Vampire Christianity?

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

It was the biggest storm the little town had ever seen and the weather forecast was calling for more rain. So the mayor had ordered that everyone evacuate the town for their own safety. The floods were a coming.

But one old and stubborn man refused to leave his home, even as the flood waters filled the street. He was sitting on his front porch when a man in canoe paddled by and asked him if he needed help.

“No, thank you,” replied the man. “God will save me.”

The next day the waters had risen to the point that the man had to move to the second story. He was sitting by the window when some men in a rescue boat came up and asked him to get in. Again, his response was the same. “No, thank you. God will save me.”

The third day came and the man had moved to the roof just to avoid the waters. When a third boat came along the rescue team very adamant that the old man needed to come with them. Yet his response was still the same. “No, thank you. God will save me.”

Well that man didn’t make it, and he went to heaven to be with the Lord. When he met God he asked God why he didn’t save him.

God replied, “Are you kidding me? I sent you three different boats!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about soteriology lately. Let’s be honest, who hasn’t. Soteriology is the study of salvation; σωτηρία,n  \{so-tay-ree’-ah} is the Greek word that we often translate as salvation. When we talk about salvation in the church, it is often in reference to salvation from our sins. “Jesus saves,” we say, meaning that he provides grace and forgiveness for our sins and our shortcomings. Our mistakes are blotted out and we are made as pure as snow.

I want to make sure that you all hear me clearly when I say that there is grace and forgiveness in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Amen, hallelujah. But if we stop at that we are missing a large part of biblical salvation. Today I want to look at this familiar story about a wee little man to see that God is indeed offering us more.

Our text for this morning begins with Jesus passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. In just a few verses they will be welcoming him to Jerusalem by waving palm branches and throwing their cloaks on the ground before him. So obviously, this is near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

As Jesus passes through Jericho, he is met by a bit of a crowd. People have heard about him — his healings, his teachings, and his ministry — so they want to see if he is really as special as others are making him out to be.

In the crowd that day is a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector and a Jewish man. I know very few individuals who enjoy paying their taxes, and that was even more so the case in 1st century Palestine because nobody wanted to pay taxes to their conquering empire, to the Romans. Ironically, the money collected as a tax likely supported the very army that had conquered Israel.

So the tax collector was really the front man for this entire operation. He was the one that had the daily interaction with those who were being taxed. You have to assume that tax collectors did not receive a lot of love from the people. They probably didn’t get a lot of birthday cards. Especially when the tax collectors were Jews, like Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was seen as a traitor. Add to this the fact that tax collectors made a living by taking more than they were required to collect for the empire and you soon realize how despised these tax collectors were. And if someone didn’t want to pay up, the tax collectors had access to Roman guards to enforce the collection of tax monies.

I wonder what might have made a person like Zacchaeus enter into this profession. I think that we might find an answer in his physical description in this text. He was short. He was, in a very literal sense, looked down upon. He was probably mocked and called names. For the text to call him short means he was tiny.

Perhaps he needed protection. Perhaps he needed affirmation. Perhaps he needed power. And how much more power could a person living in the 1st century attain than having the Roman army stand behind you? So the little man flexed the big muscle of Rome.

Along comes Jesus and he sees this little man up in a tree and Jesus does the only polite thing one can do: he invites himself over. And Zacchaeus is cool with that; the rest of the crowd, however, is not. They assume he doesn’t realize what a scoundrel Zacchaeus is.

Jesus knows who Zacchaeus is and he knows what the man has done with his life. He knows that Zacchaeus is despised and rejected by his own people. But Jesus invites himself over anyway. And I can only assume that Jesus invites himself over because he knows that Zachaeus would never invite Jesus over. Jesus is a holy man. And Zacchaeus knows that nobody else likes him. He knows that he is considered a liar, a thief, and a traitor. Jesus would never come if Zachaeus invited him over because to enter someone’s home in the 1st century was to validate them as a person. People didn’t enter the homes of the lower class or the despised.

But Jesus did. And by inviting himself over, Jesus said, “You are accepted.”

Look at Zacchaeus’ response in verse 8: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Notice this: he didn’t say he would pay back four times the amount he had cheated and then give away half of his possessions. He gave half away first and then gave back four times the amount. That may be significant, but probably isn’t. What is significant is Jesus’ reply in verse 9, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

There’s that word, soteria, again. Salvation has come to this house. What does that mean?

It is clear that Zacchaeus was a sinner. Even though he was doing what was legal for him to do, sometimes the law allows things that God still frowns upon. Idolatry and adultery are not illegal, for instance. Was Jesus saying that Zacchaeus was forgiven for his sins of cheating his people out of money? I do believe that Jesus forgave Zacchaeus, but I think that there was more to this pronouncement of salvation than the forgiveness of sin. Hold on to that thought. We will come back to is shortly.

Last Thursday was Halloween. Our children dressed up as a dragon and a frog and loved every minute of it. I went this year as a daddy, and my candy total reflected my efforts to be creative. It seems so very appropriate today, the Sunday after Halloween, to talk about what Dallas Willard called “Vampire Christianity.” Willard, who was a professor at USC, was known for his pastoral heart and a deep commitment to discipleship. Willard passed away this past spring.

Willard writes that many Christians care about nothing but being forgiven for their sins. He calls these individuals Vampire Christians. Willard paraphrases the actions of these Christians as saying, “I’d like a little of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven.”

Just give me a little bit of your blood. We want Jesus’ blood, but we refuse his cross. We want his grace, but we don’t want him messing with the good thing that we have going here. We want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.

As I see it, we tend to define salvation by looking at what we cannot provide for ourselves. So it seems normal that a privileged, white male like me who has never gone hungry, never known oppression or racism, and never experienced brokenness would reduce salvation to the grace of God. That’s all I need because I’ve got everything else pretty well figured out here. But salvation is more.

As I thought about Vampire Christianity this week, I remembered the story of a man named Clarence Jordan. Jordan was born in 1912 in the Deep South state of Georgia. In his biography the story is told of a young Jordan’s life growing up next to a prison. From his backyard he could hear the wails of the prisoners being punished, some even being executed. He could also hear the voices of those who were doing the torturing and executing. One of those voices he recognized as a man who attended the same church as the Jordan family.

Jordan noted how strange it was to hear the voice of this man as he tortured another human being on the other side of the fence on a Saturday evening only to hear him singing “Love Lifted Me” in the choir on Sunday morning. There seemed to be a disconnect somewhere.

Years later, as a grown man, Jordan and his wife worked a large farm together alongside other families, including families of other races. In the years of Koinonia Farms racism was quite blatant in the South. And the Jordans worked not only to raise a crop, but also to raise a community of Christians where black and white worked side-by-side as equals. This was during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

It wasn’t long until local stores refused to do business with the Jordans. The grain elevator would not purchase their crops and the co-op would not sell them seed. The KKK soon took notice as well and crosses were burned on the property of Koinonia Farms. So was the home where Clarence Jordan and his family slept.

Clarence Jordan must have had a keen sense of hearing because just like in his growing up years, he was often able to recognize the voices of the men who burned crosses and houses at Koinonia Farms. He knew these voices from the community; he knew these voices from the church.

This is Vampire Christianity at its worst: people that want the blood of Jesus, his grace and mercy, but don’t want to be molded into his image. For someone to call their self a follower of Jesus and burn down a man’s house because he treats another man as his equal is baffling to me. If Jesus is Lord, he is Lord over all. We need more than just his blood. We need his character. And sometimes that means we will live radically different lives.

Recall Jesus’ first sermon found in Luke 4. When Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth as a grown man, he is given the opportunity to give the Sabbath-day meditation. Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah and he reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

To set the oppressed free. Freedom for the prisoners. This is Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission. I don’t think that he is looking to open literal jail cells and allow prisoners to walk out free as day. But it would seem that salvation is more than just forgiveness for sins. It is liberation from Sin which holds us captive.

Sometimes, however, it is difficult to know if one is the oppressor or the oppressed. In fact, I might say that often the same person can be both.

Let’s look again at Zacchaeus. The mention of him being short must be important and it is clear when you read through the Old Testament, particularly the selection of the kings of Israel, that tall people were looked up to (pun intended). For our text to note that Zacchaeus was little, particularly in a time when the average man only grew to be about 5 feet tall, means this guy was noticeably short and likely mocked because of it. Even before he became a tax collector, he was an outcast.

It is my belief that his lack of social status is what drove him to be a tax collector. What better way to gain power than to have the entire Roman army standing behind you? If they won’t respect Zacchaeus, they will fear him.

There is this struggle for power where the oppressed becomes the oppressor. The powerless becomes the powerful. It really isn’t all that different from my son getting pushed down by the big kids at church, cry about it, and then go and push his little sister. There is a struggle for power. But Jesus brings salvation from this struggle.

What holds us captive today? Are you a prisoner of substance abuse, a slave to the habit? Jesus saves. Maybe you are addicted to pornography or sex. Jesus saves. Perhaps we hate our neighbor, gossip about our coworker, or doubt the love of God. There is good news. Jesus saves.

Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission was to bring freedom to the captives. Zacchaeus was a slave to the struggle for power and money. When he declared that he was going to return 4x what he had stolen and give away half of his fortune, Jesus said that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house.

I have no doubt that Jesus provided grace to Zacchaeus in today’s passage. But he gives Zacchaeus more than just that. Jesus gives Zacchaeus liberation from both being oppressed and being an oppressor. Zacchaeus is saved, not only from his sin, but from a life where he was failing to love God and neighbor. And now, with this self-invitation from the Lord, perhaps Zacchaeus will stop defining himself by the way that the world sees him and he will see himself as God sees him. Zacchaeus is saved from self-loathing and liberated to love God, neighbor, and self.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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3 Responses to Vampire Christianity?

  1. Dennis Kuhns says:

    Great job, Kevin. I shall visit more often!

  2. Andrew P says:

    I recently came to the conclusion that I’m experiencing a disconnect. A “crisis of faith” (I dislike that phrase for some reason).

    And I think the root of it is that the vast vast majority of Christians I’ve known and learned from, in hindsight, are the vampire Christians you speak of. I look at them, hear the lip service to “dying to self, picking up my cross, and following Jesus” and see little to no evidence of it in the day to day life they lead.

    So I find myself struggling to unlearn the Christian religion and legalism, and press in to true salvation – liberation from the power struggle and content to just be with Jesus.

    Thanks for writing this. I don’t spend a lot of time reading blogs, but I think this one could be good for me

  3. Pingback: Jesus and Zacchaeus | Disciples of hope

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