A Chosen People
Have you ever stopped and thought about why the Gospels were written? Why did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John take the time to write down what they wrote?
If you answered, to give us a biography of Jesus, turn to your neighbor, confess your error and say, please slap my hand for giving the wrong reply. The Gospels weren't written to give us a biography of Jesus. For one thing, we wouldn't need four of them. For another, they leave out more about His life than they include. We get a glimpse of Him as a baby, a story of Jesus as a twelve year old. Then nothing until He's about thirty. In all, we see only about forty or fifty days of His life. That's not what I'd call a biography.
The gospels include some stories about the actions and teachings of Jesus so they have the effect of preserving that history. But that wasn't the purpose.
The gospels show us how Jesus treated people, and corrected those who had misused the words of God to enslave others, which helps us form an idea of social justice, but that wasn’t the purpose.
The purpose of the gospels is not to tell the whole story of Jesus. The Gospels were written to give us a glimpse of who Jesus is, they share with us His character and His love. One of the mistakes we make, is when we take the two greatest commands, to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself and modify those commands to meet our needs or wants or desires. I will admit that there was a time in my life where I was a bit guilty of picking the passages I liked and trying to build a community around those passages. But when I get to be the one who picks and choses I replace the character of Christ with my own brokenness.
The text that was read for us this morning was comes from Mark 1. Mark’s gospel was the earliest of the four gospels even though it appears second in the New Testament. And while Matthew wrote to a Jewish community, Mark wrote to a Gentile audience in a effort to give a first glimpse of who Jesus is and His personality. Since we are Gentiles, I wanted us to look at Mark’s gospel and go back to the beginning, the basics of what it means to be a community of believers.
The first words Mark records Jesus ever saying are found in verse 15, and they are words of invitation: The right time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Change your hearts and lives and believe the Good News! Then Mark quickly transitions to show us how Jesus singled out a few men and invited them to help Him invite other people to the Kingdom. The first thing Mark records Jesus saying and doing is choosing us, which runs against the grain of our consumer driven culture.
Our society cultivates this notion that we are the choosers, not the chosen. Just look at the way advertisers target people these days. Several times yesterday during football games we were harassed by Lending Tree commercials that promise "When banks compete, you win." They paint this picture that if you use their service, banks will just line up for your business. You leaf through their offers and choose the one that's best for you. After all, you are in control. You are the chooser.
Maybe that doesn’t register, so let me ask you this way, have you ever wanted a peanut butter sandwich? It’s not as simple as going to the store to grab some bread and peanut butter, because there's regular peanut butter, the normal kind, the smooth kind, the kind Christians eat. But that wasn't’ good enough, our society started down a dark path and the stores started to put crunchy peanut butter on the shelves right next to the good stuff.
Then we wanted to complicate it even more, and now there is low fat, and no salt, and even honey roasted peanut butter. And in an effort to show you that we are in complete anarchy now they even offer dehydrated Peanut Butter Powder. If you are allergic to peanut butter we have choices for you as well, there is almond butter, sunflower seed butter, cashew butter, and this stuff called Wow butter made from Soy Beans. And they even have a peanut butter for lazy people where the jelly is already mixed right in. But even if you know what kind you want in which size, you still have to choose between Peter Pan, Jiff, Skippy, Smuckers, Peanut Butter & Company, Reeses, or a store brands. All you wanted is a peanut butter sandwich but you are faced with about forty different options.
We live in a culture that makes us think everything is up to us. From Peanut Butter to the type of car we drive to the church we want to attend is all based on what best fits our desires or ideals. It's your choice. We're the choosers. But the first thing Mark suggests is that the community of believers exists not because we all made the right choice, but because we were chosen. In John’s gospel, Jesus put it this way You did not choose me, I chose you. (John 15:16).
Some of you are getting ahead of me and you're a little nervous. Jeremy, you're not saying we were predestined to be Christians, are you? That we didn't have any choice in the matter? That God selected everyone ahead of time? Let me answer that question with another question. Did Simon and Andrew have a choice? Did James and John have a choice? Later when Jesus walks up to Matthew's tax booth and chooses him, did Matthew have a choice? Well sure they did. They could've said, No thanks, Jesus. I’d rather make a life fishing, this is comfortable. No thanks, Jesus. I like getting rich by overcharging people for taxes. Those first disciples had a choice and so do we.
You need to understand that we aren't the ones who started this community. We didn't just decide one day to get up a study of the life of Jesus group and build a church around it. Jesus started the whole thing. He did it by inviting people to be a part of it. He invited Simon and Andrew, James, John and Matthew. And He chose you and me to receive that invitation. Which is a little humbling, because I want to think I was such a good person for making the right choice. But the truth is that that only reason I am in this community is because the God of all creation invited me. Maybe you thought you were the one choosing from the options, but the truth is that He was the one arranging everything in order to give you the choice. We are a chosen community.
And we are a confronted community. Let read a little farther down in our text for this morning, Mark 1:21-26. (Read Text)
Most folks I know are not very fond of confrontation. I'll bet the people coming to church that morning in Caperanium weren't expecting anything other than a nice gathering at their community synagogue. It was business as usual; sing a few songs, say a few prayers, hear the scriptures read, then go home, eat lunch, and take a nap. But Jesus wrecked their plans when He showed up and started confronting demons.
I have always been curious about what the demon possessed man said. Specifically, about the pronouns he used. What do you want with us ... have you come to destroy us? Who is the us? For years I thought the man was talking about the demons? Here lately I wonder if he was talking about the people in the synagogue? Mark leaves us wondering about the question, and it's a haunting one. We know that Jesus didn't come to destroy people. He said himself, I came to seek and save that which was lost. But the man's question suggests that Jesus can seem threatening.
If the first sermon you ever heard was the one I preached last week, you'd think that the church is a city of refuge where guilty people can come and be patted on the back, where all we ever say to each other is, I know it's been rough, but you are in a safe place now. We're going to love you and take care of you, it’s all good because you are in a safe place now.
Don’t misunderstand me, no one was more gracious and merciful that Jesus. No place was safer than a place where Jesus was. But that’s just one side of the picture, because the gospels also show us that no one could confront, no one could sound more dangerous than Jesus. While Mark’s first recorded words of Jesus were words of invitation, even in the invitation there was a word of confrontation. He invited people into the kingdom with a call to repent. To change. To let go of some habits and lifestyles and values and adopt others. Jesus was not only willing, but eager to confront. And that's not a bad thing.
So when we talk about being a confronted community, it’s not a bad thing. All of us have our demons. Temptations we nurture. Sins we embrace. Destructive habits we hide. Ways of relating that we know are not healthy, but on some level are satisfying to us. We like to paint this picture of Jesus, holding a lamb and patting a child on the head, and who will just let our sins slide and love us anyway. Let’s get this straight, He will love us anyway but don’t think for a moment that He will let our sinfulness slide by. If you are a part of His community, expect to be a recipient of His confrontation. That, more than anything, means you are also a recipient of His love. We are the chosen, we are the confronted, and when we stop and actually consider what Christ has done it should leave us astonished.
We can't stop talking about what astonishes and amazes us. My concern is that we are no longer amazed at Jesus. We've heard the stories, some of us, all our lives. And the truth is we're just not impressed any more. Jesus walked on water. He turned water into wine. He died on a cross. He rose from the dead. Blah, blah, blah. And I am afraid that far to many of us have lost the ability to be astonished, amazed, awed by Jesus. When we lose the ability to be amazed, we forfeit what it means to be the community of the most interesting, exciting individual who ever lived. We are a community of Christ which means we need to be reminded from time to time what that means.
Which leads us to our last point this morning, we are chosen, we are confronted, and we share a common bond.
In the second century, a Christian named Justin wrote a defense of the faith to the emperor of Rome. Historians call it Justin's Apology. Here's a part of what he wrote: On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president teaches and urges us to imitate these good things. Then we all rise together and pray ... when our prayer is ended, bread, [and wine mixed with water] are brought, and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen. There is a distribution to each and a participation of that over which thanks have been given ... Those who are well to do and willing give what each thinks appropriate. What is collected is deposited with the president, who helps the orphans and widows. He takes care of all who are in need ... those in sickness, and those who are in prison, and the strangers living among us.
Justin's Apology offers an interesting glimpse into the worship life of the early church. In some ways, what we are doing today is not that different from what they did then. We share a common bond with our ancestors in the faith. Which is where we need to end this morning. Nothing that we do on Sunday is more oriented toward community than the communion; or the Lord's Supper or Eucharist, as some churches call it.
We don't normally think of communion as a community activity. For many of us, it is more personal, even private. The communing that takes place during communion is between the individual and God. We sort of get into ourselves during communion. And that's not an altogether bad thing, but it isn't exactly the way communion is pictured in the Bible nor in post-biblical history. Let me give you a passage from each to show you what I mean.
In 1 Corinthians 10:16 - 17, Paul talks about the communal aspect of communion. He writes, The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Paul uses the word participation, and it is impossible to participate in community all by yourself. He says that the loaf reminds us that the one body made up of many.
In the centuries that followed, other Christians commented in much the same way. A collection of teaching from the early church fathers was put together in a document that we call the Didache. In that document we find the following passage: As this piece of bread was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.
In his Apology, Justin told the emperor that after sharing communion in the assembly on Sunday, members took some of the bread and some of the wine to those who were not present. The community aspect of the Lord's Supper was so important that if someone wasn't or couldn't be there, the community took the communion to them. Imagine what kind of space problems we'd have if we reached out to each other in that way! If we insisted on sharing communion with those who were pulling away from us!
The earliest Christians recognized that the Lord's Supper is both a symbol of and a means to community. In Acts 2 we find that they met every day and took communion as a way to remind them that their culture had changed. They were no longer living in isolation, but in community. The symbolism is so simplistic and so plain, that often times we miss the beauty of what Christ established as a means to community. We miss how taking the Lord's Supper shapes us into a united group of people who share a common love for a common Lord.
So Paul explains it in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Do this in remembrance. Unfortunately we don’t have an English word conveys the full meaning of the Greek word for remembrance. It goes so much deeper than merely remembering. It includes representation, reenacting, recreating, experiencing anew. It expresses the sense that in repeating these actions we are once again experiencing the reality of Jesus. We are recreating community.
Let me tell you of an experience I had a couple of weeks ago during communion. I don't know why I did it, but after I took the bread instead of closing my eyes and going through my normal routine, I started just looking around at other people in the room. When I looked at some people I thought about their struggles and their gifts. I saw Ryan and Reid and got a little misty eyed thinking back to when we had little boys running around our house. On this particular Sunday I realized that even though I am in a new place with a bunch of people who I often struggle to remember their names, I was more okay than I've been in a long time. In part, because during communion, I wasn't alone. To be a Christian is never to be alone. Sometimes we feel that way. But as I looked around the room, I felt a deep sense of love for this community and that Sunday I felt a deep sense of being loved by this community. To be a Christian is to never be alone.
Justin’s Apology continues: because on Sunday, God began creation, calling light out of darkness. On Sunday Christ rose from the dead, bringing life out of the grave. On Sunday, Christ taught the disciples, forming a faithful community out of a fragmented band. And on Sunday, during communion, God does it again. He begins again to reform a community out of fragmented followers. He begins again to show us what grace and mercy look like so that we will extend it to each other.
He begins again to remind us that we are forgiven, and therefore are empowered to forgive each other.
I would like for the men who are going to serve us this morning to begin to make their way to the back.
This morning as we take the communion together, instead of doing what you always do. Instead of bowing your head and praying, or thinking about the horrible death of Christ, or reading scripture, I want you to do something else. This morning as we commune together, as we take the bread that represents the body of Christ, the cup that represents the blood of Christ, I want you to take a moment to look around. I want you to look at the body that has chosen to gather here this morning. I want you to look at the individual members of this body and as your eyes meet I want you to consider their strengths, I want you to think about their struggles, I want you to remember a conversation you had with them, a memory that you share with them. And I want you to thank God that He chose you to be a part of this community while you remember that they have gathered here this morning because God chose them as well.
Prayer for the bread: Gracious God, we ask that you once again pour out your Holy Spirit upon us in this place and on this gift of bread. We beg that the bread we break may be the communion of the body of Christ. By your Spirit unite us with the living Christ and with all who are baptized in his name, that we may be one in ministry in every place. As this bread was scattered and then brought together into one. Let us find our place in this body, and help us to remember that we are all part of your body. As we take this bread, this symbol of your body that was broken for our benefit, let us draw closer into this body.
Prayer for the cup: Almighty Father, we are richer because you have chosen us to be a part of your community. Help us remember this morning that you not only chose us to be a part of your community, but you paid the blood that was required for the temptations we nurture, the sins we embrace, the destructive habits we hide, and the ways of relating that we know are not healthy, but on some level are satisfying to us. Father once again we beg that you will recreate community in this place, and that you will make us worthy of this cup.