A Jesus Kind of Church
By Greg Albrecht—
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” —Luke 4: 18-19
Out in the endless, desolate desert of west Texas, a hunter looking for antelope stumbles on a crime scene. Abandoned cars and trucks are pock marked with bullet holes, and a half dozen or so dead bodies are scattered around.
In that odd and somewhat glib euphemism used by the media, it’s apparently a drug deal “gone wrong” (if indeed there was ever a “right” drug deal!). Examining this massacre, as flies hover around the bodies, the hunter finds a suitcase of money which provides the motive for all of the violence that follows in the 2007 movie, No Country for Old Men.
The movie follows the trail of the money, in a telling and apt metaphor of the violence that often accompanies greed and lust in contemporary American life.
Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas sheriff about ready to retire. He spends most of the movie trying, without much success, to stop the bloodshed the money causes. No Country for Old Men considers America’s bloodlust for the fast and easy fix, the get-rich-quick schemes that enamor and trap so many.
I always take a chance in a movie I have seen—the chance involves the following:
1) Some may be shocked that I openly admit to seeing a “questionable” movie. Yes, I saw this movie. As a partial justification, I saw it on an airplane, but it was my choice, for there were several movies I could have seen in the economy section of that Air Canada flight from Toronto to Los Angeles. I decided to watch it because I had read so much about it.
2) No, I would not watch this movie with my grandchildren. I do not even recommend that you see the movie. It is a movie that is filled with blood and gore. On the other hand, there are many passages in the Old Testament I would not read to my grandchildren.
3) However, I do not apologize for having seen No Country for Old Men, for the movie was yet another insight into a part of the human dilemma of living apart from God and our quest for peace with him.
Okay, now that’s I’ve justified myself, I’m feeling much better, so I guess we can get back to the point! Here’s on of the best scenes I remember from this movie.
Toward the end of No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones goes to visit his father, who lives in an old shack in the middle of nowhere. He talks to his father about retiring. His father was himself forcibly retired when he was crippled in the course of his job in law enforcement.
Tommy Lee Jones is standing by an old kitchen sink in his father’s crumbling shack, drinking a cup of coffee, gazing wistfully out the window at the wastelands of west Texas. As I recall, he turns and says to his father,
“You know, I always thought when I got older God would come into my life. Well, he hasn’t. I don’t blame him—if I were him I wouldn’t come into my life either.”
It was, for me, a telling line in the movie, as the character played by Tommy Lee Jones grapples with his relationship, or lack thereof, with God. Is there anyone into whose life God would refuse to come?
Does God have some minimal standards we have to meet before he would even bother “coming into our life”? Is God somewhat like Santa Claus? The Christmas song assures us that when Santa Claus comes to town he only visits the homes of the good little boys and girls. Does God really care about ALL of us?
Let’s recall the larger context of Luke 4:18-19. Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown. While he was born in Bethlehem, he grew up in Nazareth (Luke 2:39-52).
As we pick up the story in Luke 4, Jesus is now 30 years of age. He had only recently left Nazareth to begin his ministry. We can assume that Jesus lived in Nazareth for at least several decades, perhaps virtually every year of his life, following his birth in Bethlehem.
Our passage is the only recorded visit of Jesus during his 3 ½ year ministry to his hometown of Nazareth. Nazareth was, of course, a place where lots of people knew him and had seen him grow up.
This passage is actually one of the few times we read of Jesus “going to church.” And, when we read the verses that immediately follow, we discover that the members of this synagogue did not respond favorably to Jesus’ visit to their little piece of religious real estate. Jesus’ sermon was not rewarded afterwards with people shaking his hand, saying something to the effect of “nice sermon today pastor.” Instead of saying “nice sermon pastor” they attempted to take him outside of town and throw him off the cliff.
If I took a trip in a time machine, and found myself living in Nazareth at the time of Jesus’ visit to the local synagogue, I might apply to work for the local newspaper. I would love that job, just so that I could write a brief review of last week’s sermon at the synagogue. My report on Jesus’ sermon would say something like this: Jesus encountered religion—and religion was definitely not happy.
The synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was definitely not A Jesus Kind of Church.
When Jesus attended synagogue that Sabbath, he took the scroll and read that day’s passage, which “happened to be” a relevant scripture from Isaiah about Jesus’ ministry. After reading from the scroll, and handing it back, Jesus then sat down (Jewish teachers and rabbis normally sat down when teaching) and he prepared to expound on Isaiah. He started by boldly claiming, in vs. 21 of Luke 4:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In essence, Jesus was saying, “The kingdom is here! I am it! I am the promised Messiah. Believe in me. Trust me. I have good news for the poor. I am proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind.”
You see, the Jews of that day had many expectations of a messiah—a deliverer. They so desperately yearned for a spiritual leader who would bring healing to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. They craved, they ached for someone to set them free from the military occupation of the Roman armies. They longed for freedom for their nation—they desired to be set free from the oppressive taxation imposed on them by their Roman captors.
If you or I had been first century Jews attending that synagogue on that Sabbath day, hearing Jesus read from Isaiah, then the only way we would have understood the words he spoke would have been in the context of our deep longing to be free from the physical slavery and bondage we were experiencing.
That’s exactly what the people in that synagogue were thinking. Then Jesus said, in effect, “Your long wait is over. I am here, and I am the embodiment of the kingdom of God. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears!”
At first the people who heard him were gracious, this was, after all, someone they had seen grow up before their eyes and he was a fine young man. But what he was saying was truly remarkable.
Doubt set in as they asked each other “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Isn’t this the kid we have seen grow up? Isn’t this the carpenter who works with his father?”
What the people in Nazareth, indeed Jews everywhere at that time, did not know is that Jesus was coming to deliver them from slavery and captivity, but the deliverance he was bringing was spiritual, not physical.
They truly were spiritually blind. They were completely unaware of their deep spiritual need. Like all human beings, apart from God they could only see to the end of their nose. They only recognized their physical needs and they longed for their physical pains and heartaches to be solved.
They didn’t know it, but the bondage they were experiencing at the hands of a performance-based religion was far greater, far more crippling and debilitating than the physical military occupation of the Roman army.
For that matter, there are many religious folks today who still don’t understand the nature of the freedom that Christ offers.
Many within Christendom are still waiting for some future finality of the kingdom of God, when all of their trials and heartaches will be solved, not realizing that the kingdom of God has been on this earth ever since Jesus gave this sermon in Nazareth, a little more than 1980 years ago.
It’s here—right now! The kingdom Jesus brought has never left this earth. The offer of freedom from slavery to physical and spiritual addictions is just as valid and relevant NOW as it was then. He offers healing from spiritual blindness NOW!
The members of the synagogue of Nazareth were spiritually blind, they were spiritual prisoners of their performance-based religion. They wanted a kingdom all right, but a kingdom that would vindicate and reward them, their beliefs and their culture.
When they realized that Jesus’ kingdom would not include their religion, when they realized that Jesus’ kingdom would not be restricted by religious walls or denominational barriers, the members of the synagogue were outraged—enough to want to kill Jesus.
What about you and me? Are there times when our religious ideas and culture get in the way of God’s grace?
Are there ever times when you would get so defensive about your religious traditions that you would consider getting rid of Jesus?
Are there times when you might seriously think, as the saying goes today, of throwing Jesus under the bus?
Is your primary spiritual relationship with God or is it with some religious system, institution, building or authoritarian leader? Which takes priority in your life, Jesus or religion?
If Jesus takes priority, then you are free in Christ. If religion takes priority, no matter what you may think, you are a slave of religion and in spiritual bondage.
In the movie No Country for Old Men, the religious misunderstanding voiced by the character played by Tommy Lee Jones (“if I were God I wouldn’t come into my life either”) is that God determines, based on our circumstances, our virtues, or lack thereof, whether he is going to be a part of our lives or not.
The exact opposite is true. It doesn’t matter how much you have attended church or how much you haven’t. God is not primarily interested in how good some religious authority has assured you that you are—or, on the flip side, how bad someone has assured you that you are.
It’s true that there are people who are spiritually blind—doing time in religious prisons—and for some reason unknown to you and me or anyone else for that matter, God has not made a way for them to come to know him as he has for others. Why hasn’t he? We don’t know.
We do know that God is no respector of persons. He doesn’t play favorites. That doen’t mean he sends his invitation to everyone at the same time. That doesn’t mean everyone will accept his invitation. It may be that he gives different kinds of invitations to different people.
We don’t know all those details. We do know that he loves the whole world. He offers, perhaps in ways beyond our human understanding, his invitation to everyone—not just a chosen few. I believe that we can conclude that in some way God reaches out to all humanity—in his way and time.
I believe there will be a time when your relationship with God, or lack thereof, is your choice. God will not simply choose to lock you out. He won’t ignore you.
So what kind of church is A Jesus Kind of Church?
A Jesus Kind of Church is not necessarily a building made of wood and stone, but first and foremost it is you and me. We can be the church of Jesus, his very own body, in a building or outside of a building.
A Jesus kind of person is, as Jesus said in his first, and apparently last sermon in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth, filled with good news. God’s grace is good news. The bad news, the polar opposite of good news, is religious pretense, performance, pills, potions and prescriptions.
A Jesus kind of person is, by God’s grace, free in Christ. A Jesus kind of person, A Jesus Kind of Church is not spiritually oppressed, browbeaten or abused. If you find yourself in that kind of spiritual place, then you are not in a Jesus kind of place—you are not in A Jesus Kind of Church.
A Jesus kind of person has spiritual insight and vision, given to them by God’s grace.
Maybe you are coming to realize, by God’s grace, that you are doing time in a religious salt mine. Your eyes may be opening to the fact that you are simply treading water, or maybe cool, clear water is not the right word to describe your spiritual environment.
Perhaps you’re trying to keep your head above the muck and mire of what can best be described as a religious septic tank. Maybe you are getting tired of doing and doing and doing—trying harder and harder and harder—doing more and more and more—running around in a little religious cage like a hamster on a wheel.
Here’s how you can be saved from religion, and come to Jesus.
First—here’s what you don’t have to do:
• learn some unique denominational catechism or be baptized in some special way.
• memorize any religious creeds.
• join any humanly incorporated religious institution.
• say any particular prayer, show up at any precise piece of religious real estate or perform any distinguishing religious rituals. You don’t need to meet any religious quotas—giving so much, attending so often—forget that stuff!
If you want to be a part of Jesus’ church—here’s what you will need to do:
• lose your religion, kick your religion to the curb and embrace, without question, God’s amazing grace. It’s one or the other, God’s grace or the legalisms of religion.
• completely surrender all of your religious expectations about who Jesus ought to be, the way you want him to be, and trust in him as he is.
• stop thinking that you can make God love you more because of all the religious stuff you do.
• stop trying to keep God within a religious box and realize that he transcends the group you are a part of or the church you may choose to be a member of.
• accept his unconditional, no-matter-what love, the staggering love that he offers, which is a love that we cannot gain or lose on the basis of our actions. His relationship with you is based on his in-spite-of-what-you-have-done love, not the because-of-what-you-have-done approval of religion.