What God has Made Clean: Thoughts on the Impartiality of God

Acts 11: 1-18

11Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me [by Cornelius] from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.* These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

A couple years ago, Karen and I went to see a play at the CLO Cabaret called “First Date”.

It was a musical farce about two people on a blind date.

As Aaron and Casey try to get to know each other it comes out that Casey, unlike Aaron, is not Jewish.

The scene freezes.

Aaron’s mind wanders in a production number where he is musically instructed by Jewish relatives and friends that “This girl is not for you!”

Casey is not for Aaron because Casey is not Jewish.

It was pretty funny.

But it is also poignant.

Humanity is incredibly tribal.

Racial.

Ethnic.

Religious.

Cultural.

Each has unique rules, traditions and expectations of its members.

To be in the tribe, you must follow these traditions and meet these expectations.

If you don’t you “are not for them!”

You aren’t welcome.

Maybe even looked down upon.

Or worse.

Israel was no different.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites were instructed to keep themselves pure.

No living or intermarrying with non-Jews.

Lots of rules, traditions and expectations to live by in order to be different from those outside the tribe.

The people not for us!

No Caseys allowed!

That was the way it was when Jesus came.

But then, before Jesus left, he gave his followers the Great Commission.

Go and make disciples of all nations.

All nations.

So what exactly did that mean?

We find out in Acts.

It is a story that covers 1 and ½ chapters.

All of Chapter 10 and half of chapter 11.

The longest story in Acts.

An epic with a world changing message.

Peter’s baptism of Cornelius.

You see, before Peter met Cornelius, there was a dispute among the leaders.

The dispute asked this simple question:

Must someone be a Jew first to be a follower of Jesus?

Peter’s position on the matter before encountering Cornelius had been clear.

Yes!

Absolutely!

Only Jews were invited.

Non-Jews were not.

They were not for us!

Peter knew the rules, expectations and traditions when it came to the Gentiles.

They were profane and unclean.

Unwelcome.

Not for us.

He had been taught that from his youth and it was a part of who he was.

Yet Peter is told, by God, to do that which ran counter to everything he believed.

Values that he firmly held to be true—divinely established, absolute and eternal.

Can you imagine what Peter felt like when he was told to go to Cornelius?

In today’s jargon we might say he was “creeped out”.

If fact when first told to go, Peter said no to God!

Peter was not going to touch anything unclean – like a gentile.

And Cornelius is not just any gentile.

He is a Roman Soldier from Italy.

He is a foreign enemy conqueror.

But Peter ultimately goes to Cornelius, preaches the Gospel, and then baptizes Cornelius and every one in his household.

Gentiles, all of them.

Unclean, every one of them.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of Peter’s baptism of Cornelius on the budding church of Jesus Christ.

It resulted in the transformation of a small Jewish Jerusalem sect into the Christian faith community we see today.

Peter followed the leading of the Holy Spirit and did something profoundly against everything he had been taught as a Jew.

He baptized a gentile.

And when Peter baptizes them, the Holy Spirit lights up their heads with fire.

Just like the Apostles at Pentecost.

Peter didn’t see that coming!

But then Peter remembers something Jesus said.

16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’

And he finally gets it.

God wants all humanity to come to Him, not just the Jews.

And Peter is changed!

At his baptism Cornelius had been touched by the Holy Spirit.

The meaning was clear.

God shows no partiality.

There were no longer any differences between people who wanted to be disciples of Jesus.

Everyone is welcome at the table of the Lord.

And now Peter is back in Jerusalem.

And the leaders of the faith have some questions for him.

Peter is scolded by the Jerusalem leaders.

You did what?

You ate with the unclean?

You baptized the unclean?

What were you thinking?

Then Peter told the story.

The power of the story silenced Peter’s critics.

They stopped scolding Peter and praised God.

They praised God because God turned out to be more merciful than they could ever have imagined.

Even gentiles were welcome.

Them, too!

They are for us!

Jesus was not just for the Jews.

To become a follower of Jesus, no one is required to become something they aren’t first.

They just have to follow Jesus.

And when we go to those “not for us” and tell them that – tellthen that they are welcome in the kingdom – that they are for us and we are for them – they will be changed, and we will be changed, too.

It was Peter’s willingness to tell Cornelius about Jesus that changed not only Cornelius, but … Peter!

In giving the blessing of the Gospel, Peter was blessed.

I have seen this work.

I met someone like Peter in Malaysia.

In Kota Kinabalu there is a missionary school for stateless children.

These are kids who were born in Malaysia to foreign workers.

They are Iban or Philippine mostly.

They are not considered Malaysian because their parents are not Malaysian.

They are not welcome back to their parent’s county because they have no “papers”.

They are not permitted to go to Malaysian government schools because they are not Malaysian and usually end up on the streets, begging or doing unspeakable things.

But the Basel Christian Church of Malaysia has opened a school just for them.

Many of the teachers are Christians from China.

One is Tanley.

Tanley is a really big guy with a really deep voice.

He reminded me of Andre the Giant in the movie “The Princess Bride”.

Tanley told us his story.

He came to Kota Kinabalu at the invitation of a child hood friend named Tracy who was teaching these children there.

He confessed that the Chinese are quite prejudiced.

They believe they are special.

They inhabit what they call the middle kingdom.

Not quite heaven, but above the rest of us.

He knows it’s wrong, but he has been carefully taught this, and despite that he is a follower of Jesus, he sometimes can’t help feeling that way.

And he encountered his prejudice immediately at the Basel school.

Tanley went to teach his first class.

He hated it.

The children were black.

He was white.

He did not like the way they looked.

He did not like the way the smelled.

He did not like the way they talked.

He did not like the way they acted.

These children were not for him.He was ready to quit at the end of his first day.

But Tracy convinced him to stay another day.

The next day, the kids were so glad to see Tanley again that they all ran to him and hugged him.

He liked the hugs.

He went back another day.

That day, in teaching a Bible verse to the kids, he did a little dance.

Andre the Giant dancing.

The kids went wild.

They loved it and danced with him.

Climbed all over him

And loved him.

And Tanley found out something that to him was extraordinary.

Tanley loved them back.

Tanley thought he came to teach the children about Jesus.

But the children taught him.

The children he was supposed to teach about love taught him to love.

He told us that he now believes God sent him there to learn how to love from these children.

Just like Peter and Cornelius.

Peter went to teach Cornelius about Jesus, but then learned what Jesus had tried to teach.

God loves every single one of us enough die so that we might live.

And we are to learn that, too.

And when we do, we will be enlightened!

For Peter, that meant non-Jews were included.

For us it includes all the Caseys that we think are not for us.

And for Jesus, we are all Caseys.

Folks not for the kingdom, until he opened the doors and let us in.

If there is to be a distinction made, that distinction is for God to make, not us.

And God, according to Peter, makes no distinction.

And Paul in Galatians 3 confirms Peter’s conclusion:

27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

That is the Jesus Way!

God is impartial.

Unbiased.

And that’s a good thing, because otherwise, we might not be for the kingdom!

So when you look over those that disagree with you, that do not live as you live, that conduct themselves in ways you find hard to accept, remember that they are as welcome in the kingdom as any of us!

They are loved no more or less by God than we are.

And even if it is not the way we would like it to be, we must repeat Peter’s question:

“Who are we that we question God?”

Because who God has made clean, we must not call profane.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

In 1967 the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” premiered. The movie starred Spencer Tracey, Katherine Hepburn, Sydney Poitier, and Jennifer Houghton. While the movie was in the comedy/drama genre, it was more provocative than anything else. The story was about a young white woman (Houghton) who gets engaged to a young black physician (Poitier). After the engagement, she brings home her fiancé to meet her parents (Hepburn and Tracey) over dinner. The parents are what we might call “progressive” today, but there is no doubt that their introduction to the groom to be will be a challenge to their liberal leanings. In 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in 12 states. While legal in California, it was not readily accepted even in 60’s San Francisco, the setting for the movie. The reaction of the parents is predictable – polite but horrified. Interracial marriage will be beyond difficult for the couple. They, and their families, will be ostracized and subject to discrimination. Even the black maid feels this way. The groom to be is equally worried and has not yet told his parents, who are also coming to dinner, that he will be marrying a white woman. When his parents arrive for the “meet the parents” dinner, they, too, are politely appalled. Just watching the interaction between the characters of this fictional story can be uncomfortable.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is all about acceptance of something – here an interracial relationship – that has been historically forbidden. Which is the circumstance the Apostle Peter faced when he was sent by God to visit a fellow by the name of Cornelius. This Biblical “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” story ends with Peter’s defense of this meeting to the Apostles in Jerusalem. This Biblical story, too, is one with both comedy and drama. It also has one of the most profound and important messages in the New Testament. Come hear about it on Sunday August 26 at 9:30 when Pastor Jeff preaches “What God has Made Clean” based on Acts 11: 1-18. We will look forward to seeing you!

Getting Directions: Thoughts on giving people directions to God’s Kingdom.

Acts 8:26-39

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and  go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

I have one of those genetic disorders linked to the Y chromosome.

This disorder is different from most, though.

I don’t notice it at all, usually.

My wife Karen does.

What is this disorder you ask?

I don’t ask directions.

And I know I am not alone.

I’m pretty sure this has been a male trait since creation.

Alison Armstrong, creator of the Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women workshops says this:

Almost every woman has a story about a man who drove around for hours looking for someplace and refused her entreaties to stop and ask. To women, this seems like the ultimate display of male arrogance and stubbornness. But what if it isn’t?

It is important to understand that a man is NEVER “lost.” … He simply hasn’t gotten there yet, and he has complete faith in his ability to do so.

… [T]he moment he asks … for directions, he has put his life and yours in the hands of a stranger! … The way he sees it, you are both better off searching for your destination yourselves than being at the mercy of someone he doesn’t know and trust.

On the other hand, maps are the be-all and end-all of travel. With a map, a man can make a solid decision based on reliable information.

A woman who understands—and even likes—reading maps becomes a highly valued travel partner. To quote men, a woman who happily reads maps “becomes useful in the hunt,” and is “awesome” and “nearly perfect.” … [I]f you’re consulting a map, you’ll find a man more than willing to follow your directions.

She must have been in the back seat with the kids when Karen and I were traveling.

But what does this have to do with Philip?

This story from Acts is about a man who needed directions.

And a man who was sent to give him those directions.

I love this story.

It is one of my favorites.

Phillip, one of the Apostles, was doing what Jesus had told him to do.

Go and take the Gospel to the entire world and baptize all who want to enter the Kingdom of God.

And Phillip did.

He went where the Spirit took him, and gave directions to the Kingdom to everyone he met.

His directions were simple.

Follow Jesus.

And he told everyone.

No one was excluded.

In today’s story, Phillip comes across this guy sitting in a chariot by the side of the road.

Unbeknownst to Phillip, he is the Secretary of the Treasury of Ethiopia, a big kingdom in Africa ruled by the “Candace”.

It seems this unnamed fellow had been checking out the Hebrew God in Jerusalem.

He was probably on some kind of spiritual journey.

No religious affiliation.

Looking for meaning.

Just like so many people in our post-Christendom world.

Just like 20% of all Americans and 33% of all Americans under 30.

He was “spiritual but not religious”.

In the world today, church affiliations are no longer passed down from one generation to the next.

Heck, we can no longer assume Christianity will be passed on to the next generation.

But folks are still out there – in here? – trying to find God.

Trying to find God’s kingdom.

Reading about spiritual things.

Trying to make sense of life.

Trying to find a connection with eternity.

Trying to have an experience with the divine.

Like this Ethiopian.

Our Ethiopian friend acquired an Isaiah scroll.

He was reading it but not understanding it.

I have an image of him reading it aloud to everyone with him and then raising his palms to the sky saying, “Anybody got a thought? Anybody? Anybody?”

I know what that feels like.

I remember when I was in high school I read “The Great Gatsby”.

I hated it.

My reaction was “So what?”

Just a bunch of amoral rich people with too much time on their hands.

I did not do well on the Gatsby test.

Some years later I read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by an English language literature professor at the University of Tehran.

Part of the book turned out to be an in-depth discussion of “The Great Gatsby” from her class lectures.

Let’s say, she got a bit more out of the book than my 16-year-old self.

She peeled back the layers of Fitzgerald’s story and identified themes and perspective I never thought about, certainly when I was 16.

Had I read her book before I took the Gatsby test, I might have done much better.

I think this Ethiopian was like my 16 year Gatsby old self.

He was reading something that made no sense to him.

He was lost.

He needed directions.

Someone to peel back the story and disclose its true meaning.

But no rabbi or priest was going to teach this fellow about Isaiah no matter how much he was willing to listen.

The Ethiopian was a eunuch.

And this is important.

Because he was a eunuch, under Jewish law he was cursed and permanently unclean.

He was not even permitted in the Temple.

Even if he wanted to, he could not become a Jew.

Though he searched for God, there was no way for him to find the way.

It seemed he was unwelcome.

Yet he had gone to Jerusalem to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

Somehow, he had acquired an Isaiah scroll.

Maybe he could fine directions to this great God.

A place.

A way of life.

A purpose.

A destination.

An encounter with the divine.

But what he got was this road worn ragged guy named Philip.

I imagine their encounter went something like this:

Phillip: So … what are you reading?

Ethiopian: Some Jewish prophet – Isaiah.

Phillip: Oh?

Why?

Ethiopian: I’m trying to have an encounter with the divine.

Phillip: What do you think?

Ethiopian: Think?

I don’t know what to think.

I don’t understand what the point is.

Reminds me of the Great Gatsby!

Phillip: Oh? What part are you reading now?

Ethiopian: I am particularly interested in this:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

Phillip: Do you know what it means?

Ethiopian: How can I?

I’m a eunuch.

No one will explain it to me.

Phillip: I will.

There was a man named Jesus…

While we do not know what Phillip said exactly, we do know how the Ethiopian responded.

‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me, a Eunuch, from being baptized?’

Phillip’s answer?

Nothing.

Nothing about you is unwelcome in the Kingdom.

Jesus sent me to tell you that.

Come on; let’s get it done.

And the Ethiopian goes home rejoicing.

Why?

Phillip taught him about Jesus.

About divine love.

That he was a subject of that divine love.

And when the water was poured on his head, the Ethiopian had an encounter with the divine.

Now comes what Paul Harvey would call the rest of the story …

This fellow goes back to Ethiopia and tells the Candace what Phillip told him about Jesus.

And next thing we know, all Ethiopia is Christian.

The first Christian nation … ever.

We have all known people like this fellow.

We have all been this fellow.

Post-Christendom, spiritual but not religious, non-denominational, searchers.

While I have been a life long Presbyterian, I had need for directions.

Here is my story.

I grew up in the church.

I went to college and did not go back to church in any consistent way until AJ was born.

Sound familiar?

Then one day I got a call from my brother.

“Let’s take Dad to a Promise Keepers conference.”

Two days of worship and praise at Three Rivers Stadium.

It would be an outing with our Dad.

Saturday afternoon I was sitting there listening to Crawford Loritts, a Baptist preacher from Tennessee.

I have little memory of what he was saying.

But he picked up his Bible and said “this book must be the foundation of our lives” or something like that.

I felt like someone thumped me on the chest.

Jesus?

This guy Loritts was right!

I needed to look into this.

So, I read the Bible.

All of it.

Took me a year.

Then, suddenly, it all made sense.

I just knew.

I was like that Ethiopian.

I had an encounter with the divine.

The world has never looked quite the same to me.

It’s still not perfect.

It’s still a dangerous place.

It still ends with my physical death.

But I also know that Jesus loves me for who I am, as imperfect as I am.

And that because Jesus lives, somehow I will, too.

And now I try to be like Phillip.

Over the past several years I have met several people who show up at church looking like the Ethiopian.

Like the Ethiopian they are looking for something.

A place.

A way of life.

A purpose.

A destination.

An encounter with the divine.

When I meet such people, I listen to them, ask God for a word or two that might send them in the right direction, and then I share with them some story from scripture that I think they need to hear.

It does not always come to me right away, but it always does come to me if I listen long enough and often enough.

Something that will have impact.

Like Phillip teaching Isaiah to the Ethiopian.

Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a story that teaches us how to give directions to lost people.

Tell them about Jesus.

Give directions to the Kingdom.

Many here today have such a story.

But many are still searching.

And if you are still searching, I offer this.

Come here and meet the living Jesus.

Get directions to a destination where we are all welcome and loved.

The Kingdom of God.

And all we need to do is follow Jesus.

Actually, I think that’s why we all come here.

To hear a word from God.

To experience his presence.

To be spiritual and religious!

Religious in the sense that we are part of the Kingdom of God.

The Body of Christ.

His church!

A place.

A way of life.

A purpose.

A destination.

Where we can have an encounter with the divine.

To rejoice like the Ethiopian because we found what we have been looking for.

God.

But we also need to become like Phillip.

Looking out for those post-Christendom, spiritual but not religious, non-denominational, and even Presbyterian, searchers.

To be ready to invite them into the water, giving them directions to their own experience with the divine.

With Jesus.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

When I was practicing law, I represented doctors who were sued for medical malpractice. Often my clients were sued for not obtaining “informed consent” from a patient before performing a medical procedure on that patient. What is informed consent? It goes like this.

A doctor is not allowed to perform an invasive procedure on a patient until the doctor has told the patient what the procedure is, its risks and potential complications, as well as any alternative treatments and their risks and potential complications, and also the risks and potential complications of doing nothing at all.

Then the patient decides if the patient will have the procedure. But here is the problem. When the doctor tells the patient all this, does the patient have any idea what the doctor is actually saying? Here is what Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D. and Timothy D. Gilligan, M.D. said in a New York Times OP/ED piece about a typical informed consent conversation.

Us: Blah blah blah.

You, as the patient, nod, and look like you’re paying close attention.

Us: Did you understand everything we said?

You: Yes.

Us: Any questions?

You: No.

A fundamental challenge with this process is that it is often unrealistic to think that you actually could be fully informed of what you’re about to undergo.  … If your doctor says that you’ll end up with a “simple iliac ileal conduit” or a “urostomy,” [you should] feel free to say “I don’t understand those words. Can you explain what that means?”

You see, the problem is we can’t understand the doctors because we are not doctors. We don’t understand the jargon. And our doctors are not often trained to put what they are telling us in laymen’s terms. So we don’t understand what they are saying (which we are afraid to admit), but they think we do. Which is why Sekeres and Gilligan recommend you ask for the doctors to tell you what the words they are using mean. Make sure you understand before you commit. This problem is not limited to doctors. It happens whenever someone uses jargon to explain something to someone unfamiliar with the language. Or worse, when someone who does not understand the jargon tries to use the jargon to explain something. It actually happens a lot when we talk about the Bible … what it says and what it means.

Come and hear more about this on Sunday, August 19 at 9:30 when Pastor Jeff preaches “Getting Directions” based on Acts 8: 26-39. We will look forward to seeing you.

What Makes Jesus Mad? Thoughts on Hypocrisy

Matthew 23: 13, 15-17, 23-31

13 ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 ‘Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” 17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred?

23 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

25 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

27 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.

As most of you know, back in the 1970s Myron Cope was a radio sports talk personality in Pittsburgh.

He was the color guy on the Steeler radio broadcasts and host of the Steeler Hotline after every Steeler game.

As a big Steeler fan, I would always tune in to these post game festivities.

Ove the years, I started to realize that the most entertaining shows were the were the ones after a Steeler loss.

The fans calling in were disappointed and angry.

They would harangue everything about the team.

Noll couldn’t coach.

Bradshaw couldn’t throw.

Harris couldn’t run.

Swan couldn’t catch.

Gerella couldn’t kick.

On and on and on.

The callers would be loud, angry and intense.

Each call was the definition of a good rant.

And a good rant can be really entertaining when it’s about the Steelers.

It is something that we expect to hear from a disgruntled Steeler fan, right.

But it is not something we expect to hear from people we revere, particularly when it is directed to us.

Parents, mentors, good friends.

Jesus.

Wait … what?

A Jesus rant?

No way.

I mean Jesus is mild mannered, full of grace and tolerance and forgiveness, right?

Well, not always.

Sometimes Jesus gets mad.

And we don’t really like to hear about that, do we?

Sure we like the overturned tables in the Temple.

I mean we never sell sacrificial stuff in the narthex.

That would never apply to us.

But a rant that might apply to us?

We don’t want to hear that.

That is why today’s text is not in the lectionary.

It’s Jesus in full rant.

He’s mad!

He’s mad at the scribes and Pharisees.

He says woe to them!

What about these scribes and Pharisees angers Jesus so much?

Jesus says it seven times in today’s text.

They are hypocrites.

And whenever you see Jesus mad, that is almost, if not always, the reason.

Hypocrisy.

The Greek word for hypocrite is hypokrites, which means “stage actor, pretender, dissembler.”

So, a hypocrite as a person who pretends to be a certain way, but really acts and believes something entirely different.

When people claim to be “people of God” but don’t act like it, they are hypocrites, and make Jesus really mad.

That is what Jesus encountered when he debated with the scribes and Pharisees at the Temple when he came to Jerusalem.

They had been asking Jesus questions that were intended to discredit him.

They finally got on Jesus’ last nerve and he begins the rant that is today’s text.

Jesus goes through a list of seven examples of hypocrisy that he condemns.

Let’s take a look at the examples Jesus identifies in our text.

Example number 1:

… [Y]ou lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

The scribes and Pharisees did not care to enter God’s kingdom and dictated the rules that had to be followed for everyone else who wanted to go in.

There were thousands of these rules.

So many that they were insurmountable.

Everyone was basically locked out of God’s kingdom.

Reminds me of that old song from my rebellious youth:

Oh, signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs
Blocking up the scenery, breaking my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

That was the Pharisees.

We don’t go in and neither will you.

They were keeping people out.

Example number 2:

[Y]ou cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Converts are the worst!

They think that they are better than everyone else.

We all know what that is like.

We all know someone who has quit smoking and become the no-smoking police.

Such a person comes across a person smoking and … well … starts a rant about how awful and dirty it is to smoke.

When folks hear them, they light up again, just to make a point.

Those converted by the scribes and Pharisees ranted about a level of holiness even more likely to stop people from seeking God.

Jesus said they were children of hell.

Example number 3:

[You] say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” 

Here Jesus condemns the practice of the scribes and Pharisees that condoned the use of double talk to evade promised obligations.

Like children who cross their fingers when making a promise.

This is deceit.

Saying you will do something, knowing you will not, or finding a reason not to later.

Example number 4:

For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

The Pharisees believe that 10% of everything had to be given to the Temple.

They spent all their time on dogmatic minutia like what constitutes 10% while at no time trying to understand why they were doing.

We all know people like that, too.

Folks who get so caught up in the details they can’t accomplish what they are called to do.

Jesus likens it to the straining of an unclean gnat out of a cup of wine, while eating an entire camel that is equally unclean.

Here the scribes and Pharisees were straining the gnat of tithing while ignoring their injustice, lack of mercy and lack of faith.

Example number 5:

For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

The Pharisees talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

They look all clean on the outside but are not clean on the inside.

It’s all show.

Like the kid who cleans his room by shoving everything under the bed or in the closet.

Seems neat.

But don’t look too closely!

Example number 6:

For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

Whitewashed tombs.

Nice a bright and beautiful on the outside, but death and bones on the inside.

Not just dirty, but unclean.

Example number 7:

For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.

These scribes and Pharisees claim to honor the prophets and righteous ancestors, but act just like those people who had the prophets and righteous ancestors killed.

They are just like them.

They are equally guilty.

Why?

They build pretty tombs for the prophets, but ignore the words of these men and women that got them killed.

Jesus says these are all examples of hypocrisy.

Religious people who said one thing but did another.

Religious people who pretend to be one thing but are something else.

Religious people standing for one thing but believing something else.

William Barclay  was a Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow until his death in 1978 and wrote commentaries on every book in the New Testament.

In his commentary on today’s text Barclay says this:

To Jesus the scribes and Pharisees were men who were acting a part. … Their whole idea of religion consisted in outward observances, … the meticulous observance of rules and regulation of the Law. But in their hearts there was bitterness and envy and pride and arrogance. To Jesus these scribes and Pharisees were men who, under a mask of elaborate godliness, concealed hearts in which the most godless feelings and emotions held sway.

Hypocrites.

Such people make Jesus mad.

Really mad.

So mad that he says, “Woe to you”!

A word that in Greek includes both wrath and sorrow.

Righteous wrath.

But also sorrow that there is such a disconnect from God.

This is hard to listen to.

Could we be the target of such a rant from Jesus?

Does any of this apply to us?

Maybe.

But let me draw a distinction between our human failings (we all act hypocritically from time to time) and what was going on with the scribes and Pharisees.

Pastor Jin S. Kim says this:

Jesus rarely has a harsh word for tax collectors, prostitutes, criminals or even the Roman soldiers who kill him, but he has a litany of curses lined up for the religious authorities of his day. While Jesus has compassion on the people, he has little patience for the powerful who profane God by pursuing their own self-righteousness at the expense of the people they serve.

God will forgive our failings, but not our profane misuse of God’s words by pursuing our own self-righteousness at the expense of the people we are called to love.

These Scribes and Pharisees are profane.

They are doing what they do in a way that insults God.

They claim God has locked the door to the kingdom.

They claim that God condones deceit.

They claim God is more satisfied by how things look than how things are.

They claim that mourning prophets is the same as learning the prophetic lesson.

In other words, they neither love God nor love neighbor.

We all do some of these things from time to time.

What we need to do is recognize it and correct it.

That is what the scribes and Pharisees did not and would not do.

They spent their time with Jesus trying to discredit him when they would have been better off listening to what he had to say.

Because if they had been listening, they would have heard Jesus say that all those who love God and love neighbor get into the kingdom.

If they had been listening, they would have heard Jesus say that all those who pursue justice and mercy and faith get into the kingdom.

And that is the lesson we need to learn today.

The lesson we need to learn is that hypocrisy makes Jesus mad!

Sends Jesus into a rant.

Like a Steeler fan who berates the effort of the Steelers on a losing Sunday.

We don’t want to be the target of that.

So, we need to play our best game every day.

Love God.

Love neighbor.

Pursue justice and mercy and faith.

Because that makes Jesus glad.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

Back when my kids were all about pop culture, I would hear them talking about a particular pop star and say that he or she was a “poser”. I wondered what that meant so I went to where young folks get their information, Wikipedia! According to Wikipedia the term “[poser]” is … a pejorative term, as used in the punkheavy metalhip hop, and goth subcultures, or the skateboardingsurfing and jazz communities, when it is used to refer to a person who copies the dress, speech, and/or mannerisms of a group or subculture, generally for attaining acceptability within the group or for popularity among various other groups, yet who is deemed not to share or understand the values or philosophy of the subculture. Got it? “Urban Dictionary” puts it this way: A poser is someone who tries to fit into a profile they aren’t. People who try to give off the impression that they are one thing when they are really another.  Also, a poser can be one who says they can do something that they can’t. For example: The guys who hang out with skateboarders but can’t actually skate, even though they have a board. But this is not a new thing. People have been accused of being posers (or poseurs, if you like the French) for … well … forever. And posers have always made the members of the group they mimic really angry. Which brings us to this week’s topic at church on Sunday. What makes Jesus mad? Answer? Posers! Come and hear about it when Pastor Jeff preaches “What Makes Jesus Mad?” based on Matthew 23: 13, 15-17, 23-31. Come and have a good listen. We look forward to seeing you.

 

What Makes Jesus Glad? Thoughts on Loving God and Loving Neighbor

Mark 12: 28-34

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

When a lawyer cross examines a witness at trial, the lawyer is always looking for one of those “gotcha” moments.

The question that stumps and/or embarrasses the witness and destroys the witness’ credibility.

But sometimes it backfires.

Like in the movie “My Cousin Vinny”.

In one of the most entertaining courtroom movie scenes I have ever seen, Vinny, the bumbling New York lawyer trying to defend his cousin who is charged with murder in Alabama, offers his fiancé, Mona Lisa Vito, as an expert witness on auto mechanics.

The prosecutor is allowed to ask her questions on why she should be considered an expert, and thinks he is going to stump her and embarrass her.

That is not quite what happens.

Here is the scene:

Prosecutor: Miss Vito, what’s your current profession?

Miss Vito: I’m an out-of-work hairdresser.

Prosecutor: Out-of-work hairdresser. Now, in what way does that qualify you as an expert in automobiles?

Miss Vito: Well, my father was a mechanic. His father was a mechanic. My mother’s father was a mechanic. My three brothers are mechanics. Four uncles on my father’s side…

Prosecutor: Miss Vito, your family’s obviously qualified. But, uh… have you ever worked as a mechanic?

Miss Vito: Yeah. In my father’s garage, yeah.

Prosecutor: As a mechanic? What’d you do in your father’s garage?

Miss Vito: Tune-ups, oil changes, brake relining, engine rebuilds, rebuilds on trannies…

Prosecutor: Now, uh… Miss Vito. Being an expert on general automotive knowledge, can you tell me what would the correct ignition timing be on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet, with a 327 cubic-inch engine, and a four-barrel carburetor?

Miss Vito: … It is a trick question.

Prosecutor: Why is it a trick question?

Miss Vito: … Cos Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55. The 327 didn’t come out tiII ’62. And it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb till ’64. However, in 1964 the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top, dead center.

Silence.

The prosecutor has allowed Miss Vito to prove exactly what he wanted to disprove.

He concedes her expertise.

The only experience I have ever had where I thought I might get tripped up like was when I had my oral trial at Presbytery.

This is what you need to do to get ordained.

You stand before the entire Presbytery, recite your statement of faith, and defend it by answering questions from any of the commissioners present.

Most questions are friendly.

But some are hard.

Randy Bush, pastor at East Liberty Presbyterian Church went to the mike and asked me this question.

“Do you believe it is possible for people who are not Christians to enter the kingdom of God?”

Wow.

That was a loaded question.

In an instant I thought not of my days at seminary, but to my days at Sunday school back at Pleasant Hills Church.

I went for the answer that is always right in Sunday school.

“Jesus decides that.”

And then I added:

“And thankfully that’s his call, not mine.”

Randy smiled, nodded, and walked back to his seat.

That was the only question I got.

Phew.

A month later I was ordained.

What does any of this have to do with today’s scripture?

Let me set the scene.

Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and has gone to the Temple to teach.

The Temple authorities are skeptical of this new Rabbi.

He is not well received.

There is a lot of suspicion.

So the Sadducees, the scribes and Pharisees put Jesus through their version of an oral trial.

They line up and ask many questions.

Mark gives us some examples:

“Who gave you your authority to teach here?”

“Should we pay taxes to Caesar?”

“If a woman is married to several men during her life, whose wife will she be at the resurrection?”

A whole bunch of theological “gotcha” attempts.

Attempts to stump Jesus and discredit him.

Jesus patiently responds to each and I get the impression his attitude is something like this:

“Really?

This is what you think is important?

This is what you want to know?”

And then, standing off to one side is a scribe – a lawyer.

He approaches Jesus.

He asks what he believes to be a fundamental question that will make or break Jesus’ claim to expertise Torah law.

‘Which commandment is the first of all?’

This seems like one of those loaded questions.

Aren’t all the Commandments mandatory?

No one more important than the rest?

If Jesus picks only one, does he lose his credibility?

Then Jesus does something unexpected.

He uses the answer as a lesson in Torah Law … and the Gospel!

29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

The first part of Jesus’ answer is the Shema.

The principal statement of faith for all Jewish people which is included in both morning and evening prayers.

The second is found in Leviticus:

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

In this answer, Jesus says that the Torah law could be summarized in two brief phrases.

Love God.

Love neighbor.

This was the point of all Jesus had been teaching and demonstrating.

The lawyer’s response is also surprising.

He concedes to Jesus and says:

“You’re right! And these two things are more important than any religious ritual!”

I think this made Jesus glad.

How do I know this makes Jesus glad?

Listen to his response to the scribe:

34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’

But wait…

Not far from the kingdom ?

Loving God and loving neighbor is what is important for anyone who wants to “not far from” the Kingdom of God?

What do I need to do to get in?

Let’s see if we can work through that.

First, how do we love God?

Part of it is acknowledging God through worship, prayer, devotions.

We acknowledge that God is present in all things and at all times, even though we don’t understand how.

That is part one.

Now part two.

We cannot love God without loving what God loves.

Our neighbors.

Those we like and those we don’t.

But this “love” is not a sort of “live and let live” tolerance.

That only makes us “not far” from the kingdom.

Jesus wants more than just the avoidance of open conflict or harm.

There must also be the provision of good.

We need to do for all our neighbors what God has done for us.

Take care of them.

Do stuff for them.

And this is as important to Jesus as that we are to love God.

Which brings me to another time when I was asked a hard question.

It was when I was first interviewed by the PNC here at JMPC.

It was a telephone interview which is how all first interviews are done.

Someone on the phone asked me “What is your favorite scripture passage?”

The question was loaded.

It was loaded because my answer was going to speak to my theology.

I am not sure what the PNC expected, but what they heard was: Matthew 25: 31-46.

What is commonly called the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.

When I said that, there was a moment of silence.

I thought I heard an audible gasp.

My favorite passage is about … judgment?

Well … not really.

The reason I like that passage so much is that it describes in Jesus own words what it looks like to love each other.

And I repeat it often here at JMPC.

Feed the hungry.

Clothe the naked.

Give water to the thirsty.

Comfort the sick.

Visit the oppressed.

Welcome the stranger.

And when we do those things to others, we do them to Jesus – God incarnate.

Loving each other in this way demonstrates a love of God that gets us into the kingdom.

Mark says that when Jesus finished with this scribe, no one asked him any more questions.

What more was there to say?

So, what does this all mean to us?

What do we do here at JMPC that loves neighbor in a way that demonstrates love of God?

Plenty!

Here is what I have seen this summer alone.

VBS kids distributed food to the hungry.

VBS kids sorted clothing to be given to the naked.

The Chiapas team and the Houston team lived and worked with strangers to build and rebuild.

JMPC participated in flood relief with money and muscle.

Deacons pray and care for the sick.

Family Promise houses the homeless.

Bonds of Love helps women deliver healthy babies.

And that is just this summer!

But there is more, even if it sounds less significant.

Making a meal for a friend.

Visiting someone in the hospital.

Offering condolences at a funeral home.

Helping maintain the church.

Teaching our kids.

Greeting people at the door on Sunday.

Singing in the choir.

Ushering.

Cooking meals for Kid’s Club and Youth Group and Duquesne Kids Club.

Tending our SHIM garden.

World Vision.

Produce to People.

You get the picture.

There are many opportunities at JMPC to love neighbor and love God.

It is the one thing, the just one thing, that each of us does here, or out there, that in some way benefits our neighbor.

When we each find that one thing, and do that one thing …

I think this makes Jesus glad.