You, in the tree…

Greetings- its been a while… since I last posted some awful things have happened in the world and some great things have happened- the attacks of late July in France and Germany, the celebrations of the human spirit of the Olympics… Also for us there’s been a lot going on- mostly really good with some holiday time as a family and a week at the New Wine conference in SW England (which needs a series of posts on its own…), and then back to ‘normal’ with all sorts of things going on alongside the occasional sunny day and even one sneaky surf at the weekend.

What’s been bugging my head and my heart, however, is something to do with the depth of our response to the Gospel of Jesus- whether it penetrates deep into us and shapes our thinking and our behaviour from within or whether we’re ‘Gospel-proof’… like a brand new coat where the rain beads and runs off… The big problem with a waterproof coat is how do you wash it clean, when it doesn’t let water penetrate? How do we allow the Gospel of peace to penetrate into us, when we spend so much effort toughening and protecting ourselves?

This week’s passage, from Luke chapter 19, gets right to the heart that question… as with the last month its using some ideas from Karl Martin’s book ‘Stand’… highly recommended reading.

Jesus comes to Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem for the last time- he has predicted his own death, he’s shown his power to heal… the passage we heard comes just before his triumphal entry into the city just 5 days before his crucifixion. This is Jesus the superstar- surrounded by crowds who’ve come to see what he’ll do next and at least to be witness to it. And even the sinners are interested- Zacchaeus, not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector… He would have had guards, men who could have ‘found’ him a space at the front of the crowd… but for some reason he doesn’t take that option… instead he goes incognito, hiding in a tree (though possibly not alone) to see for himself what this Jesus is all about- whether it’s the stories of the healings, the way that Jesus has spoken against the scribes, the pharisees and the teachers of the law (the ones who would have most loudly accused Zacchaeus of being a sinner), or if he’s heard about how other tax collectors have met with Jesus and been forgiven for their sins… (what’s the deal with tax collectors anyway? They get lumped together with ‘sinners’ throughout the Gospels because in taking on that job they had to work as collaborators with the Roman authorities, imposing their law onto their countrymen, and also the expectation was that they would profit by making money- either bribes or extortion… so no one likes them, no one trusts them, but no one can get rid of them…) Whatever it is, something has intrigued him enough to find out more.

But he’s not quite sure, so he hides… maybe he, like us sometimes, knows the theory- Jesus can forgive sins, and believes it in practice- Jesus forgave their sins, but struggles to believe if for himself- Jesus can forgive my sins, and he has… so he hangs back, hiding in the tree.

But Jesus spots him, and knows him, and calls him by name. Now, although there are the great long lists of names at points in the Bible, considering how many people Jesus meets, and how many people God speaks to, there are a lot who’s names we don’t know- the leper, the centurion, the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, the woman at the well, the man freed from demons etc… and there are even fewer called by name- In the Old Testament the story of Samuel who is called by God stands out, and here in this passage- ‘Zacchaeus, come down’. Zacchaeus, who maybe wasn’t sure that God could love him, finds out that in Jesus God sees him, God knows him, and God loves him.

At this point he’s still a sinner- he’s not asked for forgiveness, hes not made amendments for how he has mistreated those around him, but Jesus has invited himself to dinner- just as with Matthew and Levi sometime earlier. Here though, things play out differently- even before Jesus gets to Zacchaeus’ house the muttering starts in the crowd- All Zacchaeus’ doubts come back… its now or never time for him. Ok- I give away half of everything I have and repay anyone I’ve cheated 4 times over… Now I’ll leave the sums to you but that sounds like he’s emptying his pockets AND making reparation to those he’s hurt…

When Jesus encounters people he gets to the cause of their problems- if someone is unclean he makes them clean, if someone is on the edge he welcomes them, if someone is sinning he warns them not to sin… There were various reasons why someone might be called a ‘sinner’ but for Zacchaeus it was all to do with money- you wouldn’t take on the job as a tax collector unless money was more important than people or God. Zacchaeus knows it, he may have known it for years, but that doesn’t make it easier to change.

And then in a second, because of Jesus, his life is changed. However much he loves money and the things it can buy, he knows that he needs forgiveness, he needs God more.  The best of intentions without the power of God may lead to nothing, but with God even our little efforts can transform lives.

Today salvation has come to this house… When Jesus heals the paralytic he not only heals him, but also forgives him. And it’s the same here- Zacchaeus receives healing that is beyond the physical- thank you, sorry, I forgive you… really important words that can bring healing to hearts if they are meant- Z trusted that Jesus meant what he said, J trusted that Z meant what he said… And he is healed in his heart, he is saved, he is given life.

Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost. We as a church exist to help those around us find Jesus- we do that through our worship- saying and singing the greatness of God. We do that in our encouragement of one another- not to give up, to press on towards the goal. We do that in our outreach to friends and neighbours in our community- whether its in the building of friendships with people at the Fun Day, the chat on the corner, the discussions at work or with those who come to Pints of View or other events we plan.

But that has to start with ourselves and our church-  and I mean two things by that- I was challenged by someone in the last week about how welcoming a church genuinely is, and being as honest as possible I said ‘when we get it right, we’re more welcoming than we are exclusive, we don’t always get it right but we try to’…  we, asking God to help us, try to be a place and a people where anyone and everyone are welcome… and when we fail or give up, we try again…

And secondly, we each need to know the truth of what happened to Zacchaeus. That God’s promises are true for us. That the crazy logic of the kingdom- I have sinned, Jesus paid on the cross, I am forgiven, is true today for each of us. And as it is true we each need to respond to it- in our prayers and our worship we don’t only proclaim how great God is, but also thank him for his love and mercy shown to us- each of us. And we might also need to do some stuff- we might have to make reparations- there may be people we need to forgive in our heart, that we need to speak to or write to… there may be people we need to thank, or need to ask for forgiveness… because we have all been lost, and the Son of Man came to seek and to save each one of us, that we might follow him, and as part of his people be witnesses of him in all the earth.

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