Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Why did Jesus go to parties?

"Why did Jesus go to parties?” is a bit of an odd question, but one worth looking into. I have had to answer it for myself and the answer I have found is slowly changing me. It is not a silly question, although it has taken me about twenty years to figure that out. This is because I don’t naturally gravitate to parties. I avoid them. They’re messy, even if I’m not in charge of clean up. Usually I have to meet a lot of new people and I never know what is going to happen. These kinds of events are a bit out of control. Especially Spanish parties! I suppose for most people this is a large part of the fun, but not for me.

Jesus was an odd case. For a guy who said he was, in fact, God stuffed into a human body, he wasn’t very religious. For example, what in the world was he doing going to all those parties? Parties!? Perhaps you haven’t noticed just how much of a man about town he was, but the religious leaders of Jesus’ time sure did. They accused him of being a party animal, a bar hopper! In Matthew 11:

16 "But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children,
17 and say, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.'
18 "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon!'
19 "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."
The New American Standard Version, ©1986 The Lockman Foundation

Jesus was contrasting the reaction of the ruling Jewish class, a very religious lot, to John the Baptist and to himself. They found very different reasons to reject both. John was clearly of the “prophet style” of ministry and they rejected his stern warnings: “we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” John was the kind of voice from God that Jews should have expected: he was a very typical prophet, solitary, and a little bizarre. He wore strange clothes, hairstyle, cologne… and His message was accompanied by a full voice, a raised arm, and a long pointing finger:

"Change your life. God’s kingdom is here."

"Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin!
The Message, ©2002 Eugene H Peterson

His shocking message was meant to bring tears of repentance, but Jesus observed, “you did not mourn”. John the Baptizer had a strange diet, too: locusts and wild honey. He was a kind of hippie, a “naturalist”, and the sort of independent outdoorsman who knows how to live off the land, drink cactus milk and dig his own latrine with a bark shovel. But hey, prophets are supposed to be like that. God wants them to stick out so that somehow, someway, people pay attention to God’s warnings. Although John did draw some amazing crowds, many simply concluded, “This guy is too weird – I think he has a demon”.

Jesus’ style which was based on his way of being was quite a contrast with that of John. John was the last of the big time prophets. Jesus set a completely new way of doing God’s business. Jesus was your basic, standard human, at least at first glance. This is pretty amazing since he was taking this tack in spite of being God himself. Rather than emphasize the bad news, he decided to keep his message upbeat and preach the good news of the kingdom. Things like, “God is among us, there is forgiveness of sins for whoever comes to me. No need to keep searching, drink me and you’ll never thirst again!” Jesus said he “played the flute” for the people, and it was a happy tune. Happy enough to dance to! This human way of being is a wonderful part of how Jesus decided to bring God’s message to us. His favorite personal title was “Son of Man”, and he is quoted 82 times in the New Testament using it. It is, in fact, an indirect proof that Jesus clearly knew himself to be God in the flesh. Otherwise, what kind of title would “son of man” be? Everybody is the son (or daughter) of a man and a woman, right? For Jesus it was a title he was happy to announce and an amazing one because he was God somehow made into a son of man.

And what a man! He was gregarious – spending his time with multitudes, followers of all sorts and even sinners. He was a toucher (perhaps there was a bit of Spanish- or Italian-Jewish blood in Mary’s line!): he touched the untouchables - like kids, lepers, and the blind. And he touched them in places and in a way that no one else dared: tenderly and right on their blind, puss saturated eyes. His wonderful touch healed them all. Mothers rushed to him, “touch my child, please!” The fact is he couldn’t keep his hands off us. Good thing! He also let himself be touched: John leaned against him at meals as was the tradition between good friends, Thomas’s finger was kindly guided to probe the fresh scars, … and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus slowed his pace so that the woman with a bleeding disease could touch the edge of his clothes and be healed. Even a well-known prostitute touched him – he let her caress his feet with her repentant tears. This is amazing, strange, scandalous! How could this be God, holy and uplifted?

And how did he dress? About like everyone else, even if his was a one-piece tunic. Nothing there that would help you pick him out in a police lineup. His diet? No oddball stuff for him, no manna, no shewbread. He ate fried fish, French fries, diet coke or a glass of wine, vanilla ice cream for desert, coffee – one lump of sugar – well, let’s just say whatever everyone else was having. He wasn’t a vegetarian, and he didn’t ask for the “holy” menu, “Could you super-sanctify that, please?” He ate human stuff. He liked good wine, as more than one could attest. The result for those religious leaders was to pass him off as “a glutton and a drunkard…”

So, why did Jesus go to parties? John took the prophet’s approach, keeping a holy distance. Jesus took the human approach, up close and personal. Why did Jesus hang out with the boys, dress like them, eat like them, spit like them? And, what in the world was Jesus doing going to parties?

The answer is in the text I have already quoted, “The Son of Man (love that title!) came eating and drinking and they say ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and … and … sinners.’”

Why didn’t Jesus just set himself up in the temple in Jerusalem, rent a nice apartment, and preach every Sabbath at the center of the Jewish faith? Surely he was a great preacher. In short order he would have filled that place. Everybody likes to go see a guru from time to time, and sooner or later the world would be coming to him, and what better setting than the only temple in the world dedicated to the one true God? He could have thrown in a Wednesday night family Bible study to boot. Why all this running around? Hotel 6 every night. Smoke-filled bars that made his tunic stink – you know you can never really get that smell out. Why fraternize with the riff raff? Why risk the reputation? Why get so dirty? And of course, why set such a bad example??? Jesus knew perfectly well that four of his followers would be writing detailed reports of his activities, as if CNN were following him everywhere – all this stuff was going to come out. Is this the kind of life that someone sent by God, a Holy Man, with a divine message… Is this the life that should set the tone for those who follow? The world in the end would be watching!!!

Living in Spain has taught me a lot of things. Spaniards are really into chaos. And the best place for that is a small bar-café with TVs blaring, the coffee grinder at full tilt, the espresso steam that sounds like a little jet airplane landing in the coffee pot, and everyone talking at once. This is where Spaniards let their hair down, it’s their “second living room”. This is where you can talk about anything. This is where families celebrate the new car. This is where people are free to talk about life, make a bit of a mess and not have to clean it up. These places are full of smoke and chatter and spilled cold beer with tapas- little snacks that are supposed to keep the clients from getting drunk. The required trash cans are there, but most of the stuff ends up on the floor. The bathrooms are dirty and the doors don’t close right. This is the kind of place I was told for the first twenty two years of my life that I should stay away from. Just looking in at the flashing Budweiser sign would make my eyes feel dirty. And yet, this is exactly where Spaniards meet for just about all occasions and at least once a day. And they are often there late into the night. This is the place to watch the soccer game with the guys. Yet, how many times have I been told that the night belongs to the devil? Good Christians are in bed by 9 pm so that they can be up for the 5am men’s prayer breakfasts having already had their devotional time. So here I am on the Madrid street. Alone. And in there I can make out the Spaniards through the fogged window and the smoke. Men, women, couples, children, even grandma! They’re laughing and talking, the place is filled with a happy noise. I could invite some of them over to my house for a quiet cup of tea. Cookies, too. They like American cookies. I would have to remind them not to smoke – wouldn’t want to wreck our house. Maybe I could find a little Christian sticker for our front door that says cigarettes are of the devil. And since I am not into such late night hours they would have to come over, say, 7 pm. Of course, most Spaniards work until 8, and then there is the commute home. But perhaps the Lord just wants me to reach the ones who work shorter hours. Clean-living bank employees or something.

All this does make me ask, “Would Jesus go in there? Would he have fun in there? Would everyone accept him and tell him jokes? Would he laugh a little? Would he tell them to turn the music down so he could preach a sermon or would he just start talking to the guys at the bar? What would he order to drink – or would he save money and turn the water into… ahhh… Coke?”

I grew up in an evangelical church in Wilmington Delaware, near Philadelphia. My father was trained as a pastor and helped start a church in Minquidale, “the other side of the tracks,” before taking a secular job due to his poor health. But once his health improved a bit, he began preaching for his buddies who were on vacation, and continually served in our church in some way or another: as an elder, deacon, Sunday School superintendent, teacher or several of these at once. He visited the shut-ins, preached in old folk’s homes and prisons, while my Mom played the piano, sang alto and did everything in her power to facilitate Dad’s ministries. They were generous givers. We often had missionaries in our home for meals during their visits to Wilmington. They worked hard and quietly. They were the perfect ministry couple. Really! All this influence was basically positive and I gladly accepted the Lord as my Savior at about 8 years of age.

As a kid, I was very content in our church! We had everything there. I felt protected, surrounded. However, though I would never have said it, we were strange. There was no way I would invite any friends to church. No way, even though there were programs for everybody and for every circumstance: Christian scouts (I can still sing our song by heart), the Christ’s Ambassadors youth group, end-of-the-school-year parties (so that we wouldn’t feel the need to go to the school prom and mingle with evil people or dance like the heathen), and so on. Our church was a one-stop-shop for everything spiritual. We had a Christian school, Christian yellow pages, Christian bookstore with Christian greeting cards and Christian nick knacks, all Christian. And if it wasn’t Christian, we Christianized it. Our cars became rolling testimonies with the simple addition of God Loves You bumper stickers. Artwork in our homes was made holy by Bible verses inscribed under each landscape. An appropriate sticker could turn just about anything into a flaming witness. We listened to Christian radio and read Christian books. Exclusively. OK, one year my sister bought a “Fifth Dimension” album and there it was in the stack with all the gospel quartet albums. It sounded good but I never let myself really enjoy listening to it.

All this church activity kept us quite busy and very happy because we were going for this Christian thing 110%. We were the good guys. Our Christian testimony to the neighbors was huge. It was huge because they saw us dressed up really nice all the time and heading out the door with big Bibles. Sunday morning we had Sunday School, and then Worship service. Of course we had to stay late for the morning service because Dad had to count the money from the offering. In the evening was the Evangelistic Service. We had to go early Sunday night for choir rehearsal. The Sunday night service went quite long because we had to convince everybody there to convert and that takes time. So we would start at 7 pm and were done by maybe 9 pm or later. We really knew how to fog up the windows and those fearful sermons had me converting on a monthly basis for years. I was very good for the statistics. We would hang around after the meeting since apparently we just couldn’t get enough of this. Not to worry. On Wednesday evening we had another preaching and prayer meeting. And on Saturday we could do things with the youth group or clean the church if we didn’t have anything else to do. Somehow there was time to play Christian softball in a Christian league. I just loved it when we beat those Baptists from New Castle, even though they had a much bigger church.

All these things we could do dovetailed nicely all the things we couldn’t do: dance, play cards, go to the movies, go bowling, shoot pool, listen to rock music, and most especially hang around with non-believers. The plan was clearly to occupy all of our dangerously free time and keep us out of the world. Of course, we did evangelize. That was our biggest project! How did we do this? We passed out a lot of tracts in the neighborhood of our church building. It was a Jewish neighborhood, largely, but we kept stuffing their mailboxes with excellent literature that was personally stamped with our church address and service times. We had gospel quartet concerts at church, and there was always the Sunday night evangelistic service if you could get someone to come. We had tent meetings with even hotter than usual hell-fire preaching and miracles. We had a radio show and I sang on it a couple of times with my sister. I’m sure it was good. We bussed in poor black kids from down town for our Sunday School. I think we got up to about 600 people stuffed in to the Sunday School annex when we were at our peak there in the mid 1970’s. The main thing was this: evangelize, but do not mix socially with non-believers. They could suck you down and then you would be lost. In fact, we had a secret code at our church so we would know who was dangerous and who wasn’t. If the person was a Christian, you called that individual “Brother” or “Sister”. I remember one Sunday evening before the evangelistic service standing with my father, talking with Brother Yarrington. There was another man standing next to him whom I had never seen before. Brother Yarrington said to my dad, “Brother Joe, I would like you to meet Mr. Hammond here.” I was perhaps ten years old and I remember catching my breath. I inched closer to my Dad. He had said “MR. Hammond.” He did not say BROTHER Hammond. This man was a heathen!!!! An out-and-out sinner!!!! I just stared at him.

Is this the approach Jesus took towards sinners? Look at how even John the Baptist reacted when he observed Jesus’ life:

2 Now when John in prison heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples,
3 and said to Him, "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?"
4 And Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and report to John what you hear and see:
5 the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.”
6 "And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me."
The New American Standard Version, ©1986 The Lockman Foundation

John had been announcing the coming of the Messiah – that was his main job! When Jesus came on the scene, John baptized him, and saw the Holy Spirit descend on him. Perhaps he even heard God’s voice say “this is my man”. So, what “works of Christ” are causing John doubt? Jesus’ miracles are surely not creating uncertainty for him. The miracles were proof of God’s hand on Jesus, at least. What is causing John to say to himself, “this just doesn’t seem like the one?” I think it is because, for John, Jesus was too “worldly.” Jesus was fraternizing with philanderers. Chumming with cheats. Healing heels. Touching traitors. Loving the loose. The Greek word in verse six translated “stumbling” literally means “scandalized”. Jesus says to John and all of us, “blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me!” John was scandalized. Jesus almost seemed to enjoy spending time with rabble-rousers, crooks, gang members, grease ball types dressed in leather, drug traffickers and prostitutes – he scandalized even John the Baptist who was so distraught that in spite of all he had seen, he began to think that this Jesus just could not be the Holy One of God.

John surely thought, “There must be another one coming along. Can’t be this one. No way!” And yet, it was. This was the One that God sent. And this is how he was: a friend of sinners. Even Jesus’ close disciples could not bring themselves to say that. It was only from the mouth of Jesus’ opponents, and in the form of a strong criticism, that we in fact hear the truth: “he is a friend of tax collectors and… SINNERS.” A friend of sinners.

How do we know that Jesus was a friend of sinners? The ultimate proof is that he died for sinners. But his death is just that, the ultimate proof. But not the only proof. The first historical facts about Jesus’ adult life already begin to reveal his intentions. Let’s accompany Jesus to one party, and observe him!

2:1 And on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there;
2 and Jesus also was invited, and His disciples, to the wedding.
3 And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine."
4 And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come."
5 His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it."
6 Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each.
7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water." And they filled them up to the brim.
8 And He said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the headwaiter." And they took it to him.
9 And when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom,
10 and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then that which is poorer; you have kept the good wine until now."
11 This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.
The New American Standard Version, ©1986 The Lockman Foundation

I’m not going to delve into the water-to-wine trick. It’s another little phrase, not at all incidental, that catches my eye. It simply says that “Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding.” Cana was 12 km from Nazareth, widow Mary’s home, and Jesus’ home up until very recently. Jesus had been way down south in Bethany, 112 km away, getting baptized. (and spending 40 days in the desert???) So, he had to scoot back up to Cana, traveling hard 3 days to make it. Jesus had not yet done a single public miracle. He himself was the result of a miraculous virgin birth, and the Holy Spirit had just descended on him in the form of a dove. God had also spoken from heaven over him. But these things were not yet widely known. Jesus was not famous. And yet they invited him to the wedding.

Imagine the families planning the wedding. They are inviting all their friends and family, the Cohens, the Horowitz, Wesmeisters, Sol and his wife, “… widow Mary the carpenter’s wife”, and then there is her son Jesus who has been gathering a bunch of disciples – big guys who know how to eat and drink big time. Fishermen with appetites. But Jesus, he is part of the community, a great guy, one of the family. “OK – we’ll invite him!” And we know from the Bible what Jesus was like. People liked him, and not just for his miracles. Affable. Kind. Neat guy. A little quiet, perhaps. Not a party-pooper. Nice smile. Happy eyes. Honest, hard-working. A penetrating, inviting look. Not really what you would call “good looking” and yet strangely attractive.

So did this guy ruin the party? Not at all! If this had been a present day wedding, he surely would have danced with the bride!! No, he was not giving inductive studies on the Old Testament prophets off in a corner. His arms were not crossed. He was not looking at his watch; he was tapping his foot to the music! He laughed at the jokes. He was happy for the bride and groom – perhaps his smile was in part a reflection of his joy in thinking of his own future bride! Actually, he had no intention of doing any miracles. OK. He did get the family out of a jam, and he honored his mother’s desire and faith when he turned some water into wine, better than any Vega-Cecilia 1994, Spain’s best and most expensive vino. But mainly he was there to be with family, friends and be a part of the community. He had a good time! He was at a party and fit in just fine, yet always acted correctly and was completely without sin in all that he did. He was a man, and he went to the party to be with people he loved, to be a friend. He loved people. Some were his disciples and some were not. He loved them all and he wanted to be there with them and for them. This is how Jesus began his public ministry, and this is probably very characteristic of how he spent much of his non-preaching time.

Do you get invited to shin-digs by your un-churched friends? Jesus did. Carlos Grasa does. OK, Carlos is a little crazy. He is the first one in the pool, no matter how icy the water. He is also the first one to say “I follow Christ!” Carlos is fun, always inventing new jokes and pulling your leg. The parties we had in Zaragoza were always better when Carlos was there, and our daughters loved him. Carlos had lots of friends and many did not know Christ. He has been a great example to me of just being friendly. For the years we worked in Zaragoza as missionaries, Carlos was one of the best natural evangelists I had the privilege to work with, and at the same time one of the most fun people to be with. Thankfully, God doesn’t call us to be “dead in the head and everywhere else” (Howard Hendricks).

Jesus showed us he loved us by being one of us, and hanging around. We Christians need to do the same: hang around. We need to preach the Gospel in the context of being with people. Doesn’t that seem, like, obvious? Jesus preached and did miracles of course – and someone has calculated that everything he did of that sort as described in the Gospels would occupy approximately 35 days of activity. So during his three years of public ministry, what did he do the other 1095 days? He may have repeated some of the sermons a few times, but mostly one could guess that he lived among us. And he went to parties.

Get this: God does not call us to be gods. There are some sects that preach this, but this is not Christian teaching. Well, what does God want us to be then? Truly human. Human, like Christ was – he set the pace. His way of being human did not include sin, although he was tempted like all of us. His life teaches us the meaning of godliness – to be the kind of human that God made us to be and that Jesus so beautifully lived among us.

Somehow this kind of Christianity seems almost within our grasp. This is something we can do with God’s help and example! God is not asking us to float on air or be suprahuman. Our goal is to be human like Jesus was human, godly, even-keeled, a good friend, kind, humble, sociable, loving, forgiving. And we are to live this way like He did, among humans of all sorts, among our Christian brothers and in the world.

Brennan Manning, in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, says “it is impossible to imagine a Jesus with an inexpressive face, stoic, no joy, critical, while he reclined and ate with the riffraff. We completely miss the human personality of Jesus when we perceive him as some passive mask giving dramatic monologues about divinity. Such a timid interpretation of Christ robs him of his humanity, casts him in plaster, and causes one to conclude that he must never have laughed or cried or smiled or hurt himself; rather, he just passed through our world without getting emotionally involved.”

Jesus did not walk through this earth on tip toes, wearing a gas mask and rubber gloves. He was involved in our lives. He even went to parties! Why? I think he rather likes us. All of us. Sinners and saints. And this is no esoteric love. He actually likes to be around us. He had friends, lots of them. They invited him over to their homes, and some were his enemies! He was glad to go. And that is where some of his most personal testimony came out: at the dinner table, talking. Of course, Jesus’ disciples were his true family and he loved them dearly – ate a lot with them, too. But he loved sinners, and that is why he went to parties. This is all quite in line with the long-term intentions of God the Father. In the book of Revelation chapter 21, it seems that the Lord is finally and at long last getting what he has hoped for, paid for, and longed for:

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them,
4 and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."
The New American Standard Version, ©1986 The Lockman Foundation

He is going to live among us! He did it once in the person of Jesus, but that was just a bit of a visit compared to the eternity of living together.

We don’t have time to go to more parties in the New Testament, but I will mention a few for you to check out. Matthew threw a good one, and he writes about it in his own gospel, chapter 9 verses 10-15. Some religious types were there and of course they thought Jesus was out of place. He told them, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In Luke 15:1, 2 we find Jesus hanging around and eating with those rotten tax collectors, a traitor gang of “Sheriffs of Nottingham.” Then, down the road he invites himself to a bash at Zacchaeus’ house, Luke 19.

I suggest you crash those parties and check out for yourself what Jesus was up to. While you’re there you may find yourself asking more questions – like “why don’t I have any non-Christian friends?” or “why am I not being invited over?”

It’s time to start living a little dangerously and make friends with, ahhhh, I’m looking at my secret coder ring to get this right, “MR.” Hammond or “Miss” Jones… May God give us wisdom how to be truly in the world, always keeping in mind that we are not in fact from here. The Gospel is best preached, best lived at parties. Loosen up! There are lots of kinds of parties or fun social gatherings: dinners, hiking, camping, concerts, sports events, school programs, clubs, volunteer organizations, continuing education… Almost whatever healthy interest you have can an open and natural door to meet people who are in darkness! Just make sure you are severely outnumbered!

You may be saying, “Rick, that hot Spanish sun has fried your brain. You’ve gone whack-o on us. You need a long furlough – you need to go back to seminary. Did you ever even go to seminary? Those crazy fiesta-loving Spaniards have twisted your views”. It’s true (and gratefully so) – Spaniards have taught me that the Gospel is best communicated when there is a personal relationship, when we are relaxed and talking about life face to face, on their turf! They are less threatened when I am the one who is clearly outnumbered. Food also helps.

Jesus went to a certain “party”, going where no good churchman would go. And guess what? He found me. He found you! He did not find us in the Holy-of-Holies. NO! He had to rip that curtain and come out and get us. He came over to our side of the fence… can we do less for our friends? What are we doing hiding in church buildings during all our free time? Throw out your Christian yellow pages! He found us out there in all that muck! Have we forgotten where we came from??????

Why did Jesus go to parties?

To find you.

So… what are you doing this Friday night?