This morning, my message was based around a reflection on the Luke passage from the lectionary combined with having just read the first chapter of Dan Kimball’s new book (which you can find here at Zondervan). I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but plan to buy it soon. After reading it, you’ll see that I borrowed liberally (with a few edits) from his opening chapter in my first paragraph. I was committed to preaching this passage from Luke in a way that stirred my own passions, and Dan’s book provided just the spark I needed to see this as an important passage about how we’re called to be if we’re interested in reaching non-Christians.
There’s a new book out about the church with a title that’s intentionally a little challenging. It’s called, They like Jesus, But Not the Church. The author of this book, Dan Kimball, got the idea for this book after an encounter in a gym. While he was there, a young lady was helping him get oriented with the weight equipment when they began to talk about some of the music she liked. As the conversation went on, Dan found out they had a lot of interests in common. As they were having this great conversation about music, movies, and so on, she finally finished showing him all the equipment and asked a final question, “So what do you do for a living,” to which he responded, “Oh, I’m the pastor at a church.” Her expression changed, she took two steps back, and nearly tripped over the leg of a machine as she said, “No way you’re a pastor, I don’t believe you!!” As he tells this story, Dan said it took several minutes to convince her that he was actually a pastor so he asked her what she thought pastors were like. Without hesitation she said, “Pastors are creepy…” To this girl, pastors were definitely not normal and Dan didn’t fit her expectation of what Christians, especially pastors, would be like. So Dan began to do some research. He struck up conversations everywhere he went with people who weren’t Christians and compiled these conversations in his book. Unfortunately for those of us who believe God deeply about the world the title is also the summary of his findings, They Like Jesus, but not the Church. This was a recurring theme. Almost everyone he met had interest in Jesus, but many of them were turned off by how they perceived Christians to be.
One of the recurring themes Dan found was the idea that Christians are angry and judgmental. Now, I can’t imagine where anyone would get an idea like that! If we weren’t part of the Church and based what we know about Christians solely on what we see on Television, or other bad examples we’ve seen, what would we think? It’s unfortunate, but there are times when those who are the worst representatives of what the Church is called to be are the most vocal and visible in the news. It is no wonder the caricature of the Church is that we just might be a tad bit angry and judgmental!
Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own life. When I first began seminary, one of the first classes I took was a required course. Over the course of the semester, we were able to explore what it meant to be called into ministry and serve as a minister. One of the components of this class was to be involved in a small group of men and women who met weekly. In this small group, we’d come together and talk about our faith. We’d discuss how we practiced our spiritual disciplines like prayer and bible study and try to encourage one another in the faith. These kinds of groups are only as successful as the investment you make in them, and so I decided I was going to throw myself into the experience. In the first few weeks, we were talking about how we were doing spiritually and it was my turn to share. So I decided to be brutally honest and open with the group. We had just moved to Kentucky, our daughter was less than a year old, and we were just getting situated in our new home and life there. So I talked about this. I said, “You know, my spiritual life is pretty much at a standstill right now. I’m really tired and stressed and as a result I’m not reading my bible much at all and my prayer life is nowhere near what it should be. Most of the time I’m having a hard time praying” I had been a part of groups similar to these before, and so I kind of expected some support and encouragement. Instead, two of the other three people in the group looked at me like I had just revealed the most horrible thing they’d ever heard. One even said, “Wow…that’s really bad,” and I don’t remember if he said it or not but I got the distinct impression that he had never missed a day of praying or studying the bible in his entire life. Needless to say, I felt pretty condemned. Here I was, in a group that I had hoped would be a safe environment for sharing. At that point, I had been a Christian for nearly 20 years, I was in the middle of pursuing a clear call to ministry, and I felt totally judged and condemned. Now, after experiences like that, I can only imagine how someone might feel if an experience like this was their only image of the Church. I can only image what someone might think if their only image of Christianity is based on the condemnation and anger we sometimes see on TV.
That brings me to our Scripture for today addressing this very issue. Jesus tells the story of two men, and I think we can read it as two ways of being. Two men entered the temple of God. One of the men was a Pharisee, a religious official and one of the most respected types of people in that world. The other is a tax collector. In order to be a tax collector, you had to be affiliated in some way with Rome. At this point in history, Rome was occupying Israel, and as you might imagine the Romans were not popular folks with most people in Israel. So together before God, we have someone honored for their faith and discipline and someone rejected for being in cahoots with the occupying Roman regime. The Pharisee stood off by himself making sure he wouldn’t be “contaminated” by getting too close to the tax collector and loudly began to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Across the temple, too scared to approach the front and too ashamed to even look up to heaven, the tax collector began to pray as well, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Two very different men and two very different prayers; keep this image in mind the Pharisee at the front praising himself in front of God, and a tax collector in the back pleading for God’s mercy. With that image in mind, listen to Jesus’ words, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
That brings me back to the book I talked about in the beginning. The reason that some people like Jesus, but not the Church, is because of the times that we act more like the Pharisee in this story than the tax collector. If you’re like me, then you’re never just one or the other, sometimes you’re both. I have to rely totally on Jesus to avoid being the Pharisee, just as I have to rely totally on Jesus to understand I need mercy just like the tax collector. When we rely totally on Jesus’ grace & love, we’ll be the ones going home justified – in a right relationship with God.
In my story about the small group, there was another person I didn’t mention. Daniel Kim (name changed :-)) was a Methodist from South Korea pursuing his doctorate in missiology (the study of missions). The South Koreans on campus had the reputation as being the kind of people who prayed for hours, studied the bible passionately, and had a deep abiding love for Jesus. Daniel was a leader among the international students. After the small group where I shared how I was struggling spiritually was over, he came up to me. He said, “You know…I understand how you feel. I’ve been there too. I’ll pray for you.” In that moment, I didn’t feel judged, I didn’t feel condemned….instead in his gentle words, I knew God’s love. In that moment, I knew I wasn’t alone and I felt encouragement that that time of struggle would pass. In that moment, Daniel could have very easily been just another Pharisee. Instead, he was a fellow tax collector…and out of his own experience with God’s mercy, he shared that mercy with me.
What kind of Christian do we want to be? Do we want to pat ourselves on the back thanking God we’re not adulterers, evildoers, robbers, or tax collectors (or any of the other the sins we conveniently don’t participate in)? Or are we confident enough in God’s grace to know better…do we know the kind of God who receives those who bow humbly pleading for mercy?
Even though we all have moments of both, my friend Daniel had chosen to make the latter the dominant pattern of his life. He was a man who knew a God of grace and forgiveness….he bowed humbly before God pleading for mercy, and that fact seeped out of every pore of his being. If the people Dan Kimball interviewed could meet a few more Christians like him, I believe they would be different. They just might be able, by God’s grace, to like Jesus and the Church.
I want us to commit to being that kind of Christian. I want us to commit to being that kind of Church. I want us to be the kind of people who are so transformed by the merciful love of Jesus that we can’t help but show it. The world is hungry for us to do that very thing. They’re hungry for us to show them what being a follower of Christ really means. This week, let’s refuse to be the Pharisee, trusting in our own goodness. Let’s be the kind of people who not only like Jesus, but love him so much that we become like him drawing others to the foot of the cross to receive the same mercy, grace, and forgiveness we all so desperately need – the very grace that makes both Pharisee and Tax Collector right before God.