by Mike Clymer
June 12, 2004
The excitement was traveling rapidly in those days throughout the land of Israel; you just had to see this Jesus of Nazareth and the things he was doing to believe! He was teaching in the synagogues, preaching what he called the “good news of the kingdom,” and he was healing people–healing them of every disease and sickness! Most amazing of all–by far–he was forgiving people of their sins! The stories were astonishing: He told a man who was paralyzed, “Your sins are forgiven. Get up and walk.” He defended a woman caught in adultery and told her she was no longer condemned. He spoke with a Samaritan woman at a well as if he respected and cared about her. He even sat and ate with Zacchaeus the despised tax collector, and declared that he, too, had received salvation!
Oh yes, good news spreads quickly among the harassed and the helpless. The Word, if you’ll pardon the pun, was getting around. The crowds were growing as people came to hear this invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven. “Come to me,” Jesus was calling, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Lost sheep, here is your shepherd. Those who are thirsty, this is the well of living water–and it never runs dry. Hungry? I am the bread of life. Dying? Here is the way to eternal life. Come to me as children, was Jesus’ message, and you will find unconditional love, unlimited grace, and life–eternal, abundant life.
If you made the effort to join the crowd to see and hear this good news–this great news–for yourself, you soon realized there was another side of Jesus’ call to the kingdom, another dimension to his gospel message that became clearer, perhaps, the closer you worked your way toward him, or the more time you spent with him. You began to understand that Jesus’ call to “Come to me” was really a call to “Come follow me.” Joining the kingdom meant becoming a part of what God was doing in the world. If you attended Jesus’ very first sermon (on the Mount), you heard him begin with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are the meek.” But he soon moved on to “Blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said on another occasion, “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” And again later, “If anyone loves me, they will obey my teaching.” Jesus’ final words before he ascended to heaven after his resurrection were to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Matthew Chapter 9 ended with Jesus moved with compassion for the crowds he encountered as he went about teaching and healing and calling people; and he immediately turned around at the beginning of Chapter 10 and sent his followers out to do the very same things in his name–to drive out evil spirits and heal every disease and sickness. “Go,” he instructs them. “Preach the message of the kingdom to the lost sheep. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the unclean, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” The call to enter the kingdom of God was also a call to help spread the kingdom of God. It was, and still is, not just an invitation, but a commission as well. Yes, it is a call to “Come” (Freely you have received)–and it is also a call to “Go” (freely give).
I hope you will allow me this morning to meditate a bit on this dual call (Come and Go) that Jesus offered. It may be presumptuous of me to condense all of Jesus’ life and teachings down to just those two words (actually, if I were to summarize the gospel message in three words or less I think I would choose “God is Love”) but for today I want to look particularly at these overriding themes, as I see them, of the gospel. And while I’ll be discussing them separately, I hope it is clear that I don’t see them as two different calls, but two aspects of the same call–Christ’s call to join the kingdom of heaven is a call to both Come and Go. Both sides of the coin represent a call to grace, a call to love, a call to peace, a call to be reconciled with our Loving Creator.
When Jesus says, “Come,” he is throwing open the gates of the kingdom of heaven for all who wish to enter. God’s love is lavish, and God’s grace is abundant, and it is freely offered, even to the point of God’s own suffering and death on the cross. Our sinfulness and our brokenness don’t disqualify us from being saved–just the opposite! By offering forgiveness we don’t deserve and healing we can’t imagine , God is calling us back into the covenant relationship for which we were created all along.
Over the past several months, this concept of God’s Grace has been on my mind and on my heart. Our Sunday School class has studied Paul’s insistence on and explanation of grace in Romans and Galatians, we have shared stories of grace received and grace extended together, and I have read two books devoted to exploring the topic (In the Grip of Grace by Max Lucado and What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey, which Anita referred to in her sermon two weeks ago as one of the books read by the Book Club of which she and Melody are part). Let me say that the more I ponder God’s grace, the less I feel like an expert on the subject, and the more I realize my own need for that grace in my life.
And that, to me, is the key to this call by Jesus to “Come.” We have to understand the call, we have to hear it, in order to accept it. Jesus has eliminated all preconditions for answering the invitation, but we retain the freedom to choose whether or not we accept. We are not going to Come unless we understand that we lack what Christ is offering. Do we recognize our brokenness, that we need to be healed? Do we acknowledge our sinfulness, that we need to be forgiven? Are we tired of our alienation from God, and long to reconciled? Then we are ready to Come.
Look at those who were drawn to Jesus in the Gospels: prostitutes and tax collectors, poor fishermen and disabled people, adulterers and doubters–the “harassed and the helpless” is how they are described in Matthew 9:36–these were the folks he welcomed into the kingdom. And look at those who rejected him: political and religious leaders who felt secure under the Old Law and the status quo, the rich young ruler who refused Christ’s call to the kingdom and sadly walked away–folks who saw themselves as neither harassed nor helpless, and who thus saw no need for, or even felt threatened by, this freely offered grace.
I know a 6-year-old boy who built a clubhouse in his living room, a special clubhouse that he liked to share with some of his friends, but not with other people whom he referred to as “mess-uppers.” So he posted signs around this clubhouse which read, “No Reahs Allowed!” Well, the good news of God’s Grace is that there are no such signs on the gates of God’s clubhouse. We won’t find any “No sinners allowed” barriers excluding you or I from joining God’s love banquet. In fact, all of us “mess-uppers” are more than welcome.
And yet we find ways to exclude ourselves from that banquet, ways of misunderstanding–and thus missing–the call to Come. Max Lucado in his book In the Grip of Grace tells a parable of four brothers, estranged from their father by a series of events and now living in a foreign land, who are found by their eldest brother who offers to carry them back home to their father. Each brother responds to this offer of reconciliation in a different way. One brother, the Hedonist, is too busy and too satisfied indulging himself to want to return home; “the savages,” writes Lucado, “had won his trust.” The second brother, the Judgementalist, was so preoccupied with keeping track of the sins of the first brother that he had no time to journey back to the father himself. He considered his own sins minor compared to those of the hedonist and thus felt pretty satisfied with himself; “I may have made a mistake or two, but compared to that sleaze, I’m a saint.” The third brother, the Legalist, was busy saving himself when the eldest son offered to carry him home. He was stacking rocks, building a path back to the father, fully aware of his sin and determined to prove himself worthy of forgiveness. He refused to be carried home by the eldest son, convinced he was strong enough to get back to the father by his own actions; “I will win his favor,” he declared. “I will earn his mercy.” The fourth brother, the youngest, named the Grace-Driven Christian by Lucado, was willing to entrust himself to the Firstborn, willing to climb aboard and begin the journey home. He did wonder if the father would really forgive him, but he took the eldest son’s word that he wouldn’t have been sent in the first place if the father was not willing to forgive; so he placed himself securely in the grip of grace. All four brothers heard the same invitation, but only the youngest son was ready–and willing–to Come.
And if we are ready, if we can make that life-giving decision to Come, then Jesus commands us, “Go.” This little light of ours is not meant to be hidden under a bowl, but to be allowed to shine. We are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are called to be followers of Christ, disciples and ambassadors of this good news. Now we are restored; we belong to the One who made us, who called us back into relationship, and who sends us now to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Some may understand the gift of grace as simply freedom from judgement, a blank check of forgiveness so we can do as we please, a free ticket to heaven. But if grace is the ticket, then discipleship is the train, and a ticket doesn’t do us much good if we stay in the station instead of getting on board. Our response to the call of the gospel puts us in a new relationship with Christ, and we are now called to live according to God’s love, God’s grace, God’s peace, and God’s righteousness.
This life eternal to which we are called is a life lived out of gratitude rather than obligation, but that distinction is easily misunderstood. The “Go” command of the gospel may sound to some like a new legalism, a new code that we must live by to earn God’s favor, a new expectation that denies the freedom we’ve been granted. Those who insist that salvation is by “faith alone” sometimes disdain an emphasis on “discipleship” as a doctrine of “salvation by works.” Mennonites, for whom discipleship has historically been an essential element of Christian faith, have been accused of reverting to this heresy. But I maintain that pitting grace vs. discipleship is a false dichotomy. Christ calls us to both. Both are the essence of the kingdom, of what it means to know, and be known by, Christ.
See, grace isn’t the ticket we need in order to board the heavenly train, grace is actually the train itself. When we answer that call of “All aboard!” we are committing ourselves to go wherever that train is going–that is, wherever grace takes us. To use another metaphor, when we enter the healing river of God’s love, it is going to carry us on its way; giving in to those currents of grace is discipleship. Or to quote Clifford Williams (from Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?), “Discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace.”
We’ve already seen how Jesus tied these aspects together in Matthew 10:8; “Freely you have received, freely give.” Here’s how Paul, who argued so vehemently that salvation is by grace alone, put it in Galatians 5:25; “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” And James put it more strongly (too strongly for many theologians) when he wrote that “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” All of these statements link the invitation to “Come” with the command to “Go.”
In What’s So Amazing About Grace? again, Philip Yancey wrote of spending one summer vacation struggling five nights a week to learn German in order to earn a graduate degree. He endured this torture of learning a language he would never again use, he freely admits, solely for the purpose of passing a test and receiving a piece of paper. But what if, he wonders, his wife, the woman he fell in love with, spoke only German? Then his motivation for learning this difficult language would have been transformed, and he would have memorized that vocabulary and parsed those verbs with joy and inspiration. His reason–and his reward–for doing so would not have been a passing test grade or a diploma, but the pleasure of communicating with the one he loved; his relationship with her would itself have been the reward. God, Yancey observes, wants something far more intimate even, than an earthly marriage, with us; but God wants us to approach our new relationship with Christ with a motivation and delight similar to that a newlywed feels for their spouse.
God’s language, I propose, is the language of love, the language of peace and justice, the language of kindness and generosity, the language of grace. Learning to speak that language is discipleship. It allows us to communicate and relate more deeply with our Lord and savior, to experience that love and grace more fully, to gain a clearer sense of how abundant life can be. When Jesus tells us to Go, he is sending us out to speak his language to a world that won’t be able to understand the message in any other tongue.
Jesus spoke some rather unsettling words in Matthew 7:21-23, near the end of his Sermon on the Mount, when he informed his listeners that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only they who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ And I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” These are hard words, hard to read and hard to understand, but I wonder if those surprised and disappointed folks to whom Jesus refers might be people who limit themselves to only one aspect of his kingdom call, instead of both.
Perhaps if we only hear the call to Come, but not to Go, we will be content to clutch our free ticket but stay in the station, never boarding the train. Or we’ll wax eloquently about how beautiful that river is, but never jump in. We’ll call Jesus “Lord” with our mouths, but not follow him with our lives. We’ll be like insincere lovers who profess love but don’t bother to be faithful.
On the other hand, perhaps if we only hear the call to Go, but not to Come, we will devote ourselves to doing what Jesus did for others, but never admit our own brokenness and our own need for his grace. Or we’ll think we can run alongside the train, or along the banks of the river, without having to humble ourselves enough to jump on or jump in. We’ll not allow ourselves to be known by Jesus, out of pride or shame or self-deception. We’ll be like the Legalist in Lucado’s parable, thinking that if we just do enough of the things Christ commanded, we can prove ourselves worthy to enter the kingdom beforehand. In all these cases, we will have missed the point, and missed the kingdom, entirely. Jesus calls us to both Come and Go.
The good news of the kingdom, as Christ preached, is the opportunity to be transformed. In the kingdom of God, the harassed and the helpless become fishers of men and workers for the harvest. We come sinful and hurting, and we go full of grace and healing. We come choking on violence and oppression, and we go as peacemakers with a vision of shalom. We come weary of death and darkness, and we go shining the light of life. We come as orphans, and we go as children of God, to extend the love and grace and mercy and peace and justice and life that we have found to others. We come to Jesus, and we go with him. We come longing to be reconciled, and we go firmly in the grip of grace.