Post Author: Nathanael Ballew

Nathanael is a member of our leadership team and is responsible for organising all the Gatherings that happen across Riverside. He also works for Riverside Performing Arts (RPA).
November 15, 2020
The Masks We Can Leave Behind – Session 1: Removing The Mask

Teaching Series Introduction:

In a world in which wearing masks can save lives, what other masks do we wear that we can take off? Masks that hide the reality of who we are, and what we are carrying? We all do it, but it gets so tiring. In Luke 12, Jesus offers a better alternative than the mask-wearing of the religious leaders. A life in which we don’t have to pretend. A life in which we reveal who we really are, and discover the freedom that Jesus offers.

Session 1

Title: Removing The Mask
By: Nathanael Ballew
Date: 15 November 2020
Bible Passage: Luke Chapter 12, verses 1-3.

We all know that some masks are good for us. In a time when physical masks can save lives, what other hidden ‘masks’ that we wear? What would it look like if we could be free from the need to pretend? How did the Pharisees wear masks, and what might their example have to show us?

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Well good morning. Nathaniel here, one of the site leaders of Riverside Church. I know what you’re thinking he has officially lost the plot. Well, actually today we’re starting our new series, The Masks We Can Leave Behind, and we’re jumping straight in looking at removing the mask, the figurative masks, the masks that we all wear.

So I felt like it was fitting to go back to some of my uni work. For those of you who don’t know I studied physical theater at university and did a couple modules in mime and mask theater. Now I’m not saying that this is a frequent occurrence in our house, but that’ll teach you to marry a clown.

For a lot of us, we are really used to wearing face masks at the moment, rightfully so, for the protection of ourselves and also for the protection of those around us. We know that it makes communicating a little bit more tricky, because you can’t read facial expressions as well and you also can’t hear as well. Yet we choose to wear them because we care about our community, and yet we also look forward to a time when we won’t need to wear them anymore.

So what is it that we’re talking about when we say wearing a figurative mask? Well it goes deeper than just the physical, surface-level mask. What we’re talking about is the fronts that we put on, the guards that we put up, the smiles that we wear when inside we’re fighting back tears, that stiff upper lip and so on. It’s the masks that we wear day to day, more so than the theatrical or medical masks.

Historically, ancient Greek theater had performers wearing masks to put on characters, but also as an act of surrendering their identity to the made-up god Dionysus. They would allow the mask to engulf them in order for them to assume a different persona.

For us today, we can sometimes unconsciously surrender to false gods and idols as well. The ones of this time, like pride masked as caring about our appearance, or toxic masculinity masked as strength, or greed masked as being cautious with our money. There’s lots of other masks as well that we can wear, including apathy, happiness, humor, perfectionism, et cetera.

This is a universal issue and we all carry it in our individual ways, but also it’s been around for quite a while. It’s not new. It’s been around for centuries.

In the Bible passage that we read from, from Luke, we can see that Jesus is speaking against some of the masks that people wear. I’d like to draw out a couple of those specific masks for us to look at today.

The first mass that we’re talking about is the mask of hypocrisy. Wat does that mean? Well, hypocrisy is defined as the practice of claiming higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case. The word originated from the Greek word hypokrisis, which is related to the word used for actors, people portraying something that they are not. Essentially we’re talking about a counterfeit person.

In the passage that we read, Jesus is coming down hard on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the religious leaders. In Chapter 11, just the bit before this, we can see some more challenge from Jesus to the Pharisees who are living their life one way in public, but yet in private or behind closed doors, they’re living completely differently.

This isn’t the only time that Jesus berates the Pharisees for this in Matthew 23, Verse 27 and 28 Jesus says these words, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are so full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

The Pharisees are deceiving themselves into thinking that they were righteous because they followed strict laws and rituals. This is a huge temptation for us as humans to try to elevate our status or our moral complex. We heard last Sunday from Tim about how we are weak but God is strong and God’s power is made perfect in our weakness so we should be owning our weaknesses.

I remember some good friends of mine who aren’t Christian, when I invited them to come to church, they said, “Oh, I could never come to church because I’m not a good enough person.” I’d say, “Well you misunderstand, because being a Christian doesn’t make you a good person or better than anyone else. In fact, it actually means I know that I am flawed and therefore I need the grace of Jesus in my life.”

But what in our culture has given this impression that the Christian lifestyle is an unachievable goal? Perhaps hypocrisy. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

So the challenge from Jesus in this passage is for us to live integrity-filled lives, to be the same person when we’re out with our group of mates at the pub as when we are in our Bible study, to be the same person on social media as when we are behind closed doors. That is the challenge, for us to be real with one another.

Why is it helpful for us to do this? Well because we will be living our lives more in line with Jesus, authentic, to be more honest in our failings and have to rely on God, and as Gandhi put it. It’s pretty off putting to be hypocritical. It carries with it negative connotations.

In Verse 2, Jesus says, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” He uses yeast here as a metaphor for something that expands. It’s what causes bread to rise, and it develops into a culture.

In the Matthew Henry commentary, he expands by saying, “It is swelling and souring as leaven or yeast, for it puffs men up with pride, embitters them with malice, and makes their service unacceptable to God.” So the warning here is don’t let hypocrisy become the cultural norm. Go against it. Break it. It’s clear that God cares about what’s inside not just about what’s outside.

We can read in 1 Samuel 16, Verse 7, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The second type of mask I want us to address is the brave face we put on, the I’m fine mask. We all know this has been a roller coaster of a year. Actually, I’m not even sure if rollercoaster is the best description. For some people it’s been the frightening and constant skydive with no guarantee of a parachute, and people are tired. People are worried and people’s mental health has taken knock after knock.

If you’re watching and you are part of a church family then you should know the benefits of that family when times are good, but especially when times are hard. If you’ve never experienced that sense of support and you want to, please know there is always room at the table for you.

Truth be told it is a lot easier being vulnerable and real with others when it’s face to face. So the fact that many of us have been physically separate for a long time is added to the challenge of us being real with one another, for sure. But can I encourage you to fight that urge to seclude yourself? It might seem easier in the immediate, but we need one another. Even after this pandemic is over we’re going to need one another. God has created us to live in community. We can be free from these masks and we don’t need to pretend we’re okay all the time.

In John 19, we can read Jesus saying while hanging on the cross, he speaks to his mother standing next to John, the disciple. He says, “Woman, here is your son.” And to disciple, he says, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on this disciple took her into his home.

This is a glimpse of the family that we can be. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, for each other. Jesus says in Matthew 12, Verse 50, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” So as followers of Jesus, we can choose to actively devote ourselves to one another, warts and all, and to be an authentic fellowship.

But what does that look like to live out practically? Well, I’ve heard too many people say, “No one called me. No one asked me if I was okay,” and maybe no one did and I’m so sorry if they didn’t. But what if we flip that question? Who have you called to check in with? Who are you keeping tabs on and asking if they’re okay?

A little bit still goes a long way and we can develop this into a culture. When you start something, people are more likely to pay it forward. This is also why life groups and triplets are so important. These are your people, a group of people you can go deeper in faith with in understanding scripture, but also a collection of individuals that you can be completely real with. If you want to be part of a life group, send us an email. We would love to arrange for you to be plugged in with the group.

I just want you to have a think now for a moment, just think to yourself, who are my people? These are people that you’re able to be with without inhibitions, where you can really relax and be yourself completely, people who challenge you from a place of love, people who encourage you when you’re feeling low, people that are able to keep you accountable when you struggle to keep a clean internet search history, people that listen to you without judgment when you just need to weep, people who laugh when you laugh and mourn when you mourn, people who have permission to speak truth into your life. We say we’re a church family, so let’s act like one.

Now on the flip side, of course, you’re not going to go oversharing to every person you know. But with wisdom and prayerful consideration, you can have some real conversations with people in your life, your brothers and sisters in your church.

The late author Toni Morrison gives some insight into this. She said, “Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. And the new little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why are we hanging on to it? I don’t know. It isolates people into little units, people need a larger unit.”

So thank the Lord we have access to this larger unit in the church. And while this Western concept of nuclear family limits us, let’s truly move into this invitation to be blessed as part of the wider church family. Yes, it takes effort, but it’s so worth it.

I can vouch for that since I’ve been to the UK. I have no blood relatives living in this country and I’ve gone a year, sometimes even two without seeing my relatives. And through these years, the church stepped in as my family. When I needed somewhere to stay, someone offered for me a room to sleep in and food to eat. When I needed to go for an operation, my brother in Christ took the day off work to drive me to the hospital and wait with me. When I needed to get to the airport, a church member woke up at 4:00 AM to take me there.

These are my brothers, my sisters, my fathers and my mothers. All I had to do was ask and be real and share my need. That is what it means to be family. We need one another for support and for sharpening.

In John 13 Verse 35, it says, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” We can’t be Christians on our own. How great that we get to be encouraged as we do life together with our church family.

Aside from looking inwardly, if you are a Christian you are called to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others who don’t know him yet. This is for people outside of the church family.

Verse 1 of Luke 12 says that, “A crowd of many thousands had gathered so that they were trampling on one another. Jesus began to speak.” What we can see here is that the authenticity, genuineness that Jesus modelled is attractive. Jesus is attractive and people are so desperate to get a taste of the realness that they’re practically trampling over each other, and that’s so true for us now. We are drawn to vulnerability because it’s endearing, it’s relatable and it touches a nerve within us.

I remember a friend something vulnerable with me and they said, “I hope you don’t think any less of me.” And I said, “On the contrary, I think even more highly of you now for your vulnerability and authenticity.” Isn’t that the case?

When those we love, our friends and our community, when others have shared vulnerably it’s like it opens up a further heart connection. It’s attractive to be human and it’s especially attractive to have Jesus in your heart and reflect him in your life. Once people see the authenticity and integrity within you, you can point them to the one it’s really all about, Jesus. Jesus in me, Jesus in you. That’s what opens up conversations about salvation.

So we have total permission to be real with one another and also with God. It’s actually easier to be real with God, because guess what? He already knows. He’s omniscient, all knowing. So whatever you think you’ve got to hide, whatever you’re holding on to, whatever you are ashamed of others finding out, God already knows and the best bit is he still loves you. He still loves you so much that you are worth dying for.

So speak to God. Maybe do that through prayer. Speak to others. Let’s make the effort to be authentic in fellowship and community and be honest about what you’re going through. May it be the cultural norm for us.

Let’s not get caught up in how we present, but remember that God looks at the heart. Take off your masks. Be real. Be free in Christ.

I’m just going to finish with these words from the Message version of Colossians 3, Verse 9 and 10, “Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes. You’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way is custom made by the creator with his label on it.”

Let’s pray. Father God, thank you so much for living an authentic life through Jesus. Thank you that we can see Jesus in the Bible and know more of what it means to live a good and free life. God, we’re sorry for when we put on the mask of hypocrisy and when we hide things from our brothers and sisters. I pray that you would help us all to be filled with integrity, authenticity, to be bold in our vulnerability with one another. May we truly live as family, and may we point to you in all that we do. You know us and you love us God and we thank you. Amen.

Study Questions

  1. What do you find challenging about the physical masks that we need to wear to protect each other at the moment? What might this reveal about the other ‘masks’ that we choose to wear as an attempt to hide who we are?

  2. Read Luke 12:1-3. How did the Pharisees wear ‘masks’? And why does this reveal? 

  3. Why do you think Jesus talked about the ‘yeast’ of the Pharisees? You may like to read Matthew 23:1-12 for further description of the Pharisees. What does this tell us about the impact on other people of living lives for the sake of external appearances?

  4. It’s obvious that verse 2 is very challenging. But, why is it also really good news too? As we think about the ‘masks’ we wear, what might be the encouragement here?

  5. Hypocrisy is sometimes referred to as ‘pretending to be something you never intend to be’. Why does the good news of Jesus liberate us from needing to pretend to be something we’re not? How important do you think it is to metaphorically ‘remove our masks’ and not pretend to be something or someone that we’re not?

  6. It is noticeable that there was something deeply attractive about Jesus and his message (verse 1). What difference do you think an authentic community, who have discovered the freedom in Jesus and therefore don’t wear ‘masks’, could really make in our society?

  7. Take some time to pray for the strength to be honest and humble before others, without pretence, as an act of hospitality towards them. Pray that God would give you the grace that you need to see the truth that you are a beloved sinner who is being made whole. And pray that this would have a wide impact in our society. 
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