Jesus is walking along the beach. Did you catch that? Jesus and his disciples are ‘beside the sea” and a big crowd has gathered around him. As he walked along the beach, he saw a man named Levi sitting at his “tax booth.” Now, that’s a little strange. It might be easy for us to picture a lemonade booth at the beach or maybe a booth where someone is selling vacation packages or renting snorkeling gear, but a tax booth at the beach. I can see it now. A parent says, “Hey kids, let’s go to the beach this afternoon. We can swim, eat, listen to a man named Jesus for a while, and oh yeah, we can pay our taxes at the conveniently located tax booth right there on the beach.”
I remember being at the Fair last year where there was a group giving bibles away and engaging people in conversation. Out of curiosity, I stopped and watched this booth for a while and noticed that people would see this possibility up ahead and start making decisions. There were some who went straight to the booth for more free stuff. Most of the people, however, would walk as far to the other side as possible and work hard to avoid eye contact.
I suspect that Levi was getting that kind of response. Tax Collectors in that day were not very popular. (We talked about this a couple of weeks ago). Their job was to collect funds for the occupying government and they were free to add large “service charges” to the bill, all with the backing of the Roman Army. So, I doubt if many were freely making their way to Levi’s tax booth. The scripture says that Levi was just “sitting at the tax booth.” And then, something happens. Jesus noticed him. Jesus approached him. Jesus invited him to come along as he and his disciples walked along the beach. And Levi gets up and leaves his booth behind.
Now here we must read between the lines. My guess is, Levi had been listening for a while. I suspect that he had heard Jesus speak about how much God loves us. Perhaps Levi had overheard stories from the crowd of how Jesus touched people and healed them and how he forgave sins. Jesus took the initiative and included people like him. This was something new. Could it really be true? So, when Jesus noticed him and invited him to come along, Levi’s heart was ready.
I love this story because of the way it illustrates the gospel. Our relationship with God starts with an unconditional, undeserved, unmerited act of love. As Paul says in our second lesson today, “In Christ there is no condemnation.” It is as if all of our sins are stones thrown into the deepest sea. This is the “first blessing” or “first fruit” that comes to us from God. Before we do anything, and regardless of anything we have done, God first loves us.
It is important to note the reaction of the religious leaders to this outpouring of love. They are incensed that Jesus would welcome sinners and tax collectors in this way. Good religious leaders simply should not set that example. But that’s who Jesus is. Jesus comes, as the one who reveals God to us, precisely for all who need this pure and perfect love.
Now, we do need to be clear about what this love is and what it is not. This love that we are given is not a naïve, or easily manipulated love, that might lead to a lazy attitude about our relationship with God, believing that it doesn’t matter what we do because “God will love us no matter what.” It is true that God will love us no matter what, but this does not mean that God doesn’t care what we do or that God turns a blind eye to how we live. You may have heard the saying, “Love is blind.” I get that at one level, but I prefer this saying: “Love is not blind; it is the only way that we can truly see.”
Here’s the way Paul characterizes it in our second lesson. God’s love reveals two paths before us; we see “the way of the flesh,” on the one hand, and “the way of the Spirit,” on the other. The way of the flesh signifies our sinful nature. It is not saying that our bodies are bad. God loves this part of us. God calls the body a temple, a place where God wants to dwell. When we walk along the path of the world, the flesh, apart from the Spirit, we find ourselves surrounded by weeds – the weeds of greed, envy, anger, lust, selfish pride. On this path, fear is everywhere. In fear, we focus on getting and securing and winning and earning our way, and making sure no one knows what is really going on in here (heart). And then we fear, perhaps most of all, that “this” is all there is.
In God’s love, this way of the flesh is exposed. God helps us to see it, but always in the light of a new possibility – the way of the Spirit. The first blessing (or fruit) of the Spirit, is knowing that we are loved, and knowing that nothing we do, or don’t do, can ever separate us from this love. In this love, the words of Jesus come to life: “Do not be afraid.” All our human shortcomings and wayward ways are met with forgiveness and grace. The “way of the Spirit” is revealed, and we are invited, just as we are, to come along and to grow in all the fruits of the Spirit that truly reveal the way of God – love, joy, peace. Along this way, we learn how to be patient and kind. We are able to practice gentleness and temperance. Jesus invites us to come along with him on this journey.
Perhaps you have felt like Levi must have felt that day. Have you ever felt trapped in a cycle that was anything but life-giving, just “sitting in your booth,” so to speak, perhaps pouring your energy into finding ways to block the fear? Turn on the TV. Eat more. Pour a drink. Take a pill. Find some way to push back the pain. And then the Spirit of God nudges you, and invites you to something greater. Maybe that is happening in your heart right now. You catch a glimpse of being a part of something bigger than yourself and your needs. You want more. Something moves you to get up and turn to the vision of true life that God is opening up before you. Like Levi, you decide to follow Jesus.
Today we discover that Jesus wants more for us than a life of fear and flesh, as if this were all there is. The Spirit of Christ comes to us – here (heart) – and says “walk with me.” How do you respond? Amen.