Earlier tonight in conversation with friends it came up that today’s chapel preacher was exceptional. When I probed deeper to figure out why it was such a memorable chapel the sermon was explained to me in brief. One thing that caught me was that the preacher hit on the point that Jesus spent time with sinners and exhorted the audience to likewise follow our Lord and Savior in this practice and intentionally spend time with sinners.
This got me thinking…and then this got me mad. With all fairness I was not at the sermon and I’m sure it was made with the best of intentions. However, In advocating for something good she (and many others over the years who I have heard preach this argument) subtly invoked and tacitly reinforced something I hate: the belief and attitude that Christians are not sinners. But I should explain what I am talking about here…
I assume Mark 2:13-17 and its parallels were being used, and whenever I hear this passage preached I hear it preached wrong or at least incompletely. Usually it is rightly pointed out that Jesus spent time with people that the religious community of His day would frown upon. Jesus hung out with sinners in seedy places. Lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors (who were seen as traitors to the Jewish people as they often financially extorted their own people with Roman authority) and more generic “sinners” were often people who Jesus spent time with. When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about the bad company He kept, Jesus’ replied “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus did not come to this world for people who have it all together and do not sin, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance and bring healing to the sick.
Many Christian teachers put the Church in the role of Jesus and suggest we, like Jesus, should spend time with the poor and the outcasts in our society and people we would not normally associate with. The radical nature of this call depends on the preacher. Should Christians be in bars? Should Christians be in gay bars? Overall the aim is good – Christians need to get out of the safety of our fellowships and reach out to others with the love of Christ and good news of the forgiveness, new life, and new identity offered through Jesus Christ.
A fraction of astute, radical or prophetic preachers may even point out that the Church has often sadly played the role of the Pharisees. We judge and condemn people as sinners and avoid them. Instead of being a city on a hill, we are city in a gated community; we are really concerned with who is out and who is in. Instead of ushering sinful messy people into the new life found in Christ we make sure to keep such persons out of our fellowships. What’s worse is that this exclusivistic mindset, contrary to the Gospel as a whole, is often done with the religious approval of one verse that has become a truism in our Churches and in our culture.
If Jesus spent time in a gay bar how many Christians would tell Jesus that, “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor 15:33) and question His reason for being there?
Regardless of if this second point is rightly touched upon when this sermon is taught it carries an unspoken implicit message that we are not who we actually are in the narrative. In calling us to be Jesus to people or not be the Pharisees to people we miss who we really are.
The only role we should play in this narrative is seeing the Church as the sinners Jesus came to save.
We cannot play Jesus for a number of reasons. First, we do not save people, we can only point them to the One that does. I cannot save myself, let alone other people by the work of my hands. So to combine an AA slogan with Christian theology – we will never be the living water that produces everlasting life, we can only point people to where we found this living water. To suggest that we should be Jesus in this story is to really usurp His role. We did not come to save, nor are we able to. Jesus came to save, and He can. Secondly, and more to my point, no one is good expect God alone (Mark 10:18) so it is impossible for the Church to be Jesus to people. Our lives, our grace, and our forgiveness extended to others should be signposts to the love, grace, and forgiveness we have recieved from Christ. Where preachers teach that the Church should “be Jesus” to sinners or to like Jesus to spend time with sinners such sermons can often convey or encourage the belief that Christians are not sinners, or Christians are above sinners in some way. When it is clearly stated, this belief is obviously contrary to core tenants of the Christian faith that all have fallen into sin and need God’s forgiveness. However, when we are told to play the role of Jesus we forget our role in the story is to first recieve His forgiveness as sinners before telling others the wonderful news.
We should not play the role of the Pharisees, though we often have. The name Pharisees literally means “separated ones.” The Pharisees, and other Jewish sects, piled rules upon rules and as N.T. Wright points out (in I believe the Challenge of Jesus) these rules and purity codes are a way of codifying who is and who is not “one of us.” The Pharisees were concerned with who was in the “real” Israel to whom God was going to bring redemption and salvation and drew the lines around their community by these codes of conduct and belief. Those who were abided by them were “in” and those who did not were “out.” Many of these rules (and rules upon rules) are the basis for how the Pharisees condemned “sinners,” other sects and Jesus and His disciples. How many churches define who are one of their own and who are one of “those people” by similar subtle, non-biblical, unspoken codes of conduct, dress and belief? (I promise to write more about this later.) Many times these unspoken rules leave non-Christians, or even other Christians not previously affiliated with the church, alienated, confused as to what is happening in the service or community and generally hearing one clear message: “you are not one of us and you are unwelcome.” Ultimately it is the Lord who judges the hearts of men and women; our role is not to decide who is and who is not inside the Kingdom of God by enforcing man-made rules, nor is it our place as forgiven sinners to be morality police, so blinded by our finger pointing and franctic attempts to decide who is in the Kingdom of God to see our own self-rigtheousness.
Our role, as I have said, in this narrative is to see ourselves as the sinners Jesus came to save. When we step out of this role, when we forget that we are sinners, we inevitably become the Pharisees or worse. Saying that Jesus spent time with sinners is to say that Jesus spent time with us! What are Christians but sinners who have been reached by the message of the Gospel and found forgiveness? There are not tiers to humanity. Some do not need Jesus’ forgiveness more, and some less. While some people have sinned a lot, some a little, some have experienced grave consequences for their sin, some have not, this ultimately does not matter, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10 – NIV) Furthemore, Romans 3:22-24 reads, “22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (NIV – emphasis mine)
There is just us, one big dysfunctional family of broken, missing the mark, sinful dirty people. We are all in the same sinking boat in dire need of rescue that cannot come from anyone but Jesus Christ.
The Church is a community of saints and it is a community of sinners. In this dual identity we recognize that everyone is a sinner, and those who believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ are forgiven. We have been, and until we are ressurected in glory, are sinful people who are yet now called sons and daughters of God through our belief in a crucified God. I fear that many Christians lose, forget, or never fully own their identity as sinners. When this happens we almost inevitably lose touch with the people who need the Church and its message of hope, salvation, forgiveness and new life the most. Churches become containers for nice forgiven people instead of hospitals for the sick. I think this is a huge problem in the Church today and is a foundational reason why I have had such a bad experience with so many chruches.
This is especially tempting and difficult for people who have generally lived “moral” lives. In this tension we are not alone and not without precedent. The disciples themselves did not get this point well either. When the sinful woman annoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume the disciples ridiculously rebuke her and I would argue undoubtedly think of themselves as better than her (she was after all a female in a patriarchal culture and a prostitute/promiscuous woman). Jesus rebukes his disciples, saying, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
The sinful woman got the Gospel. She had no choice but to get the Gospel or face condemnation. Given her sinful past to pretend she had the moral high ground, was above others, or might save herself through her good works, she would have had to deny reality. Fully knowing the depth of her sin she cast herself on Jesus’s mercy – this is the right thing to do, and the only way to forgiveness. The disciples, who apparently were generally speaking more moral people, and were probably tempted to think of themselves as above others, having the moral high ground, or being able to save themselves through good works (which they weren’t) did not have such a direct and real connection to their brokeness and consequently failed to love Jesus in the way that He should have been loved – with everything that they had.
This why I love the recovery communities so much. Christian or non-Christian, recovery communities are generally filled with people who are deeply aware that they have messed up their lives (and undoubtedly the lives of others) and need help and forgiveness. It is the acknowledgment of this brokeness that can make even Atheists open to a spiritual force being the only hope for them. That is how powerful connecting with one’s identity as a sinner is.
In a Christian context, such as Big Valley Grace’s Celebrate Recovery Community, it is like being part of a congregation filled with the sinful woman in the story. It is a community of Christians deeply connected to their identity as sinners in need of forgiveness who love Jesus with an incredible compassion when they recieve it. Such persons are the most gracious, loving and inclusive Christians I know. I literally begin to tear up thinking about how you, BVG’s CR, are my family and how much I love you all.
My basic belief on this issue is not that Christians need to go out there and sin more to be more aware of their need of forgiveness, I think Christians just need to think more about their sinfulness, both current and past. All Christians, wether raised in the Church or not, addict or “normie,” clean-cut or rough around the edges, is a sinful person in need of Christ. Without understanding and connecting with our sinful nature we inevitably begin to think of themselves as better than others, misunderstand the Gospel, and fail to love Christ and others, like we should.
P.S. To be fair, it is true that some people have recieved the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ and become adopted sons and daughters in God’s family, and others have not. So in one sense, one might argue rightly that there really are two categories of people, to be simple the saved and the unsaved. However, I would argue that this distinction cannot be made by human eyes (how do we know who is forgiven and repentant and who is not?), nor does the recieving of forgiveness ever obliterate the original need for forgiveness. Instead of this reality being used to exclude or to put Christians above others, the recieving of forgiveness should provide motivation for Christians to turn and help others. Having been rescued from our dire straights we should point others towards rescue, not forget that we needed rescue ourselves.