So today we are starting a 4 week series called unChristian looking at how Christians are viewed in the world. Today our theme revolves around the idea that Perception is reality.
So before we jump too far into the message, I want to ask you if you have ever been misunderstood. Of course, we all have. Just this week I was picking up my kids from the bus stop and walking them home and started a conversation with my neighbors son who plays football. I asked him what position he played, he told me linebacker (if I remember correctly). I gave him a look that to me meant isn’t he a little small to play that position. The neighbor thought my look was, I don’t know what that means and so she started to explain football and the position to me. My look was misunderstood. This was both a case of being misunderstood and a case of mistaken perception.
Just like my look was misunderstood, and perceived as I didn’t understand, Christians are misunderstood as well. That is what this series is all about, the perceptions that others have of Christians and Christianity. In fact the first question that we’ll be discussing together is just that, “What are some of the perceptions that our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers have of Christians?” (Dialogue)
We all know that there are misconceptions, misunderstanding, and perceptions that people have about Christians. We just shared a bunch of them together. But, just like Christians are misunderstood sometimes, so was Jesus. Let’s look at two verses of Scripture found in the New Testament book of Luke. The 3rd book in the New Testament around 2/3 the way back in a bible, or just three books back from the New Testaments on the table. We’ll look at this text and see Jesus coming into some misunderstanding as well.
So let’s look at Luke 15:1-2 and see what it might say to us about perceptions. Luke 15:1-2 says this, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Now you see the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were the religious establishment of the day. They had strict rules of what you did and what you didn’t do. In fact they tried to live by 613 Old Testament Laws. Some of those laws included who you ate with, whose house you could go into and not go into, what you could or couldn’t eat, and who and who wasn’t unclean. In that time, as in ours, perceptions were important. If one was perceived as keeping the Jewish law, maintaining purity, and avoiding contact with “sinners,” he or she was considered a righteous person. That didn’t mean you actually you were a “righteous person” according to God’s standards of lowing God with everything you have and loving your neighbor as yourself. You could live out external rules and regulations but your heart could be as black as night and still be consider to be a “righteous person”. (Doesn’t seem all that different than now, when we can have the same issue.)
But Jesus seemed to break all these rules. He didn’t keep to the letter of the law (such as healing on the Sabbath), maintain purity (he touched lepers and impure people), or avoid contact with “sinners.” He not only did he hang out with tax collectors and sinners, he actually ate with them.
Now there are a few things we need to unpack about that last statement so we understand just how radical, subversive, and upside down it was from the religious establishment of his day. First we have to understand what we mean by tax collectors and sinners. You see, some of you may know this already, but Israel at the time of Jesus was under Roman rule. Rome was controlling their land, and the Jewish people were living under their thumb. And so at the time there were three different ways that people were dealing with the Roman occupation. One was to avoid the situation all together, go off into the wilderness and not be involved at all. This was the Essenes way of dealing with the Roman occupation. The Zealots were the ones who wanted to use violence and go after the Romans and forcibly remove them from their land. That was the second way. The last way was to work with the Romans and by definition against your own countrymen. This is what the tax collectors were doing. They were working for the man, so to speak. They were collecting taxes from their own people, to finance the roman occupation. Not only that, they were also known to rip off their own people so that they could get rich. So these men weren’t looked on to favorably by the religious establishment.
The sinners who are grouped with the tax collectors were not ordinary sinners. The Pharisees along with others could readily admit that everyone is, after all, a sinner and in need of God's mercy and forgiveness. But the sinners associated with tax collectors were in a special class. These were people who deliberately and persistently transgressed the requirements of the law. Included in this group would be money-lenders who charged interest on loans advanced to fellow Jews. This was a clear violation of the law of God stated in Leviticus 25:36-38. Also in this group of sinners might be prostitutes who made their living by their ill-gotten gains. These were individuals who sold themselves to a life of sin in deliberate disregard of the law of God. The second thing we need to unpack about this statement that the Pharisees’ made was that Jesus ate with them. Now you and I say, so Jesus ate with them, what’s the big deal? But in the culture of that day and age to eat with someone was a huge deal. You see in the social world of Jesus’ day, meals had four basic functions: 1. To support kinship – to create solidarity. One ate with the clan and by doing so established the boundaries of who was “in” and who was “out.” Meals reminded the household where their loyalties lay. The concentric rings of table fellowship were: extended family, household servants or hired workers, and members of your social class (those who could reciprocate), who were invited to special banquets.
2. To enforce boundaries – hierarchy, status, and gender – especially through seating arrangements. During these meals the social group was reminded who sat at the head of the table and who was at the foot (or in their case who washed the feet). Women’s roles and paternal hegemony were reinforced.
3. To perpetuate social values. During meals certain rituals were maintained such as washings, prayers, and symbols. In addition special feasts, fasts, and Sabbath observances were celebrated. In some ways meals were quite liturgical, sometimes even mirroring the events of the temple (cf. Neufeld 16; Lev 23:2-44) 4. To gain honor through hosting banquets or through clever discourse as a guest. The wealthy were able to show off as well as demonstrate benevolence to guests. The guests were able to show deference as well as entertain their host and other guests with wit or wisdom. In fact Luke, who describes Jesus’ table fellowship in more detail than the other gospel writers, portrays them somewhat like the Greek “symposia” where wit and conversation are central.
This is the world in which Jesus lived. Yet he didn’t abide by its rules. In fact, he used meals as a means of disrupting social values and overturning normal standards of behavior and honor. First, Jesus used meals to reconfigure who he considered his true kin. Rather than capitulating to his family’s request to see him, he created a fictive family around the table based on one’s devotion to hearing and obeying God’s word. This was never clearer than at the Last Supper. Second, “Jesus’ open table fellowship was a strategy used to challenge social and religious exclusivism wherever it was accepted as normal or officially sanctioned” (Koenig, 20). Because he ate with all class of “sinners” he offended the sensibilities of the religious elite. Third, he refused to perpetuate religious traditions about washing, fasting, and Sabbath regulations. This was more than a faux pas. This was an assault on a religious system that prioritized rules above people. Finally, when invited by prominent teachers, Jesus often offended both the host and the guests by pointing out their misguided priorities. Moreover, he often honored some sinner who happened on the scene. He turned the tables of social rank upside down at these banquets.
So as we see Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners got him in trouble with the religious leaders of his day. Perceptions of Jesus were rampant and he considered a breaker of the law, unclean, and a “sinner” himself. In a sense, Jesus was misunderstood. Was Jesus okay with being misunderstood? Yes—because his actions and the resulting perceptions were driven by his mission to bring God’s love and grace to all people. But This begs a question: are Christians today misunderstood and are the perceptions of us driven by our mission to bring God’s love and grace to all people? Who are the tax collectors and “sinners” of our day and do they respond to us the same way that they did to Jesus? If we are honest, we definitely have to say no.
Unfortunately, the perceptions of Christians today are not very similar to those of Jesus. We are not known as people of unconditional love and grace toward outsiders. Instead, here are six of the dominant perceptions of Christians by young outsiders (unChristian, p. 28): -- Judgmental -- Anti-homosexual -- Hypocritical -- Sheltered -- Only concerned with getting people saved -- Too political
Are these surprising? Are these really the perceptions we want people to have of us? More importantly, are these perceptions based on our mission to bring God’s love and grace to all people? Perceptions are not bad; they actually reflect reality because they are often driven by our own actions. Actions drive perceptions. The problem is not the negative perceptions of us. The problem is us.
Over the next three weeks, we’re going to look at each of these negative perceptions and ask the questions: What are we doing to drive these perceptions? And how can we change them? This week, consider how your actions—the words you speak, the people you engage, the ideas you communicate, the posture you present—drive people’s perceptions about you.
If our mission is to be judgmental, anti-homosexual, hypocritical, sheltered, political, or only concerned with getting people saved, then we’re doing a good job— we’re creating the right perceptions of us. But if our mission is different—bringing God’s love and grace to all people—then we must make some radical changes.
1. Do you know anyone who isn’t a follower of Jesus”? Would you consider them to be friends? What do you think their perceptions are of Christianity?
2. When a person was asked what Christian meant to them, this is their response, “Christian means conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, anti- choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.” What is your reaction to this comment? Why do people come to these conclusions?
3. The book “unChristian” describes a movement of young Christians who are reluctant to admit they are Christians. They are not simply trying to be cool or popular, but they are concerned that the current way Christianity is expressed toward outsiders actually makes it more difficult to express what Jesus was about. Are you encouraged or troubled by this trend? In what situations are you more or less likely to say you are a Christian?
4. In what ways can your life help to redeem the term Christian? How can you be a Christian, rather than simply telling people you are one? What does a Christian who represents both truth and grace look and act like?