“GRACE FIRST” SPIRITUALITY — Pete Bauer
This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on July 13, 2014. To listen to the audio, click on this link – Wineskins.
God Comes to Us When We are Paralyzed.
The Healing of a Paralytic: The heading in my NIV bible reads, “Jesus Heals a Paralytic.” No surprise there, that is what interests us–and tends to blind us to what was really happening. It is easy to read over Matthew 9:1-8 and to think that it is primarily about a healing. But the primary focus of the story of the paralytic, lowered through the roof, was not his healing. The man’s friends brought him to be healed, but that is not what Jesus did when they lowered him through the roof.
It is helpful to know that as a paralyzed man, not only was this man helpless, unable even to beg for food, but that, in the eyes of Jewish society (for good or ill), he was considered a sinner–someone who had somehow offended God. In the ancient mind, physical illness was a manifestation of something wrong, disapproved of, in the spirit of the person.
The friends of the paralyzed man–and the man himself–hoped first and foremost that Jesus would heal him so that he could be a whole person and, therefore, acceptable before God.
Jesus Heals the Core of the Man First: Instead of healing the man, Jesus went right to the heart of the issue first by forgiving his sin. He did not do this, primarily to upset the teachers of the Law, but in order to present a new/Gospel understanding. He forgave the man and, for the moment, left him paralyzed. This, as much as Jesus’ claim, was the scandal to the teachers of the Law–the man was still defective. However, Jesus’ actions were intended to make a statement: We do not come to God to be healed so that we can be acceptable–God comes to us as we are, to offer forgiveness as the beginning of our healing.
God Desires Forgiveness that Leads to Healing: It is after Jesus has forgiven this defective man, expressing the forgiveness of God for his sins, that, (in order to put authority behind his words that both the man and those who are watching can understand), he heals him–in effect reversing the regular Temple regulation where the one healed goes first to be examined by the priests before he can enter into the presence of God in the Temple.
This act becomes a picture–to which the rest of the chapter looks back–of a new way. Jesus is the new way. He forgives first–then he heals. Forgiveness and reconciliation is, in effect, the doorway through which we come, freely, into the presence of God. Only after we have come through the door–the narrow way–Jesus who forgives us, can we begin to be healed–to walk spiritually.
God’s Comes to Us Before We are Holy.
The Calling of Matthew: The next verses seem to move on to another story–somewhat randomly. Jesus calls Matthew or Levi, who is a tax collector. The way we understand spirituality deeply effects the way we read this story. Matthew, in our mind, is only a tax collector (a traitor and sinner) only for a moment, and then instantly transformed into the disciple, one of the spiritual elite.
However there is a connection between the theme of the healing of the paralytic and the call of Matthew. Matthew throws a lavish party where, “many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with [Jesus] and his disciples.”
The Hope of the Pharisees: When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating and drinking with these sinners they objected, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” We tend to think that the Pharisees were just unkind, unsympathetic, people. But the Pharisees were not that simple–they were complex.
The Pharisees were hoping and waiting for the Messiah to come. They were well aware of the history of the people of God–how often God’s judgment had fallen on Israel–how often God’s people had failed to receive God’s blessing because they were unjust and had failed to honor the Law of God. The Pharisees believed (enough to die for it) that God’s Messiah would only come and restore Israel if the people of Israel would repent and reform–turn from their evil ways–and come out and be pure.
But Jesus, who was possibly a prophet of God, was eating with and accepting the company of traitors and sinners. Rather than demanding reform and repentance, Jesus was showing acceptance to and eating with these sinners. He was harming the reform efforts of the Pharisees to clean up Israel.
God Seeks Out the Sinner: There is no question that Jesus actions would have been confusing to the Pharisees–but they were purposeful. Jesus, in calling Matthew, would have known (without the aid of special revelation), what kind of people Matthew was likely to associate with. The calling of Matthew was not some random event–but a purposeful contact with exactly the wrong kind of people. Jesus sought them out. This is made explicit when Jesus, hearing the Pharisees anger and confusion, answers, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick… go learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’. I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Here, again, Jesus, by his actions and words, is making a statement: We do not come to God through our reforms and repentance to be the kind of people he will associate with–God, in his mercy, accepts us as we are first, then calls us to be holy.
God’ Comes to Us in Joy.
The Question of the Disciples of John: Here again is another seemingly random tangent in which the disciples of John the Baptist come and ask Jesus about fasting. However, the question of these disciples of John pick up the same thread of thought that Matthew has been following in the other two stories.
John’s disciples asked Jesus, basically, why aren’t your disciples mourning in repentance over the spiritual and political state of Israel? The implied statement was, “You don’t seem to care whether God blesses his people or not–if you did you would be teaching your disciples to mourn and repent along with the rest of us.”
Jesus the Bridegroom Rejoices Over His Followers: Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples was stunning. He told them that he was the bridegroom. He was calling himself the one for whom the people of God had always longed–to be joined to God through him. He told John’s disciples that the bridegroom was present–now–not later after they had repented enough. Jesus described himself as a groom with his attendants–joyful, full of anticipation. Mourning over sin, then, while the bridegroom was with them, would be completely out of place.
God Rejoicing Over Us Leads Us to Repentance: If you read the Old Testament you will see that all of the threats of judgment from the Prophets never was successful in leading the people of God into any kind of lasting repentance. In fact, God told the major Prophets ahead of time that those they were going to would be stiff necked and hard hearted, and would not listen or repent.
In Jesus, the bridegroom, we see the a reversal of what the Pharisees and John’s disciples practiced. Jesus tells John’s disciples that now is the time of rejoicing–God rejoicing over his people–but that later they will mourn (his crucifixion). And in so doing, Jesus reverses their understanding of God and makes a statement: We will not win God’s favor with our fear, sorrow and mourning and repentance–God has come to break in on us with joy as a bridegroom, in order to lead us to the healing of repentance. Here, again is the reversal of our expectation. God comes to us–we do not come to him. God comes with favor–and out of that favor he heals us, he calls us, he leads us to repentance. This is the way of Jesus–the narrow way.
The Call to “Grace First” Life.
The old Way Cannot Be Patched onto the New: “No one sews a patch of old cloth onto a new garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment making the tear worse.”
The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law had a certain understanding of spirituality which Jesus challenges throughout this chapter–That we come to God by cleaning up and clearing away whatever is between us and God, and then we find welcome. That understanding, says Jesus, is like patching the old understanding of spirituality onto the new thing Jesus came to do–being healed first–then welcomed by God… reformed first–then made acceptable… repentance first–then welcomed joyfully by God…
But that way of understanding no longer fits Jesus way–the new garment. Jesus way is forgiveness that leads to healing–acceptance that leads to holiness–and joy that leads to repentance. These two ways of spirituality are incompatible and Jesus is calling his hearers to choose the new way.
New Life Will Not Be Contained in the Old Forms: The second thing that Jesus says is that this new way is like new wine. Jesus, himself, cannot be contained in the old view of spirituality–we see him bursting the wineskins of the old spirituality again and again–healing where he is told he has crossed the line–accepting where he is told that he should separate–rejoicing where he is told to mourn.
Jesus is the new wineskin. His actions are the new wine. He is full of the Spirit of God. The new wineskin is “Grace First Life.” Those who receive the Grace First Life that Jesus offers, will find that it overflows and changes them–like a spring of living water.
Some People Will Still Want the Old Wine: Some people, having tasted the old will find it good enough. These final words of Jesus stand as a warning. The acceptance of Jesus as the power to change and be healed is offered to us–it is the joyful thing the bridegroom is doing. However the pull to demand reform first, healing first, is strong, and there are some who will reject the new (and Jesus) for the old.