Are We Building a Fort, or Are We Building a Church?

When I was a kid, I loved building forts. (Okay, who am I kidding, I still love building forts.) Couch cushions, sheets, sleeping bags, blankets, tarps, random articles of clothing, and cardboard bricks in any combination could be used to transform a living room into a fortress.

As someone with younger siblings and cousins, the intent behind building a fort was clear, and often stated with a two-word sign: “Keep Out!”

In the first century, in the time of Jesus, there were some societal forts, so to speak, some fairly distinct social categories, and once you were labeled in a certain way, it was fairly impossible to break through that. Especially if you had some kind of social stigma associated with your label. So, you know, it was very different from how things are today. (Insert sarcastic eyebrow raise here.)

Tax collectors may have been the most despised group of people in all of Jewish society in the first century. Nobody ever speaks positively about taxes, but in the first century it was worse. The land of Israel where Jesus lived was under Roman occupation, and tax collectors worked for the Romans. They paid the Roman government in advance for the right to collect taxes and tolls from their own people, and then they were free to collect them in whatever ways necessary. They were extortionists. They abused their power. There was no standard rate for taxes, so whatever extra they collected, they kept for themselves.

Because of their abuse of power, and because they had sold out to the Romans against their own people, they were socially despised. They were classified as “sinners” by the general population, and they were lumped in with thieves, and adulterers, and prostitutes.

I’m sure we can think of a lot of types of people that we’d put in that category today. People who are despised. People who are looked down upon. People who aren’t quite as good as the rest of us.

Another group of people in the time of Jesus were known as Pharisees. The root word of Pharisee in Aramaic, which is the language Jesus spoke, is “parash,” which literally means to separate or to distinguish.

The Pharisees were legal purists. Now, I think they had good intentions. They loved God’s law so much that they wanted to do everything they could to protect it. They built an intricate system of rules and customs and traditions and followed them as closely as possible so that they would have all the outward appearance of people who were God’s people.

They essentially built a wall in order to protect the teachings of God, but what happened as a result is that it became a wall that kept people out. There was a very clear delineation between who was in and who was out. Who was clean and who was unclean. Who was a sinner and who was righteous.

You might hear Pharisees say things like, “You shouldn’t hang around people like that.”

You might her Pharisees say things like, “Well, we’ve always done it that way. We like the way we are now. We like the size of this church just as it is.”

Pharisees have a knack for knowing who keeps the rules and who breaks the rules, and they have a pretty low tolerance for people who break them. Pharisees at their best have a high regard for God, for the word of God, for the teachings of God. Pharisees at their worst value rules over relationships, they value traditions and regulations over people, they reject the new in order to hold on to what’s firmly established.

In the Gospel of Luke (Luke 5:27-32, to be exact), there’s a story about an interaction between Jesus, some tax collectors, and some Pharisees. I think it has incredibly important implications for churches today. In fact, I think it’s so important, that when I spoke about this story this past Sunday, I said I think it may be the most important passage of Scripture that we ever study as a church because I think it has wrapped up inside it the mission of Jesus. And if we’re his followers, then by extension it has wrapped up in it our mission as people and our mission as a church. So not to be overly dramatic here, but I kind of think that if churches don’t grasp this, if we don’t understand Jesus in this passage of Scripture, then we might as well close up shop and go home.

The story says, “Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.”

A little aside here, and I love this, The Greek here puts “follow me” in the present tense, so a better translation is “be following me.” Following Jesus isn’t just a one time thing, it’s more than a one time commitment. “Be following me” insinuates that we need to continually pay attention to what Jesus asks us. Our following takes many different forms, depending on our current state and location. In fact, following Jesus might change by the day or the hour.

Back to the story: It’s one thing for Jesus to call fishermen to be his disciples as he does a few pages back, but it’s another thing altogether to call a tax collector. This ups the ante a bit. Fishermen may have been ordinary people who weren’t the best of the best, but tax collectors were the scum of the earth. They took advantage of other people. They exploited their power.

Why in the world would Jesus ask someone like Levi to follow him?

The story goes on: “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.”

So, this despised person gets up and follows Jesus and then invites a whole crowd of other despised people and they host a party where Jesus is the guest of honor. And he attends the party!

This is all happening in a small village, and so a great banquet like this would draw attention, everyone would know about it, so this gets the attention of the Pharisees. The Pharisees begin to complain and to ask Jesus’ disciples: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Their question doesn’t really arise from curiosity, wonder, or a genuine desire to learn or understand what Jesus is doing. They’re observing behavior that falls outside the boundaries of acceptability based on their conventional understanding. Those who are righteous according to the law don’t eat or spend time with those who are outside the law.

If you’re on this side of the wall, you don’t hang out with people on that side of the wall.

But Jesus is blurring the lines of what’s conventional, he’s dismantling the wall, he’s doing it in a way that people notice, and they begin to ask questions.

I’ve often said that the best way to share your faith is to live your life in such a way that it makes people ask questions, and then when they ask questions, be prepared to give them an answer.

Jesus overhears the Pharisees questions, and he’s ready with a response: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus uses three words in his response that we need to understand:

Righteous – righteous people are those who are in a right relationship with God. The root word of righteous means “straightness,” these are people who are on the straight path, who love God and who love their neighbor.

Sinners – sinners are people who feel far from God, who are disconnected from God. The Hebrew and Greek words for sin have a connection to an archery term that literally means “to miss the mark.” Sinners are people who are missing the mark in their relationship with God. I read an interview with Pope Francis this week, and when the interviewer asked “Who is Jorge Bargoglio?”, he responded, “I am a sinner.” Sin is the great equalizer. All of us are missing the mark in who God wants us to be.

I think it’s important to point out that Jesus doesn’t deny the fact that he’s eating with sinners. He doesn’t disagree with what the Pharisees say about the people he’s eating with and he doesn’t deny the reality of their sinfulness. He compares himself to a doctor healing the sick. But he also doesn’t require them to change their lives or to convert to his way of thinking before he sits down to eat with them. That would be like a doctor telling you that you can’t come in for an exam until you’re completely well and symptom free.

Repentance – Repentance is turning your heart and your life toward God. The Hebrew word is “shoov,” and it literally means to turn, to pull a 180.

So essentially, Jesus says to the religious leaders: If you’re righteous, if you’re on the straight path and you’re in a right relationship with God, what I’m doing here isn’t for you. It’s not about you. I’m not here for you.

I’ve always felt as though there’s an invitation in this for the Pharisees rather than a rejection. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “If you’re righteous, that’s awesome! I’d sure appreciate some help here.”

This raises for me a couple of really crucial question for us: do we believe that people can change? Do we believe that people have the capacity to change, to be transformed, to become something that they’re currently not? Do we believe that God has the power to transform hearts and lives, or do we believe that once people are outside the wall, they’re out for good?

As a church, do we exist for ourselves, to protect ourselves, so that we can stay pure, so that we can protect the sanctity of our faith community, or do we exist for the world we live in? Are we a church who builds walls to protect ourselves so that people can’t break through them, or are we a church who tears them down so that the grace and love of God can flow freely to all people through us?

Are we building a fort or are we building a church, a church of people who follow Jesus?

Well I’ll just go ahead and tell you, I believe that transformation is possible, because I’ve seen it. I believe that God still has the power to change hearts and change lives, because I’ve experienced it.

We are all a mixture of sinner and saint, of holy and profane, of spotless and filthy. All of us. Reading this right now are people with a past, people who’ve made huge mistakes, people who’ve done things they’re ashamed to admit, people who struggle every day to do what’s right, people who are in desperate need of the grace of Jesus. And so far, I’m just talking about me, I haven’t even started talking about anyone else.

We’ve recently introduced our boys to Star Wars, we’ve watched 5 of the movies so far, with Episode 3 and The Force Awakens still to go. Our five year-old has become obsessed with Darth Vader’s character development, how he went from good to very bad to good again at the very end. My wife has talked to him about the concept of “redemption,” the notion of people being redeemed. (It’s a great vocabulary lesson for a five year-old.)

He keeps talking about how Darth Vader was good because in the end he turned against the dark side. His favorite game to play right now is “Let’s figure out how to destroy the dark side,” and he continually runs around the house saying, “You were on the dark side but now you’ve been redeemed.”

His little brain can’t quite let go of these words, that he says on repeat: “Darth Vader was good because Luke knew he was good. Luke said he was good and he was. He didn’t stay a bad guy.”

That’s kind of the story of the Gospel in a nutshell, isn’t it? The story of the Gospel is that Jesus entered into the mess of humanity because he knew we were good. God didn’t try to stay clean and separate and distinct from the mess of the world, but he came and ate with sinners and he said, “You are good because I’m making you good.”

There are Pharisees in the world, people who are stuck in the rules, people who want to keep other people out. There are tax collectors and sinners, people who are stuck where they are and don’t really believe there’s any way out. People who think God could never accept them. People who think they’d never be welcome in a church.

But I think our aim is to be followers. Followers are neither tax collector nor Pharisees, yet they probably have a little bit of each in them. Followers are screw-ups and followers are rule keepers. Followers often have a past. Followers are imperfect. Followers don’t have it all together. But unlike Pharisees, followers don’t think the rules are primary. And unlike tax collectors, followers don’t believe their past sins have the final word.

Followers are people who think transformation is possible for themselves and for other people. Followers believe in sharing grace because they’ve experienced it. Followers believe in giving second chances and forgiveness because they’ve received them. Followers believe that Jesus still has the power to change people’s lives because their lives have been changed. Followers are willing to go with Jesus wherever he goes.

If we have a choice between being Pharisees, tax collectors, and followers, let’s be followers. If we have a choice between building forts that keep people out and joining Jesus in building a church where the grace and love of God flow freely to those who need it most, I hope we’ll choose to build a church.

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