Just the Middle Man

John the Baptist had a disciple named Andrew. When Jesus walked by John’s location one day, Andrew and another disciple left John the Baptist to follow Jesus. It only took a few hours for the two disciples to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah. Andrew’s first reaction? Go get his brother, Simon!

And he brought him to Jesus. -John 1:42a Continue reading

The Worst Networking Opportunity Ever

The Calling of Levi (part II)

We were watching Jesus call Levi, the tax collector, to be His disciple. Flip back to last week’s post for a refresher, if you need it. Otherwise, let’s keep going.

Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.

Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me,” and Levi followed Him (Matthew 9:9). The pattern was the same for Simon (a.k.a. Peter), Andrew, James, and John (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus Embraces the Messes

When Levi stepped out from behind his collection booth, I imagine Jesus put His arm around him and they had a little chat as Jesus steered him down the road away from the toll booth. When Jesus finally stopped, they were standing at Levi’s own gate. Jesus looked at Levi, looked at the house, expectantly looked at Levi again…until Levi invited Him in. Yes, and everyone else. “C’mon in, y’all!”

Jesus walked straight
in to Levi’s mess.

Don’t miss this. Jesus walked straight in to Levi’s mess. Levi had no chance to wipe up his bathroom or get the expired milk out of the fridge. He didn’t get to forewarn his friends about what kind of person Jesus was and how they should behave in response. He didn’t make Jesus wait outside while he got his affairs in order. No, Jesus walked right into the house, embracing it and everyone in it!

We want to give Jesus
the impressive, pre-packaged
parts, but He want our
whole lives.

In the same way, we don’t get to choose what parts of our lives welcome Jesus. He walks in to all of it—the straight and the messy, the tear-stained and the laugh-creased, the half-worked jigsaw puzzle still out from Christmas and the brand new shoes you bought on sale after Christmas. We want to give him the good parts, the impressive pre-packaged parts, but He wants it all. Let him be the good friend who doesn’t care that your trash is overflowing and who thinks your one weird friend is delightfully quirky.

Jesus Embraces the Masses

Back in Capernaum that night, Levi threw a big banquet. He invited everyone in town who would still talk to him. That wasn’t exactly the cream of the crop. There were other tax collectors. There were probably some known criminals, some prostitutes, and some people who just didn’t fit the established protocol.

The Pharisees didn’t approve of what they saw. They stood outside with their noses in the air and grumbled among themselves. Finally, someone grabbed one of Jesus’ other followers as he walked by. (Maybe the follower was coming back from the bathroom. Only outhouses in those days, you know.)  If he’d been speaking today, he might have said, “What is that leader of yours thinking? Why are you all eating with these filthy people? You know, they don’t have any worthwhile connections. If Jesus is really planning to start a global movement, he’s off on the wrong foot. This is a terrible place to network.” (For what he actually said, click here.)

Why did Jesus eat with
tax collectors and sinners?

The Pharisees thought they could do it on their own. They didn’t think they needed a backwoods itinerant preacher to show them the way to Heaven. The people in Levi’s house, however, were all too aware of their frightful failings. Jesus ate with them because they were Levi’s people, because they knew they needed saving, and perhaps because they were frustrated with a religious system that categorically excluded them.

Jesus phrased it like this,

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.  -Mark 2:17

Where are you spending your time? (This really convicts me.) Are you playing it safe, keeping clean and rubbing shoulders only with other clean freaks? Do you think only Jesus can manage a life among “tax collectors and sinners”? Or do you think He was setting an example for us when he sat down to eat there? I think He gave us an example here and elsewhere. Are you embracing the messiness of real life outside our Christian bubbles? Are you friends with people who don’t follow all the religious laws and don’t know the standard order of worship in our American churches? This is an area of the Christ-Life in which I know I really need to grow.

Bad Networking or Good News-Bearing? Two perspectives on a New Testament party. (click to tweet)

There are so many spiritual applications here. I’ve hardly scratched the surface. What moment in this story sticks in your mind, convicting or encouraging you right now? How is God applying His Word to your life through my imagery? I’d love to hear about it in the comments

Jesus Peeled Off Labels

The Calling of Levi (part I)

Bonnie and Clyde, peas and carrots, Smith and Wesson. Some things just go together. The phrases come out more like one word than three: peas-and-carrots. I do it to my kids, running their names together into one long, slurred, barely distinguishable word. But when they hear it, they know I’m talking to them!

Tax collectors and sinners. It’s probably not a common pairing for you, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, the two were synonymous. They belonged together, and the phrase was best said with a slight sneer (something of the Snape variety, for any Harry Potter fans). If you chose to become a tax collector, you were kicked out of the synagogue, ostracized in your community, and equated with pagans. You were a traitor, and that was the worst kind of sinner.

Of Levi (a.k.a. Matthew), the tax collector-cum-apostle, we have no back story. What made him choose Rome over Jerusalem? I want the story to be a like a Dickens novel where there was some family crisis and he had no choice. But maybe he wasn’t all that religious anyway, or he was from another part of the country, so no big deal to lose his ties to the community. Maybe he was just greedy. Tax collectors could make a lot of money, especially the unscrupulous ones.

Jesus was already
looking into Levi’s heart.

While we’re asking questions to which we don’t have answers… Did Levi remember the first time Jesus walked by, tossing his coins into the basket? I imagine Jesus was alone that first time. Then the next time, a few people were with him, then more and more followers until the group got so big it clogged up the traffic flow and people in the rear started complaining. I imagine Jesus looked Levi in the eye every single time he passed. I imagine he began to smile at Levi—something no proper Jew would ever do.

Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.

One day, Levi was working in his tax booth outside Capernaum, as usual. He didn’t witness the healing of a crippled man after some friends lowered him through the roof. He didn’t know about the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees who witnessed that healing (Matthew 9:1-8). He was just minding his own business, trying to make a little money.

The crowd around Jesus was unmistakable as it approached his booth. He straightened up a little, checked his change drawer, and started plotting a way to carry all those coins home safely. As it happens, he wouldn’t carry even one coin home that day!

Jesus walked up to Levi, looked him in the eye, and said two simple words: “Follow me” (Mark 2:14). Oh, to hear the monologue in Levi’s mind at that moment! Surely, he hesitated for a second, surprised, just taking in the situation…or maybe weighing the cost of obedience.

Have you been there? Have you understood Jesus’ call and made that split-second decision that changed your life? Have you traded being an outcast for being part of His inner circle?

And then, to hear the thoughts in the mind of Peter or John, guys who never missed a Saturday at the synagogue, who grudgingly paid the tolls, and who tried to avoid anything even vaguely resembling “tax collectors and sinners.” They were among the first Jesus called, and they would have never guessed He would invite someone like Levi! That’s just not the way things were done. Were they shocked? Maybe a little embarrassed?

Jesus didn’t see the label.
Jesus saw the person.

But Jesus didn’t see the label, glued on by cultural pressure and religious obligation. Jesus saw the person. Jesus cut through all the red tape, all the layers of Pharisaical self-righteousness, all the ties to Rome. He saw a man who longed to follow Him, to be accepted, to be included. He saw a man who didn’t need someone to remind him of his failings or to supply him with a list of wrongs. He saw a man who was ready to believe.

Levi didn’t protest. He simply stood up, and he followed Jesus down the road.

What happened to the toll booth? Was there a back-up collector there to take over? Did people just plow through without paying? Neither Levi nor Jesus seemed to care, so I guess we shouldn’t either.

Labels. I couldn’t see the potatoes inside because of the big label on the bag. When I opened the bag at home, half of them were rotten!

Labels. Is it ironic to write about a guy named Levi, when Levi-Strauss is one of the most prominent clothing labels in the country?

Labels obscure so much
of who we really are.

Labels. We all wear the social kind. It seems impossible to function in our society without them. And yet, like the label on the bag of potatoes, they obscure so much of who we really are. Hopefully, that hidden part isn’t rotten, but you get my point. Jesus didn’t let labels influence his estimation of a person. It takes some major intentionality, but we’re called to do the same.

We’ll keep going on this story next week.

Jesus is still peeling back the labels on people, revealing their hearts. (click to tweet)

What label do you enjoy? What label do you hate? What label on other people blinds you to their true nature? I hope this post has given you something to think about. If you would like to leave a comment, I would appreciate it!

Don’t Get Too Close to Jesus or You May Lose Your Lunch

Jesus and his disciples climbed up the side of a steep hill. A little out of breath, they sat down on some rocks. A huge crowd of people had followed them to this remote place; some of the people were looking for healing, some for entertainment, and a few just wanted to see what Jesus would say next.

John 6:1-13 in which Jesus feeds 5,000 people, but there’s so much more…

Can you see it? Can you put yourself there among the disciples? I like to think that Jesus scans the crowd, gets a sneaky grin on His face, then maybe He catches John’s eye and winks. Turning to Phillip, he says, “Hey, Phillip! You’re from around here, where can we get food for all these people?” Phillip looks out over the crowd and sighs. He furrows his brow; his words are clipped, impatient: “It would take six months’ pay to give all these people even one bite each!” While Phillip looks around for Judas, the money keeper, for confirmation, Jesus glances back at John with an I-told-you-so glint in His eye.

These are about to become the
most famous leftovers in history!

But that whole exchange had one purpose: to set up what comes next. Andrew has also taken Jesus’ question seriously and thinks he’s found something. There’s a boy, probably ten or eleven years old, whose mama packed him some lunch. It’s just some leftovers, something to tide him over until dinnertime, but they are about to become the most famous leftovers in history!

Let’s give this boy some backstory. No school that day. The morning chores are done. Some prophet named Jesus is in town. If he hangs out near Jesus, maybe he’ll see a miracle or an arrest or something else interesting to talk about at school tomorrow. Mom says he can go; she even throws some food in a bag in case he gets hungry. He slings a “Thanks!” over his shoulder before the door slams behind him.

Being shorter than most of the adults in the crowd near Jesus, he inches his way to the front and finds a spot off to the side, where he has a good view of the hill and the crowd. While he’s waiting for something to happen—anything, really—one of Jesus’ permanent followers spots him and steps back down the hill. I like to think that Andrew was kind to the boy and that he invited him up onto the hill instead of forcing him. Andrew isn’t sure such a meager offering will help, but at least it’s something. (Or maybe Andrew knows Jesus can make something out of virtually nothing. After all, he still remembers that fantastic wine at a wedding the year before.)

Jesus takes away this child’s food.
It seems wrong.

Andrew throws out a vague question, “How far will such a small amount of food go when so many need to eat?” (I’m paraphrasing.) Jesus doesn’t answer. Instead, he tells the disciples to instruct everyone in the crowd to sit down. The boy remains standing there beside Jesus. While the disciples are busy getting situated (and probably fielding questions such as, “Why?”), Jesus looks at the boy and does something strange. If we didn’t know the story, we might even think Him cruel. He takes away this child’s food.

I have a ten-year-old boy. He doesn’t share his food willingly. It makes me think that maybe this little guy hesitated as well. If he lets go of his bag, he will (based on previous experience) go hungry that day, and his mama will probably fuss at him. He doesn’t want to go hungry, and he doesn’t want to get in trouble. But there’s something about Jesus that’s different from every other adult he’s ever met. For some reason, the boy knows he can trust Jesus, so he lets go. He lets Jesus take the whole bag. He doesn’t reach in, grab just one roll, and stuff it in his pocket just in case. Sure, it’s basically five crackers and two sardines—not much by anyone’s standards, but the boy gives it all. As he looks up at Jesus’ face in that moment, I think he sees the delight in Jesus’ eyes and the smile of anticipation playing at the corners of Jesus’ lips.

The little boy bounds back down the hill and finds a place to sit with some other kids his age. When they start passing around the fish and bread, he feasts until he can eat no more. The leftovers he carried that morning would have staved off hunger, but they never would have filled him like this!

What was barely sufficient for one
becomes sustenance for many.
(click to tweet)

Do you see it? The boy had to let go of the meager portion he’d been given in order to receive the greater portion Jesus offered to all. What was barely sufficient for him became sustenance for many. Oh friends! We try to hold onto the individual rations meted out to every person when He wants us to let go so He can convert them into plenty. But we have to give them to Jesus first. This is not logical; it’s uncommon sense. There has to be a moment when we have nothing, when we’re not only empty-handed but bare…maybe even desperate. For a few minutes there, the boy had no food at all. Then Jesus begins to bless what we’ve released, and we receive back far more than we surrendered—not only us, but everyone around us receives from what we thought was barely enough for us alone.

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. –Matthew 16:25

 

For further consideration: In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25), those who saw a return on their investment first had to let go of their money. It was out of their hands for some amount of time.

Read another Biblical story of a humble person who gave everything: Muffled but Magnified.

Who’s Humble Now?

Rethinking Peter’s Foot-Washing

Sometimes I think John took special delight in recording Peter’s unique interactions with Jesus.  He gives us so many singular moments which the Holy Spirit now uses to teach us.  It certainly happens here.  Let’s take a look . . .

John 13:1-10.

I’ve heard people point to Peter in the upper room as an example of humility, and on the surface it appears that way. As Jesus makes his way around the room, Peter tucks his feet up under his robe and denies Jesus: “No.   I don’t want you to wash my feet. This is wrong! I should be washing your feet” (My paraphrase of v. 8). But who is Peter…and who are we…to tell Jesus what He should and shouldn’t do?  It may seem humble, but in reality, Peter is trying to boss Jesus around! Continue reading

Fellowship is not Fried Chicken

“Our church is having a fellowship this weekend.  It’s a potluck, so everyone bring something.”

Paul:  that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death . . . (Philippians 3:10 NKJV).

“Our Sunday School class needs to plan some fellowships for next year.”

John:  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7 NIV).

Does anyone else see a disconnect here, like there are two definitions for this one word?  (And can you even say ‘fellowships’?  Isn’t it a non-countable noun?)

Now don’t get me wrong.  I like fried chicken, and I like to ‘hang out’ with other believers.  There are great blessings to be had in spending time with our brothers and sisters in Christ—especially at this time of year.  Bring on the hot chocolate and Christmas carols!  But one of the best blessings in the Christ-following community is the encouragement that naturally springs from working together.  Thus, the author of Hebrews said, Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together . . . but encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25).  I’ve heard this verse used to guilt people into going to church, but our assembling of ourselves together (that’s Hebrews 10:25 NKJV, just because I like the old-fashioned words) doesn’t apply only to Sundays, nor is a meeting the goal.  Authentic fellowship is something more than casual get-togethers with a good prayer thrown in.  There’s love, good deeds, and encouragement involved.  We’re pushing each other in these areas, doing more than we could individually.

God Himself gives us the primary example of fellowship.  The Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) exist in fellowship . . . in community . . . even as They are One.  He doesn’t NEED us to keep Him company.  He doesn’t need our service or our glory.  He doesn’t need our praise or our money. The Three-in-One work (works?) together.  There’s unity, a common purpose, a mutuality that we, the created, can never duplicate.  But like so many aspects of the Christ-life, He calls us to work toward this type of unity/community even though it’s presently unattainable.

The great thing is that He invites us to participate WITH Him even though He doesn’t need us.  I say to my son, “Come, help me wash the dishes” not because I need his help.  In fact, it goes more quickly and neatly without him.  I invite him to join me in the work because I want to spend the time with him; I enjoy his company, and he might learn a little something along the way.  That’s what fellowship with God is like.  He wants us there with Him—not because He needs us but because He enjoys us and wants to share with us.  Consider this scene from John 11.

When Jesus came to the tomb where Lazarus’ body was placed after his death, he paused because there was a stone laid across the entrance.  Jesus was about to RAISE A MAN FROM THE DEAD.  You think He didn’t have the power to move a big rock out of the way first?  After all, He said that if our faith was even the size of a mustard seed, we could move whole mountains (Matthew 17:21), so a rock shouldn’t be any problem for Him.  But Jesus never did things just for show, and He never did miracles when muscle would suffice.  So He asked some guys to get that stone out of the way.  And thus, they became part of the miracle.  Could they raise Lazarus?  No.  Could they fumigate him so he didn’t stink when he walked out?  No.

Here’s another example:  In John 21, Jesus told the disciples to throw their nets on the other side of the boat, and they pulled in a big catch.  He could have just caused the fish to jump into the boat, right?  (This is fresh on my mind because I wrote about it recently.)  In moving the stone, just like in casting the nets differently, the people near Jesus participated to the full extent of their ability.  They could do no more.

Isn’t that beautiful?  He says that, on our own, we can never bring that spiritually desolate son or daughter back to Him.  The one thing we can do is pray, so do that.  He says that we can’t work a miracle in the body of that friend with cancer, but we can fix meals, run errands, love, listen, and pray.  So do that.  He says that we can’t bring that unreached people group to Christ, but we can _____________ (you fill in the blank).  He will do the rest.  Whatever the situation, we can’t handle it alone.  Our role is to participate to the full extent of our God-given ability (yes, He even gives us that part—like the muscles of the guys who moved the stone) and let Him do the rest.  Our first conclusion here is simple:  Don’t try to do it on your own.  You’ll just fail.  But let’s go a step further:  God lets us be part of the miracles!  Can you believe that?  Do you grasp the fact that God Himself says, “Hey!  Come over here and help me with this.”  Phenomenal.  Really.  And that’s when we feel closest to Him:  a mission trip, a service project, that time when you showed someone how to become a Christ-follower.  I’m talking about momentous occasions here, but the same applies to everyday life.

The Greek word for ‘fellowship’ is koinonia.  But the same Greek word (or a variation of it) is often translated as partnership, commonality, or participation (e.g. Luke 5:10, Philippians 1:5, Titus 1:4).  So we can say that fellowship with God is about partnering with Him, about sharing a common purpose while here on earth.

Back to our earthly get-togethers.  The same principle applies to our fellow human beings.  (‘Fellow’ . . . ‘fellowship’ . . . hmm . . .)  It’s the relationship that comes from working together, especially through something difficult.  Real fellowship is that indefinable thing that happens when we join together for a purpose.  It’s post-mission trip camaraderie.  It’s far-flung teammates from your high school basketball team (regardless of whether you had a winning or losing final season).  It’s veterans reunited thirty years after the war.  Maybe they eat fried chicken when they get together; maybe they don’t.  Yes, there’s a get-together-ness about it, but the characteristic is not the definition.

‘Fellowship’ has to be more than a synonym for ‘social gathering.’  Otherwise, fellowship of his suffering (Philippians 3:10; the NIV says participation in his sufferings) makes no sense.   Consider that reference alongside 2 Corinthians 13:14, where Paul blesses his readers with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  This type of participation—the kind that is difficult or even hurts—is what Jesus asked of Mary and Martha when Lazarus died the first time.  (I wrote about that at length *here*.)

Lord, what do you want us to do with this information?  How can we move it from knowledge to wisdom?

  1. Participate in what God is doing around us to the full extent of our abilities . . . and beyond our limits as He equips us for special circumstances. Even if it’s just moving a rock.
  2. Bring others along. If it’s a mission trip or an opportunity to share Christ with someone or a simple act of service, intentionally create fellowship, which strengthens the Kingdom.  Your Sunday School class does not need more potluck dinners in order to grow closer as a class.  You need to work together for Kingdom advancement.  That’ll change things on Sunday mornings.
  3. Recognize and seek out authentic fellowship. We build it through shared experiences with believers—especially difficult experiences.  We celebrate it (thus increasing His glory) through reviewing what He did through and around us when we see those special believers.  Fried chicken optional.

Inform or Implore?

Sometimes, it looks like Jesus put the disciples into awkward—even difficult—situations on purpose . . . like He knew they were going to be tested.  I would have hated it if I was one of them, but I love watching what happens from my 21st-century perspective!

For example, in Luke 8:22 He said, “Hey, let’s take this boat across the lake.”  Then He fell asleep in the boat—deeply asleep.  A big storm came.  Did He know that it would come?  Did He want to test their faith?  I tend to think that He did.

Well, they failed the faith test.  First, they were afraid, but this is not their failure.  It’s okay to be afraid when something big and scary happens.  The Creator built us that way.  It helps us survive.  Then, they woke up Jesus.  That’s not their failure either.  Talking to God is a good thing to do when you’re afraid.  That’s what we tell our kids, isn’t it?

So where are they lacking?  Or, as Jesus put it, “Where is your faith?”  Answer:  They assumed that Jesus couldn’t take care of the situation; they thought they were as-good-as-dead.  They woke Him up in a panic, saying, “We’re going to drown!”  (Makes me wonder why they even woke Him up; I mean, if I was about to die, I’d just as soon be asleep when it happens—less scary that way.)  Looks to me like they just wanted Jesus to be aware of the situation.  Instead, they should have said, “We need you to take care of this.”

It’s okay that they didn’t know how He would handle it.  He just expected them to believe that He could and would.

Sometimes our (okay, MY) prayers focus more on informing God of the situation than on asking Him to handle it, more on complaining than complying, more on the crisis than the Christ.  If I really believe that He is sovereign, then my prayers need to reflect an “asked and answered” attitude.

Know what I mean?