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January 15, 2023

Foundations Week 1: We Do Jesus

So, my name is Chris Absher, and I'm one of the Campus Pastors here at Grace. As many of you may know, we tend to start the beginning of every single year here at Grace with a sermon series that kind of brings us back to the basics. Who are we, as Grace Community Church? Why do we do the things that we do? What makes our heartbeat? What makes us tick? At the beginning of every single calendar year, we come back to those kinds of things. This year, it’s through a series called “Foundations.” Normally, Pastor Chip would kick that sermon series off, but he tasked me to do that this year. So, this weekend, we're going to get the series started, and then it will continue on.

As many of you know, when we start a series, we like to have a big idea. That way, if anybody jumps in at any time, we can come back to that big idea. We can all land on the same page. So, the big idea for this particular series is this: We're going to look at the structural support systems that anchor and support the vision and ministries of Grace. That's what we're going to do in this sermon series. We're going to come back to the foundations about who we are as Grace Community Church, what makes our heart beat, and what makes us do the things that we do. Why are we contagiously outrageous? Why do we invest so much in outreach? Why do we believe in being intentional neighbors that reflect Christ?

If you're here this weekend, and maybe you've been at Grace for a period of time, I think this series is going to be great for you because it'll help you kind of come back to the things that are most important about Grace, and be reminded of those things, as we all need to be reminded.

But especially if you're here this weekend — and maybe you've only been at Grace a little while, or maybe this is your first weekend here at Grace — I think this series is going to be super, super helpful for you as you're kind of checking out Grace. Who are we? What do we do? Why do we do the things that we do? You're going to learn a lot about who we are in this particular sermon series.

So, let me get us started off by asking this question: Have any of you ever seen the tightrope walkers? Have you seen these people who walk across tightropes? Yeah, okay. I see some hands. I think that's wild, and I would never do that. You could never convince me to do that. I don't know if you've seen these guys. Maybe you saw someone at a circus, maybe you saw somebody in the news or on TV, but it seems like every time I see one, what they're doing, what they're walking across, gets wilder and wilder.

I saw one where they put a tightrope across the basin of Niagara Falls, and they walked across it. I saw one where they put the tightrope between some skyscrapers in New York City, and they walked across it. I thought, “That is just crazy.”

If you've seen them, maybe you've seen that they have this pole. It’s really, really long pole that they hold. The point of that pole is so that they can kind of tilt a little this way, a little that way, and it helps them keep their balance. Of course, the point of the pole is not just for fun or to be able to move around. Ultimately, moving like this or that is really just to keep them in the exact spot that they need to be. Walking the straight and narrow, keeping their foundation where it needs to be. I think we, as believers — of course, there are a thousand ways you could apply something like that to our lives, but I think we, as Christians, have a similar thing. We have some things and extremes that sometimes we get torn between, and we have to figure out how to walk down the middle.

So, I want to give you an example. Let's say we, as Christians, have got this pole that we're holding, and there are going to be two extremes on either side. We don't want to fall too far left, and we don't want to fall too far right. But on one side is this idea that I'm confident in my salvation. Maybe you think, “Well, isn't that a good thing?”

I put salvation in question marks because maybe that's you this weekend.

“I'm confident in my salvation.”

The question is, “Based on what?”

Why are you confident? What do you base that confidence on? If we're not careful, all kinds of answers can creep into that question. Maybe we answer it with things like, “Well, I go to church.”

You’re here this weekend.

“Check. Got that one done. First service of the new year. We’re here. I go to church, so I'm confident.”

Or maybe you'd answer, “I'm really kind to others. 2022 was my year where I really decided I'm going to be nice to other people, and I just killed it all year long. And I'm at church. I’ve got this thing. I'm super confident.”

Or maybe, “I go to church, I'm really nice to other people, and I don't do certain sins, which is so good. Especially not like the ones that so-and-so does.”

The person next to you, maybe. I don't know. Sometimes what we find is that, over time, without anybody noticing — nobody does this intentionally — we get what I call “embedded beliefs.” All of a sudden, the answer to the one question we really thought we had down, “I'm confident in my salvation,” we start to answer it based on the wrong things. We get these embedded beliefs. All I mean by that is that they're these beliefs that just kind of creep up, start to build up, and we don't even realize that they're there. Now, the hard work that we have to do, as Christians, is move from these embedded beliefs, which we've not critically reflected on, to deliberative beliefs. Deliberative beliefs are just those ones that we realize we had some things, we realize we maybe are answering the question, “I'm confident in my salvation,” the wrong way, so we take those beliefs, we lay them down against the Word of God, we pray, we seek God, and we ask, “Am I believing the right things?”

But the reality is that to move from embedded beliefs to deliberative ones takes hard work, it takes a lot of reflection, and, ultimately, it takes getting back to the foundations. We’ve got to come back to what is the main thing. I'm stripping away all those other things that may have crowded in, somehow, without us even noticing. So, on one side, we've got, “I'm confident in my ‘salvation,’ but am I confident in the right things?”

Or maybe you're here this weekend and you're on the other side. You might say, “I don't even know if I'm saved. I want to know, but I struggle with it. I have questions, I have doubts, and I don't always do things the way I want. Now I'm wondering. I don't even know if I'm saved. If that's you, then you're probably wondering, “How can I know?”

Surely, that would be the biggest question that you might have in your life. How can I know? So, if we're walking the tightrope, and we don't want to be pulled too far this way or too far this way, the big question for us is how do we get to the middle? How do we stay walking on the tightrope, not being pulled too far one side or too far to the other side? The middle would be the place where, number one, we're not constantly worried about our salvation, because I don't believe God wants that for any of us. So, not constantly worried about our salvation, but also confident in the right things. How do we get there? How do we know what's due north? What's true north? How do we guide ourselves to that and stick around in that middle spot?

That’s why, here at Grace, one of our culture points is this: We do Jesus. We keep the main thing, the main thing because the reality is things claw us, they try to pull us to one side or the other, and that's why this is one of our culture points. Of all the foundational things that anchor us as a church, in the ministry that we do, in the outreach that we do, in the way we serve, in the way we give, it’s the fact that we do Jesus. We're not into non-salvific theological debates. We're not into party politics. We're not into putting a roadblock in somebody's way that they have to look this way, believe exactly this thing, hear that, look this way, and drive that car in order to have a relationship with Jesus. I think, in this new year, it's important that we come back to this foundational truth more than any other.

So, what I want to do this weekend is start to answer the question of what that means for you. What does that mean for me? What does it mean, in 2023, that Grace Community Church is going to be committed to that culture point that we do Jesus? What does that mean for us? So, how we're going to do that is look at a passage of scripture in Luke 23. It's going to pick up right in the middle of Jesus being crucified. We're going to look at some things there, and it's a story that doesn't really fit our box. There are all kinds of things about it that may even raise more questions than answers, but I think even the fact that it's kind of challenging and hard is probative for us, as followers of Jesus, that maybe we need to pay attention to what we can learn from this story, and how this story might even read us a little bit, and reveal our own hearts. Then, once we've done that, we'll look at some take-homes. We’ll make it extremely practical. How, in this year, can we do Jesus, as Grace Community church? So, that being said, let's get into the text.

Luke 23:32: “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.”

And we’ve got to pause right there. Jesus is being crucified. All of these things have happened. He's been falsely accused. All of these things have occurred. He’s the Son of God. He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords, and now He finds Himself being led away with two criminals. I highlight the word “criminals” because, just as a kind of a point of interest that you might find interesting, a lot of scholars have actually started to connect that these criminals might be connected with Barabbas. I don't know if anybody remembers what happened with Barabbas, but earlier in Luke, Barabbas was in jail because he was an insurrectionist, and he was a murderer. He was the one who really was supposed to be crucified, but the people say, as Jesus is on trial in front of Pilate, “Give us Barabbas.”

“Well, what do you want me to do,” Pilate says, “with this Jesus guy? I find no fault in Him.”

And they say, “Crucify Him, but give us Barabbas, the insurrectionist and the murderer.”

There are all kinds of ways that even bishops in the early Church link these guys together. Josephus does, the criminals, and also Barabbas. So, the idea is maybe, maybe, do we have an example where Jesus, in this passage, is not just metaphorically dying in the place of you and me, taking our sins upon Himself, and atoning for us, but is Jesus literally dying in the place of the guilty criminal, Barabbas, who goes free? Maybe. Maybe not. The text doesn't tell us all of those things, but the other gospels kind of hint at this. So, it's just an interesting thing. Maybe Jesus is literally dying in the place of the guilty party, Barabbas, who's going to get to go free, because He is crucified between two criminals.

“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull [Golgotha], there they crucified him, and the criminals, one was on his right and one on his left.”

So, we find Jesus, who's the Son of God, who's innocent, as the man on the middle cross between two criminals. Now, there's a lot that could be said about The Skull and Golgotha. A lot of really interesting stuff that we don't have time to do. So, I want to tell you a way to access an amazing teaching on The Skull that Pastor Chip does that I think will be beneficial for all of you. For the sake of time, I can't do it, but I want to make it available to you. In the seatbacks in front of you are those little cards. They're there every single weekend. I thought it'd be helpful to tell you this. On them is a QR code that, every week, you can scan and get the slides that are on the screen, whether it be Pastor Chip teaching or preaching, whether it be Chris Pedro, me or anybody else. So, this week, if you scan that code, you'll get these slides, but at the end of those slides is a link to a video where Pastor Chip does a bunch of teaching on The Skull, Golgotha, the literary significance, and what that means. So, I would encourage you to take advantage of that. I promise you won't regret it if you do so. But that being said, let's keep going in the text. Jesus, as all of this is going on, as He's led out with the criminals, as the nails are being put in His hands, as the nails are being put in His feet, as the cross is being lifted up, Jesus says:

“‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

“And they cast lots to divide his garments.”

Now, I don't know about you, but this is one of those places where, sometimes, I just kind of ski over and read it really quick. But you’ve got to imagine the scene here. Jesus is praying, “Father, forgive them,” for a very specific group of people. The very people who, at that moment, are putting nails in His hands and in His feet, are lifting the cross up to crucify Him, mocking Him, and jeering at Him. At that moment, Jesus is praying for those particular people. When you stop and imagine that scene, it becomes really, really powerful. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

“And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others.’”

“At least He says He did.”

“‘Let him save himself,’”

Because the rulers, they have an idea about who the Messiah was supposed to be. The Messiah's supposed to be the guy who's powerful. The Messiah's supposed to be the guy who overthrows Rome, crushes Rome with an iron scepter, and sets up his own kingdom, and we were all going to be part of it. So, that's who the Messiah's supposed to be.

“You, Jesus, You’re up there on a cross. Rome's killing You, not the other way around. You're bleeding and dying between two criminals. There's no way that You could be the Messiah.”

All of a sudden, we find that these rulers, because of their expectations about who the Messiah was supposed to be, even though they're now face to face with the Messiah, they can't recognize Him. And I say some of that because they say things like this: “If He’s the Christ of God — if He is, but there's no way He could be because of what's going on.”

And how often do we do the same thing, as followers of Jesus? We say things like, “God, I would really trust You so much more, and I'd really believe that You were in control if You would work that thing out in my family, if You'd work this situation out, and if You would do this the way I expected You to.”

Because we all come to be followers of Jesus, and we have these expectations about what that would mean, what that would look like, and then, sometimes, they're not met, and we start to question everything.

“Is this Jesus the real deal?”

That’s what these guys did. They had their expectations about who the Messiah was. When Jesus, hanging there, bleeding on a cross, didn't meet those expectations, all of a sudden, they missed Him when He was sitting right there in front of their eyes. I think we, so often, do that too. Not only did the rulers mock, but then we have the soldiers. They also mocked Him. They were coming up, offering Him sour wine, and they do the same thing that the rulers do.

“If You are the king of the Jews, then save Yourself. If You’re a real king, then call the army from over the hill to come get You off this cross. If You’re a real king, then You ought to fit in our box of what it means to be a king. But You don't, so You must not be the Messiah. You don't meet our expectations. You're not a messiah the way we think You should be, so we can't believe, and we miss who You really are.”

“There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”

And then not only do you have the rulers who mocked, the soldiers who mocked, but to add insult to injury, in the next verse, one of the criminals, one of the guys who is the low-life of the story — and not only is he a criminal, but he's being subject to the worst and most public form of shame and dishonor that Rome has to offer. That's crucifixion. So, now you get a low life — the bottom of the barrel, the bottom of the social totem pole, you have a criminal who's guilty, dying, and disgraced in every way possible that Rome knew how to do — insulting Jesus. He railed at Him. That’s the word for “blasphemy.” He spoke verbal abuse, he blasphemed God, and he yelled all of the worst things you can possibly imagine. So, we have rulers mocking and jeering, we have soldiers mocking and jeering, and now we have a criminal. I call that the stairsteps of mockery. You start at the top, the upper echelon of society, and the rulers jeer and mock Jesus. But that's not enough. Now you get the soldiers, who are a little further down, who jeer and mock Jesus. They make fun of Him. They jest that He’s some kind of king, even though He really is the king. Then, all the way at the bottom, you've got a criminal who mocks Jesus, as well.

Why do I tell you this? Because Luke's telling us a story. When we read a story, we have to see what's going on. So, you've got a ruler, a soldier, and a criminal mocking Jesus, saying, “Jesus, You are not who You say You are. You're fake. You’re not a king. You’re not a messiah. In fact, You’re guilty, so You ought to be crucified. But we've got other characters who come before and after what we're reading. Remember, we've got a ruler named Pilate who says, “I find no fault in this man.”

Then you have a soldier, right after the crucifixion, the Roman centurion, who says, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

Then, here in just a few verses, we're going to have the criminal on the other side of the man on the middle cross, and he's going to say, “This man, He’s done nothing wrong.”

We're reading a story here in Luke, and he wants us to see that on one side of the aisle, a ruler, a soldier, and a criminal say, “That guy is not who He says He is,” but on the other side of the aisle we've got a ruler, a soldier, and a criminal saying, “This man is innocent.”

So, the tension of the story continues to build and build. Then the criminal, who's been blaspheming Jesus, continues.

He says, “‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”

And of course, he doesn't believe that's possible. All of this is in the context of blasphemy. He's making fun of Jesus. But what I love is the fact — and maybe you notice it in the story, as we get a little bit further — that even though he mocks Jesus, Jesus will take his mocking comment, and He actually will save one of those criminals. He takes the mocking thing the one criminal says, and He saves the other. He turns it to His glory and for the good of that other criminal.

I think that's something that we've got to remember, because here's the deal. You've seen it, I've seen it, and all of the world. So many people, they're mocking God, they're mocking Christians, they’re mocking what we believe, they’re mocking what we stand for, they’re mocking what Jesus has done for all of them. But maybe this story reminds us, just maybe, that God can still take all the mocking, all the jeering, all of those things, and turn it for His glory and for our good. And maybe even that mocking, somehow, some way — the fact that God is in control, maybe He can work it for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purposes. I just believe that could be the case, and I think this story reminds us that we've got to remember these things as people on all sides mock and jeer. God's not scared, and God is in control. Amen? Amen. Alright.

But the other criminal said this: “‘Do you not fear God,’” — talking to the other criminal — “‘since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly,’”

The one criminal admits, “Hey, man, I'm guilty. I'm up here, and I did everything that they said I did. I'm guilty of all of it. I'm up here justly.”

“‘…for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.’”

“I deserve everything I'm getting. I've done all the wrong things.”

“‘But this man…’” — this criminal on this side of the cross says — “‘…has done nothing wrong.’

“And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’”

And that equates to just that the thief somehow recognizes, in spite of the fact that Jesus is hanging on a cross, in spite of the fact that Jesus is bleeding, in spite of spite of the fact that Jesus has a sign above His head, mocking Him that He’s the King of the Jews, somehow this criminal says, “You actually are a King. When You come into Your Kingdom, I want You to remember me.”

Somehow, through all of it, this criminal, the one person in the story that we'd expect not to get it, somehow sees Jesus for who He really is.

And then Jesus says to Him, “‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”

And in the same — almost the same — amount of time here that the one thief mocked Jesus, saying, “Save us,” now Jesus really does save one of the criminals. So, a lot to unpack in a story like that. Maybe you kind of feel a little bit of the rub already. This story does not fit our box about what it takes for a person to come to know Jesus. We add all these things that people have got to do this and this, and think that way, and look like us, and do these things. This story breaks every mold that we've ever made about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It’s hard, it's difficult, and how does all of this work, and what does it mean for you, and what does it mean for me? I want to tell you three things that I think this story teaches us about what it means when we say, here at grace, that we do Jesus.

So, here they are. Thing number one: “We do Jesus” means we believe and act like no one is beyond saving. “We do Jesus” means we believe and act like no one is beyond saving. Because of all the characters in the story, the last one that ever should have gotten in and figured it out, who is it? It's a criminal. And not only is it a criminal, it's a criminal who says, “Yep. I'm really guilty.”

It's not a falsely accused criminal. It's a criminal who raised his hand and said, “All these things that they say I did that made me worthy of death, I did all of them. That's what I did.”

It’s a criminal that not just says “I'm guilty,” but it's also a criminal who's at the end of the game. There is nothing left. Nobody's coming to get this guy. And who, of all the characters in the story, ends up with Jesus in paradise. Not the rulers, not the soldiers, not the religious people. Not even the disciples went that day in paradise because they're not even at the cross. But it's this criminal. So, the reality is if we do Jesus, nobody is outside the scope of God's salvation. I know that's one thing to say it — anybody can say that — but the reality is what do we do, sometimes, as Christians? We look around and there's somebody that doesn't look like us, smell like us, talk like us, drive the car that we drive, live in the neighborhood we live in, and somehow, because they sin differently than us, or they live a little differently, or they believe a little differently than us on some tangential issues, all of a sudden we say, “I'm going to go be an intentional neighbor, over here, to these people that are a little bit more like me, and hope that gets kind of sorted out.”

Let's just be real. We don't mean to. Sometimes it's not even conscious, but that's what we do.

The reality is this story tells us that's a no-go. If we do Jesus, then every single person is not beyond the scope of God's salvation.

The second thing I think this story teaches us is that “we do Jesus” means we pray like Jesus. “We do Jesus” means we pray like Jesus. Here's how Jesus prayed on the cross. He said, “Father, forgive them.”

I highlight and I underline “them” because Jesus, in this context, is not praying for somebody who did something that was not nice to Him and His ministry a year ago. He's praying, as people are driving the nails in His hands, as He's bleeding, as He's hurting, and these people, He's looking in their eyes, and they are the ones actively causing Him pain. Those are the ones where He prays, in that moment, for those people, “Father, forgive them.”

That’s the same way that Jesus taught His disciples to pray in Luke. Then we see an example of that in Acts with Stephen. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Then, falling to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold the sin against them.”

What’s Stephen praying?

“God, as this person over here picks up the next rock and takes aim at my head to kill me, forgive them. As this person over here lets the last rock fly out of their hand to kill me, God, forgive them.”

That's what it means to pray like Jesus. Let’s just be real. Let's just be honest. It’s not always pleasant to admit these things about ourselves, but we don't pray like this. We struggle to pray like this because the way we pray, we read a story of some terrible thing that happened somewhere in the world, and we say, “God, forgive that person who did that terrible thing. It doesn't affect me at all. I have nothing to do with it, but God, forgive them.”

Or we remember something that happened 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, where someone wronged us, and finally, when the day comes that we're over it, we say, “God, forgive them,” but we're not going to call them up and try to build that relationship back. Really, what we mean is, “God, I'm over it now, so if you could give me some closure about it.”

But to forgive that person, to seek restoration with that person, and to want the best for that person is not the same as just being over it, saying, “God, forgive them so that we can move on.”

We struggle to pray like Jesus prayed. But what about the person who's in your life and my life right now, in this moment, who is actively causing pain, actively causing frustration, actively just flat-out difficult to be around? To pray like Jesus is to say, “Father, forgive them, that person, as You’ve forgiven me.”

That’s what it means to pray like Jesus prayed. That’s a tall order, but that's what we're called to do. That's how Jesus taught us to pray.

Third, and finally, I would tell you this: “We do Jesus” means we keep the main thing the main thing, and that is Jesus. Here’s the reality: Over time we don't realize it, but all these embedded beliefs creep in and, all of a sudden, church, our relationship with God, it can just, all of a sudden, become about everything else except Jesus. Then we're like the church in Revelation 3 where they’re having church inside, but Jesus is outside, knocking on the door, saying, “Hey, guys, if you want to let me in, I'd be with you. We could do this thing.”

But they're in there having church, and Jesus is outside. That’s not who we want to be. We want to keep the main thing the main thing, and strip away all those embedded things that we think, “You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to think this way, and you’ve got to check this box.”

We strip all that away and say that “we do Jesus” means we keep the main thing the main thing, because here's the deal: Your opinion, or mine, on a social issue doesn't save anybody. Your opinion, or mine, on a non-salvific, theological issue doesn't save anybody. Only one person can save, and that's Jesus. So, we have to keep the main thing the main thing.

This story, of every story in scripture, I think, makes that point about as good as any. There was this amazing message that a guy, Alastair Begg, preached that just sort of captured all of this, so I want you to do this as we finish out this weekend. Imagine with me, for a second, that the thief on the cross has died, and now he is in paradise. He gets to the gate of heaven and there's an angel there. The angel says, “I did not expect to see you here. Not only were you really guilty, not only did you say that you were guilty, but you were at the end of your rope, man. Nobody was coming for you. So, I'm surprised to see you. Let me ask you this. On what basis are you here?”

The thief on the cross says, “Hey, man, I don't really know. One second I was talking with Jesus, the next second I was here. I don't really know what happened.”

The angel asked, “Okay. Well, let me ask you some more specific questions, a little more pointed. Are you a church member? Did you get baptized? Do you go to your Bible study once a week or twice a month? Okay, let’s put all that aside. Let's get to the theological stuff. Are you fully aware of, and can you explain, justification by faith? Does that all make sense to you? Or can you explain what it means that Jesus atoned for your sins? You were there at the cross. Surely, if anybody can explain that, it's you.”

And the criminal would have to say, “Man, I have no idea what anything you just said means. I have no clue. I have no idea. You’re telling me I have to check all these boxes. I don't even know what the boxes mean.”

So, the angel then is frustrated. He's like, “I don't even know what to do, man. I'll just ask you again, I guess. On what basis are you here?”

The thief would have to say, “The man on the middle cross said that I could come, and that's why I'm here.”

I tell you that scene because here's what I believe with all of my heart: Whoever you are, wherever you've been, whatever you've done, the man on the middle cross, He says that you can come, and you're invited to come. So, I asked the worship team to get ready a final song, and it's called “Simple Gospel.” It does much of what this whole message has been about, which is it strips away all the stuff that we make it about, and it reminds us that there's one thing that matters, and that's Jesus, who He is, and what He’s done for us. So, as we sing this final song, I'm going to invite you to reflect on that, to strip away all those things that maybe it's become about, and to keep the main thing the main thing.

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