We all are welcome to the table (A sermon from Luke 13:31-35)
Jesus knows his death is imminent. Hence the cryptic statement, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today, tomorrow, and the third day I finish my work.” I suspect that in the passing on of this tradition the third day reference was added at some point, which is an allusion to God’s resurrection and vindication of Jesus. We have the same thing in Jesus’ passion announcements to his disciples. Looking back after the event it all forms one piece: his life, death, and vindication by God.
Jesus knows he’s going to die at the hands of the religious and political leaders. The handwriting is on the wall. Jesus knows something else too. He also knows that his people are headed for disaster. He can feel the animosity of his countrymen toward their oppressors, the Romans. He can since the growing anger and hate. He knows where it will lead and what will happen. They will clash, and the Romans will bring to bear their powerful army on his people, Israel. Maybe Jesus thought that if enough people would take seriously his teachings about loving God and neighbor that it could change the moral and spiritual climate, and perhaps avert this catastrophe. But now he knows what is to come to pass.
So I imagine Jesus feeling all of this as he expresses this lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” We should try as best we can to feel the anguish and heartbreak and grief in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. And I believe we should also see in Jesus’ lament God’s passion and grief for all God’s creation. Jesus is the microcosm of the Divine macrocosm. Jesus, the man gives us a glimpse into the heart and passion of the universal God.
The works of Jesus are summarized here as “casting out demons and performing cures.” This is religious language that describes the two primary activities Jesus engaged in besides his work of teaching and preaching. Besides being a teacher and prophet, Jesus was a healer and liberator. He wanted to see people and communities liberated from the demonic. That is, he wanted persons and communities to be set free from anything that oppressed them and enslaved them and made them sick, and kept them from becoming all that God wanted them to be as persons and communities. He wanted to see persons and communities healed and made whole in all aspects of life – physically, spiritually, emotionally, and socially. But the work Jesus was called to do put him at odds with the religious and political establishment of his day. They wanted to put a stop to his work from its inception, and Jesus knows as he sets his face toward Jerusalem that what he has to do there will only strengthen their resolve. So he knows his death is imminent and inevitable, and he tries to prepare his disciples for that moment.
Jesus died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. I’m sure Jesus knew from the time he initiated his public work as healer, liberator, teacher, and prophet that what God had called him to do was dangerous work indeed. Jesus sided with the poor and welcomed to table the very ones the religious leaders excluded from fellowship. Jesus welcomed those deemed to be traitors and all manner of people who were lawbreakers, which is what the word “sinners” refers to in the Gospels. He knew that in doing such work, in speaking truth to power and engaging in works of mercy and justice, he would pay the ultimate price. In that sense Jesus’ death was a ransom he paid to liberate people from the demonic.
The works of Jesus – works of mercy and justice, works of healing and liberation – will take different forms in society, but they all come from the same source, namely, God’s inclusive love. When God’s inclusive love is filling our lives we are committed to the same values Jesus lived and taught. The works themselves may vary, but the one source is God. Just think how different the Christian influence of the West might have had on the rest of world if the focus of Jesus had been the focus of the mission work of the church.
John Philip Newell gave a talk in Ottawa, Ontario on some of the main themes of the prologue of John’s Gospel. He emphasized the truth of John 1:9 pointing out that the light of God enlightens every person coming into the world. In attendance that evening was a Canadian Mohawk elder. He had been invited to draw some parallels between his First Nations spirituality and the spirituality of the Celtic world that Dr. Newell was expounding in his presentation. At the end of Dr. Newell’s talk this Mohawk elder stood with tears in his eyes. He said to Dr. Newell and the people present: “As I listened tonight . . . I have been wondering where I would be tonight. I have been wondering where my people would be tonight. And I have been wondering where we would be as a Western world tonight if the mission that come to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to find light in us.”
The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said, "I do not believe in Jesus but I do believe with him." What was his saying? He was saying that he did not share the beliefs his Christian brothers and sisters had about Jesus. But he did share the values that Jesus believed in and lived by. What do you think is most important? Believing things about Jesus or sharing the values and doing the works of Jesus? In the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) there is not a single word about what to believe; it’s all about what to do and how to live. Jesus’ teachings and works are all expressions of what it means and looks like to love your neighbor as yourself. Believing in the modern sense of the term is much easier. Because doing the works of Jesus can get you killed. And Jesus knew that. This is why Jesus told would be disciples to count the cost. He said the student is no different than his teacher. If they hate me, they will hate you. And why would they hate them? Certainly not because of the things they might believe. But rather, they would be hated and opposed because of the values they would embody and the works they would do.
When Jesus called disciples he didn’t say you have to believe this or that. He said what you have to do is deny your little self, take up your cross, and follow me. He said, “If you want to be my disciple then you have to do what I do, be committed to works of healing and liberation, and be willing to die for the cause of mercy and justice.” Are we willing to die in the pursuit of mercy and restorative justice? Are we willing to die in the struggle to heal all people, not just our kind of people? Are we willing to die to liberate all people from oppression and injustice? Are we willing to speak out about the inequalities and injustices of our society? Are we willing to take on fear and hate and prejudice regardless of the cost? This is what Jesus is asking? How much are we willing to love people – all people – not just the people in our church or group or nation, not just people who believe like us and talk like us and look like us and live like us – all people? That’s the question of discipleship. What are we willing to give our lives for – to sacrifice – in order to love all people.
Fred Craddock tells about going home to west Tennessee to visit, where an old high school chum named Buck owned a restaurant. One day Fred went in and Buck said, “Let’s go for coffee.” Fred said, “Isn’t this the restaurant.” And Buck said, “I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder.” So they went out for coffee. Buck said, “Did you see the curtain?” Fred said, “Buck, I saw the curtain. I always see the curtain.”
In that little town they had a number of shotgun buildings, with two entrances, front and back. One entrance was off the street; the other was off the alley, with a curtain and the kitchen in the middle. In that day, if you were white you entered off the street, but if you were black you entered through the alley. And there was that curtain.
Buck said, “Did you see the curtain.” Fred said, “I saw the curtain.” Buck said, “The curtain has to come down.” Fred said, “Good, bring it down.” Buck said, “That’s easy for you to say.” He couldn’t leave it up and he couldn’t take it down. He was a mess. He said to Fred, “If I take the curtain down, I lose a lot of customers, maybe even my business.” But then he said, “If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul.”
That’s the issue of discipleship. It’s not believe this and that and here is your ticket to heaven. The question is not about belief in the modern sense of the word, but it is about faith in its ancient, biblical sense. Am I willing to commit my life, to trust in and be faithful to the inclusive love of Jesus, to the values and works of healing and liberation he embraced and expressed? Am I willing to tear down that curtain even if it costs me something, even if it costs me my life? Will I love my neighbor all the way to the cross? That’s the question.
When Jesus confronted the religious and social gatekeepers of his day it had nothing to do with what people believed about God. It had everything to do with the nature of God’s inclusive love. Jesus challenged their practices of exclusion and condemnation, and the ways they used and controlled people for their own advantage. Jesus made loving your neighbor the focus of his life and ministry. How did we miss this? This is what the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all about.
The passage ends with Jesus saying, “You will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Whenever a biblical text makes reference to the “name” of someone, the name represents the character and values of the person. I don’t think we can really “see,” that is, know and experience the Christ, until we trust in and are committed to the inclusive love of Jesus, which got him killed. Jesus incarnated the character and passion of God. We cannot really know Jesus and know the God he lived for and served until we embody and incarnate the values he lived by and the character and passion he expressed. It’s all about following the way of Jesus, his way of inclusive love. Nowhere in Matthew, Mark, and Luke does Jesus say believe in me. What he says is follow me. And even in John’s Gospel when we are invited to believe in Jesus, the ancient meaning of that word, which is very different that modern meanings of that word, means to trust in the trustworthiness of Jesus and be faithful to the way of Jesus, which according to that Gospel, is the way of truth and grace.
What I see in Jesus’ passionate lament over Jerusalem is the heart of God for all people, for all God’s children. God wants to gather in everyone just as a mother hen wants to gather in her brood. God wants to yank down all the curtains and tear down all the walls, and let everyone know they are welcome here. But God is limited. Whatever God does in the world or in our lives is cooperative, not coercive. God does not force God’s good will on anyone and make us do anything we do not want to do. God cannot heal or liberate someone who does not want to be healed or liberated. We have to cooperate and participate in the process. We have to share God’s love for the world (that is, we have to experience for ourselves God’s inclusive love) if we are going to change, and we have to share God’s love with the world (that is, we have to be practitioners of and witnesses to this love) if the world is going to change. That’s just how it works. God wants to gather all God’s children together, but God’s children have to want to be gathered and be willing to be gathered. And God needs more of God’s children to embody God’s love.
God doesn’t need more people to believe this and that about Jesus, the Bible, the reality of heaven and hell, or anything else some Christians think are all important. Some even call them fundamentals. God needs more image-bearers who will reflect God’s own love. That is the one fundamental where Jesus put all the emphasis. God needs more people to practice and preach the love of Jesus, regardless of what they believe about Jesus. When we get to the end of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is portrayed as the teacher par excellence, Jesus, having been vindicated by God, says to his disciples, “Go and make disciples.” Not, “Go tell them they have to believe in my virgin birth, my deity, my atoning death, or anything else that many Christians today think is all important.” But rather, go teach them to be followers of my way. Go teach them to be practitioners of God’s inclusive love.
Gracious God, I have fallen short of living out your inclusive love for all people. I cannot hide this from you. There are people I would rather not have to sit by at your table. In fact, if the truth were known I don’t even want to see them at your table, because I do not share fully your inclusive love. So help me, O God, grow into it. Help us all, Lord, grow into it, so that your heartbreak and anguish and grief over the world may be our heartbreak and anguish and grief too. Amen.