My District Superintendent recently sent out this survey, asking local churches to consider how they would respond on a scale of 1-10. It asked several questions about how we perceive the world around us, and what it means for us to be Christians in the world.
Can you overlook unChrist-like attitudes and lifestyles in your efforts to connect with others? Are you able to suspend your judgment for long periods of time around not-yet Christians? Do you consistently seek to understand the not-yet Christians you know before seeking to be understood by them? Do you like people who are far from God? In your relationship with not-yet Christians, do you typically offer kindness rather than “righteous”? Is your heart consistently broken and filled with compassion for the not-yet Christians in your life?
Those are some tough questions! Wouldn’t it be simpler if the survey was like the ones we passed as elementary school kids, “Do you like me? Check yes or no.” Simple, right?
In the world we live in, the separation between church and relevance is growing, as those who don’t know Jesus see the church differently than they saw it fifty years ago. But again, fifty years ago, the church was the cultural and social cornerstone… and now, it’s not.
Some days, it feels like the church is playing catch-up; on other days, it seems like maybe the church doesn’t even know that the world has moved past it. But if we’d set aside our judgment of those outside our walls and consider the movement of Jesus in our world, both long ago and in the present, we might learn to see ourselves differently.
Consider Jesus’ parable today, about the man who owned a vineyard and the tenants who ultimately rejected him as their authority.
The man is the creator of the vineyard; it’s by his effort and creativity that the vineyard, the garden which will supply livelihoods and nutrients (work with me on the wine here!) But the owner puts others in charge once he has set it up: his regular presence will be absent for the time being, and someone else needs to cultivate the vineyard.
At a later date, the vineyard owner sends a servant to collect some of the ‘fruit’ of that vineyard. We understand that, right? He wants some of what is his, and he expects that the tenants will happily provide it to the servant who is his emissary. But they beat up his representative, the image of the owner himself, and send him off.
The same process is repeated again, and again. And finally, the owner takes it next level and sends his son, “whom I love.” It’s interesting that this comes in the same language that the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism. If we haven’t been clued in before, we can see that this is a story about God and humanity now.
But remember, this is pre-crucifixion, pre-resurrection, Jesus sharing the story with his listeners in Jerusalem. He has come into the city of David, to celebrate Passover and reconnect with the testaments and prophecies concerning the way that the Messiah will lead the people of Israel.
And he’s telling this story before any of the events concerning his passion, and final days of earthly ministry, in story form. About himself.
No wonder the Pharisees get angry! They know that the next part is about them! “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
Jesus wasn’t mincing words! He went right at the point of God’s issue with his people, that they had lost sight of the fact that they were his people, and not just out there on their own.
But as far as the political leaders were concerned, this was banging drum of a revolution. Jesus was willing to call a spade a spade, and to struggle against the forces of privilege and power. And we listen to this unfold, and we ask ourselves, “who would reject Jesus?” It’s the question that puts us on the same side as Jesus, instead of considering what it means for us to be like Jesus, and recognize that too often we are not.
That’s the same reaction that most of his listeners had when Jesus told the story. They all said, “God forbid!” and Jesus goes on to speak in metaphor about a rejected stone and the way that God will use it to build something even greater. The Pharisees are mad, but most of the people don’t seem to get it.
Unfortunately, I think most of us don’t see ourselves here. We might see that God created everything and that we have the words of the prophets to live by. We might even accept that Jesus is the Son of God. But we’d never reject Jesus, would we?
I imagine that Jesus never imagined that he would reject Jesus when the motley band of disciples starting assembling. There was Matthew the tax collector, Peter the fisherman, …Judas the Zealot. Judas, the guy who believed that the Jewish people would actually rise up and violently overthrow the Roman rule. Judas, who believed that Jesus was the answer to the question, “who will lead us in overthrowing our overseers?”
When we get to the point where Judas is selling Jesus out for thirty silver pieces, I imagine Judas still thought he was doing the right thing. Maybe he thought Jesus would be pushed into military action from his perceived position of peace, or maybe he thought Jesus had to die to get everyone else fired up enough to fight.
Whatever he was thinking, I still think that Judas is more sympathetic, even as he’s rejecting Jesus, because I don’t think most of us wake up in the morning aimed at being that kind of person. So how do we get so divided? How do we get so turned around?
Too often we paint our lives of faith as “us against them.” We see people who deny Jesus by rejecting that he is God, whether that be Muslims or Jews or atheists. But what about when who we are and how we act fails to live up to the name of ‘Christian’ that we say we are? Do we actually start off headed that way on purpose? Of course not! But sometimes it’s a slippery slope from acceptance to rejection.
Consider these slopes of slipperiness:
What happens when my friends know I’m a Christian but I make fun of someone else, a Christian or not?
What happens when people know I’m a Christian, but I delight in things that are harmful to me or others?
What happens when I say Jesus matters to me, and I fail to make going to church, being in a small group, or giving back to God a priority?
Aren’t those more insidious forms of rejection? Rather than being rejected by absolutes, it’s rejection by thousands of piranha size nibbles!
Brennan Manning said, “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
That’s pretty harsh, isn’t it? But we need to admit that sometimes, we’re atheist- causers. We need to consider how our brand, our depiction, of what it means to follow Jesus impacts those around us.
Does our lifestyle reject or embrace Jesus? Have we shown people Jesus in a way that they would want more of what we have? Has something about your life made Easter look attractive to them?
Asked another way, the question looks like this: do I make Jesus look good?
We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. But too often, we get caught up in our little worlds and our little problems, and we fail to see the good news that we know, and fail to rely on. Have you ever met a grumpy Christian? That should be an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp!
Yet we fail to recognize that for people to meet Jesus, we’re the ones God is using to introduce them.
Jesus came so that we might have a real life, abundantly. I pray that as Easter closes in on this, that we would live it as individuals and as a church.
I would hate to be numbered among those who had rejected Jesus by my lifestyle. But I must admit, there are changes I must make to be more like Jesus.
What changes do you need to make to show people Jesus? Is it with your words, or your actions, or your lifestyle, or your spending?
The flip side of rejection is acceptance. And it’s by our acceptance of Jesus that we get to be part of God’s kingdom work in the world, and the beauty of what God is redeeming and creating in our world today.
It’s pretty simple really: check accept or reject. There are no other options.