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Thursday, September 29, 2016

A church for those who've wasted life - their own and maybe yours too

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
Jesus tells a story in Luke 15 about a father and two sons. It's a story I had the pleasure of getting to recount and explain this past Sunday. The youngest son is often described as prodigal, which means recklessly wasteful. This young man tells his father to his face he wishes he (the father) could die so he (the son) could finally live. The son then promptly wastes what the father gives him in the name of freedom and self-indulgence. In the most happy and surprising turn in the story, this recklessly wasteful son is welcomed home and even celebrated by his father (whom the son earlier wished dead!). The older son, who stuck around serving the father, is furious at the celebration...

As are many of us toward people in churches just like yours and mine. Some of those who sit and stand next to you on a Sunday morning cut corners (even commit fraud!) in their workplaces, have slept the night prior with someone who is not their spouse, and have even hurt you or someone you know. Yet sometimes we think in protest, "Others must know who they are and what they are doing and yet they still welcome such as these, they are still greeted, they are made to feel included." Indeed, we expect the welcome, forgiveness, and call of Jesus to be what transforms a person's life (Titus 2:11-15), not a starting line of moral conformity followed by Jesus' stamp of approval. Otherwise, Jesus would be called the "Affirmer" not the "Savior." For some, truly grasping this grace ("activated love") of the Lord Jesus takes a while and in the meantime such people may even call themselves a "Christian." In fact, I may even be describing you. But if I'm not - I want to appeal to the patience shown to you through Jesus Christ and also to consider the alternative - a church full of older brothers. 

In a small section of his book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller talks about how during the early years being a Christian was considered abnormal and then helps us consider why we should desire for prodigals to be attending (and sometimes "messing up"!) our churches. I'll quote him at length because what he says is so good for us long-time church goers to hear:
It's hard for us to realize this today, but when Christianity first arose in the world it was not called a religion. It was the non-religion. Imagine the neighbors of the early Christians asking them about their faith. "Where's your temple?" they'd asked. The Christians would reply that they didn't have a temple. "But how can that be? Where do your priests labor?" The Christians would have replied that they do not have priests. "But...but," the neighbors would have sputtered, "where are the sacrifices made to please your gods?" The Christians would have responded that they did not make sacrifices anymore Jesus himself was the temple to end all temples, the priest to end all priests, any sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
No one had ever heard anything like this. So the Romans call them "atheists," because with the Christians were saying about spiritual reality was unique and could not be classified with the other religions of the world. This parable explains why they were absolutely right to call them atheists. 
The irony of this should not be lost on us, standing as we do in the midst of the modern culture wars. To most people in our society, Christianity is religion and moralism. The only alternative to it (besides some other world religion) is pluralistic secularism. But from the beginning it was not so. Christianity was recognized as a tertium quid, something else entirely.
The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, while those estranged from religious moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. We see this throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life. In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person an a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the older-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders "the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom before you" (Matthew 21:31).
Jesus' teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, button-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren't appealing to younger brothers, it must be more full of older brothers that would like to think.