Monday, January 29, 2007

the last, the least and the lost (luke 4)

Each of the gospel writers tells the story of Jesus in a distinctive way. What does this mean? Think about our church for a moment. There are lots of people around here, lots of activity. Imagine that four people have decided to describe what goes on here. Maybe a person in the choir, and a teacher in the youngest children’s area, and a member of the Wesley Class, and someone who volunteers with Room In The Inn. Let’s call these four people Ann, Mitzi, Maurice and Scott.

Now these are all engaged, active people in our church. They are all eyewitnesses to what is going on. But each might focus on something slightly different. Ann might focus on preparing an anthem. Mitzi might write about how a young child played that morning. Maurice might talk about a Sunday School class lesson. Scott might describe a homeless person who slept here.

They were all there. It was all true. But each account would be slightly different. It is the same with the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and Luke has a unique perspective, which places importance on particular themes.

The first one is the prominence of the Holy Spirit. As Luke the historian records the events of the early Christian movement, in Luke and also in Acts, it is obvious that this is no historical accident. The explosive growth, the signs and wonders being done through Jesus in Luke and later through the disciples in Acts is the work of the Holy Spirit.

In chapter two of Luke, Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, gives birth to Jesus. In chapter three, as Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, in bodily form like a dove. Early in chapter four Jesus is led by the spirit to be tested in the wilderness, and later in that chapter, in his first hometown sermon, in Nazareth, he begins with these words: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…In chapter eleven he reminds his followers that the Father gives the Spirit to those who ask, and as he is put to death he commends his spirit to God (chapter 23). As the Book of Acts begins, Jesus is giving instruction to his disciples through the Holy Spirit. And in Acts 2, the church is born through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit is all about the power that comes from beyond us, our strength, our abilities, our control. That same spirit anointed Jesus and flowed through him. The Holy Spirit is the connection that Jesus had with his Father, and it is our connection as well.

On Friday I was with our Haiti mission at the Tovar clinic near Cap Haitien; on average we would see three hundred patients a day, pretty amazing and at times overwhelming, but at one point our team had caught up and I decided to sneak into the sanctuary, adjacent to the clinic, where I knew it would be quiet.

I sat there for a moment in the quietness. I thought about the people who had worshipped in that church, about the pain they had brought into the services, about the confusion, about the hope, I imagined that even though a Haitian is in many ways very different from us, we have also come into this sanctuary at times with our own pain, with our confusion, with our own hopes.

At about that time a woman came into the back door very quietly, and I thought, "wow, she is coming to find something here in the sanctuary". Then I noticed that she was looking around, and I realized that she was actually looking for a place to plug in her cell phone!

She was seeking a connection. Throughout the gospels, people are always seeking a connection, finding a place to pray, sitting at the feet of Jesus, sensing that the Holy Spirit is with them.

The second theme in Luke’s gospel is hospitality. In Luke Jesus is constantly eating meals with people of all kinds: with Pharisees (in chapter 14), with tax collectors and sinners (in chapter 15). There is a meal on the road to Emmaus (chapter 24), and as the Book of Acts begins the apostles are breaking bread in their homes with glad and generous hearts.

Charlotte is a big city, by any standard, and yet I often find myself looking for some kind of small town experience in the midst of it. Maybe you do as well. When Pam and I first came here one of our searches was for a place to eat breakfast out, not a chain, not a hotel, but a diner, a hole in the wall, a local institution.

One of the places we came across was Anderson’s, near Presbyterian Hospital. Now it is not convenient to us, and we had to pass a number of other places on the way---maybe you pass a number of other churches to get here---but when we parked and walked through those doors, we knew we had stumbled onto something special. Call it hospitality.

I knew it when one of the waitresses began to call me “young man”. And then she used a more familiar greeting that I won’t repeat! I knew it when they could almost guess my order. The point is, I was not a stranger there.

When Pam and I realized that Jack Lamour would be coming to Haiti, and attending Central Piedmont, we both came to the same idea: it would be great to take him to Anderson’s, maybe once a week. Then he could walk to school, and we could get on with our day.

Well, if you know the story, it took an unexpected turn. I read in the newspaper that Anderson’s was closing. My first thought was No, that can’t happen!” On public radio someone talked about the disappearance of local institutions. Everything is a franchise, a chain. It happens, and there are often reasons that make sense. Anderson’s closed its doors.

Well, Jack did arrive, and one morning we were taking him out to breakfast. We decided to go far off or our beaten path, and we ended up in Uptown, at a small restaurant (I promise I will get back to the point in a moment!). The waitress seemed really friendly, she took our orders, and then she looked at me and said, “You used to come to Anderson’s”. And then she recited my order there. And you know what: I felt at home! Even in the midst of a large city.

Brothers and sisters, that is our calling, as the church of Jesus Christ, to enjoy hospitality with other Christians and to practice hospitality with those who are new to us, strangers. People are drawn to church because they are seeking hospitality; to say this another way, they are looking relationships.

The spiritual hunger of the twenty-first century is the same as the first century: to break bread together, to enjoy a great feast. I love the words of the Charles Wesley hymn:

Come Sinners To the Gospel Feast, Let Every Soul be Jesus’ Guest

You Need Not One Be Left Behind, For God Has Bid All Humankind.

And this leads to a third theme in Luke’s gospel: the generous and inclusive gift of salvation. The good news is that we are all invited, we are all on the guest list! Luke tells a story about a great dinner, about who is invited, who is too busy, who chooses to come, about the expanding guest list (Luke 14). In Matthew’s gospel the family history begins with Abraham, but in Luke it is all traced back to Adam (compare Matthew 1 with Luke 3).

All of us are included in the invitation, the insider and the outsider. Jesus does care about insiders. But Jesus is always drawing us toward the outsider: the one on the margin, the one in need, the one who is lonely, poor, diseased. That is where the heart of God is located. If you want to read the classic story about the danger of being an insider and the salvation that is possible for the outsider, read Luke 15: the parable of the prodigal son. God loves all people equally, God shows no partiality. But I like the way it was once described: a parent was asked, which child do you love the most, and she replied, “I love them all equally, of course, but sometimes I the gift of my love has to be with the one who needs it the most”. Someone has called Luke the gospel of the last, the least and the lost.

There was a strong religious sentiment in the day of Jesus that if you were prosperous God had blessed you, if you were healthy God had favored you, and if you were poor, God had forgotten you, if you were sick God had cursed you. Call it the first century version of the prosperity gospel. It lives today, among television evangelists and in a culture that is obsessed with health and wealth.

Jesus came to announce the very good news that everyone has access to the Kingdom of God. I love the insight of Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy: no one is beyond beatitude (blessing) because the rule of God in the heavens is available to all. Everyone can reach it, and it can reach everyone” (122).

The Holy Spirit is our connection with God. Hospitality is the gift of relationship. Salvation is grace offered to the insider & the outsider.

If you want to know about the spirituality of Jesus, I invite you to read the gospel of Luke. And if you want to understand the gospel of Luke, look for the ways that the Holy Spirit is present, hospitality is experienced, salvation is offered. I want to conclude by making this more personal, as we ask ourselves a few simple questions.

About The Holy Spirit: What kind of connection are we seeking? If Jesus needed to pray, if Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit, how much more do we need those same

About Hospitality: What kind of hospitality are we enjoying? Has the faith become a fast food, drive through experience for us? Or do we take the time to savor the aroma of a great feast among friends who know us by name?

About Salvation: What kind of people are finding their way into the life and ministry of Providence? Can you think of someone who is discouraged, homeless, overwhelmed, burned out, lost, new to our city, interested in the Bible, cynical, dabbling in spiritual things? Can we think about an outsider, or an insider, who would be transformed by the amazing gift of grace? Here is the invitation:

Come sinners to the gospel feast, Let every soul be Jesus’ guest

You need not one be left behind, For God has bid all humankind.


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