Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Expressing Community" (Mark 2:13-17)

  1. A Return to Community (2:13-14)

Early in his ministry, Jesus was walking along, by the sea, and noticed a tax-collector named Levi sitting at his tax office. Levi would have been contracted by the Roman government to collect transport tolls or sales taxes on goods passing through this trade route. Tax collectors, like Levi, were generally hated, because they collaborated with the Romans, who were brutal in extracting tax from the poor. Also, these tax collectors would often charge more than they needed to, and pocketed the extra.

Jesus had previously called four fisherman to follow him as disciples, somewhat unexpected choices, due to their less than spectacular occupation. Jesus looked beyond any pre-conceived notions or appearances, and more deeply into character and potential. However, here, Jesus is calling one who may be considered completely unsuitable, the complete opposite of what might be considered an appropriate disciple. Levi would also have been regarded as spiritually ‘unclean’, because of his constant contact with gentiles, and failure to keep to the purity laws.

However, this was NO problem for Jesus! This should be of great assurance to us; for anytime we feel unworthy of grace, we can know that Jesus loves us and has called us into his service anyway (and trusts us with his mission in the world)! “God’s love does not depend upon the object of its love being worthy or deserving, but wholly upon what God is in Himself” i.e. love (Art Katz). If we think of ourselves as one piece of a jigsaw puzzle – let’s do that – Jesus always sees how this jigsaw piece will fit … and help complete the picture that he sees. God knows that the puzzle will be incomplete without our piece; this is why we are so actively sought. Jesus sees positive things in people beyond their current lifestyle and how others may judge them. Jesus was vitally interested in Levi’s life, and what he could bring to the mix! So whereas most would have responded to Levi with a, ‘no’, Jesus starts with a ‘yes’! Jesus sees beyond a lot of rubbish and baggage … to an actual ‘image-bearer’ of God.

And Jesus didn’t just ask this tax-collector Levi to follow him privately – this was right in front of a large crowd. We read in verse 13, that Jesus had been teaching the crowd by the sea. One wonders what particularly Jesus was teaching the crowd that day! Perhaps more about the forgiveness of God that had been on display in the previous passage (in response to the faith of the four guys who lowered a paralysed man through the roof of the house where Jesus was). In any case, Jesus was going to teach in action, by going up to Levi, and cast aside all thought of his past and present sin – and invite Levi to follow him!! It’s just as if Jesus, to underline his authority to forgive sins, picks out the biggest outcast he could find!

This was not an anonymous insignificant event. Levi was not only a notorious tax-collector, but also an identifiable person – the son of Alphaeus. Word would spread about this! One wonders whether Jesus had noticed Levi previously, and had discerned that this was a person who would respond instantly and thoroughly when called. We could understand that God had been preparing for this encounter ahead of time, by speaking into Levi’s life. We could also consider that Levi may well have become very uncomfortable with his way of life, and any habit he had of unjustly treating people. Even though he likely hadn’t talked about it, Levi may well have desired something different. Here was Levi’s opportunity to change his entire life orientation!

The good news of Jesus is for all people. And potential leadership in the Kingdom of God is also open to all those who will leave their past behind as a new creation (led by the Holy Spirit). This is exciting stuff … Levi got up from his “tax booth”, left his old life behind, and began following Jesus. Out of this, was NOT only a new personal relationship with Jesus, but a whole lot more!?! What would this include?? The only friends Levi was likely to have had … were other tax-collectors, and how much could they ever be trusted or confided in! What sometimes pretends to be community, is not really community at all. Levi had been rejected from his natural community due to his collaboration with the Romans. He could not enter any place of worship because he was regarded ‘ceremonially impure’ – an ‘unacceptable sinner’.

Levi was NOT wanted among his own people; and thus he has lost his sense of community. And this is a large problem! We have all been made in God’s image. And as God is community (of three persons), we have therefore all been designed to live relationally in community. Without community we are not really alive. “Community is deeply grounded in the nature of God” (Bilezikian). Those who try to live privately, are pushing against their very design. And, when our community is fractured, we suffer for it. Social commentator, Hugh Mackay, recently wrote, in a brilliant article on this theme: “… when we lose sight of our role as neighbours, the health of the neighbourhood suffers; and when the health of the neighbourhood suffers, we all suffer”. Lack of social connection and a sense of belonging, produces anxiety.

There are many, through the centuries since Levi, who have found themselves, for a variety of reasons, excluded from community. And, they have NOT been able to find a pathway back. Often this has been because of their brokenness, and society’s inability to deal with that level of brokenness. In New Testament times, there was leprosy, various problems described as demon-possession, and disabilities (like blindness) that led to poverty. This led to the absence of community in these sufferers lives. Now we have a mental health epidemic, drug-addiction, homelessness, family breakdown, many struggling with cancer, and an aging demographic where there can often be isolation and loneliness. There are also many people trying to deal with past abuse or neglect, which often results in pushing the people away who can never quite understand.

So, when Jesus said, “follow me” to Levi, this wasn’t just an invitation to personal salvation, but also an invitation back into community. Accepting this invitation, gave Levi a new sense of acceptance and value, and ushered him back towards community – the most exciting part of this being … the new community of those following Jesus. Jesus, as he shared the good news of the Kingdom, sought to provide a new sense of community. For those who have responded positively to the good news today, there should be a new sense of community available to them … amongst other disciples of Jesus … in the church.

How so?? What should the church be able to offer??? Love, acceptance, support, sharing burdens, concerted prayer, counsel, encouragement, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, renewal, company, friendship, shared experiences, generosity, common purpose, a general appreciation of diversity. As Levi closed the door of his tax office, never to return, he not only gained new life, but also a new community … within the band of Jesus-followers. Here, among God’s people, Levi not only gained the benefits of community and fellowship, but also the knowledge that he was important, valued, and irreplaceable as one of God’s unique ‘jigsaw pieces’. Our worship of God is made authentic through nurturing meaningful relationships that build community.

  1. An Expression of Community (2:15-17)

I guess, after such a momentous change of direction, like Levi experienced, there would be some sort of gathering at Levi’s house … that would involve his new best friend Jesus. Probably a big celebration dinner, that was likely to get a bit noisy with newfound excitement. Levi was lost, but now he was found! From Jesus’ point of view, we know that he had the intention of meeting with as many lost and broken people as he could. Thus Jesus was most happy to receive some hospitality there that day! And of course, in that culture, sharing a meal was the most intimate of activity. This was a sign of trust, and offer of peace. Because of this relational intimacy, dinner guests were normally chosen very carefully, and this was what upset “the scribes of the Pharisees” that day.  

As mentioned earlier, those regarded as “sinners”, especially by the Pharisee types, were thought of this way, not just because of any immorality, but because they were unable, for various reasons, to fulfil their religious obligations. Yet, these were exactly the people that Jesus wanted to meet with and share the good news of the Kingdom. For they were lost in life, and missing community! They knew they were sick, and they wanted to see a ‘doctor’! They were open for change, not arrogantly resistant. They knew they needed new friends, and new hope, and they congregated around where Jesus (and his disciples) were eating dinner (at Levi’s house).

This would have rendered Jesus ‘ritually impure’ as well, but Jesus didn’t care about such classifications. Jesus actually stands AGAINST those that negate God’s offer of grace to “sinners” … blocking their path to freedom. God hasn’t given up on anyone! Jesus may have thought to himself that day, ‘How am I going to connect with the lost and lonely of Capernaum’? ‘I know’, he said, ‘I’ll go and present myself to that hardened tax-collector Levi … and if he responds, this could mean … being given the opportunity to connect with so many more like him’! Brilliant!! An entry point had been created! Jesus unreservedly attended the dinner at Levi’s house, and began building relationships with all the others who turned up. Of course he did!!

This had become a natural place of connection, and Jesus enthusiastically walked through the door. Jesus’ disciples were with him too – Peter, Andrew, James, John – now joined by Levi, and many unnamed others … and they may have been a bit uncomfortable or intimidated by this gathering, and with what the ‘Pharisee types’ were saying. But they were being trained on the job by Jesus. For these disciples, this may have required slowing down to look beyond labels and stereo-types to recognise the image of God in the other guests. These disciples were part of modelling a new style of community to the gathered guests. This was a type of community that brings healing from past hurts and exclusions. This was a community that was based, not around minute points of religious law, but rather around the dynamics of love, grace and forgiveness.

So, in being with our neighbours, and sometimes being able to share the good news of Jesus with them, we also get to share a new vision of community. This new and different community … is NOT about getting the best for ourselves, or just about self-help, but rather about changing the world to the way God wants it to be – there is a big vision attached! In time we might get to invite and welcome them into this very alternative expression of community. We might do strange things in their eyes, like sing worship songs, and pray, but the integrity, sincerity and effectiveness of this, should shine out with an intense light (into the darkness that often pervades people’s lives).

To best express community outside the walls of the church, we need to grow in our expression of community … with those that we already gather and fellowship with. Then as we take this inspired view of community out, it has more integrity and is more relationally mature. As we learn to love and support each other through all our uniqueness, eccentricities and various ways of dealing with many past experiences, we are becoming the diverse yet unified church that Jesus prayed for. The church can be the most complimentary team imaginable – bringing together so much varied life experience, with the Holy Spirit dispersing all the effective ministry gifts … for the common good!! As our collective faith is allowed to shape us, people will notice. As we live out credible community, this will be respected. As we are known for depth and wisdom (that comes from Jesus), the church will be relevant. Questions will be asked. The Holy Spirit can guide the answers.

We cannot bemoan society the way it is, unless we (collectively) are prepared to model an alternative. If we sense that the world is dying around us, then this behoves us to maximise the power of God’s love amongst us, and take it out into the streets. We are called to have a “faithful presence” in our neighbourhood (David Fitch). As Jesus is present with us, and we are present with him, we exercise a “faithful presence” with others. As we know, this means a lot of listening, to others and to God. We need to detect where Jesus has already been (in preparation), and the seat he may be occupying now (which also includes the seat that we are in).

This will always involve a degree of vulnerability and honesty, along with courage and faith. There may be behaviour patterns, as a result of extreme brokenness, that go so far as to repel us. So, this continues to be a matter for ongoing prayer and discernment. Where should we spend our energies and resources?

In my last church, that “faithful presence” community was able to host a dinner for the local CFA brigade. And then having moved our worship service from the CFA to the new community centre, we were able to share the facilities with the local Muslim gathering, creatively navigating our way through all the complexities of this – providing a “faithful presence” for Jesus. There are many efforts of “faithful presence” being exercised here in Bright as well (whether we recognise them as such or not) – in small relational ways, and in formal arrangements e.g. sports chaplaincy; yet we can still be thinking about this even more.

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