There was a challenge issued TWICE by Mike Slaughter in chapter one of this Renegade Gospel book we are examining during this Lenten season: to read through one of the gospels and pay specific attention to the red letters… to the words of Jesus… spoken there.
I pulled out my bible and started with Luke. Luke is the gospel assigned for this particular Lenten season according to the powers that be. It is the gospel we will be following most weeks during worship.
The very first time Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel, it is in the synagogue in his hometown and he is preaching.
Jesus reads from Isaiah, explains a bit about what he has read, and makes everyone so angry they drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.
I really hope you don’t try to do that to me this morning!
Now, many of his words, like the ones we find today in the reading (Rod/Natalie) just shared with us, are words of healing or forgiveness or calling.
“Woman, you are set free from your sickness” (Luke 13:12)
But almost every single time, like we found in our reading today, when Jesus does so, he really makes people angry.
He calls the wrong people, he forgives the unforgiveable, he heals on the wrong day…
The synagogue leader, in this particular healing, was “incensed” (as my bible puts it) that Jesus was healing on the Sabbath.
And all of this anger and frustration on behalf of the system was slowly coming to a boil, as we find just a few verses later.
As our reading continues, the Pharisees (the religious leaders) are plotting together with the political leader, Herod, to be done with Jesus for good.
Now, Herod’s father was the one who had tried to kill Jesus as an infant because he thought he might be a threat to his power.
And this Herod has already beheaded John the Baptist.
Both Herod and the religious leaders were upset about the populist movement stirring up in response to the ministry of John and Jesus.
As Mike Slaughter writes in Renegade Gospel:
“Jesus could never be perceived as a protector of the status quo” (p. 27)
I think the same is as true today as it was then.
Jesus is never satisfied with things the way they are, because Jesus has a vision of the way things can and should be.
He is constantly getting into trouble for doing what is “right for the sake of people” … even if it was against “the rules.”
I think, at the core, Jesus is always pushing the status quo, always challenging us to do more and to be more faithful, because his goal is nothing short of the Kingdom of God lived out on earth… and friends, we aren’t there yet!
Those of us gathered in this room are incredibly blessed… even if we struggle… because we have more resources at our fingertips than most people in this world.
But even here, in a great city, in a great state, in a great country, can we agree that we’re not in heaven yet?
And the KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding us to. The KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding the political and religious leaders to. The KINGDOM OF GOD is the standard.
And so even today, as a modern religious leader of the Christian faith, I read these words of Jesus and I am still challenged and pushed to really think about the teachings I share with you and how I call us to live them out together.
And all of those harsh words Jesus has for the Pharisees…. well, they are for people like me, too. Because too often, as your leaders, we have simply not preached the gospel! We haven’t shared the vision of the Kingdom of God and we haven’t given you the tools to truly be the Body of Christ, in the world, helping to bring that Kingdom to fruition.
And friends… I think that’s what we, the Body of Christ, are supposed to do.
When I re-read Luke’s gospel, over and over again, Jesus asks us to not only hear his words, but to obey them. Just on a glance back through this morning, I counted at least 9 times (Luke 6:47, Luke 8:21, Luke 9:48, Luke 10:1, Luke 10:28 & 37, Luke 11:28, Luke 12:1, Luke 18:22)… Jesus asks us to not only hear but to do them. To live them. To go and do likewise.
We are trying to be faithful Christians and put into practice what Jesus says.
And, here is the good news I discovered in these commands to “go and do likewise.”
Jesus is NEVER angry at ordinary people who doing the best they can to live out their faith.
He never shames them.
He never scolds them.
He invites them! But he doesn’t get mad at them for where they currently are in their journey of faith.
He is never upset with someone if they aren’t ready to do it. Jesus simply sends them on their way. Maybe another day, in a different sermon, they’ll be ready.
In our United Methodist tradition, we call this “going on to perfection.” Discipleship is a lifelong journey and you are wherever you are today without any judgment.
We are called to be like Jesus, and we fully acknowledge and admit that we aren’t there yet!
And why would we be? Jesus is divine! The Son of Man AND Son of God. The standards are the very KINGDOM OF GOD!
We are mere mortals, trying to live up to the standards of the divine.
There is a quote by Barbra Brown Taylor in her book, “The Preaching Life” that has always stuck with me:
Over and over, my disappointments draw me deeper into the mystery of God’s being and doing. Every time God declines to meet my expectations, another of my idols is exposed. Another curtain is drawn back so I can see what I have propped up in God’s place – no, that is not God, so who is God?
It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or finished. Pushing past curtain after curtain, it becomes clear that the failure is not God’s but my own, for having such a poor and stingy imagination. God is greater than my imagination, wiser than my wisdom, more dazzling than the universe, as present as the air I breathe, and utterly beyond my control. (p. 10)
Every day, when we read the gospels, we pull back the curtain, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, and we discover that we aren’t Jesus yet… we still have a ways to go!
We still have discoveries to make about what it means to be a faithful Christian.
But here is the beautiful and amazing thing about “going on to perfection”…
Every day, we also have an opportunity to grow more faithful.
Every day, we also have a chance to be more loving.
Every day, we also get to be a better Christian than yesterday.
The words of Jesus are NOT easy. The standards he sets for us are incredibly high! You know, Kingdom of God level!
But even in the midst of those Kingdom standards and Jesus’ never ending call for us to respond accordingly, there is grace upon grace upon grace.
One of my favorite lines in the chapter for this week from Mike Slaughter was this:
Although Jesus always called his followers to enter the small gate and take the narrow road to the Kingdom, he repeatedly taught mercy and relationship over rigidity and judgment. (p. 28)
And he points to Peter as the prime example.
You know Peter… the disciple who constantly questioned Jesus motives and got it wrong.
You know, Peter… the one who fell asleep in the garden.
You know, Peter… the one who denied Jesus three times when he needed him the most?
Jesus has ridiculously high standards. But when we don’t meet them… when we fail… and we will… Jesus keeps welcoming us back.
Keeps loving us.
Keeps showing mercy and love.
Keeps pouring God’s sanctifying, perfecting grace into our lives so tomorrow we can pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and try it again.
There is life and power and love and grace and mercy in the red-letter words of Jesus.
Jesus is constantly pushing our world through these words to rebel against what is… in light of what could be.
Jesus is asking us to examine ourselves, our church, our world, and to ask:
Can we be greater tomorrow than we are today?
Can we be more like Christ tomorrow than we were today?
Can this world look more like heaven tomorrow than it does today?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Always.
Thanks be to God.