Thursday, September 20, 2007

Bubble Boy Religion: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

In 1971, David Vetter was born with severe combined immune deficiency syndrome (SCIDS). This disease functions like a super-AIDS. Little David had virtually NO immune system. The slightest germ or virus could kill him. David Vetter’s older brother had died at the age of 7 months from a similar disease. This time his parents weren’t taking any chances.

After lots of consultation and planning with the people at Texas Children’s Hospital, they had a plan. Less than 10 seconds after David was born, the doctors put him in a sterile plastic bubble. Everything that ever touched David after that had to go through a very long sterilization process to get rid of any possible germs, bacteria, or viruses. David’s parents fed him and held him and played with him through plastic gloves which allowed them to reach inside the bubble with out making actual contact.

As David grew, so did the bubble. Eventually, the bubble was the size of an entire room. This gave David the freedom to move around, read books, and watch TV.

NASA even became involved in David’s special case. They created a tiny, child-sized, perfectly sterile astronaut suit for David, at the price of US$50,000. This gave him more freedom for trips to parks or zoos.

But despite everything the doctors and scientists and psychologists tried to do for David to help him adjust to this unusual way of life, David still felt what was missing: real human contact. By the age of ten, David had still never touched another human being. He was isolated from the real world by his plastic bubble.

We hear this story, and we think “How sad! How tragic! How awful to be isolated from friends and family! How terrible to never feel the touch of another human being! How difficult it must have been to never experience reality!”

Yet, the truth is we live in a bubble, too – the Christian bubble. We have a bubble boy religion.

As soon as we become Christians, well-meaning Christians usually come along and suck us into the Christian bubble. It is as if we are “reborn” with out a spiritual immune system, so that any contact with sin, sinners, or sinfulness will corrupt our spirits and cause us to fall away from Christ. Everything must be sterilized: Christian music, Christian TV, Christian leadership books, Christian radio, Christian kids’ videos, Christian t-shirts, Christian jewelry, Christian everything, and most importantly Christian friends.

So we walk around inside our little bubble of the church, where we think everything is sterile and safe. We have our Bible studies and our fellowship dinners and our church activities. We live our little lives in this false reality of Christian fellowship, which has become the church.

And whenever we have to venture out into “the world,” that scary place filled with sins and temptations, we put on our Christian spacesuits. Of course we have to spend time with sinners when we shop or work or exercise, but with our handy-dandy Christian spacesuits, we don’t have to have any actual contact with them. Just a polite nod or a “thank you,” but no actual contact. And of course, with our protective Christian spacesuits, we never need to become friends with any of those germ-carrying non-believers! We never have to hear their doubts or feel their pain. We never have to get our lives messy, or God-forbid, contaminated with their messy lives. We are successfully sterile. We have successfully isolated ourselves from the world.

We sound a lot like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. They really believed verses like this: “Therefore, come out from among unbelievers and separate yourselves from them says the LORD. Don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you.”[1] So they developed a bubble boy religion.

Their philosophy was holiness = separateness. We are called to be holy. God said, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). How is God holy? Well, he is completely separate from us. He is God, and we are humans. He is pure, and we are sinful. God is completely without sin or anything relating to sin. So, they reasoned, if we want to be like God, holy like God, we must be separate, too. We must separate ourselves from anything and anyone that is sinful or unclean.

For these religious bubble people, holiness meant getting as far away from sin and sinful people as possible. For them holiness = separateness. This was as clear and obvious as 2 + 2 = 4. Holiness = separateness. It was part of their bubble boy religion, and they were proud of it.

Then, Jesus comes along and changes the equation. Jesus comes along and advocates a new way of doing religion, and they just can’t take it. Of course, 2 + 2 = 4. That’s an undeniable mathematical fact. Of course, holiness = separateness. That’s an undeniable religious fact.

Luke 15 tells the story:

(1) Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. (2) This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!

Now Jesus is pretty upset. This is the third time in Luke that the religious folks have come to Jesus complaining about his sinning friends. Up to this point, Jesus has given them short answers, but now Jesus tells three full stories to explain why he hangs out with “sinners.” Last week we read and talked about the first two. This week, we’ll read the third story, which is probably the most famous story Jesus every told.

11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

We usually call this the story of “the Prodigal Son,” and “prodigal” means “recklessly wasteful or extravagant.” The younger son “wasted all his money on wild living” (Luke 15:13). He might have said something like, George Best, the Manchester United soccer superstar of old, “I spent 90% of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted.”
But this story is not really about the “Prodigal Son.” It’s about the “Prodigal Father,” the recklessly extravagant father.

This recklessly loving father gave his son his inheritance early, so he could find out what the world is really like. This recklessly loving father welcomed his wasteful son back into the house, back into the family, back into “son-ship,” by throwing an extravagant and wasteful party. This recklessly loving father left the party to talk to his older son who was angrily boycotting the party. This recklessly loving father claimed no ownership of his own things, “Everything I have is yours” (15:31).

This father loved both his sons. But both his sons were lost. The straying son was lost in a far away land where he did all the wrong things. The staying son was lost even while he lived right at home and did all the wrong things. Neither one really knew the father’s love. The father loved them both equally, with an undying reckless love. When they were in the wrong, he went to them. He went out of his house, out of his place of comfort, to both of his sons. He welcomed the “sinning” son home, and he welcomed the bitter “righteous” son to come back and claim his home of grace.

The scandal is that God loves us all the same. God loves the stray-ers and the stay-ers just the same. He loves us all.

But perhaps the greatest scandal is that God comes to us. God goes out looking for the lost sheep or the lost coin. God comes out of the house and finds his lost children. God goes to us in our sinfulness and lost-ness. He stands together with us there in our lost place, and from that point of togetherness, he brings us home.

Jesus’ point in all of these three stories is often missed. The religious bubble crowd had been criticizing Jesus for being together with the “sinners.” They were saying, “Hey, holiness = separateness, so why aren’t you separate?! Why aren’t you separating yourself from sinners? You’re way to close to them to be holy.”

But Jesus is saying, “No, you’ve got it all wrong. Holiness is living like God, and God loves everyone. God is going to these lost sinners, like the wasteful son. God is together with them, asking them to come home. And God is going to you, the good kids who’ve stayed home and are bitter about the sinners. God has even entered your lost-ness, and there, together with you, he’s inviting you to come home to the party of grace.”

Holiness isn’t separateness. Holiness is togetherness. Holiness isn’t being separate from the world, separate from people, separate from sinners. Holiness is being together with sinners in a new way, being together with people in a way that draws us all closer with the Father. Holiness is a radical togetherness. Holiness is recognizing our togetherness with all of humanity, recognizing this so deeply that we live in a different – even separate – kind of way loving all people (the sinners and the self-righteous), being friends with all people (the churched and the unchurched), getting down and dirty with the reality of people’s lives.

And really, we are all sinners, so what are we hiding from? It’s just a different style, variety, or quantity of sin, but we’re all sinners. I think facing up to our common sinfulness is part of our togetherness, and therefore, part of our holiness.

Following Jesus out of “bubble boy religion” means taking some risks. We might get dirty. We might be exposed to some temptations. The pain and mess of other people’s lives might disrupt our nice, neat little lives, our nice neat little church. But here’s the thing. This is reality! This is where God is. When we live our lives insulated by our bubble boy religion, and we wonder, why we aren’t experiencing God more, maybe the answer is that we aren’t looking in the right places or living in the right places. God has set up camp with the outsiders, the poor, the broken, the lost. If we want more of God, that’s where we’ll find him.

It’s time for us to get out of the bubble church. It’s time for us to start following Jesus.

[1] These words are from 2 Corinthians 6:17, which quotes the Greek version of Isaiah 52:11 and Ezekiel 37:27. The Greek version of these passages is significantly different from the Hebrew, from which our Bibles are translated.

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