SEPTEMBER 9th, 2018                                                                                PASTOR DON PIEPER

“Mail From Jail”                                                                               Rom. 15:1-7/Luke 15:1-3,11b-32


                                                “WELCOMED HOME!


            Our travels with the apostle Paul ended last week upon his arrival in Rome, where he was put under house arrest.  From there Paul wrote a number of inspired, timeless letters which we'll begin in-vestigating together next week.  Thru these letters he sought to build up the church, such as he'd done in writing the church here in Rome.  In that letter Paul sought, among other things, to impress upon the young church who they were as followers of Christ - children of God, and heirs to Jesus' kingdom....


            As Paul put it to his future neighbors in Rome: “You received God's Spirit when He adopted you as His own children.  Now we call him, 'Abba, Father', for His Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God's children; and since we are His children, we are His heirs.”  (Romans 8:16)


            Where did Paul get this idea that we can call the Almighty....'Dad', and that we are his children and heirs to His kingdom? From Jesus of course...


            In his preface, Luke 15 observes that: “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This so upset the Pharisees and teachers of religious law that they complain-ed that Jesus was associating with such sinful people – even eating with them!”  (Luke 15:1-2)


            These two verses reflect what Jesus was all about. Three things stand out: First, as his critics noted, Jesus was associating with notorious sinners.  He reached out to them, talked to them, ate with them, ministered to them, traveled with them – in short, he hung out with them.   He saw past the exterior of bravado, self-indulgence, broken relationships, lustful, angry, wounded attitudes and life styles and saw their desperate need…to know and experience God's unconditional love. 


Jesus met people where they’re at, loving them, radically as is. The need was so great that it moved Jesus to tears: “As Jesus saw the city he began to weep, saying, ‘How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace…, but it is hidden from your eyes.’ (Luke 19:41-2)

That’s the first thing that leaps off the pages - his approach: love the lost into the kingdom!


             The second thing, admittedly, makes me squirm. It was the religious community, those who knew Scripture inside and out, who prayed regularly and eloquently, who gave offerings of time and money back to God, who resisted and criticized Jesus’ sense of mission more than anyone else. 


            One time he accepted an invitation to eat with a notorious sinner named Matthew prompting further complaints, to which Jesus responded: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do.  I've come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”                                                                                                                            (Matthew 9:12-13)

            The church then, should resemble the E.R.  So is its reputation more that of a members only club?  I read ofan episode of The Simpsons where Homer is asked why his neighbors sent their child to a Christian camp. Homer pauses then says: 'They sent him there to learn how to be judgmental.'  Ouch! 


            One of the things I love about Alpha is that it provides a safe environment for people to experi-ence a sense of belonging even before they come to believe. One such guest confided in me that church people weren't his kind of people. Later in our Alpha group he shared how his perspective had changed.  “It’s the first time…that folks in church seemed to accept me as I am, that I was listened to…”



            In the words of John Burke: “What our world needs more than anything else is grace. Not more talk about grace – but grace that seeks out lost people like God does.  Grace with skin on it – because people are born to run from God without it.”       (John Burke’s No Perfect People Allowed)


            That’s what the story of the Prodigal Son is all about.  Here’s a young man who's been selfish, spiteful, indulgent and immoral.  His demand for his inheritance while his father is still alive is cold and arrogant, since as the younger son he's not entitled to any thing.  It's a slap in the face of this father and his brother.   But Jesus says that at one point he came to his senses.  Like an alcoholic he hit rock bottom and came to realize his desperate need for what he’d had at home all along - loving acceptance and a sense of belonging.  But before he gets there, Jesus notes, “While he was still a long way off his father saw him coming and ran to his son…, embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)


            It’s one of my favorite verses. It conveys the heart of our heavenly Father.  I read of a pastor who shared this story with a friend he'd made from Israel, asking him what stood out for him about the story as one who grew up in a similar culture.  The man referred to that verse and said it was laughable – that no self-respecting adult male would run after someone in public.  To do so meant to lift up one's robe, like a woman wearing a dress, and run with his ankles and knees showing.  Such an act would be viewed as reckless and shameful, which is huge in a culture that values honor above all else. 


            Jesus told this story in such a culture to reveal the father's heart which is echoed repeatedly by Jesus as he identifies his sense of purpose and mission... *  I came that you might have life...  (I) came not to condemn the world but that it might be saved...; The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor..., that captives may be released, the blind to see and the oppressed set free...                        Jesus wants us to know that we are loved unconditionally – that the Father's love for us is as radical and shameless as that of the prodigal's father.


            So every time I’ve come to my senses I realize how far off I still am, not in some general way, but as God reveals to me in specific ways.  As this occurs I reawaken to the pig sty I choose over the loving arms and ways of my Heavenly Father.  And where else can I most readily experience that loving embrace if not in the arms of Christ, through the Body of Christ? 


            Jesus told that story to help those in the faith community catch his vision of what it means to be the hands and feet of God – hands that embrace the sinner as is and feet that go racing after him “while he’s still a long way off”!  That’s why the story ends with the Father talking to the Prodigal’s brother, the son who refused to welcome his brother home.  It ends with a cliffhanger as the Father invites the elder son, the more mature son, to join in on the welcoming home party, and we the audience are left to determine for ourselves whether or not he will participate in that party of grace… (Luke 15:20)


            That’s the third thing that grabbed my attention in Luke 15.  Jesus was redefining what it meant to trust in God and to be obedient to His will.  It was no longer about being religious…, about keeping the rules..., but about learning to trust in Jesus – and living for him!


            Luke notes, “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to Jesus.” (Luke 15:1)  But why him – why go to the son of a carpenter?  Why?  Because they knew that Jesus was a come as you are kind of guy – one who loved others as is, inviting them to discover a God who welcomes and loves us even while we’re still sinners, as the apostle Paul would later note. 




            Most people assume they will not be accepted until they change, not by God and definitely not by church people.  That gives us a great opening, an awesome opportunity for us to be used by God to love people into his kingdom with gestures of reckless grace following the example of Jesus...


            But to create a culture of grace we must each rediscover for ourselves our own desperate need for grace. We must experience it in order to share it.  In turn, we must give up trying to fix people.  That’s not our job; that’s God’s job.  This doesn’t mean we never point out sinful, immoral behavior. Clearly there may come a moment when a brother or sister in Christ is wandering off the path and so in the spirit of Christ's love we gently seek to redirect them but for that to happen there needs to be trust...

and humility. “We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”   (Romans 3:23) 


            We cannot change anyone.  Such inner transformation requires the power of the Holy Spirit.  Notice that in Jesus’ story the prodigal son comes to his senses while still wallowing in the pig stye. His brother would've been happy to tell him...but it is his Father's love that brings him home!


            And look at the reception he receives: the best robe, a shiny ring..., new sandals, a fatted calf!  The father wanted to make absolutely sure his son knew that, in spite of it all, in spite of how he'd been treated and the stench of swine, a job, by the way, repulsive to a first-century Jew to whom pigs were viewed as being spiritually unclean, in spite of all that, the Father communicated in word and deed that his lost son now found, belonged!  Every word and gesture shouts: You matter to me; welcome home!


            Think of it this way: If you saw a Rembrandt covered in mud, you wouldn’t treat it like mud.  Your primary concern wouldn’t be the mud at all, tho' it would need to be removed.  You’d be ecstatic to have something so valuable in your care.  But if you tried to clean it up by yourself, you might dam-age it.  So you'd carefully bring this work of art to a master who could help you restore it to its original condition.  When people begin treating one another as God’s masterpiece waiting to be revealed, God’s grace grows in their lives and cleanses them – God's plan for both brothers!


            Dave Roever is a Viet Nam vet who spoke of his fears upon his return home. ‘I’d heard of how others were being treated. Looking back I’ve come to realize that the greatest fear I’ve ever known …is fear of rejection.  I watched as the wife of the man in the bed next to me walked in, took a look at him, and tossed her wedding ring at his feet... Then my young bride walked in and saw me lying there in a body cast.  She leaned over and softly said, “I love you Dave.”  And then she kissed me on my broken, chapped lips and said, “Welcome home!”’   (Dave Roever)


            That’s Jesus' vision, to race out to embrace the lost son, to welcome home the wounded and broken hearted, to focus not so much on the mud but on the masterpiece and to convey in no uncertain terms, You belong! Welcome home!  That’s our vision, to be a Come as you are refuge from the storms of life, no matter how self-induced they may be, to be the body of Christ in this place and time, loving and “Accepting each other just as Christ has accepted us…to the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7)