There’s Eating With Sinners, and There’s Eating With Sinners

During his time here on earth, Jesus made a habit of “eating with sinners.” The authors of all three synoptic gospels make it a point to tell the stories multiple times, and they use these stories as a vehicle to draw a stark contrast between Jesus and the religious leaders of the time. Just how stark that contrast is, however, has been lost today as the modern Church stumbles over itself debating the foolishness of just how far it’s okay to go when we interact with folks in our day.

At risk, folks argue, is legitimizing or condoning sin. Everyone must know where we stand on every sin issue, or – supposedly – we are by default saying sin is okay. In short order, we find ourselves unwittingly on the side of the Pharisees rather than the side of Jesus.

Here’s how it went down back in Jesus’ day: Jesus meets people the religious folks have deemed immoral or unclean. Jesus goes to their house and eats with them. Religious folks enter, get pissed off, and Jesus rebukes them. It’s a good formula for a “speaking truth to power” kind of moment. But it goes even deeper than that.

When the gospel writers wrote these stories (for example, in Luke chapter 5), they recorded an even greater contrast in the Greek. When they note that Jesus is eating with these people, they use the Greek word katakeimanoi, which translates into the rich Jewish notion of “table fellowship.” Table fellowship was an extension of the vitally important value of hospitality in Jewish culture, and it was understood to be much more intimate than simply physically eating a meal. It meant sharing life with someone, entering into their world, showing you cared and showing you loved them. Table fellowship to the Jewish people, writes Craig Blomberg at Denver Seminary, “created intimate friendship, so it was reserved for those whom a person deemed the right kind of companions.”

According to the Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day, “the power of the unclean to defile the clean far outstripped the ability of the clean to sanctify the unholy.”

Sound familiar?

Jesus took that entire notion, said “Screw that,” and proceeded to have table fellowship with all the worst kinds of people.

So there, religious leaders.

But this is where it gets even better: when the Pharisees came in and got upset, they weren’t upset that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with immoral people. They couldn’t even see that far. No, the writers used a completely different Greek word to describe what the religious leaders were upset about: esthiete. Literally, to put food in your mouth. The physical act of eating while someone was beside you. Nothing more.

And so we get to the point of these stories. Jesus is katakeimanoi — having table fellowship with sinners, becoming intimately involved in their lives — and then the Pharisees come in and ask why Jesus is esthiete — physically eating food with them.

Did you catch it? The Pharisees, in their quest for holiness, simply did not get it. It’s like the gospel writers were saying, “These religious people could not possibly miss the point more than this.” They were mad at something so little, when Jesus was up to something even more scandalous that they couldn’t even see!

We miss the point a lot of the time today, too.

We put up walls, protect ourselves from the unclean, and expect others to do the same. In the name of purity and holiness we look suspiciously on anyone who would dare even esthiete with “sinners.” Meanwhile, Jesus is inviting us — expecting us! — to go so much further than that and katakeimanoi with them! Screw the rules. Screw this false sense of holiness and purity. Get down in the mud with people and show them you actually care about them.

It seems to me we worry so much about legitimizing sin, we miss the fact that we are delegitimizing grace.

We’ve somehow subscribed to this awful sin-focused “gospel” which forces us to care only about ugliness and purity. Instead, we need to become re-enamored with a grace-focused gospel which forces us to care only about people.

Somehow, after enjoying table fellowship with Jesus, I seriously doubt the tax collector got up, left the house, and thought, “Huh. That Jesus fellow didn’t say anything about my tax business. That must means it’s totally legit! Sweet!” No, I imagine he left that house in awe of being accepted, cared for, and welcomed as a human being. And because of that, he was changed.

It’s time we stopped worrying so much about legitimizing sin and lived our lives in a way that legitimizes grace.

God and Sin

The empire of evangelicalism is built on the idea of a holy God who cannot allow sin in his presence. It then uses fear and control as mechanisms to convince people that only they have the solution to this dilemma.

But… as we read about Jesus in the pages of Scripture, we see Jesus, who was God, do exactly that: allow sin in his presence. Furthermore, he not only allowed sin in his presence, he went out of his way to welcome sin into his presence.

Therefore, one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not God, or God can and does indeed allow sin in his presence.

We are so focused on the the holiness of God that we forget the very essence of God: that he is sacrificial love. God’s holiness does not demand that sin be cast out of his presence because his love demands a relationship with the sinner.

Sin is not the main problem or the ultimate enemy; death is. We are not fighting to overturn and end sin, we fight to overturn and end death. Even if there were miraculously no sin in the world tomorrow, death would still exist. And so we aim not to convince with fear and control, but to set free with life and love.

Because that is what we see Jesus doing on page after page of our story, and what we, as his disciples, are to imitate.

On the Need For Artists

The world lost an incredible woman this morning when Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. She was a poet leader whose inspiring works were matched only by her inspiring life.

The extraordinary outpouring at Maya Angelou’s passing reminds us that the world is not clamoring for more theologians or more men standing at podiums dispensing answers. No, the deepest desire and yearning of the world is for artists: poets and writers and painters, sculptors and actors and musicians who can cut through the noise of life and make. us. feel. Artists who speak to what it means to be human and inspire us to be better.

It strikes me that Jesus wasn’t a theologian. He never dealt in big words or complex theories, never got bogged down in the minutia of religious argument. He simply told simple stories to simple people, and yet his stories had deep, meaningful impact. He made a habit out of answering questions with questions, inviting people to be curious and explore rather than dispensing answers from on high. Jesus cared more about systemic injustice than systematic theology.

May we follow in Maya Angelou’s footsteps — indeed, the very footsteps of Jesus! — and dream of a better world, then join God as creative artists to make that dream, the Kingdom of God, come true.

Actually, Homosexuality is a Gospel Issue

After World Vision announced its decision to expand their employment practices to include married gay couples, a lot of Christians lost their ever-loving minds.

Thanks to this whole uproar over World Vision, the hypocrisy of the modern, western Christian majority has been laid bare for all to see – and the resulting chaos is not pretty.

Here’s why: after World Vision announced their policy change, thousands of Christians canceled their World Vision child sponsorships. In the first day, over two thousand people abandoned children. In the following days, thousands more followed suit. In other words, conservative Christians were so upset about gay people serving children, they more or less said: children need clean water, education, food, and medical supplies. Unless those things are provided by gay people. In that case children don’t need anything.

The counter argument from the conservative evangelical camp was quick: just because we are giving up on these specific children doesn’t mean we can’t go sponsor other children through other organizations. That logic, of course, is faulty, distant, and remarkably impersonal — as shown by several bloggers who pointed out that children are not merchandise, like cell phones and used cars, that we have the luxury of simply “trading in” for a different model.

Not only did Christians treat children – children! – as merchandise, they also treated them as bargaining chips, pushed to the middle of the poker table in order to force World Vision to fold. Entire denominations of churches, including the Assemblies of God and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to pull child sponsorships if World Vision continued on with the new policy.

Facing this incredible backlash, World Vision blinked and reversed course. Many evangelicals expressed their happiness at the reversal. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics Committee at the SBC, even declared it time to “rejoice.”

Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s take a look at the scoreboard. Gay people: demonized. Children: dehumanized. Evangelicals: celebratory.

That pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the western “church” – and why so many prominent authors, speakers, and leaders have publicly divorced themselves from evangelicalism after this train wreck. I can’t blame them. A big part of me wants to as well.

The idea of abandoning a child who needs support over a doctrinal difference with those providing the support is unfathomable to me, and I still cannot understand at any level of humanity where anybody would think that was okay… least of all people who claim to be following Jesus. My wife and I supported a little girl named Ivis for several years. We chose her because she shared a birthday with one of our sons. We received letters from her, pictures from her, drawings that she had made. She told us about her life, her family, her home. She asked us about our pets, our boys. We developed a relationship with her. When we found out she no longer needed support, we switched our support to another little girl named Lizzi and have been supporting her for several months now.

I cannot fathom a universe in which we would walk up to Ivis or Lizzi, look them in the eyes, and tell them, “Sorry. I know you need food and medicine and schooling and clean water. But the people who give those things to you? They hire gay people now. So we’re going to have to take those things back — oh, and this relationship? It’s over.

This whole uproar has conclusively proven something that I have fought so hard not to believe for the past several years: apparently, Christians can be as big of jerks as the world says we are. Apparently, a wide swath of us actually do care more about doctrine than people, more about purity than love. And apparently, there are a lot of Christians who just cannot get over their obsession with sex and what happens in other people’s bedrooms.

The Gospel Coalition and the Southern Baptist Church both put out statements on the issue, declaring homosexuality to be a “gospel issue” and therefore, non-negotiable. To bend or compromise would be to negate the gospel itself.

The argument, of course, is ludicrous. But here’s the surprising twist: in what may be the first and only time I’ve agreed with anything written over at the Gospel Coalition, I actually do think that homosexuality is a gospel issue. Just not exactly how they meant it.

The gospel is infinitely bigger than simply separating the world into sinners and saints, the hellbound and heavenbound. The gospel is about all of creation being put back together, with agape love holding it all together and redeeming everything. Therefore, how we treat gay people (and all people!) is very much a gospel issue.

If we think whether or not someone is gay is more important than whether a child eats…

If we stand idly by and watch as a segment of humanity is demonized and persecuted, or worse, actively participate in those actions…

If we do not stand up for gay teenagers, among whom suicide rates are skyrocketing because of the abuse they face from their peers as well as from religious groups…

…then we are not only not living out the gospel, we are denying the very thing we claim to be defending.

If we do not possess the ability to even extend common human decency, then we are far worse than unbelievers – for even the “sinners” do that. We are called to do so much more… to extend the very selfless love that Jesus extended to us.

I say this all as someone who still believes that homosexuality is a sin. I’ve read all of the arguments and contextualizations and articles explaining why it’s not, but I can’t convince myself that I can take that leap and remain intellectually honest. But I also understand this: believing something is a sin does not give me the ability, the opportunity, or the right to be a douchebag.

Jesus has called me, called us, to love. Unconditionally, without pause, without question and without demands. His earliest followers declared that loving other people (which requires us to first see them as people!) to be the fulfillment of His “law.” And therefore, I concur: the complete and utter inability of the Church — a large or at least highly vocal portion of it — to truly love gay people is a gospel issue. And it’s one that must be resolved.

Heaven and Nature Sing

We like to think of heaven, at least subconsciously, as being “up.”

After all, that’s the direction Jesus went when he ascended into heaven, right? He was “taken up” and his students were left with their mouths hanging open, “gazing up into heaven.”

But that’s not all of the story. In fact, that misses a central plotline in the story.

When Jesus came to earth (down to earth?) it was a miraculous moment because heaven — the vast, unreachable heaven, was colliding with earth. It was a collision which had occurred only a few times ever before, and never lasted long. This time would be different, though: this time, heaven would remain on earth.

Jesus came to institute the kingdom of heaven on earth. That’s the narrative of the good news stories written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He didn’t come to whisk people away to some far off land, or to make us pine for a place we couldn’t yet be.

He taught us to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He taught us that heaven was like yeast, slowly working its way through a batch of dough. He taught us heaven grows on earth like a plant grows from a seed.

In other words, heaven on earth started small, with the birth of a baby boy, and now it continues to grow, to work its way through a weary world. It grows and spreads with every decision we make to bring life instead of death, love instead of hate, peace instead of war.

And it grows and spreads by the power of heaven’s King even while we sleep or do nothing or screw up.

This advent season, look around you. You’ll see lots of pain, brokenness, injustice, and hurt. These are opportunities to grow and spread heaven on earth. And look around you some more. You’ll also see lots of joy, love, peace, and hope. These are evidences of the truth: when Jesus ascended, he left heaven here on earth for us.

If you’re looking for heaven this holiday season, don’t look up — look around you.

Defend This

For decades, western Christianity has been, in large part, defined by a defensive stance. It is something we’ve brought upon ourselves as a chosen response to a shifting culture around us. We see things changing and our inclination is to hunker down and attempt to protect the things we hold dear.

And so for decades we’ve loudly, publicly, and pointedly made a habit of defense. We have called one another to defend the faith. Defend Christianity. Defend God. Defend the traditional family. Defend doctrine. Defend orthodoxy. Defend traditional values. Defend the Bible. Defend defend defend.

All the while culture and society pass us by, shaking their heads as they confusedly watch us wrap our arms around and cower over those things; watching as we mumble with increasingly wild eyes like Gollum protecting his precious.

The problem isn’t necessarily that we have assumed this defensive posture, though. What I find interesting is what we are attempting to defend.

Do you know what Scripture instructs us to defend?

Orphans.

Widows.

The oppressed.

The poor.

The needy.

Notice what Scripture does not instruct us to defend: Doctrine. Heterosexual marriage. Scripture. Traditional values. Christianity. Anything in that first list above. And as I thought about the contrasts between those two lists today — what we like to defend and what God instructs us to defend — I was struck with a realization:

I realized that we expend our time, energy, and passion defending things rather than defending people.

We defend belief sets and dogma and ideas and theologies with such intense fervor. But we leave people by the wayside.

May we engage in the challenging endeavor of letting things go and embracing people. May we realize that doctrine is never more important than humanity; that heterosexual marriage is not in need of protecting; that it doesn’t really matter what relationships a secular, civil government recognizes; that 1950’s America (if it ever really existed in the first place) isn’t what God is calling us to; that religious institutions aren’t the same as the Kingdom of God; that if we truly believe God is God that we ought to believe he can defend himself.

May we pray to see and recognize and seize opportunities to enter into the mess of people’s lives and defend them, giving them the dignity of knowing they were created in the image of God and the love which sets them free.

May we defend people, not things.

Render Unto Caesar

In case you hadn’t heard the news yet, Louie Giglio will not be praying at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony this week. The firestorm over this man and something he said a couple decades ago is astounding in its ability to get people riled up.

Giglio is an evangelical pastor from Atlanta, and he is on the forefront of the fight against human trafficking and the sex slave trade. This has brought him a lot of positive attention, and for good reason — it is an excellent cause and he and his church are doing amazing things to aid in the fight against those horrific crimes. In fact, that attention is why Giglio was invited to pray at the inauguration in the first place.

However, some groups began researching Giglio and unearthed a sermon that he taught more than 15 years ago about homosexuality. It was described as “anti-gay” and so the groups began pressuring Obama to revoke Giglio’s invitation. Eventually, Giglio and Obama announced, separately, that they had mutually decided Giglio’s presence at the event would not be beneficial. Giglio’s withdrawal has now created its own firestorm. Everyone is up in arms at everyone else. The familiar battle lines are drawn: secular progressives versus religious conservatives. It’s a tired battle we’ve seen play out far too many times over the past fifty years.

It’s one that I wonder why we even fight. From either side of the issue.

Look, the groups who were pressuring Obama to give Giglio the boot were being asinine. The guy is giving a sixty second prayer of blessing, not a sermon. Giglio isn’t involved in any scandals, no extramarital affairs, no drugs, nothing. The guy’s clean. The fact that they had to go back more than 15 years to find anything on him should tell you something. The fact that an evangelical pastor gave a sermon labeling homosexuality a sin (and thus somehow qualifying as “vehemently anti-gay”) in the early or mid-90s shouldn’t surprise anybody, either. What is surprising is that something someone said nearly two decades ago is being held against them now.

I have things I said five or ten years ago that I hope aren’t held against me, let alone fifteen or twenty.

But on the other side of the coin, Christians are acting just as foolishly, if not more so. Complaints that the first amendment is being shredded abound; cries of persecution and an anti-religion agenda dot the landscape. It’s as if Christians got together and said to those in opposition to Giglio, “Oh, you want to overreact? We’ll show you overreact!” Contrary to popular belief, the First Amendment does not guarantee anyone the right to pray at an inauguration ceremony. And even if, in some strange land, this amounted to “persecution,” aren’t we supposed to turn the other cheek? To pray for those who persecute us? To show them the love of Christ?

If we truly represent Jesus, then apparently he’s a whiny little kid with a martyr complex.

There is a much larger issue, however, that this whole brouhaha has served to highlight in my mind: why Christians should be incredibly wary about casting their lots with anything or anyone political in the first place.

Instead of getting angry, I pray this is a reminder to us of why mixing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Politics will never be able to save us. We will never be able to pass enough laws to make people holy or make them love God. We will never change people from the inside out with the machinations of Washington. So why do we try?

It’s alluring, that’s for sure. It’s nice to think that taking up political causes like pacifism or welfare programs or the rights of unborn children would actually solve the problem of death and poverty and abortion. It’s nice to think activism (or, in this day and age, slacktivism) would actually bring about the kingdom of God. But it won’t. It won’t because politics doesn’t change hearts, it only applies surface-level solutions to immensely deep problems. It won’t because politics is tainted by human corruption, greed, and power.

If politics could actually save us, Jesus would have been born in Rome and spent his 33 years involved in the Senate or as an Emperor.

Instead, he spent his 33 years largely hanging around a backwoods agrarian community. Spending time with people. Doing the slow and unalluring work of loving people.

Had Jesus been born today, there’s little doubt in my mind that he would not run for President – or if he did, he certainly couldn’t win the primary in either major party.

The prayer at the inauguration seems meant to make us as a nation feel better anyhow. It’s like keeping “In God We Trust” on our money, when so many of us don’t. It’s a way for us to to ensure we don’t incur God’s wrath, and hopefully incur his blessing — a superstitious method of religion. It reminds me of the story in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel when Israel lost a military battle. They regrouped back at camp and asked, “Why did God let us lose? I know – it’s because we didn’t have the Ark of the Covenent with us! Grab it and let’s go back out and fight!” The Ark of the Covenant was a holy artifact that represented God’s presence. The Israelites thought they were doing a good thing, inviting God to be present with them on the battlefield. Instead, God allowed them to lose the battle again — and allowed their Ark to be taken away.

Apparently, God doesn’t do superstition too well.

At some point in the not-so-distant future, the prayer at an inauguration will be offered by a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Wiccan, or by multiple people to ensure an array of religions is represented. When this happens, Christians will undoubtedly throw another temper tantrum, not understanding that they are being used by politicians. At some point after that, the prayer will probably be done away with entirely and Christians will bemoan the loss of God’s influence – not realizing the loss of one of our modern-day Arks might give us the opportunity to refocus on what really matters.

Something the Bible makes quite clear is this: nations will rise, and nations will fall. Kings and Presidents and countries and governments will come and go. Many have crumbled and many more will, and it does not matter. Some day, America will fall from “greatness” (with all the debatable baggage that term brings with it), just like all the superpowers that came before us. Why? Because politics is only a temporary “fix” to the human condition. It can only hold things together for so long.

The kingdom of God does not require a strong America to exist and thrive, so why do we? The kingdom of God does not require a token prayer at a political ceremony, so why do we? The fate of God does not rest on the direction of one nation – ours or anybody else’s. So maybe instead of pouring our passions into political bandaids and directing our misplaced anger toward politicians, maybe we ought to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and get on with the kingdom business of slow, purposeful, sacrificial love.

Redemption of Laughter

In Genesis 18, we see an interesting scenario unfolding. Three “men” – messengers from heaven, sent by God – visit Abraham and Sarah to deliver some news:

Sarah is going to have a baby.

Upon hearing this news, Sarah laughs. She has been getting the senior citizen’s discount at Denny’s for a couple decades now. There’s no way she’s having a baby.

The angels hear this and set off a humorous exchange by asking her, “Why did you laugh?”

Sarah responds by lying: “I did not laugh.”

To which the angel says, “Yes, you did laugh.”

Oh, those Hebrews and their knack for conversational drama. Heh.

But the point of the exchange was to draw attention to what was underlying Sarah’s laughter: doubt. Her eyes were on human circumstances instead of heavenly miracles. Like mine tend to be too often.

And that’s how that section of the story is left — until four chapters later where one of the most beautiful things in the world happens: redemption.

Sarah ends up getting pregnant and giving birth to a baby, which they name Isaac.

There is a lot of meaning behind that name. In Hebrew, it means “laughter” or “he or she laughs.”

Obviously a reference to Sarah’s doubting laughter upon hearing the angel’s news, right? Not so fast. Look what Sarah says about her new son’s name:

“God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Did you catch it? More laughter. But not doubtful laughter exposed in shame. Joyful, gleeful, unbelievably amazed laughter. The beautiful kind that sends happy tears rolling down your face.

Isaac is named “Laughter” to showcase God’s redemption – his main purpose and the main thread throughout the narrative of Scripture. The story began with Sarah laughing at God and his promises, and ends with Sarah laughing with God and his blessing.

I have to imagine Sarah felt some pretty heavy guilt when the messengers left that day. And some more guilt once she actually got pregnant. And even more guilt when she carried the baby to full term. But God wasn’t in the business of using that against her. He was in the business of redemption.

In a way, the redemption of Sarah, Abraham, and the beginning of the Jewish nation is represented in this story by the redemption of laughter.

Today, I pray you remember that God is not in the business of guilt. He is in the business of redemption.

Redemption of Laughter

In Genesis 18, we see an interesting scenario unfolding. Three “men” – messengers from heaven, sent by God – visit Abraham and Sarah to deliver some news:

Sarah is going to have a baby.

Upon hearing this news, Sarah laughs. She has been getting the senior citizen’s discount at Denny’s for a couple decades now. There’s no way she’s having a baby.

The angels hear this and set off a humorous exchange by asking her, “Why did you laugh?”

Sarah responds by lying: “I did not laugh.”

To which the angel says, “Yes, you did laugh.”

Oh, those Hebrews and their knack for conversational drama. Heh.

But the point of the exchange was to draw attention to what was underlying Sarah’s laughter: doubt. Her eyes were on human circumstances instead of heavenly miracles. Like mine tend to be too often.

And that’s how that section of the story is left — until four chapters later where one of the most beautiful things in the world happens: redemption.

Sarah ends up getting pregnant and giving birth to a baby, which they name Isaac.

There is a lot of meaning behind that name. In Hebrew, it means “laughter” or “he or she laughs.”

Obviously a reference to Sarah’s doubting laughter upon hearing the angel’s news, right? Not so fast. Look what Sarah says about her new son’s name:

“God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Did you catch it? More laughter. But not doubtful laughter exposed in shame. Joyful, gleeful, unbelievably amazed laughter. The beautiful kind that sends happy tears rolling down your face.

Isaac is named “Laughter” to showcase God’s redemption – his main purpose and the main thread throughout the narrative of Scripture. The story began with Sarah laughing at God and his promises, and ends with Sarah laughing with God and his blessing.

I have to imagine Sarah felt some pretty heavy guilt when the messengers left that day. And some more guilt once she actually got pregnant. And even more guilt when she carried the baby to full term. But God wasn’t in the business of using that against her. He was in the business of redemption.

In a way, the redemption of Sarah, Abraham, and the beginning of the Jewish nation is represented in this story by the redemption of laughter.

Today, I pray you remember that God is not in the business of guilt. He is in the business of redemption.