“On His Team”
March 3, 2019
As disciples of Jesus we follow his game plan.
I. The Team and the Coach (Luke 6:12-19)
II. The Coaching: Losers win, Winners lose (Luke 6:20-26)
III. The Game Plan: Love extravagantly (Luke 6:27-36)
In today’s text Jesus picks his team, the apostles, and coaches them with challenging words. It makes sense to use a team and coach metaphor to illustrate. But most such stories, even the best are of a team that rises to the occasion against adversity and wins a great victory. “Remember the Titans,” which is great, was that kind of story. “Facing the Giants,” was too. The 1980 U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey team was a real life version that some of us got to see live.
But there is another genre of sports stories that fits better with this morning’s text. It’s cases, especially in running, where a person sacrifices their own position in the race to help a rival finish. Here’s an example from the ACC Cross Country Championships. Boston college runner Madeline Adams has fallen. “This hill taking a toll on a couple of runners trying to finish those final 20 yards.” Boston College runner Madeline Adams has gone down “Wow.” “yeah you can see what a tremendous show of sportsmanship, that you've got an athlete who can't quite make it and you've got a girl from another team trying to help her to the finish line so she can finish the race.” “That’s what this sport is all about.” “My goodness this is just incredible, the sportsmanship phenomenal, as you see those final yards there as you see Clemson and Louisville helping the Boston College runner. That's Tate and Peas. The Boston College runner can't even lift her legs right now she'll try to cross the finish line. What a shot right here. Would you sacrifice your own position to help another athlete finish what they started. And that's a true sportsmanship.”
No. That’s true discipleship. In today’s text Jesus not only selects his team, but he coaches them to win by losing, and to love extravagantly. As disciples of Jesus we follow his coaching plan, and ultimately his example. We begin in Luke 6:12-19, where the coach selects his team. In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13When day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. 17And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, 18who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19All the crowd sought to touch him, for power came from him and healed them all.
The greatest coaches in sports have always payed special attention to recruiting. When the Astros won the World Series in 2017, it was largely due to their high quality recruiting, and in fact Sports Illustrated congratulated themselves for predicting the World Series win three years in advance because of how the Astros were recruiting. Jesus pays no less attention to the team he calls. He goes to a mountainside and prays all night. It’s amazing that someone who was himself God made prayer such a priority. God the Son felt it necessary to get wisdom and guidance from his heavenly Father. If this is true of Jesus, how much more of us, who are not divine? Yet our dependence on God is often so much less than his example. When was the last time you or I stayed up all night, burdened for his work, crying out for his guidance. I’ve had many long nights in the past two years, but most have been focused on God’s healing and mercy. I tend not to bathe decisions in as much prayer as I should. Jesus stays up all night, and then calls his disciples to him and selects twelve whom he designates apostles. The disciples were a large crowd, followers of Jesus who go from place to place to hear him teach and see him work. But for most there was no call or commitment, Now that would change, for twelve of them, whom He picks and calls apostles. Apostellw means to send out, and “sent ones” is a good title for them. It implies both a sender and a specific purpose.
Now who were these twelve? Some of them we know very well, some hardly at all. The list begins with Simon, whom he named Peter. He was the leader, the impetuous one at the front of the group, the one Jesus called to fish for men. Next is Andrew, Peter’s brother and co-worker on his boat. Then James and John. These were Peter’s partners as well, the sons of Zebedee, but Jesus called them the sons of thunder. James was the first of the disciples to be martyred, in Acts 12. John is the disciple who wrote the fourth Gospel.
Next comes Philip, whom we haven’t met yet in Luke, followed by Bartholomew. Bible scholars believe Bartholomew is the same person as Nathanael in John’s Gospel. The name Bartholomew is a family or last name, meaning "son of Tolemai." In Matthew, Mark and Luke Bartholomew always follows Philip in lists of the Twelve, but in the Gospel of John, Nathanael is listed instead, after Philip. In fact, in John, Philip goes and gets Nathanael, and Jesus calls him ‘an Israelite in which there is no deceit.” The next disciple listed is Matthew, the tax collector who is also called Levi, the one Jesus called to follow him in Chapter 5, the author of the first Gospel. Thomas, the one who doubted and was convinced. James, son of Alphaeus, about whom we know little. Next we have Simon the Zealot, who was a patriot, possibly part of a group opposed to the Roman conquerors. And Judas, son of James, who is probably also known as Thaddeus, the name that appears in this spot in both Matthew and Mark.
And finally, Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. It’s fascinating to speculate whether, in those hours of prayer, Jesus knew already who Judas would be and what he would do. It’s an interesting group: I heard about a child once who called them the twelve impossibles. And they were unlikely: some fisherman, a tax collector, and a zealot. Some faithful, some timid. One who doubted, one who denied, one who betrayed.
But they were chosen by the Lord, and Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus appointed them “to be with him and he might send them out to preach.” In the team metaphor this is “so that he might train and coach them, and so that they might go out and play the game.” The rest of our text shows the training and coaching, being with him, which is the true joy of a disciple.
He now takes them to a level place, someplace near the mountain on which he had prayed, and there he begins to teach and heal among a large crowd. These were people who had come from all over to see Jesus. They had walked as much as a hundred miles from Tyre and Sidon. Long distances from Jerusalem and Judea. They had done what it took to be with Jesus. Its interesting to ask ourselves: Have we made the effort that these people have to be with Jesus? They had an advantage over us in that he was physically present, they could touch him with their hands and see him with their eyes. We have an advantage over them, in that he is spiritually present, immediately available to us at any moment through the Holy Spirit. They traveled willingly for days to even get close to him. Shouldn’t we be willing to make an effort to settle our hearts, and focus our minds, to commit some time, and study Scripture, so that we can really rest in His presence and see Him at work? This is why he chose us.
We need this coaching, because his game plan is radically different than anything the world would teach us. His plan is for us to win by losing. That’s what we’ll see next as Luke, for the first time in his Gospel, gives an extended summary of Jesus’ teaching. Luke 6, verses 20 to 26. And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
These verses are very similar to the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5-7. Jesus says here “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” There he says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and so on. But this sermon is given on a level place, that one on a mountainside. This sermon is 29 verses, that is 108, three chapters. It’s likely they are two different sermons with similar content, Remember Jesus was an itinerant preacher, moving from place to place. It is almost certain he would give repeatedly the same or a similar message. Further, it is those repeated teachings his followers would likely memorize and write down.
This teaching from Jesus is a whole new system of thought, not at all what the Pharisees taught, not what the world teaches. His teaching is counter-cultural, revolutionary, upside-down. “Blessed, or happy, or content, or looked on with favor, are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of Heaven.” The leading Jews believed if someone was righteous they would be materially blessed and happy, and therefore if someone was not materially blessed, they were not in God’s favor. Jesus teaches the opposite: God’s blessing, God’s favor, rests on the poor. Verse 24, “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” God warns the rich. His disfavor rests on them. “Woe to you.” It’s not that God doesn’t give rewards, but the rich have already received their consolation prize. The rich get everything they’ll get here and now, this world. But the poor receive the kingdom of God, an eternal kingdom of life with God.
Who are these poor? Is there a contradiction between what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and what he teaches here, “blessed are you poor?” Or is this, as we suspect, a case of both/and. Spiritual poverty devastates us, but the kingdom is brought by Jesus to rescue those who recognize their spiritual poverty and trust him alone for salvation. Earthly riches can’t buy you anything heavenly anyway, so admit poverty, and receive rescue and eternal life. The rich tax collector in Luke 18 was spiritually poor. “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” He went away justified.
But the kingdom of God is also about physical need. I’m reading a book now by André Trocmé. His theory is that Jesus’ use of Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth was intended to proclaim the Old Testament “Year of Jubilee,” in which debts would be forgiven and lands returned to the poor. His point is that Jesus intended the kingdom to be one in which the poor would receive justice. We’ll see it acted out in the conversion of Zacchaeus late in Luke. I recently read an article by Brian Fikkert, the author of Helping Without Hurting. The title of the article is “Why the Kingdom of God Matters if We Want to Help the Poor.” It’s because “Jesus is restoring people, including materially poor people, as His ambassadors, people who participate in His Kingdom work.”
The next saying is also of the both/and variety when compared to the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.” The kingdom is a place where the subjects of the king meet each others needs, whether hunger or poverty or illness. “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” In Matthew this is compared to spiritual hunger, the desire for God and for righteousness. Those who hunger after God will be satisfied. Those who are content with what the world gives don’t recognize this need.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” God’s people don’t have it easy, don’t always escape suffering, or trial. But a time is coming, when God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain. Those who find laughter in what the world offers, will weep when it is eternally exposed to be bankrupt. “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” The followers of Jesus have often been hated, excluded, despised and insulted. Even in our culture, the name Christian is maligned and accused of evil. Around the world there have been more Christian martyrs in our generation than in any generation since the resurrection of Jesus. But as Tertullian said the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Gospel.
So for Jesus what the world calls winning is losing, and vice-versa. The Kingdom of God is the opposite of human success. And this is his game plan, his playbook. Luke 6:27-36 “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. 32“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. 34And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Like all good coaches, Jesus wants to make sure that the team is well grounded in the basics. Vince Lombardi taught this. On the first day of training in 1961 the Green Bay Packers gathered on the field. The previous season had ended horribly for the Packers who squandered a lead to lose the NFL championship. The players came looking for ways to play better, smarter and with more effective plays. Their coach, Vince Lombardi, had a different idea. He took nothing for granted. He began with the most elemental statement of all. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding a pigskin in his right hand, ‘this is a football.’”
That’s what Jesus does: “I want to take you back to my most basic principle, love. “And I’ll say it this way: love your enemies.” Now some might say “I don’t have any enemies. A few people I’m not close to. A few I avoid because they hurt me. Some about whom I have negative thoughts, but no enemies.” But by saying “love your enemies,” Jesus is including all those people as well. He’s saying love everyone, extending that love even to enemies. Do good to those around you, even to those who hate you. Speak kindly to people, even if they don’t speak kindly to you. Pray for people, even those people who mistreat. Jesus wants to stretch the boundaries of our caring, to make the circle so big it embraces everyone. To include people other than those who love you: the different, the dangerous, the awkward, the poor stranger, the unlovely.
Before we move on, I want to just call your attention to the verbs in verses 27-28. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” There is more to come, of course, but if you want one sentence that summarizes the Christian ethic, this is a good start. Love, do good, bless and pray. Is that the command you hear from Jesus? Is that how you filter every interaction with every person? How can I do good? How can I bless? How can I pray? How can I truly love this person? It’s that simple, thoughtful love for one another that is the heart of our witness.
That leads us into the art of winning by losing. Verse 29: “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.” This is an extreme, radical kind of love, that goes against common sense and the very idea of self-assertiveness and self-care. It seems wrong not to get back at someone. It seems wrong to give to someone who has already ripped you off. But Jesus says it clearly “give to everyone who begs from you and from the one who takes away your goods, do not demand them back.” That sounds so far-fetched that the church, for centuries, tried to restrict these commands to a favored few, monks, nuns and priests. I don’t think we can do that. We can, I think, recognize some level of practical limitation, but we need to let these work hard in our souls, because by doing so we begin to grasp the selflessness of true love.
Jesus says we win by losing.32If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. 34And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners.” As the Godfather movies showed, even a Mafia don can love his family and children. If you only do good to those who are good to you, you’re only doing what sinful people naturally do.
Verse 31, on the other hand, is a command that makes perfect sense. “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” The golden rule is so clear that many cultures teach it to their children. How do we care for others? We ask “what I would want? Would I want a phone call in that situation? Then I should make a call? Would I be gratified if someone brought by a meal? Then I should think about bringing by a meal. Would I rejoice in being thanked for a particular ministry? Then I should thank others for their ministry.”
This is the practical living out of selfless love, the beginning of winning by losing. Verse 35 “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Our ultimate model is God, who pours out love on millions who hate or ignore him. It’s challenging. I doubt any of us have gotten very close. Yet the attempt has been powerful. The Roman emperors, trying to snuff out Christianity, could only be amazed at the love the Christians showed. The monastic movements in the Catholic church were intended to restore this very ideal. People like St. Francis of Assisi gave everything to follow Jesus. In the Reformation, the Puritans and others strove to live out this ideal. Reformers like William Wilberforce showed the love of Jesus to the most needy of their day. Martyrs like Jim Elliot, and caregivers like Mother Theresa have exemplified what it means to love your enemies, to win by losing.
Because of course, Jesus didn’t just talk this game. This is the way Jesus lived. No one in the history of the world has ever more fully modeled what it means to love your enemies. Jesus, pure and spotless, without sin and without fault loved his enemies enough to bear their sin and die in their place. Romans teaches us that God demonstrates his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners - enemies of God - Christ died for us. The final motivation for our unselfish love is his unselfish love. He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. He is merciful. And we are to be merciful like the Father in heaven. And he won by losing, extended his love to rescue even those who had been his enemies. In the same way we are to pour ourselves into this upside-down kingdom. Here’s another example from the sports world.
It took place at a state cross country championship in California. “And they are away. Holland Reynolds is a running star, has been since the third grade, racking up hundreds of miles and scores of medals. But her state championship race last Saturday was unlike any other, the race of her life. It may also be the last for her coach, Jim Tracey. “He’s the greatest cross-country coach in California.” Coach Tracy is also gravely ill. In June he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gerhig’s Disease. For now he can still stand on the sidelines, cheering on Holland and her teammates. Unusually cold, the weather caught Holland and her body off guard. With just half a mile to go, making her move from third place to second, Holland hit the wall. She thought she was still running. And this is the guts that cross country brings out in athletes. This is very gutty, here. All the way through, giving for her teammates. She’s got about thirty meters to go. Holding together so, so well. Oh boy, with about five meters, hopefully she will get back up. It’s a decision here if she gets assistance, of course. It’s decision time. They’re asking her how she’s feeling. If they touch her that will be a disqualifier, so they’re asking her can you make it. And look at her. Such a courageous effort, trying to cross that finish. The crowd is giving her all they can here at the finish. As soon as she crosses they will scoop her up and take her to the medical tent right away. And there, she did it. That crawl secured the State Championship for Holland’s team. They celebrated in the back of her ambulance. One more win for Holland and the coach who taught her never to give up.”
Let us run with perseverance the winning-by-losing race Jesus marked out for us.