus respond? Will he take up Martha’s cause against Mary? The answer may surprise us.

In preparation for Jesus’s visit, Martha has pushed herself beyond all reasonable limits, and now her mood is affecting the whole house. Her irritation has a good chance of spoiling the party. It’s not just the stove that’s hot; her attitude is boiling, too. Consequently, everything is not served with the hot sauce of exasperation. When v. 40 says that Martha “came to him,” the English translation hides the force of the original, which means something like, “Martha exploded out of the kitchen.” Not only did she salt the casserole, she salted the atmosphere, too, and now everything stings.

Why not tiptoe into the living room and whisper, “Mary, could you come and help me, please?” No, Martha has to make a scene. She has to grandstand. She has to inflict her mood on everyone else around her. She has to let everyone know how hurt she is. She has to try to get Jesus to use his authority to help her get what she wants. And in the process, she insults him with her question, “Don’t you care?” Worse yet, Martha dares to give Jesus—the Lord—a command!

As a result, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” It’s interesting that in Luke 10, we have one woman telling another woman to get back in the kitchen, and Jesus says no! Martha’s attitude is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Jesus’s attitude is, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Good service with a bad spirit is bad service. Nobody wants it.

Jesus doesn’t fault Martha for her service but for overdoing it. Sometimes the burdens we place on ourselves don’t come from Jesus; they come from our own twisted motives. These motives may cause us to lash out at other people. Jesus’s response to Martha is a good reminder that busyness in the King’s business is no reason to neglect the King. Mary has chosen the better course—to take the posture of a disciple and listen to Jesus’s teachings. It’s a course we need to take, too.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 4: Breaking Bread at Bethsaida (Luke 9:10-17)

If you’ve ever given a significant amount of your time and energy to serve the Lord and help his church accomplish its mission, then maybe you’ve wondered on occasion if it’s all worth it. Maybe you’re simply exhausted from all the (sometimes thankless) hours you put in as a volunteer. Maybe your theme song in life goes something like this:

Mary had a little lamb,
It would have been a sheep;
But it joined an evangelical church, 
And died from lack of sleep.

Or as one church bulletin blooper put it: “Don’t let stress kill you. Let the church help.”

So many ministry events, so little time. So many service opportunities, so little energy. One can hardly blame the disciples for seeing five thousand men (perhaps twenty thousand people in all) needing food and care, and saying, “Send them away!” 

We find ourselves saying the same thing sometimes. The sheer volume of needs around us can make us want to give up. The tank is empty. The well is dry. We get drained. We get burned out, and there’s nothing left to go on with. Joy erodes, and the marks of our personhood are rubbed raw.

Remarkably, Jesus doesn’t send the crowds away. People are not a burden to him (even the needy ones), so he doesn’t dismiss them. He wants them to draw near to him, and he treats them with compassion. Nor does Jesus let his disciples send them away. Rather, he says, “You give them something to eat.” This is where Jesus’ followers come in. 

We learn here that our first response to the needs of others is not to measure our resources, but to consider God’s resources. When Jesus tells us to do something hard, we “act as if we can even if we feel like we can’t.” That’s when the miracle of multiplication takes place, and he swallows up our need with his infinite supply. To put it simply, Kingdom hospitality is letting Jesus be gracious through you. 

So, what’s your hospitality quotient? Who’s at your table? Who does God want at your table? Who does he want you to feed?

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 3: Dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s House (Luke 7:36-50)

At some point in our lives, we’ll probably be scandalized by the behavior of someone else—maybe even a fellow believer. What then? Tim Chester has said, “When you discover that someone in your church has sinned, your own heart will be exposed.” We tend to think at such times that all eyes are on the person who sinned, but no. God’s eyes are also on the people responding to that sin. Are they more eager to condemn or restore?

That’s one of the issues on the table when Jesus has dinner with Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in the 1st century. A sinful woman comes into the room where they’re meeting and does the unthinkable. “As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them” (Luke 7:38).

If there’s a more tense and awkward scene in the Gospels, it’s hard to know what it is. The episode has everyone holding his breath, looking around, turning red, and wondering, “How can I slither out of here right now?” Indeed, Simon is thinking to himself, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

Men like Simon avoided contact with “impure” people lest they become spiritually “infected” by them. Moreover, letting one’s hair down was reserved for the bedroom; for women to do it in public was grounds for divorce. Women in that culture were obligated to cover their hair in public. So, on the surface, everything here looks highly inappropriate—the hair, the tears, the touching. It’s almost as if the woman is treating Jesus as one of her clients. But unlike others in the room, Jesus interprets what she does as a loving act rather than an erotic act.

Everyone in the room expects Jesus to be scandalized, but he sees what’s happening in her heart. There’s nothing erotic going on at all. What Simon doesn’t realize is that Jesus—who can hear his thoughts, too—is testing him. How far does God’s compassion go? How about love? How about forgiveness? Jesus is testing us, too. How far does ours go?

The encounter also provides a sharp contrast between those (like Simon) who merely analyze Jesus, coming to him in a cold, clinical, and detached way, and those (like this woman) who adore Jesus, coming to him in a warm, relational, and personal way. In fact, she turns out to be a better host than Simon, and it’s not even her house! In the end, she sacrifices her prize possession—a costly alabaster flask of perfume—to honor Jesus and his grace. The heart of the contrast, says Jesus, is that some people see themselves as spiritually self-sufficient, while others see themselves as spiritually needy. Jesus comes for the latter.

In dramatic fashion, then, we learn that sinners welcome Jesus because Jesus welcomes sinners. The grace of acceptance comes first, and the grace of transformation follows. Religious folks tend to get that exactly backward. That’s why “the other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’” (Luke 7:49). Now, that’s the right question to ask! Have you answered it yet? Jesus is God with us. God in human flesh. God revealing God. And he gladly welcomes you into his presence when you come to realize that you need his grace, too.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 2: The Banquet at Levi’s House (Luke 5:27-39)

Fanny Crosby wrote it, and the church often sings it: “The vilest offender who truly believes, / That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” They’re hope-filled words that easily roll off the tongue—but do church people today really believe them? Put the face of a real offender in our minds, and then we’re not so sure. Here’s another hymn we love to sing:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

So wrote John Newton, the former slave trader who came to Christ in the mid 1700s. Having come to Christ, he gave up his evil ways, renounced his oppression of other people, and eventually became a minister of the Gospel. A similar thing happened to Levi, also known as Matthew, the tax collector.

Tax collectors in the first century were despised by the Jewish people. They were seen as cheats and traitors for enriching the Roman occupiers by selling out their own countrymen. In fact, the religious leaders of the day said tax collectors could never be “saved.” They had too many sins to repent of in one lifetime. Consequently, the people hated them with a “religious” kind of disgust. Tax collectors may have been wealthy, but they were also isolated from the community of faith and the things of God.

It was shocking, then, that Jesus called Matthew to become one of his disciples. No one saw that coming. Most of Jesus’s students were Torah-observant Jews, but not Matthew. Jesus had compassion on him anyway. Matthew left his tax booth immediately and started following Christ, inspired, no doubt, by his message that even tax collectors could have eternal life. The bigger shock was that Jesus also attended a banquet at Matthew’s house, which would have been scandalous for any rabbi to do.

All through the Gospels, everyone is amazed by the surprising company Jesus keeps. They’re also amazed by the people he serves. But Jesus is willing to disciple anyone who will follow him. And he’s willing to dine with anyone who will host him. When people complain about Jesus for being so kind toward people like Matthew, he says he hasn’t come for the healthy but the sick (v. 31).

He then gives three illustrations about the grace of God that would become such a hallmark of his ministry—the illustration of the bridegroom (a time for joyful relationship, vv. 34-35); the illustration of the garment patch (a time for New Covenant forgiveness, v. 36); and the illustration of the wineskin (a time for overflowing grace, vv. 37-38). The banquet at Levi’s house, then, shows it’s not just our moral lives but our social lives that reveal whether we understand the heart of Jesus.

Most people looked at Levi and saw only an irreligious tax collector. Jesus looked at Levi and saw Matthew, author of the first Gospel. Church history tells us that Matthew was martyred ca. 65 A.D., proclaiming the risen Christ until his death by beheading in Ethiopia. 

We learn from this meal that authentic outreach goes way beyond religious pronouncements; it entails winsome interaction. We also learn that open doors lead to open hearts; that’s why strict isolation from “sinners” is not the call of the Christian disciple. The heart of the Lord is compassion, which can only be shared up close.

Who is at your table? If “doing lunch is doing theology” (Conrad Gempf), then what kind of theology do you have? If there’s a place at God’s table for you, shouldn’t there a place at your table for someone else who needs divine grace?

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 1: The Son of Man Came Eating & Drinking (Luke 7:28-35)

Fill in the blank: “The Son of Man came __________.” How would you respond? Teaching and preaching? Healing and forgiving? Loving and restoring? Dying and rising? All good answers, but Luke 7:34 says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” In fact, a major feature of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is usually going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. If you love to eat, Luke is your Gospel.

But wait a minute. Does that sound like the lifestyle of a holy man to you? Does that sound like the behavior of a prophet? More feasting than fasting? More parties than protests? What kind of rabbi is this? The rap on Jesus was that he was “a drunkard and a glutton” (Luke 7:34). Now, Jesus was neither of those things—the Bible says he never sinned—but he did give his enemies enough ammunition to make the charge stick.

And they made the charge stick, not because he was eating and drinking per se, but because of the kinds of people he had at his table—those who were awfully low on the religious food chain. And there’s no indication such folks even had to “repent” before they could come and eat at Jesus’ table! The fact that they came at all—and ate and enjoyed his welcome—was apparently repentance enough for Jesus.

What’s going on here? It’s called grace. And grace is often a threat to the religious mind. Tim Chester has said, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus got himself killed because of the way he ate.” That’s hardly an overstatement. Before Jesus ever picked up the cross, he picked up the fork. And when he did, he turned the tables—and everything changed!

In this series, we look at the major meals portrayed in Luke’s Gospel. We’re doing so because meals were central to the mission of Jesus; they embodied the very grace of God that he came to give. Significantly, the one person Jesus pictured tormented in Hades was a man who kept others from dining at his table (cf. Luke 16:19-31). 

Moreover, Paul’s great exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith in the letter to the Galatians is sparked by a meal—by Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles. For Paul, broken table fellowship was a denial of the gospel itself. Why? Because meals are such a central and powerful expression of the reconciling work Jesus came to do. 

In this first message of the series, we look at the meaning of meals and the potential of meals. Here’s what we discover:

  • Meals remind us that the God who feeds us is hospitable, generous, wise, and good. 
  • Meals remind us that we are not self-sufficient creatures but finite beings dependent upon the Creator.
  • Meals reveal to us the status of our own hearts—who are we willing or unwilling to have at our tables?
  • Meals enable us to be conduits of God’s grace to others—to listen, affirm, encourage, inspire, value, and support others.
  • Meals remind us of the ultimate meal to come—the Marriage Supper of the Lamb at the restoration of all things.

Until that eschatological meal, Jesus feeds his people with the bread and cup of Holy Communion—his body and blood. Consequently, at the center of the Christian life is a meal—with Jesus himself as the main course. To quote Tim Chester again: 

“Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.” 

So let’s ask the question: Who is at our table and why? Who might God want us to invite to our table to share and celebrate grace? Are there any biblical restrictions on who should be at our table? (Yes, but only a few. The holiest man from eternity ate with the unholiest people in history.) First John 2:6 says, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” Let’s update that statement in light of our theme: “Whoever claims to live in him must eat as Jesus ate.” Are you up for the challenge?

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Christ Community, Part 6: The Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

The most prominent image for the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.” There are about 15 references to it from Matthew to Revelation. The image implies that believers are to be, do, and say what Christ would be, do, and say if he were physically with us today. For three and a half decades, Jesus lived on this planet as the Son of God—deity in human flesh. In his earthly body, he went around preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, loving and serving those for whom he came. 

•  With his eyes he saw the physical and spiritual needs around him.

•  With his ears he heard the cries of the hurting and the oppressed.

•  With his heart he felt compassion toward those who needed the grace of God.

•  With his feet he went to their side to be with them.

•  With his hands he touched them, fed them, and healed them.

•  With his voice he spoke God’s word to them

In time he died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. He was buried in an unused tomb, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the Father’s right hand. 

On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—came back to earth indwell his people and constitute his church. So, while God came to the world in Jesus in a body 2,000 years ago, he now comes to the world in his new body, the church.

•  We are the eyes of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the ears of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the heart of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the feet of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the hands of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the voice of Jesus on earth.

Believers are the means through which Christ expresses himself and ministers to the world today. In short, the church of Christ is the body of Christ on earth. How in the world could we ever fulfill such a task? We start by staying connected to the head of the body—Jesus Christ himself.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Christ Community, Part 5: The Church as the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

In 1 Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul likens the church of Jesus Christ to a sacred temple. The building blocks of this new temple, he says, are Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Together they “rise to become a holy temple in the Lord.” Not only that, says Paul, they’re being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” That is, they are habitations of the divine. Similar imagery can be found in 1 Peter 2.

It’s an amazing image to ponder. First, one of the great themes running through the Bible storyline is that God looking for a home on earth. That’s what a temple is—the intersection point of heaven and earth. Second, Jews and Gentiles were notorious for not getting along. Many within each group harbored a deep resentment toward the other. So, how in the world would this new arrangement work? With such contempt and disgust close to the surface, how would they ever interact peacefully? Clearly it wouldn’t be easy. But here’s the little known secret: it wasn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy today, either.

The church-as-temple image tells us that God is building a “house” for himself, and flawed believers are his construction materials. Yet, the whole project is for his glory, our good, and the Kingdom’s gain. It was Augustine who first described the church as “a hospital for sinners.” He went on to say it would be very strange if people were to criticize hospitals because their patients were sick. The whole point of the hospital is that people are there precisely because they’re sick and they haven’t yet fully recovered.

And so it is with believers today. Colin Smith has noted, “It’s hard enough for two sinners to make a good marriage. So how much harder is it for 200 sinners or 2,000 sinners to make a good church?” Indeed, Scripture says when we see Christ, “we will be like him,” but until that time comes, we are like a building under construction. Construction is messy. Construction sites are muddy. The construction process can look like chaos. But the mess of construction means the Builder is at work, and the blueprint is being followed. As renowned theologian R. C. Sproul has said:

“The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership. In one sense, the church has fewer hypocrites than any other institution because, by definition, the church is a haven for sinners. If [we] claimed to be an organization of perfect people, then [our] claim would be hypocritical. But no such claim is made by the church. There is no slander in the charge that the church is full of sinners. Such a statement would only compliment the church for fulfilling her divinely appointed task.”

So, what is God up to in the building of his living temple, whose very stones are flawed from the get-go? That’s what we explore together in this message.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Christ Community, Part 3: The Church as the People of God (1 Peter 2:4-12)

One of the most tragic changes Christianity has experienced in the last 50 years is the minimizing of the centrality of the local church in the life of believers. The Lord’s Day used to be considered sacred. It was dedicated to the worship and service of God, but now it’s treated like any other day. And local church life, which was once considered indispensable to the Christian life, is now treated like an extra-curricular activity rather than an essential part of our spiritual formation. 

In his book, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, Kent Hughes presents six images describing today’s “de-churching” trends—trends that are held even by those who wish to retain some sort of connection to the historic Christian faith:

  • Hitchhiker Christianity
  • Cafeteria (or Consumer) Christianity
  • Spectator Christianity
  • Drive-through Christianity
  • Relationless Christianity
  • Churchless Christianity

It’s hard to square these images with the lofty vision of the church found in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:4-12, for example, the Apostle Peter sets his sights extremely high. He writes to 1st-century believers about their continued need for Jesus, their continued need for each other, and their continued need for a genuine spiritual commitment. He knows they won’t make it or be effective in this world without these three things. In this message, we learn that the people of God are living stones being built together by Jesus Christ to reverse a crumbling world. Masonry imagery is used to describe both Christ and the church he is building:

  • Jesus is the living stone. (4a)
  • Jesus is the rejected stone. (4b, 7a)
  • Jesus is the chosen stone. (4c, 6a)
  • Jesus is the precious stone. (4d, 6a)
  • Jesus is the cornerstone. (6a, 7a)
  • Jesus is the capstone. (7b)
  • Jesus is the stumbling stone. (8)
  • Jesus is the coming stone. (12)

To the masonry image, Peter adds the temple and priesthood metaphor in his description of the church:

  • We are living stones. (5a)
  • We are a spiritual house in progress. (5b)
  • We are worshippers with direct access to God. (5c)
  • We are a chosen people. (9a)
  • We are a royal priesthood. (9b)
  • We are a holy nation. (9c)
  • We are a people belonging to God. (9d)
  • We are a people of praise. (9e)
  • We are a people called out of darkness into light. (9f)
  • We are the recipients of divine mercy. (10)
  • We are aliens and strangers in the world. (12)

Peter cites numerous Old Testament passages to make his case. He calls the people of God to live good lives and subdue the war around us (v. 12). But for that to happen, the church must also live godly lives and subdue the war within us (v. 11). The challenge is great, which is why drive-through Christianity doesn’t cut it. 

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Needing and Needling: The Challenge to Find Good Christian Community

Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.

ischope001p1

Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)

Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?

And the answer is not without grace.

Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.

Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.

Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)

Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.

It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.

Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.

•  “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

•  “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”

•  “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”

•  “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”

•  “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”

•  “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

•  “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”

•  “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”

•  “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”

When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?

Image Credit: Barcroft Media.