Monday, February 03, 2014

February 2, 2014 - Having A Heart Like Jesus: A Love of Diversity

Matthew 10:1-4; Galatians 3:26-29

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;
Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;
Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith
27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Occasionally I repeat myself in my messages, and I’m aware that I do.  I believe that repetition is an effective way to learn, so I emphasize certain themes and will sometimes repeat particular points.  I don’t, though, repeat stories very often.  Stories are one of the most effective ways of teaching, and Jesus was a master storyteller in his use of the parables.  I try to use stories that will reinforce an clarify a point.  This morning I want to repeat a story I told not long after arriving here.  I’m repeating it because not all of you have heard it and it illustrates my point very well.

Six or seven years ago Tyler and I traveled down to Wilmore for the Ichthus music festival.  We went to one of the smaller stages to listen to a band called The Psalters. 

It’s hard to describe that band as they were so different in music and even how they dressed.  It was like Braveheart the Musical.  While we were listening to this band a guy wanders by and stands next to us – a very unique looking person.  He was very tall and had a mohawk haircut that was dyed blue.  The rest of his head, as well as his arms, were covered with tattoos.  He had piercings in his ears, nose, lip – this guy could never get through a metal detector.  He stands there watching this band for a bit and then finally mutters out loud this is way too weird for me.  What a moment!  Even those who are different and unique can find it hard to embrace those who are different and unique!

As we continue our series of messages Having A Heart Like Jesus, this morning we come to A Love of Diversity.  Our text comes from a list of the twelve disciples in Matthew’s gospel and a great affirmation made by Paul in the book of Galatians.

They seem like rather innocuous verses.  Verses we generally pass over quickly as they seem to lack any content that seems to hold any importance.

In the few brief verses from the 10th chapter of Matthew’s gospel we find what seems to be little more than a list of names – twelve men who were commonly known as the disciples (the word disciple comes from the Greek word mathetes, which means one who is a student or a follower of another).  What could we possibly learn from a list of names?

Quite a bit, actually, if we read between the lines just a little.

The list of the twelve disciples reveals an amazing amount of diversity.  If we were putting together a group with which to work, it’s probably not the kind of group we would choose.  When we take a closer look at the list we find the differences between these men were so great that the potential for conflict was enormous.

There was, first of all, the fact that a few of the disciples seemed to be favored by Jesus.  Peter, James, and John are mentioned far more than the other nine. 

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus tells us that after six days Jesus took with him, Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:1-2).  Where were the other disciples? Again, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus takes these same three – Peter, James, and John, further into the garden after leaving the other nine – Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him (Matthew 26:36-37).

  Some of the twelve are mentioned so rarely that it would be difficult for us to call their names.  A few of them, beyond the listing of the twelve, are never again mentioned in the gospels.  What did Bartholomew or Thaddaeus think about the favored status of Peter, Andrew, James, and John?

James and John, we know from Mark 10:35-45, were interested in power, to the point that they asked Jesus for special status in his kingdom.  Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him.  “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.  They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (verses 35-37).  The other disciples, verse 41, were quite offended at this request.  On another occasion, the mother of James and John approached Jesus with the same request (Matthew 20:20-28).  But it wasn’t just James and John who were obsessed with power and status; at times there were disputes among all of the disciples about who among them was the greatest (Mark 9:33-37 and Luke 22:24-30 among them.  The passage in Luke is particularly sad, as it took place at the Last Supper, as Jesus was trying to teach them about the real meaning of power, love, and sacrifice).

Judas was known to steal from the collection box – money that was intended for the needs of others became his own personal treasury (He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it – John 12:6).  Nothing will create problems quicker than someone who is stealing money from a cause.

Matthew was a tax collector.  A tax collector, in the day of Jesus, made his money by taking advantage of others.  No one really knew how much tax they owed to the Roman authorities.  The tax collector for a given area was charged with collecting a certain amount of money from the populace; anything over that amount was his to keep as profit.  Everyone knew they were being overcharged, but they couldn’t prove how much they were overcharged.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen – small businessmen.  As businessmen they were particularly susceptible to the abuses of the Roman taxation methods.  Matthew may have been the tax collector charged with collecting their taxes.  I can’t imagine how well that went over with those four men.  They must have questioned the wisdom of calling such a person as Matthew to be a part of their fellowship.

Matthew, as a tax collector, was also one who worked in league with the Romans, which would have been extremely offensive to the other eleven.  Matthew worked hand-in-hand with their oppressors.  This would have been especially offensive to Simon, who was a Zealot.  The Zealots were a political group dedicated to the overthrow of the Romans – by any means necessary, even by the use of violence.  Was it a good idea to put these two men together?  On the surface it certainly would not seem to be such a good idea.

What was Jesus thinking, putting together such a diverse group?  Obviously, he was thinking of the beauty of diversity, and if he loved diversity to such a point, so should we.

What’s especially amazing is that, aside from a few passing references, we don’t read much about conflict among the disciples.  We know there was some there, but there should have been much more.  As a group, they should have fallen apart, but they didn’t, and what a lesson that is to today’s world, where we find diversity – and an appreciation of diversity shrinking at an alarming rate.

I was in a meeting recently and someone started saying we don’t all have to be the same in a church.  I was thinking amen!  They continued.  We don’t all have to look the same.  I was thinking again – amen!  They went on.  We don’t all have to think the same.  Amen!  I thought once again.  Then they said, we don’t all have to agree with the minister.  And then I thought wait a minute!  Let’s not get carried away!

Early on in the history of the church, before we get very far into the book of Acts, we find the church was beginning to struggle with the question of diversity.  A lot of people were very uneasy about the Gentiles coming into the church.  They were different.  They didn’t think the same.  They didn’t act the same.  They didn’t talk the same.  And people like their sameness. 

Paul was the one who really carried the heart of Jesus on this matter – you are all sons of God, he says in Galatians.  All.  No matter who you are.  No matter how you look.  No matter how you talk.  No matter where you live.  No matter how you think.

One of the great temptations for churches is creating a culture of sameness, where people think the same, look the same, and believe the same.

I’ve told you before that while I grew up on a farm, I was a terrible farmer.  A friend of mine has told me in recent years about the danger of monocultures in agriculture, that is, the danger of having only one type of plant in a field.

1. A monoculture is very vulnerable. It can be wiped out completely by one virus, fungus, destructive insect, or other disease. A farmer could lose his or her entire crop – and income – to one microbe.

2. Monocultures encourage more diseases, weeds, and destructive insects. These pests build resistance to the changeless nature of a monoculture, and their life cycles are never interrupted.

3. Because the natural resistance is so low in a monoculture, farmers must use greater and greater amounts of synthetic pesticides and fungicides to keep their crops alive and yielding. The environmental and health impacts of this kind of copious use of agrichemicals are significant.

4. Nutrients become depleted in soil that is used to grow only one type of crop year after year. Thus, farmers must step up the chemical fertilizers to keep getting crop yields.

The same is true when it comes to people, and especially true when it comes to the body of Christ.  We cannot be a monoculture, searching for and appealing for only one type of person.  That’s not the world we live in.  We live in a polyculture – many types of people.  It’s a complicated matter to live amongst diversity, and some people simply cannot embrace diversity, seeking instead to enforce a uniformity that is stifling and tragic.

On Friday evening I spoke at the worship service of the Luther Luckett Christian Church, at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange.  I’d been scheduled for a number of weeks, but I was surprised to learn early last week that Friday would be the final worship service for the Luther Luckett church.  I’ve mentioned on several occasions in recent months that the administration of the prison was making it very difficult for the church to function.  Outside guests have not been permitted for some time and the men have been forbidden from any further worship leadership.  It was becoming increasingly obvious that the administration did not want the church to continue, and because the situation was becoming so difficult, the board decided that Friday’s service would be the final one for the church.

Dean Bucalos, the minister of the church, has done a really outstanding job of leading the congregation in the face of great resistance.  I greatly appreciate the work he has done.  At the end of the service I felt sad for Dean as he made the announcement that the church would not continue, and I felt very sad for the men, many of whom wept at the news.

These men have suffered a great loss because a few people could not accept a different way of doing church.  What was a spiritual lifeline for them has not come to an end because diversity could not be accepted or embraced.  What a sad reality.

Jesus took twelve very diverse men who did not think the same, believe the same, or act the same.  Their diversity could have torn them apart, but it did not.  The love of Jesus provided a larger vision they could embrace and it allowed them to accept one another as brothers.

Diversity is a beautiful thing.  God made us brothers and sisters, but neither asks or expects us to be the same.  Celebrate this great diversity!

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