Grace Emerges

Friday, May 27, 2016

Open the Church -- Part 3A

the church

Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century

by Brad Duncan

Outreach - Part A

How can the church change the world through its actions?

The Question

In Chapter 2, I described the church as a dynamic, healthy, intentional community that arises when people who follow Jesus come together to become the kingdom of God.  This kingdom continues the work of Jesus on this Earth.  This community and kingdom has potential to do great things, things that define us, give us opportunity to grow and thrive, and have a great impact on the world around us.  This naturally leads us to questions about our goals.  What great things should we do?  How should our amazing potential be directed?  How can we best follow Jesus in the 21st century, not only as individuals but through partnerships with others?  What’s next after Community?  What does it lead to?

In short, this chapter attempts to answer this question:

How can the church change the world through its actions?

It’s clear that this question is also vital to the question in the previous chapter, and cannot be separated from it.  Our success as a community depends on an outward focus, a posture of welcome to all people, and a clear mission to be generous.  We share what we have been given with others and are spiritually generous, offering forgiveness and acceptance.  Think of the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission: our community is defined by a mission to love and share.  If we attempted to define a community that just takes care of it’s own, provides a comfortable space, and protects those inside from the world outside as a safe haven for Christians, we see that the mission to love and share would wither on the vine.  Like Jesus taught, the nature of God inside us is revealed  through action.  As the local church and as the global kingdom of God, what do our actions say about us?  What do our actions reveal about what is in our hearts?  How does our community look from an outside lens?  The actions that people see should represent what is happening on the inside.  The God-nature that lives inside the church, the community and kingdom of God on Earth, must naturally show itself through its actions.

Viewed from within, this is also the nature of healthy community.  It’s true that if we do nothing useful, we will wither.  On the other hand, we learn, grow and thrive through putting into practice what we believe.  We learn from others in the community that have more experience.  We learn by cooperating with others.  We find value through teamwork.  We find ourselves appreciated for our good ideas and contributions, our bright smiles and ready hands.  We make friends, we challenge each other, we build trust, we embrace relationships.  We connect.  Where connections would have seemed forced and awkward if all we do is meet and greet each other, when we work together, these connections form naturally and with little effort.  Even the most socially awkward person will make friends with people if they are having fun together doing something useful.  As humans we have a strong need to be useful.  Community gives us that.

In this way, the phrase “practicing our religion” takes on a particular meaning:

Practicing our religion, means putting what we believe into practice.

This is the cure for religious institutionalism.  This is the sign of true transformation.  This is the thriving kingdom, with God’s nature within and God’s generosity demonstrated to those outside.  The church is seen and heard through its actions.  God is seen and heard as well.

With this understanding of the implications, we need to carefully ask the question in this chapter.  What fruit?  What actions?  How do we demonstrate generosity?  How do we have the greatest impact?  How do we put what we believe into practice?

How can the church change the world through its actions?

The Answer

I don’t think my answer will surprise you.  Jesus taught us to:

Love God by Loving Others

As I discussed in the previous chapter, this was the key message of the sermon on the mount in Luke 6 and so many of Jesus’ other teachings.  It is inconsistent to claim to love God but not represent the love of God.  When Jesus said “follow me”, this is what he meant: love God by loving others, as I will teach you and show you.

What we call the Great Commandment was already understood by the Jewish audience.  In Luke 10 we have this conversation:

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” [Luke 10, CEB]

Jesus simply affirmed what the man said as being the correct understanding of the law of God.  No matter how you break down the laws and history of the Old Testament, you come up with this primary interpretation of the “Law”.  It’s no law at all -- it’s not even a commandment -- it’s a truth that transcends our need to understand and evaluate what’s right and wrong in thought and action -- it simply talks about a concept called Love that we are to embrace and our right thoughts and actions will follow.  It essentially says “Love wins”.  Where laws and commandments fail, love wins.  Jesus says that if you do this you will live.  Life is found where love wins.  Follow your heart, follow God’s heart, follow me.  You will find life, and life is all about love.  Through his teaching on compassion and the kingdom way vs. the selfish way, Jesus taught that love for God must be revealed through love for others.  We take on God’s nature, sharing generously with others as God does.  Jesus said:

6 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. [Luke 6, CEB]

In his first letter to the churches, John also states this principle:

7 Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. 8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. 10 This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. [1 John 4, CEB]

He fully explains how love for others and love for God are the same thing, starting in 1 John 3, and continuing through 1 John 5.

James also tackles this concept in his discussion of “faith” vs. “works”.  This famous passage, below, is clearly trying to explain that we must put our faith into action, we must show our love for God by loving others:

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. [James 2, CEB]

If we continue to keep our religion separate from community, with only a small overlap where we put them into action together, then we will continue to separate faith and works.  We believe one thing, and do another.  Occasionally these two things come together.  If we separate our love for God from our love for others, then we work hard to satisfy both sides.  We work to please God through our individual spirituality and through our religious activities, while we work hard to love others through our own efforts.  Apparently James saw this as a dilemma that early Christians were facing: faith was embraced as an end in itself, leading to a closer relationship with God.  Actions of love and kindness were seen as competing for attention with faith.  But what James, John, and Jesus all were trying to explain is the convergence of the two.  Faith and works are NOT in tension.  They only work when they are the same thing.  Love for God is Loving Others.  Faith is Works.  We cannot separate them.  Or if we do separate them, we are leaving God behind and creating our own kingdom.  God’s heart is not in it.  God’s heart is compassion for others.  If we love that heart, we will have that heart.

Jesus and James also defined “true religion” as compassion and a kind heart.  In James 1, James says:

27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us. [James 1, CEB]

And in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the famous parable of the sheep and the goats, where he explains that what Jesus will value in your life is your generosity:

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ [Matthew 25, CEB]

Read the full passage if you are not familiar with this parable.  Clearly the point is that we should not have two separate concepts for spirituality and generosity, for faith and works, for loving God and loving people.  These concepts only work when they converge.  

Spirituality is generosity, faith is works, and loving God is loving people.  

This doesn’t mean that we fail to love God, or that we fail to purify our hearts.  Rather, it means that we become fully transformed by our encounter with God who purifies our hearts.  This transformation is visible on the outside, revealed as the fruits we produce.  Sin is selfishness and the opposite of God’s nature, whereas our righteousness and our true worship is heart transformation.  

The transformation I am describing applies exactly the same for the church as for the individual.  

As we become the kingdom of God, we act like it!  Our heart must be transformed as a community.  It should show in our mission, our actions, our message, and even our reputation.  The kingdom of God should represent all that is good in the world, and the world should at least be able to acknowledge this goodness, even if they don’t agree with our beliefs.  

Finally, I want to provide one more thought-provoking example.  We have the opportunity to hear a 1-on-1 conversation that Jesus has with a Samaritan woman in John 4.  After some discussion, Jesus tells her that the Messiah will reveal the true nature of worship:

21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way.24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”
26 Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.” [John 4, CEB]

Interesting, the role of the Messiah was already of understood by the woman, before she knew it was Jesus -- the role to “teach everything to us.”  And Jesus stated what he would teach: how to worship God in spirit and in truth.

Isn’t this what we really want?  Isn’t this our heart’s desire?  As a church isn’t this our core mission?  We expect Jesus to teach us everything about how to worship God in spirit and in truth.  How to be spiritually insightful, accurate in our understanding of God, wise in our sensing of spiritual things that we cannot see or touch.  And we want to know the truth, accurate in our understanding of life, and our role in it.  If we shine the light of Jesus on our lives and on the world around us, we will see the truth.  If we allow the Holy Spirit to take charge in our spirits, we will sense spiritual truth and spiritual life.  We will be the fulfillment of Jesus’ claim in John 4, that he would change things so that people would worship God in spirit and in truth.  He’s talking about us, when we are the ones that put Jesus’ words into action!  He says that the Father is seeking people who will worship him in this way.  Will we respond?

People worship God in spirit and in truth, by putting into action the teachings of Jesus.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Open the Church -- Part 2E

the church

Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century

by Brad Duncan

Community, Part E

How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?

The Kingdom Wins!

What happens when we love our enemies?  Sometimes it means that our enemies will continue to oppose us, and sometimes they will win.  The plot thickens and surges toward disaster.  Jesus warned that his posture of humility and peace would cost him dearly, in several places in Luke such as 18:31-34:

31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and said, “Look, we’re going up to Jerusalem, and everything written about the Human One by the prophets will be accomplished. 32  He will be handed over to the Gentiles. He will be ridiculed, mistreated, and spit on. 33  After torturing him, they will kill him. On the third day, he will rise up.” 34 But the Twelve understood none of these words. The meaning of this message was hidden from them and they didn’t grasp what he was saying. [CEB]

The parable of the tenant farmers who kill their master’s son, Luke 20:9-19, poignantly describes the cost of letting your enemies win. Jesus will allow himself to be killed by those that oppose him in the current religious establishment.  Instead of vanquishing them or forcing them to acknowledge that he is the son of God, he will allow them to defeat him and make a public mockery of him as he is put to death.  However, like in this parable, God will win in the end, but only after this costly sacrifice.

As we follow the crucifixion story which rapidly unfolds starting in Luke 22, Jesus as the king of God’s kingdom is revealed in new ways through the crucifixion and resurrection.  During the passover meal with his disciples, Jesus twice refers to the imminent coming of the God’s kingdom in Luke 22:16 and 18.  In the debate that surfaces during that meal about who will be great in the kingdom, Jesus starts to convey that the disciples will soon see a larger view of the kingdom:

28 “You are the ones who have continued with me in my trials. 29 And I confer royal power on you just as my Father granted royal power to me.30 Thus you will eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel. [Luke 22, CEB],

and in 22:35-37 Jesus tells the disciples to be prepared for action because everything is about to happen:

35 Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out without a wallet, bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?”
They said, “Nothing.”
36 Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a wallet must take it, and likewise a bag. And those who don’t own a sword must sell their clothes and buy one. 37  I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in relation to me: And he was counted among criminals.  Indeed, what’s written about me is nearing completion.” [CEB]

You can sense that the kingdom is on the verge of breaking out!  

As Jesus was arrested, accused and taunted, what was he accused of?  What was his crime?  The crime that Jesus was crucified for was being a king!  A humble king that did not resist, but a king of a mighty kingdom prophesied to arise from the people of Israel, the kingly descendent of David.  Jesus did not deny that he was God’s son, the prophesied king and messiah.  And for that, he was killed.  He was killed for the kingdom.  This story includes the questioning in front of Pilate, the Roman governor:

1 The whole assembly got up and led Jesus to Pilate and 2 began to accuse him. They said, “We have found this man misleading our people, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and claiming that he is the Christ, a king.”
3 Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” [Luke 23, CEB]

He was similarly accused before Herod, the Jewish king, in Luke 23:6-12.  He didn’t deny the truth.

When he was crucified, the accusation was plainly stated on the sign posted on the cross:

36 The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.” [Luke 23, CEB].

What we see in the crucifixion is that those that opposed Jesus sought their own kingdom, and killed Jesus because he asserted that God’s kingdom had arrived and that Jesus was God’s son, the king of that kingdom.  In view of the teachings of Jesus, the crucifixion was the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on Earth.  It represented that for God’s kingdom to come, its enemies would have to initially win a victory and make their own selfish claim to rule.  By doing so, Jesus would allow God to win a huge spiritual victory and demonstrate his will to rule on Earth.  “Love your enemies” was demonstrated on the cross.

Even one of the other men being crucified could see that Jesus was a king, and he asked Jesus to remember him:

39 One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? 41 We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” [Luke 23, CEB]

After the death of Jesus, one of the religious leaders named Joseph from Arimathea, who was a good man but also a member of the Jewish council, was described as waiting for God’s kingdom:

51 He hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council. He was from the Jewish city of Arimathea and eagerly anticipated God’s kingdom. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Taking it down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried.  [Luke 23, CEB]

Clearly, those that were paying attention perceived that Jesus was the king, and the kingdom was at hand.  The religious leaders were threatened by this and fought to have Jesus killed.  Others could see God working in this tragedy, and somehow saw by the humility of Jesus that he truly was the son of God and was inheriting God’s true kingdom.

Like in so many of Jesus teachings, victory required humility.  Resurrection follows crucifixion!  When the women visited Jesus’ tomb they found out that he wasn’t there!  Angels appeared and reminded them that Jesus had predicted his resurrection:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words. [from Luke 24:5-8, CEB]

The book of Luke also records an appearance of Jesus to two disciples who were traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  Jesus joins them and listens to their interpretation of the events that just unfolded.  They are not aware that Jesus has risen from the dead.  Jesus hides his identity from them and teaches them:

“Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets. [from Luke 24:26-27, CEB]

Jesus knew that such an ultimate victory required suffering and sacrifice, as described in the scriptures and prophets.  The cycle of

Incarnation -- Death -- Resurrection

is played out in many ways in the lives of believers and in the path of the kingdom:
  • We discover God calling us -- we respond by humbling ourselves and allowing our selfishness to die -- God elevates us again as his children with new life in the kingdom
  • We model this cycle through baptism -- going into the water is symbolic of death of sin and selfishness -- rising from the water is symbolic of life and transformation
  • We follow the teachings of Christ to love others sacrificially, replacing selfishness with the true joy that comes from showing compassion
  • The coin, the sheep, or the son that is lost -- is initially with it’s owner/shepherd/father -- seeks it’s own gain and is lost in the darkness -- and by the searching of the finder of the lost things it is brought to light with great celebration
  • We enter into a relationship with God through Jesus and the infilling of the Holy Spirit -- but we must die to ourselves daily to avoid living according to our own selfish human nature -- and by doing so we let God reign in our lives, bringing transformation, discovery of truth, and joyful partnership with God in community with other believers
  • We seek to build the kingdom of God, continuing the work of Jesus as the continued incarnation of God on this Earth -- but we must continually fight against human tendencies to build the kingdom for ourselves like the tower of Babel from Genesis 11 or the rich farmer or rich rulers from the parables of Jesus -- we must sacrificially let go of these human kingdoms and let God raise his true kingdom in his own way and time, ultimately winning the victory of bringing God’s will to fruition on Earth.

In the end the kingdom wins!  But only through our willingness and humility for God’s kingdom to take precedence over our own kingdom.  We must follow the model of Jesus who placed God’s kingdom and ultimate victory over his own comfort and short-term gain.

Jesus repeats this explanation to the disciples in Luke 24:36-49, and clearly states how the kingdom will ultimately win, through the witness of the disciples and the power that God will provide to them to carry out his mission:

44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them,“This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48  You are witnesses of these things. 49  Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.” [Luke 24, CEB]

We call this passage the Great Commission, and it is the foundation of our mission statement as the church, the community and kingdom of God.  

Community and Kingdom

I just took you on a walk with Jesus through the gospel of Luke.  In the story of Jesus we see what he was saying and doing during his 3 years of ministry in Israel.  From start to finish he taught about the kingdom.  But he clearly was commissioning his followers to actually BE that kingdom.  His teachings were not so much of an individual nature, like how people should behave in solitude or purely in relationship to God.  Because his teachings were about love, humility and unselfishness, they established how human nature should be transformed to allow people to work together unselfishly in community with one another and with God.  I think this is clear -- what is love without the context of community? -- you need someone to love or love has no opportunity to show.  So, given everything I described about Jesus’ teachings and the kingdom, what does community look like?  

I will summarize the key positive characteristics of a thriving community:

Overview of Community Characteristics

Characteristics of Community
Brings good news to the poor
Luke 4:18-21, 6:20,21
Liberates the oppressed
Luke 4:18-21
Grows organically through participation
Luke 5:10, 10:2, 13:18-21
Brings transformation of our hearts and lives, love for God and others leading to right actions
Luke 5:31-32, 10:27, 11:42
Offers love to our enemies and blessings to those that curse us
Luke 6:27, 35
Treats people right
Luke 6:31
Has unconditional compassion and generosity
Luke 6:36, 10:29-37. 11:41,42
Offers acceptance and forgiveness
Luke 6:37,38. 11:4
Admits our faults with tolerance toward the faults of others
Luke 6:41,42
Produces good things out of a good heart
Luke 6:43-45
Practices the teachings of Jesus, humbly letting these teachings take root in our hearts, we become his family
Luke 6:47-48, 8:15, 8:21
Shares the light of truth
Luke 8:16,17
Unselfish, but has treasure in heaven, spiritual riches
Luke 12:15-21, 34, 18:22, 21:1-4
Dependent on God’s provision
Luke 12:22-33
Ready for action, alert
Luke 12:35-38, 21:36
Humble before God and people, not dependent on looking religious
Luke 14:11, 18:9-14, 17, 20:45-47
Helps God find the lost things
Luke 15
Faithful with our resources
Luke 16:10-12

Can you imagine the type of community we will have if we simply follow Jesus together and put these teachings into practice?  Aren’t these characteristics the foundation of healthy relationships?  Wouldn’t they lead us to treat one another in the best possible way so we can support one another, have grace for one another, handle conflicts with forgiveness and kindness, and be generous to one another using whatever resources we have?  By doing this, our riches and reward will be in the thriving kingdom we are participating in, in our own spiritual growth as we depend on God and put his teachings into practice, and eventually as our reward in heaven.  

Jesus came be bring a revolution, a revolution of kindness, a revolution of God’s kingdom showing up on Earth.  Where and when does God’s kingdom show up?  When people put the teachings of Jesus into action, they literally let God’s kingdom come.  The people they reach, starting in community with one another, and shining as a bright light to our neighbors, are the ones who receive the good things that God wants to provide in his kingdom.  It is no understatement to say that God’s plan is to bring good things to the world through US.  We are the continued incarnation of God on Earth.  We carry the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  We are God’s kingdom.  

In order to be this kingdom, we need to let go of the trappings of selfish isolationism, the temptation to build kingdoms of our own pride and riches, and by doing so, let God’s kingdom come.

How do we become a community instead of a religious institution?  

By following Jesus.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Open the Church -- Part 2D

the church

Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century

by Brad Duncan

Community, Part D

How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?

The Kingdom Way -- Parables and Insights

Continuing now in the book of Luke, we find ourselves in chapter 12 where Jesus is teaching the disciples more in-depth insights using illustrations and parables.  Bible scholars usually point out that many of Jesus’ parables are simple stories with a twist.  They establish a normal context, situation or character that can be easily understood, and then they have a plot twist, an unexpected turn, that is intended to teach something in a memorable way.  Also keep in mind that Jesus taught by speaking rather than writing -- for his followers to remember his teachings he had to use speaking styles that would facilitate easy memorization, such as stories and parallel construction (like in the Beatitudes).  Sometimes Jesus explained the parable.  Sometimes he left it as an unexplained metaphor for us to ponder on our own.  As I read the teachings of Jesus in the second half of Luke, I find more guidance about the kingdom.

Selfish Way vs. Kingdom Way

In Luke 12:13-21, Jesus tells a parable of a rich man, a farm owner, that was doing well with his crops.  When his crops filled up his barn, he had to decide what to do with the surplus.  What were his options?  

One option -- he could sell a few of the crops to get enough money to build a bigger barn to hold all of his grain for longer-term storage.  This way he could feed himself and his family for the long run. This is the option Jesus says he takes.  In fact Jesus offers us the man’s decision logic, saying that the man sees the benefit of keeping the food as being able to say to himself: “Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself!”.  

Other options would be to sell all the crops and perhaps invest the money in something else, or to share the crops freely with others -- options where the man would not take it easy, but keep working with what he is given in the foreseeable future instead of being lazy.  

Jesus keeps it simple in this parable -- he simply poses the question, when you have plenty or even surplus, as sometimes happens, what do you do with it?  What do we naturally do as humans?  And his answer is equally simple -- we hoard.  If you give a person an easy way forward for themselves, where they have to do less work and can just take it easy, there’s a good chance the person will take it.  It’s human nature!  Jesus is describing our human nature to take the past of least resistance and to naturally protect ourselves and our own interests.

As the “twist”, Jesus includes God in this story.  After this happens, God enters the story and says to the man:

“‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’,” from Luke 12:20, CEB.

And Jesus follows up:

21  This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.” [Luke 12, CEB].

Jesus is talking about one thing -- our selfish human nature is not thinking about what God wants.  We are given free will, so we are able to make selfish choices.  We are able to focus on ourselves.  But when we do, who but ourselves will benefit?  When we view wealth as being simply more for us, more stuff, more money in the bank, larger assets, newer furnishings, better technology, more enjoyment -- the list goes on and on if we think about our consumeristic and materialistic tendencies -- we miss out on true riches.  Jesus is talking about an inward, selfish focus that ignores God.  If the rich farmer had paused when he asked the question, “What will I do?”, and instead asked God “Wait a minute.  God, what should I do?”, the answer would have been different.  He could have answered the question out of a different place in his heart, one that was more humble and open to God, and not from the place of self preservation and laziness.  If the man would have asked God this question, no doubt God would have blessed the man in some way -- making his life even richer, and giving him true bounty in his heart and spirit, leading to more action, rather than less.  What would God suggest in this situation? Jesus doesn’t tell us, but we know that God would transform the man’s heart, changing greed to compassion, and changing lazy selfishness to action.  Jesus states this point at the beginning of the story:

15 Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” [Luke 12, CEB]

Jesus teaches that the selfish way and the kingdom way are diametrically opposed:

Selfish Way
Kingdom Way
Greed, Self-preservation, Laziness, Path of Least Resistance, Pride in our Possessions, Thinking only of Ourselves
Generosity, Consideration for Others, Action, Willingness to Sacrifice, Spiritual Riches, Thinking of Others

God is calling us to participate in the kingdom, and it will require that we let go of selfishness and all the things it can accomplish for us.  We need to open our eyes to the bigger picture of what God wants to achieve.  We need to let him into the story.

As a church, we need to re-assess our wealth and all we’ve been given.  Are we simply hoarding it, preserving it for a later day?  Or are we doing something positive and active with it? Are we taking the path of least resistance, or are we willing to take action, even sacrificially?  Are we proud of what we’ve accumulated or are our riches stored away as spiritual gain?  When we think of others more than ourselves, the whole picture starts to fall into place.  What if the rich man in this parable is the church?  Then what is Jesus saying to us?  We need to ask God what to do with our wealth.

Jesus follows up this thought in 12:22-34, by reiterating to the disciples more about the “kingdom way” vs. the “selfish way”. I suggest you read the passage yourself, and then refer to the following table for a summary:

Selfish Way
Kingdom Way
Worry about life, health, food, clothing
Trusting God with what we need
Chasing after what we need, like all the kingdoms of the world do
Desire God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well
Be afraid that we won’t get what we need
Be confident, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom
Keep your possessions, preserve them for the future
Sell your possessions and give to those in need
Store your wealth on Earth through physical things
Store your wealth in spiritual things: “a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys.”
Selfish heart
Unselfish heart: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.”

If Jesus is talking to the disciples as the future church, what is he instructing us to do 2000 years later?  He says to let go of what we have, and transfer our wealth into spiritual things.  Give up our manmade accomplishments, our institutions and establishments, our hard-earned success.  Be willing to put it all on the line to follow God in the kingdom.  Seek first what God wants in the kingdom, and we will find true wealth.  

Like Jesus, we in the kingdom are the incarnation -- the presence of God on Earth in human form.  After being transformed by repentance, this is our true nature and role.  The way of the kingdom that Jesus is describing is how we will be transformed, and how we will continue to represent God on Earth.  We should do what Jesus did and what he taught.

In Luke 12:35-48, and again in 12: 54-59, Jesus emphasises the sense of urgency about the kingdom.  If you are lazy, you might miss it!  If you are going to act, you need to do it now! Opportunities don’t come around many times.  If we are unselfish and ready for action, we can participate in the kingdom.  If we are lazy and self-absorbed, we will miss it!  The opportunity will come knocking and we will be asleep!  It will go elsewhere.  In other words, inaction can be a form of selfish preservation.  Unselfishness requires action.   Can we see the times and properly interpret them?  Do we see the opportunity in front of us, or are we ignoring it?

In Luke 13:1-9, Jesus again takes up the concept of changing our hearts and lives, in the face of uncertainty.  We have no idea what calamity will come our way, but if we change our hearts and lives, we are ready for it.  If we die tomorrow, we took advantage of every opportunity instead of waiting for it to come someday.  If we always “wait to next year” we are fooling ourselves, taking the path of least resistance today and saving action for another day.  Skipping ahead to the parable of the fig tree in Luke 21:29-36, and lesson to of being prepared Luke 22:35-38, Jesus reiterates this sense of urgency.  The book of Luke certainly calls out how significant this topic was to Jesus as he taught his disciples how to combat selfishness and the path of least resistance in order to join the work of the kingdom.  Jesus knew the urgency of the present times and what was soon to come for his disciples.  They could not afford the time to relax in comfort, but needed to remain alert and ready for action.  This table summarizes these teachings:

Selfish Way
Kingdom Way
Not ready
Ready for action
Not paying attention
Keeping watch
Not seeing the signs
Observant of the world around us
Missing out on the kingdom
Participating in God’s kingdom
Take action “next year”
Take action today

In Luke 13:18,19, Jesus gives us the beautiful illustration of the kingdom of God as a giant tree enjoyed by all, that springs up from a tiny seed:

18 Jesus asked, “What is God’s kingdom like? To what can I compare it?19  It’s like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a garden. It grew and developed into a tree and the birds in the sky nested in its branches.” [Luke 13, CEB]

He also uses an illustration of how yeast can be the truth of God’s word and spread through the whole loaf.  This is in contrast to the yeast of the elitism mentioned in 12:1.  

20 Again he said, “To what can I compare God’s kingdom? 21  It’s like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through the whole.” [Luke 13, CEB]

Jesus gives us the idea that the kingdom, even though built fundamentally on humility, will be a dominant force, growing until the whole world is made into a better place.  The word of God does not go out in vain, but does it’s work and brings transformation.  From humble beginnings a great and powerful kingdom will grow.  From the revolution of heart and mind, Jesus will bring about the very kingdom of God on Earth.  

As Jesus warns in the passages of Luke 13 -- will we be a part of this kingdom or are we going to miss it?  Jesus talks of both aspects of the kingdom in 13:22-30, that it will be expansive, and that many people will miss out:

Expansive: People will come from east and west, north and south, and sit down to eat in God’s kingdom. Look! Those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last. [13:29,30 CEB]

But people will miss out: There will be weeping and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in God’s kingdom, but you yourselves will be thrown out. [13:28, CEB]

Which people will we be, the ones who miss out or the ones that would go to great lengths to join the kingdom?  In Luke 13:31-35, Jesus laments those that will reject him and the kingdom.  Those of his own people, his own country, who he most wants to reach, will be the ones to miss out.  Even worse, they are the ones who will most oppose the kingdom, trying to bring it crashing down by killing its king, like they did to the prophets of previous times.  Jesus so longs to gather those people to himself -- he loves them dearly -- but instead his heart is broken by their rejection of him.  Jesus is not vindictive when we miss out on the kingdom.  He wants nothing more than for us to see the truth and to change our hearts.  Giving us free will, we must accept or reject.  When we accept, we can go to any lengths, and give up anything, to join the kingdom.  Jesus will gather us together like a hen gathers her chicks  But when we reject him, Jesus allows us to oppose the kingdom, knowing that by remaining humble and peaceful, the kingdom will flourish -- those of us that oppose it will simply miss out on what God is doing!  We lose, but God still wins.

Moving on to Luke 14, Jesus just continues to re-iterate how the kingdom of God will grow through humility and kindness.  In 14:7-21, Jesus takes advantage of a situation he is observing where people are coming to a dinner, and as they enter they selfishly seek the best seats for themselves, close to the front to be near their host and near the action.  You can imagine the “bad” seats being in the back of the room, behind a pole or a curtain, where the guests can barely hear the toasts and speeches happening up front.  Jesus illustrates that human nature normally operates like this, seeking the good seats, but the kingdom is a new way of thinking, a revolution that comes from humility.  

In contrast to the normal human behavior in such a dinner, those in the kingdom would do things differently:
  • Guests would take the inferior seats, out of humble acknowledgment that they are not the most important people there
  • Hosts will honor the more humble guests, offering them better positions
  • Hosts will invite the people that are closest to them, but will also gather more and more guests from the surrounding community.  The more that those close to us reject us, the more we reach out to the community around us, using evil for good, and leveraging rejection as an opportunity.

Finally, in Luke 13:25-34, Jesus urges us to count the cost of living unselfishly.  Are we truly willing to follow Jesus on this revolutionary path?  It may mean giving up everything of our own in order to truly see what God is doing.  As a church are willing to do that?  Can we leave it all behind, if we need to, in order to see what new thing will happen?  If we count the cost as being too high, and hold on to what we have, we will be left with our own kingdom.  Kings in our own castles.  The rich farmer alone with his new barns.  But the kingdom of God will have moved on to greater possibilities.  We should carefully count the cost, both of participating, and of not participating.  We have free will and can choose how we use our time on this Earth.  Which kingdom will we build?

Similar to “loving your enemies”, placing ourselves in a position of humility allows those that oppose us to jump ahead and take the better spot.  We deliberately allow them to win, due to our lack of resistance.  But doing so does something amazing in the kingdom.  It allows God to win. It allows God to work and bring the greater victory, which is in part our own heart transformation, but which is also the joy he gets to have by elevating us to a better position.  God brings the good things, every perfect gift, so that’s why we can afford to love our enemies, give away our coat to the thief, or take the inferior seats at the banquet.  This way we earn nothing by seeking our own selfish gain, and God wins everything by being the source of all good gifts.

The Finder of the Lost Things

In Luke 15, the kingdom is described as 3 stories of an important lost thing or person being found, in an image of people changing their hearts and lives, which is the very heart of the kingdom message.  This happens after Jesus is accused of associating with sinners.  Jesus uses this word to illustrate the kingdom: is not his goal for these sinners to find transformation in the kingdom?  Each story has elements of:
  • selfishness (walking my own way),
  • a state of being lost
  • a point of crisis of needing to be found
  • one who seeks and finds, searching for that which is lost
  • repentance (the change of heart and mind)
  • the rejoicing when the finder succeeds and the sinner repents
  • the joy is not only in the one that finds, but also in the one that is found and in the angels in heaven.  This joy of angels is interesting in that indicates that the kingdom on Earth where lost things are found, is the objective of God in heaven.

As is happening at the beginning of this Luke 15 when Jesus is accused - The kingdom is opposed by the religious elite, here modeled as the “good” son who doesn’t understand the grace he’s been enjoying all this time.  It leaves the question in the mind of the listener - maybe the “good” son is also lost, but isn’t willing to have the same change of heart.

You can also view these stories with the “sinner” not being an individual
  • What if the people of God are lost, following selfish ways, lured by comfort and short-sighted thinking like the prodigal son?  The seeker of lost things is searching for them, to gather them into the true kingdom of transformation, into true community not only with each other (the other coins, the other sheep, the other son) but also with God (the Father, the finder).  The angels are cheering in the background as the people of God change their hearts and minds.

In another role change in this story, what if we are the seekers of the lost things?
  • Jesus transfers this role of seeker to us, and we are the fishers in search of the catch.  The light shining in the world.  We expand the kingdom through our message and mission.  The angels cheer when our message is heard and brings transformation.

We find other parables and stories in Luke 16-21 with a very similar theme regarding riches and generosity..  
  • In Luke 16 we find the parable of the shrewd manager.  What lesson does Jesus say it teaches?  Be faithful with what you have been given, every opportunity. Use it all for God.  The twist here is a significant irony, in that Jesus says what the shrewd/dishonest man did gives us insight in how to react to wealth, money and our own resources. He turns society expectations on its head, similar to love your enemies, and giving your coat to the robber.  The Pharisees obviously understood that this parable was directed at them.  They knew that Jesus was criticizing their love for money.  Jesus then tells them the story of a poor beggar named Lazarus and a certain rich man.  The wealth of the rich man did him no good in death, but Lazarus found his wealth in heaven.
  • In Luke 18, Jesus meets a rich man and tells him to go and sell everything (Luke 18:18-29).  
  • In Luke 19, Jesus meets Zaccheus, a very rich tax collector who had a change of heart about how he had mistreated people (Luke 19:1-10).
  • In Luke 19:11-28, the parable of the rich ruler who entrusted his servants with money.  Jesus taught about how we should invest our time and resources, not knowing the time when the master will appear,
  • Jesus notices a poor widow in Luke 21:1-4.  She gives everything she has, demonstrating  true generosity compared to the rich people throwing in their offerings.

These passages are summarized in the following table:

Selfish Way
Kingdom Way
Wealth on Earth
Riches in heaven
Love money
Use our resources responsibly and sacrificially for spiritual gain
Ignore pain of others
Compassion for the needy
No gain in the kingdom
Earning true wealth in the kingdom
Impossible to see God when seeing only Earthly wealth
God makes the impossible possible - God can bring faith and good works in any situation, so never give up hope even though it is very difficult for people to see God when they have no humility.  Maybe they will be humbled!
Exploit others for personal gain
Repay everyone we have wronged, many times over.  View wealth from a spiritual perspective.
No investment in the future - path of least resistance - fear of loss.
Invest our resources for the greatest possible return
Response to the shortness of time is to do nothing
Response to the shortness of time is to do everything possible with what we’ve been given
No participation in the kingdom
Helps to advance the kingdom
Give offerings that are of little consequence
Like the widow, we give it all!

In Luke 17:1-10, Jesus continues describing how the kingdom way differs from the kingdom way:

Selfish Way
Kingdom Way
Lead others to follow you in sin and selfishness
Prevent others from sin, warn them, forgive them
Allow others to go on their way
Change people’s hearts and lives
Require special praise for our actions
Face our responsibility with humility
No gratitude for God’s grace
Gratitude -- count the gifts!
God’s gifts are ignored, don’t lead to life change
God’s gifts are appreciated - leading to faith and life change

Next, in Luke 18:9-17, Jesus tells a beautiful story about how a proud religious man thought he was pleasing God by looking down on a humble man.  But God hates arrogance and values the humility that the tax collector was showing.  This story encapsulates how we must approach God in the kingdom.  We cannot see God while seeing others as lower than us. Skipping to Luke 20:45-47, Jesus condemns the legal experts overtly for acting exactly like this.  And in Luke 22:24-30, Jesus faces the temptation in his disciples to seek their own greatness.

Selfish Way
Kingdom Way
See God when we look down on others, because we misunderstand that God is impressed by our righteousness.  
See God when we humble ourselves
Our only reward is in our own heads.  We view ourselves as beautiful, but God sees only our ugly attitude.
Our reward is true participation in the kingdom, where God forgives and transforms us into something of beauty
Try to impress God with our achievements
Come to God as a child, humble and having no credentials
Show off our religious status, such as by wearing long robes, being honored publicly, taking the places of honor in social functions, and by saying long prayers, all the while cheating widows out of their homes!
Reject religious status, looking any different than anyone else.  Blend in publicly, take lower positions socially, do not show off our understanding of God to make ourselves look better or smarter.  Show our understanding of God through compassion!  Treat others right.
Seek our own greatness in the kingdom
Seek nothing for ourselves.  Seek to serve.  There is no place for greatness of individuals in the kingdom of God.  True reward is waiting in heaven and through spiritual gain - so it’s simply a matter of perspective and patience rather than seeking our own gain

Transforming Human Nature

Clearly there is a lot of teaching and information to unpack in Luke 12 through 18 and the similar passages in Luke 19-22.  What amazes me is that Jesus focused so much teaching on these concepts that contrasted selfish human nature with a transformed nature.  In the book of Luke, relatively little of his teaching was about anything else!  He saw examples around him of selfish and self-righteous people, and he called them out and used them as examples.  He told stories about how selfish people would act.  He also saw examples of humility and poverty around him.  He had so much compassion for those around him which were oppressed and needing hope.  His teachings were in response to what he saw around him.  He told the selfish and self-righteous to change their hearts and minds, and to join the kingdom way of behaving, as Jesus taught from the beginning of his ministry in the sermon on the mount.  In the same way, he was teaching the oppressed, poor and humble people around him that they would inherit the kingdom, in spite of their poverty, through the faith and hope that were growing within them.  Jesus taught both theory and practical application, using many examples and illustrations, references to what he saw around him, and clear instructions to his disciples about how to act.  It reminds me of how hard we work as parents to teach our children how to act.  We use every way possible to make it clear to them, instructing them, using examples that we see, using situations that we go through, and offering them insights about deeper concepts like humility bringing greater gain than pride.  Isn’t it hard for our children to learn these concepts that go so much against basic human nature?  Jesus taught that a kingdom would arise from such concepts.  The world could be transformed by this type of change in basic human nature, away from selfishness and toward compassion.  

As Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer:

‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.’ [from Luke 11:2, CEB],

his prayer was that the Father would bring in his kingdom, a place where his will and his way were to be found on Earth.  This requires heart transformation to spread like a giant tree from a little seed, from one person to the next in an organic, even contagious spread of kindness to the world.

Do we take this teaching seriously as the church?  If so we need to tear down our silos filled with grain and re-invest all of our time, energy and wealth into acts of true heart change -- acts of compassion and unselfishness.  Instead of creating a kingdom where we look good and righteousness, we need to create a kingdom where we are humbled, giving away the best seats at the banquet so that God’s ways can prevail over our own ways.  Instead of taking the lazy path of least resistance, protecting what is ours, we need to let it go and give it up, using our time and resources as if time is short and the urgency is great!  The selfish way leads to inaction with lots of good excuses.  The kingdom way is willing to lose and fail, so that God can win, because only by giving up our own selfish motivations can we join God’s greater plan for us and for how we will impact the world around us.  When we join this plan, we will be very glad that we did!  We will rejoice with the angels that we are seeing God’s hand at work in our time.  Don’t we long to see the world change?  Don’t we long to end hunger and poverty, to fight injustice in society, to bring water, education and medical care to every corner of the Earth, and to bring hope to the oppressed?  This is what the kingdom is all about.  Instead of being spectators we can join the revolution to bring good things to the world.  Can we tear up our church charters and constitutions and re-write them to take on this mission?  

We need to open the church.  We need to open our hearts and minds to the greater truth that the kingdom way is not the easy way, not the way of self preservation and isolation.  Like the widow, we must give it all.  We must open the church, and let all the grain spill out.  It is the way of the kingdom, and it is the only way for God to invade the world we live in.  This is the way for us to answer the question posed in this chapter -- how can we be a community instead of a religious institution?  -- only by humbly letting go of everything that we have been holding back for ourselves, sacrificing it on the cross, and letting God bring new life into it in his own way and his own time.  The religious institution is our stored up wealth.  The community and kingdom of God is what waits on other side when we can give up that stored wealth and choose a path of kindness, unselfishness, action and compassion.  Let’s put into practice the Kingdom Way described in the book of Luke, as a group of Jesus-followers longing to continue the work of God’s kingdom.