Jesus Welcomed REAL Sinners. Do We?
In a very real sense, the work of Jesus is complete. When it comes to our standing as beloved, forgiven, delighted-in sons and daughters of God, “It is finished,” just as he said. His sinless life secured for us a new and irrevocable status—holy and blameless in God’s sight. His death fulfilled the requirements of God’s justice toward our sins. We are summoned by Scripture to make much of Jesus. It is stunning that Jesus makes much of us, too.
Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and he died the death we should have died. Because of this, we are free. What a wonderful and humbling reality—God does not treat us as our sins deserve, because he has already treated Jesus as our sins deserve.
All this being true, there is still much work that Jesus intends to get done…through us.
Luke writes in Acts 1:1, “In the first book (the Gospel of Luke), O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Began to do and teach? How could there be more for Jesus to do than he what has already done?
That’s where we as Christ’s “ambassadors” come into the picture. We are now the chosen ones, sent into the world on his behalf, filled with his Spirit to represent him in the places where we live, work and play. The work of Jesus continues in the world through Christians.
Our calling is to labor in every way possible to model our ministry and message after his. We are to live as those who are “full of grace and truth” until our churches and ministries attract the types of people who were attracted to Jesus, and, by unfortunate necessity, draw criticism from the types of people who criticized him.
What does it mean to have a ministry atmosphere that is “full of grace” (John 1:14)?
Gandhi famously said:
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.
Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
Gandhi admired Jesus, but found it difficult to reconcile how the Christians in his life seemed to represent Jesus so poorly. In his mind, this is what kept him from becoming a follower of Jesus.
As Jesus’ ambassadors, we need to listen very carefully to statements like this one. We must carefully and lovingly examine the common barriers that stand between the real Jesus and people’s false impressions of him—impressions which, unfortunately, have been projected to a watching world by sincere yet misguided Christians. Let’s consider some of these barriers, shall we?
BARRIER #1: CONDEMNATION
Writer Philip Yancey often asks people he meets what they think about Christians. Sadly, the answer he hears most often from people is that Christians are judgmental, intolerant, and holier-than-thou.
When the September 11 terrorist attacks took place on the World Trade Center, one very well-known (and deeply misguided) Christian leader confirmed this stance by saying on national television:
If you are a homosexual, a member of the ACLU, in favor of abortion, or part of the People of the American Way, then I point my finger in your face and say you did this. You made this happen.
A Christian friend of mine who is an actor once invited a gay friend over to have dinner with him and his wife. Their guest soon realized (from the Bible on the coffee table) that they were Christians. He then said to my friend, “You are a Christian, and you actually like me?” This kind of story causes my heart to sink. Does it yours?
Are we serious about being Christ’s ambassadors in the world? Then we must humbly wrestle with, and fight with love to reverse, the idea that Christians are against people who don’t believe like we do.
Whether this impression is true or merely perceived, it is still our starting point in the minds of many non-Christian people. If we are not guilty ourselves, then we are at least guilty by association with believers who have misrepresented the biblical Jesus with harsh, abrasive, condemning or withdrawn attitudes. We must take personal responsibility, as far as it depends on us, to replace pictures of a false Jesus with pictures of the real Jesus—the Jesus who came full of grace and truth, and who even welcomed “sinners” and ate with them (Luke 15:1-2).
BARRIER #2: SEPARATION
I believe that Christians who want to separate themselves and their children from secular people, secular things, and secular ideas make a big mistake. Christ’s ambassadors must resist this “us against them” and often fear-based mindset. We must do everything in our power to become friends with as many non-Christians as we can—no conditions attached. This must be a central, core value of our lives and also our Christian communities.
Consider Jesus. It was only the religious proud who withdrew from Jesus, criticized him, took offense at him, and wished to rid the world of him. But what about the prostitutes, crooks, drunks, gluttons and sinners? These all wanted to be near to Jesus, and they wanted to hear what he had to say. And Jesus obliged gladly—so much so that he became guilty by association, and was accused of being a glutton and a drunk and a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).
We know that these accusations of drunkenness and gluttony were false—Jesus was tempted in every way but without sin. But Jesus was unapologetically a friend to the least and the lost—to all who felt ostracized and belittled by the religious communities of his day.
Jesus was willing to offend strict religious people if that’s what it took to convince broken sinners that he loved them and had hope for them.
Jesus was repulsive to religious insiders and a breath of fresh air to religious outsiders.
BARRIER #3: SMUGNESS
There is a price to pay if we get serious about cultivating atmospheres that are full of grace. The more we begin to befriend the kinds of people that Jesus did, we will experience resistance and even rejection from “the faithful.” They may even be our fellow church members. It’s a simple fact. When we do the kinds of things that Jesus did, and love in some of the ways that Jesus did, some will take offense at us. And they will tell themselves that their being offended is because of their love for God. But anytime someone is offended by kindness that resembles Jesus, our Lord says that this person, rather than acting out of love for God, is acting as a child of the devil (John 8:39-47). It is Satan, not God, who is the hater of kindness. It is Satan, not God, who is the accuser of the people that Jesus loves.
Consider Luke 7, where a woman described as “sinful” enters the home of Simon the religious Pharisee. In the name of love, and in the spirit of radical grace, Jesus receives with delight her very un-orthodox display of affection toward him. Jesus breaks with religious customs, allowing this ceremonially and morally unclean prostitute to touch his feet. He breaks with social customs also, receiving her as his disciple—putting a woman on equal footing with men in a very paternalistic, misogynistic society where women were seen as second class.
Most scandalous, however, is the way that Jesus even breaks with moral customs to demonstrate to this woman how dear she is to him. She lets down her hair, which was grounds for divorce in those days—a woman could do this only in the presence of her immediate family. She also touches him with the tools of her prostitute’s trade. He lets her anoint him with a prostitute’s perfume and kiss him with a prostitute’s lips!
Of course we know the rest of the story—Jesus was shunned as a man of ill repute by the religious people at the sinner party. To these smug Pharisees, showing positive attention to this woman—whom they judged as a sinner not a child of God, as a thing not a person—was evidence of moral compromise.
This story has serious ramifications for those who wish to represent Jesus well in a modern context. We must come to terms with the fact that if Jesus were a 21st century American, he would not associate godliness with membership in a political party. He would not tell a lesbian she was “in sin” without also offering her a personal, no-strings-attached friendship. He would not talk about how smoking destroys God’s temple while simultaneously devouring his third piece of fried chicken at the church potluck. Jesus would not condemn adultery as being any worse than studying the Bible for the wrong reasons.
BARRIER #4: PRIDE
Becoming a friend of sinners begins with the understanding that we are much more like the “chief of sinners” than we are like Jesus Christ. Our approach with all people, no matter who they are or what their history, must assume the posture of “fellow beggars humbly telling others where to find the bread” (I got this magnificent quote from Steve Brown).
If we really want people to be impacted by the gospel and to enjoy the riches of God’s grace, they must first see in us the humility of those who have been, and continue to be, genuinely impacted by grace ourselves. Our humility must be authentic and not just an act. If we have never been brought low by God, we will approach other people from a high horse. And that is never any good for anybody.
Consider the Apostle Paul. He was not above humbling himself. In Romans 7 he gives us a window into his personal struggle with the sin of coveting—a sin nobody would see unless he told them—and the way that the gospel gave him hope in the face of his coveting. In 1 Timothy Paul identifies himself as the chief of all sinners. If we intend to reflect Jesus in our ministries and our messages, we need to get over our love for reputation and image. As the late Jack Miller once said, “Grace runs downhill.” We can only be drenched by grace toward the bottom of the hill.
And yet, how easy it can be to build our identities on how good we look—on being “model Christians” that people are supposed to admire because of how put-together we appear to be. But we must not do this. It is a trap and it will rob us of gospel power and effectiveness. If people around us are going to be changed by the grace of Jesus, they must witness the gospel working effectively in our lives—healing us of our sins and deepest wounds and fears. Changing us.
Stay tuned in future weeks for more on these themes. In the meantime, sign up for my weekly email updates so you never miss a post!
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