Maintaining the Institution or Furthering the Mission?
A Sermon for GB 5613-01, Preaching Biblical Genres
Hazelip School of Theology
Dr. John O. York , Professor
October 16, 2006
Text: Luke 6.1-11 – One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the grain fields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus’ [NRSV]
Focus: Jesus’ faith and piety are informed by the content and mission of the good news of the kingdom of God rather than by the lesser agenda of institutionalized religious observance.
Function: To reflect upon how easily and often we substitute our own agendas for the gospel and to awaken ourselves to how Jesus’ clear priorities challenge our backward notions of faithfulness.
I was born on a Sunday. Now, though I was not born on a pew, I was seated upon one shortly thereafter. I was raised in the church: faithful attendee at VBS, active in the youth program, taught to be a good person, a faithful Christian, a responsible citizen. While I can laugh at the joke about Wednesday nights not counting, I also cringe inwardly because I was raised to love God with care and precision. I was brought up in a Bible-believing atmosphere, with a sense of duty, an expectation of holiness, a strong work ethic, and a keen attention to detail.
Taking the Bible seriously, being faithful, and maintaining distinctive identity are strongly-held values for the Pharisees. They retained amid a sea of moral corruption and religious pluralism a distinct historical consciousness: they remembered what happened when past generations sold out to the surrounding culture. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day are born into situation wherein they are pressed on all sides, yet they remain determined that the exile would never be repeated. God gave them a new lease as a nation and they are committed to keep faith with God. Against the Graeco-Roman programs of cultural and religious assimilation they will cling to their culture, their religion and its distinctive marks: circumcision, Sabbath observance, food laws and personal holiness. After all, these are our sacred institutions and we must maintain them at all costs.
Evangelical author Joseph Bayly wrote a slim little book in 1960’s entitled The Gospel Blimp. It is about a group of believers attempting to be the presence of Christ in their world. As it opens the main characters, George and Ethel, are concerned about the salvation of their beer-drinking, unsaved, neighbors, but don’t know how to reach them with the gospel. During an evening get-together of George and Ethel’s Christian friends, everyone is captivated by the sight of a blimp flying overhead. As they swatted mosquitoes George’s friend Herm gets a bright idea: why not use a blimp to proclaim the Christian message to the unchurched citizens of Middletown?
So the group incorporates (International Gospel Blimps, Incorporated) and after a couple of years of committee meetings, the blimp finally gets off the ground and commences to evangelize their hometown. They tow Bible-verse banners, ‘firebomb’ the town below with gospel tracts, and broadcast Christian music and programs over loudspeakers. But a series of misadventures puts the blimp ministry in jeopardy. Its captain becomes famous and goes off on the talk show circuit. The blimp comes to be seen as a noisy distraction in the otherwise quiet community. George becomes increasingly uneasy about the methods and business practices of IGBI and its “Commander”, Herm. The couple that hosted the picnic grows disillusioned with “Gospel Blimp, Inc.” and resigns from its board.
Like George and Herm in Bayly’s story, the Pharisees spent a good deal of time discussing the ins and outs of what constitutes proper observance and maintenance of the markers of true Jewish identity. Just as the International Gospel Blimps, Incorporated took on a life of its own, so too did the Pharisees’ traditions. IGBI institutionalized a very good impulse. Indeed, to evangelize is a gospel imperative. But the gospel imperative was lost amid the institutional maintenance. Israel is the covenant people of God and are to keep Torah; such is an imperative; yet the Pharisees’ traditions took on a life of their own. The exercise of faith and piety has become set within an institutionalized framework.
But notice carefully from the text in Luke 6 how Jesus engages the Pharisees here. Mark this: Jesus is not merely quibbling in good Rabbinic fashion over tradition, he goes to back to Scripture.
Before we explore what Jesus makes of the David story, observe what he does not do with it. First of all, he does not overturn the law of the Sabbath. He does not criticize the law; he does say that the law is bad, or deficient. He does not replace the old law with a new one. What he does is he steps outside of the Pharisees’ interpretive box. In order to appreciate Jesus’ point about David, we must remember the context for David’s eating of the bread. David’s relationship to the law is informed first by his mission as God’s anointed king. Seen from this vantage point, to withhold the bread from David is tantamount to hindering the mission of God. David is not condemned because Torah serves the mission of God. Lifting the law about the bread outside of the missional context and putting it in its own institutional context is like putting the cart before the horse. To do so would have hindered God’s mission. The instruction about bread does not stand alone as an independent institutionalized legislation, does it?
Hear also Luke’s second story. It is another Sabbath story. Jesus is under surveillance. He is also on the offensive. Here Jesus initiates discussion. His question brings out, in bold relief, the issue at stake in both of these stories. His question: What is truly lawful? Why are we in this synagogue? What are we doing here? What are we about when we observe Sabbath? What is Sabbath for? Why do we keep it? What constitutes truly “lawful” Sabbath observance? If we take the Bible seriously, then what are we to do and to be? I ask you, what is the lawful thing to do: to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it? Are we about the maintenance of an institution or the furtherance of a mission?
And that is precisely what Jesus has been asking and doing all along isn’t it? This pair of stories does not drop in on us from the blue. Has not the missional and redemptive love of God been the controlling motif for Jesus (and Luke) all along? What text does he read in the Nazareth synagogue? What task does he claim for himself as his covenantal and relational status as God’s anointed? What does he do at Capernaum for the demoniac? What does he do for Peter’s mother-in-law? What does he do for the infirm, the diseased, the troubled, the distressed? What does he do for the crowds, and the masses and the cities and the villages? What does he say to Peter in the fishing boat? What does he say over the din of the snapping nets and the flopping fish-tails? What does he do for the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax-collectors and the sinners? And what does he say about old ways of thinking about the presence of God and the reality of his kingly rule?
Really, if we are to be faithful to the mission of God, if we are to take our history and our upbringing seriously, if we are to be the distinctive people of God, then what does it mean to be faithful to scripture? What is the lawful thing? What is the lawful thing to do in the midst of this Sabbath gathering? Is it lawful to do good? Is it lawful to withhold good? Is it lawful to prolong suffering?
Are we to be about the maintenance of an institution or the furtherance of a mission?
I was born on a Sunday. Now, while I was not born on a pew, I was seated upon one shortly thereafter. I was raised in the church: faithful attendee at VBS, active in the youth program, raised to be a good person, a faithful Christian, a responsible citizen. I am a lover of God. I have heard the stories of the Bible and I have heard the story of Jesus. I have been taught and instructed.
And now I have this document from Luke. A document carefully investigated and researched. Attentively crafted and ordered. Luke lays bare the way of Jesus that I may know the truth. He narrates how Jesus brings the tangible gospel message to a variety of people in a variety of circumstances. He shows Jesus calling disciples and reveals how he draws the ire of his enemies. He shows how Jesus reads and interprets Scripture.
And in so doing he beckons me, one who has been taught, be beckons me and probes me and questions me and scrutinizes me.
In the crucible of his orderly account he presses on me and works on me. Using the mortar and pestle of conflict and invitations to discipleship he questions my heart and my motivation. Am I in this for my own preservation? To preserve an institution? To make myself look good, feel better, to avoid facing up to the realities that it is much easier to maintain and defend an institution than it is to surrender my heart to the truth of gospel: the awful truth of the gospel that I really am no better than the sinner I despise; the awful truth that I would rather inflate a blimp than cross the fence in my own backyard to build a redemptive relationship with my godless neighbor?
He sounds the clarion call of mission of the kingdom: good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, declaration of the favor of God!
Going back to this mission of God in scripture, he exposes my small-minded institutional thinking and much like my Pharisaic counterparts now I must choose what I will do with this Jesus. Will we with fury oppose him, or will we embrace his priorities and his values, take up our crosses and embark on his wonderful mission?
 Plot summary adapted from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0312733/plotsummary, accessed 15 Oct 2006.