Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Finding and Keeping

Luke 15 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible. It begins with Jesus’ teaching that salt is good only if it retains its taste, its saltiness. Then Luke records in quick succession three parables Jesus told: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. After each of the first two, Jesus emphasizes how much joy there is in heaven when one lost person is found or reclaimed. Jesus puts it with stunning clarity: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).

One of the most significant and healthy tensions every church has to manage is the tension between finding and keeping. What is an appropriate balance? How should the church apportion its resources, attention, and passion? When Jesus talks about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to search for the one, it sounds so simple and obvious. But who stays with the ninety-nine? Who cares for and feeds them? What if they get confused and scatter? What if a predator threatens them? What if they fight among themselves? What if they can’t find food and begin to starve? How long should the shepherd be away from them looking for the lost sheep, anyway?

I’m not being facetious or sarcastic. This is a serious balancing act. There are numerous scriptures which detail the importance of joining Jesus in seeking out the lost and spreading the Good News among those who have not yet heard or responded. And there are numerous scriptures which detail the importance of loving, caring for, encouraging, prodding, and being in relationship with fellow believers for the purpose of strengthening one another. This is not an either-or but a both-and.

And yet, and yet… Jesus just won’t let us get comfortable. Over and over and over again he reveals his heart for the lost, for those who are far from God. In Luke 19, after he invites himself into the tax-collector Zaccheus’ house (to the great consternation of the religious onlookers), Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house… for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Among the last words Matthew and Mark record Jesus speaking in their gospels is the “great commission” to GO, to leave the ninety-nine and be finders of people.

I think Jesus in his wisdom knows that our natural orientation will be to focus on the ninety-nine, to love and care for and seek to strengthen and sharpen and, frankly, sometimes to coddle and spoil the already convinced. Far more people will have the gift of and predilection for Keeping rather than for Finding. And so the constant reminder, the constant drumbeat, the constant admonition and command from Jesus and the apostles is to GO, to get out of our comfortable routines and traditions and programs and habits and embrace the commission to FIND.

In two decades of preaching and church work I have found a fascinating dynamic to be at work: When we embrace finding, the keeping also happens. But when we embrace keeping, the finding does not.

I spoke last week about the stunning analogy the apostle Paul appropriates when he declares that through his people God is “spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (II Corinthians 2:14). When we emphasize going to find rather than staying to keep, we allow the beautiful fragrance of God’s grace and mercy to work its way into malodorous places. “For we are aroma of Christ” (2:15).