Colorful or Colorless Christians?
Read Matthew 23:15–28
A few years ago, our church gave away our pews to a Russian congregation. They rented a flatbed truck and came to pick them up — and we have a lot of pews, so loading and transporting them was a two-day job. I really loved listening to these guys speak in their super-thick accents and (for some reason) ultra-loud voices, so I hung around and kept talking to them, eventually daring to ask them to read things I wrote down, like, “We must get that moose, Natasha!” and “Captain Kirk, it was Khan!” which they did with great volume and gusto. Amusing to me, although I’m pretty sure they had no idea what they were talking about.
Then toward the end of the day, I asked them, “Where are you staying tonight?” And these guys answered (and you have to imagine this in their accent): “Ve are sleeping here in church!” Immediately I thought, “I see that every weekend!” But out loud I said, “Do you need sleeping bags? I can go get some…”
And they said, “NO! We are putting pews together in shape of — what is word? — casket? Da! CASKET! And ve are sleeping in CASKET made of PEWS!”
I said, “But what if you guys get cold? Want some blankets?” And they answered, “NO! When ve are getting cold ve are getting up in night and WORKING HARDER!” And the other guys chimed in: “DA! When getting cold, WORKING MORE!”
And as I walked away that night it occurred to me: What a great metaphor for what church can become. It turns from something with life into something dead. Pews into caskets. Then when we feel our souls get cold our solution is: WORK MORE! WORK HARDER! That’s where I was coming from for many years. And that’s what I see in so many Christians around me.
In today’s verses, Jesus continues expressing frustration about the Pharisees who, with their complex system of religion, turn pews into caskets.
In fact, religious legalism is the cultural evil Jesus criticizes more than any other. That’s because He sees a faith that should be setting people free, putting them in spiritual chains instead. No wonder Christ’s grace-filled message was such a relief.
I think The Message’s paraphrase of Jesus’ words we saw yesterday in Matthew 11:28–30 captures the way Jesus must have sounded to people in His culture longing for some solution to their cold, worn out feeling (other than “work harder”):
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. Matthew 11:28–30 [The Message]
“Freely and lightly.” Does that describe your Christian walk? I like what Eugene Peterson says in his book Traveling Light:
The word Christian means different things to different people. To one person it means a stiff, uptight, inflexible way of life, colorless and unbending. To another it means a risky, surprised-filled venture, lived on tiptoe at the edge of expectation. Either of these pictures can be supported with evidence. There are numberless illustrations for either position in congregations all over the world. But if we restrict ourselves to biblical evidence, only the second image can be supported. If we get our information from the biblical material, there is no doubt — I repeat — there is no doubt that the Christian life is a dancing, leaping, daring life!
How then does this other picture get painted in so many imaginations? How does anyone get the life of faith associated with dullness, with inhibition, with stodginess? We might reasonably expect that a group of people who… have been told stories of Jesus setting people free… would be sensitive to any encroachment… but in fact the community of faith, the very place where we are most likely to experience the free life, is also the place where we are in most danger of losing it.” (Quoted in Swindoll, p. 82–83)
Sadly, the movement Jesus founded itself became rapidly infected by the same legalism He criticized. After the ascension of Jesus some of the first churches began to resemble the Pharisees more than Christ.
And no one was more qualified to see this than a former Pharisee.
Tomorrow you’ll see the surprising developments that led a world champion legalist to become the Apostle of Grace!
How would you answer Eugene Peterson’s questions — how does the “colorless” picture of Christianity get painted on so many imaginations?
Do an honest self-appraisal: Do you reflect grace or legalism to others?
Today tell God where you feel weary and burdened. Tell Him that you take His yoke upon you, the yoke that is easy and light.