Enticed: By Legalism - Rev. Louis Timberlake

Enticed: By Legalism
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Louis Timberlake
March 7, 2016

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

We’re talking this morning about legalism. What we mean by that is that, there is a tendency, particularly in the church, for us to become so focused on the words that we forget the message. It’s when faith becomes more about having the right answers than living the way God intends for us to live.

Pastor and author Brian McLaren tells a story about being at a pastor’s conference and interviewing Dr. Peter Senge, a systems scientist and professor at MIT. He started the interview by saying, “It is an honor to have you with us, Dr. Senge. You’re being broadcast to about five hundred pastors, which I know is not your usual crowd. What would you like to say to five hundred Christian ministers?”

Dr. Senge responded, “Well, Brian, you’re right. I don’t normally speak to pastors. Actually, I was thinking about that very question yesterday, while in a bookstore. I asked the bookstore manager what the most popular books were these days. He told me that the most popular were books about how to get rich. The second most popular were books about spirituality, particularly books about Buddhism. And so, when I thought about speaking to five hundred pastors, I thought I’d begin by asking you, “Why are books on Buddhism more popular than books on Christianity?”

Now, one thing you learn as a pastor is how to answer difficult questions. I feel like I’m letting you in on a trade secret here, but, the way you answer difficult questions is by not actually answering them. Instead, you turn them around on the questioner. So, that’s what McLaren did, he asked, “Well, Dr. Senge, how would you answer that question?” Dr. Senge was ready with a response and said, “I think it’s because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief. So, I would want to get Christian ministers thinking about how to rediscover their own faith as a way of life, because that’s what people are searching for today. That’s what they need most.” McLaren said that he didn’t remember a single thing about the rest of the interview.

For you, is the Christian faith a system of belief or a way of life?

Is it about affirming the right doctrines or is it about living a right life?

If you’ve read Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, you may remember that he talks about bricks and springs. For some people, faith is like a brick wall, and each brick in the wall is a different belief or practice. The things is, bricks are hard and they’re brittle. When hit with enough force, a brick will crack. And, when one brick cracks, it weakens the entire wall. So, in order for our faith to remain intact, we have to protect the bricks. There isn’t room to question, to doubt, to challenge. Every building block, every belief and practice, has to remain intact for the entire belief system to be sound.

That is the legalistic faith. It seems strong, it seems ordered, but, ultimately, it’s brittle. It’s a wall. And, what purpose do walls serve? They keep some people in and they keep other people out.

A faith that is merely a set of doctrines is a shallow answer to deep questions. Why are we here? How should we live? Where do we find meaning and purpose? Who is God? Can we know God? You cannot fully answer these questions with a set of doctrines. Sure, you can get halfway there, but the answers to these questions are about far more than your intellect. They’re also about what you feel, they’re about what you experience, they’re about things that you can’t always quantify and distill into a doctrine. How do you quantify the work of the Holy Spirit? How do you distill that time that you deeply experienced the presence of God?

The older son in the story we read is upset because his world has been turned upside down. To him, life works a certain way–do all of the right things, believe all of the right things, and good things will come. But, then his brother shows up, broke and broken, and the celebration is beyond anything the older brother had ever received. The older brother’s brick wall starts to crumble. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. This isn’t justice.

We all have our brick walls, though, don’t we? We cling to order and certainty, because it is appealing in a messy and uncertain world. And, we resist questioning, we resist anything that would challenge those building blocks because, deep down, recognize that they are brittle. We know that it wouldn’t take much for that fall to come crumbling down.

I’ve experienced what it’s like for that wall to come crumbling down. At one point in my life, faith was a brick wall. Everything was neat and ordered and I’d put up quite a fight against anything or anyone that challenged it. I became great at debates. I could argue ad nauseam about the superiority of Christianity or the credibility of the Bible. My wall was strong. That is, until a series of experiences started to crack some of those bricks, until the wall couldn’t support itself any longer and it came crashing down. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, to have everything I believed about the world come crashing down. But, it was at that point of utter brokenness that God started to do something new. It was at my most broken that I truly was open to letting God’s grace work in my life.

We all have our prodigal stories. We all have our stories of brokenness and redemption. The funny thing is, there isn’t that big of a difference between the two brothers, except that one realized he was broken.

A legalistic faith falls short because, ultimately, it tries to make everything too neat and orderly. But, all of that order is just a mask for the brokenness that lies underneath. Faith is messy because we are messy and God reaches out to us in the midst of the mess.

In Velvet Elvis, Rob also talks about a different approach to faith. He talks about springs, like the springs on a trampoline. Trampoline springs stretch and bend. They withstand a lot of force. But, the springs aren’t the point. The purpose of a trampoline is to propel you upward, to help you jump higher than you can jump on your own. That’s an interesting way to think about the doctrines and practices of the Christian faith. They aren’t the point, in and of themselves. The point is to grow in our understanding of God and our connection to God. The point is to discover something deeper about life and what we do with it. The springs just help us jump higher than we can on our own.

What if that’s the kind of faith we’re invited to have? Not one that focuses on rules and distinctions. Not one that’s rigid and orderly--because that kind of faith is, truly, more brittle than it seems. What if we are invited into a faith that moves us out of brokenness into a new way of life?

You know, the truth is, we are all pursuing a way of life. Every single person has things that orient his or her approach to life. Whether or not we identify as spiritual, religious, or none of the above, we all have certain beliefs about the world and regular habits that shape the course of our lives.

What is your way of life? What has brought you to that way of life?

I’m convinced that the best way of life is the way of Jesus. I know that some of you agree with me on that and others of you aren’t quite sure. And that’s ok.

I am not a Christian because of a system of beliefs.
I don’t follow Jesus because of a system of beliefs.

I am convinced that the best way of life is the way of Jesus because, in Jesus, I have encountered the living God, the source of true life.

In Jesus, I have encountered one who comes to us in the midst of our broken, messy selves and offers us grace, who offers to take us where we cannot go on our own.

The way of Jesus is the way of the broken who know they’re broken and who realize that wholeness is only found in God.

Is your faith a system of belief or a way of life? Is it about bricks or springs?

Ultimately, Jesus doesn’t invite us to doctrine, he invites us to life.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you view Christianity, as a system of belief or a way of life? Explain.
  • How do you think Christianity is generally viewed by others?
  • What did you think about the distinction between bricks and springs, as related to faith? How did that help or challenge you?
  • What is the way of Jesus? What does the Christian faith look like, as a way of life?