Jesus, friend of sinners

[Jesus said,] “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”

One of the Pharisees asked to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with her ointment…

[Jesus said to them all,] “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:34-38, 47-50

Can you imagine this scene? It is almost difficult to imagine a more embarrassing, shocking event, in that culture and in ours too.

In Hebrew, the word messiah – “christ” in Greek – means “anointed one.” Jesus the Christ is Israel’s Messiah, and this is the anointing he received: a woman with a reputation for sin burst in on a Pharisee’s dinner party and soaked his feet, and his host’s floor, with a strong-smelling mixture of perfume and her own tears. Had it been up to you, is that the kind of anointing ceremony you would have designed for God’s Messiah? Not me.

According to Luke 7:34, despite his flawless observance of Judaism’s complex religious law, Jesus himself had a reputation for sin, not because he sinned, but because he spent his time with lowlifes. He befriended them, identified himself with them, and pronounced blessings on them. Simply put, he loved them. Unabashedly, without pretense or suppressed disgust.

And they loved him, too. They flocked to him. They hung on his words. Consider the extent of this woman’s love for Jesus: she publicly displayed a level of affection for him considered by her culture to be appropriate only in the bedroom,  in front of a room full of  men who probably held the power to stone her as a prostitute. But what did the woman care about the stares or the threats? Jesus welcomed her, he forgave and blessed her, he spoke peace to her. What else mattered?

Grace is offensive. It really is. It turns the world upside-down. It looks around at a room full of upstanding citizens, then down at the disheveled, promiscuous woman weeping on the floor, and declares to the room, “You guys are the ones with the problem. She’s mine.”

The Pharisees at that dinner party two thousand years ago understood very little about themselves, the woman on the floor, or the promised Messiah they thought they would recognize. They imagined a massive gulf to be fixed between the woman and themselves. They looked for a Messiah who would vindicate the law-keepers, the hard workers, the pure bloods. They never imagined a Messiah who would associate with “tax collectors and sinners.”

Grace teaches that the best place those Pharisees could have been in that moment was not generously granting the controversial teacher a place at their table, as they supposed it, but with the sinful woman on the floor, abandoning themselves to the Lord’s love for them.

I ask myself, as a fellow receiver along with that woman of the Lord’s love, how would I have reacted at that dinner party? Would I have blushed? Apologized to the guests for the disturbance, frantically looked for someone to get her out of my house, lowered my opinion of Jesus because he actually let her touch him?

How do I treat “sinners” now? How do you treat them? What about our churches? Do marginalized, immoral people love our churches the way they loved Jesus in his day? In practice, for whom do we really exist: the well or the sick (Luke 5:31-32)?

Mocking him, accusing him, the Bible-thumping community leaders of Jesus’ day said, “He is a friend of sinners – like them.” With an ache, and an edge of hope, in her voice, the desperate woman said, “He is a friend of sinners – like me.” See the difference?

Jesus! what a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Savior, makes me whole.

Hallelujah! what a Savior!
Hallelujah! what a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.

Jesus! I do now receive Him,
More than all in Him I find.
He hath granted me forgiveness,
I am His, and He is mine.

Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners by John Chapman

it’s a family affair

Joining a church is not about joining a culture. It is about joining a family.

Nearly every time the New Testament writers talk about the church, they use familial labels. Peter, James, and Paul call the recipients of their letters “brothers and sisters”; John, an old man at the time of his epistle writing, uses the phrase “little children.” Jesus called his disciples “brothers” (e.g. Matthew 28:10). Paul told Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). In other words, Paul told the young pastor to treat the members of his congregation as the members of his family.

One of the most important and beautiful teachings in the New Testament is that God is the father of Christians. He loves and cherishes them like a father cherishes his children, providing for their needs, disciplining them, patiently bearing with their faults, comforting them, always listening to their prayers. He is Abba, which in Aramaic means Papa, or Daddy (Galatians 4:6-7). Because of the amazing, unique father-child relationship that Christians have with God, Christians are, to each other, like siblings in a family (Matthew 23:8-9).

It is much easier for churches to act as social clubs than as a family, however, because family life on this earth is intrinsically messy and complicated.  Natural familial relationships are the most intimate and most permanent relationships on this earth. God’s family, the church, is the same, only more so. Earthly family bonds are not forever, but the church, the true believers of all times and places, will be united in worship for eternity.

Too often, churches are more like mini-cultural bubbles than they are like families. Church cultures are too often defined by social norms, accepted lingo, expected attire, musical styles, a preacher’s sense of humor. All these things are man-made. Artificial social expectations such as these are harmful both to those who do not “fit in,” as well as to those who, by fitting in, consider themselves safe with God. Jesus said:

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commands of men.” Matthew 15:6-9
In the early days of the church, the biggest dividing wall was Jews vs. Gentiles. Jews considered themselves “safe,” because they had circumcision, the patriarchs for their ancestors, and the law. But Paul makes a magnificent statement in the second chapter of Ephesians, saying this:
But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Ephesians 2:13-16
In Jesus, through the cross, the superficial things that identify and divide us in this world, such as race, as in the 1st century church, or differences in culture and “personal preferences,” as today, become annulled. By dying, he broke down the dividing wall of hostility so that he might create one, unified body of people with equal standing in God’s family.This is the church:

  • an assembly of people, united by a common identity – redeemed by the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-14)
  • for a common purpose – to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23)
  • with a common mission – to call the world to repentance and belief in Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20)

Anything more is inevitably artificial. This therefore is the responsibility of the church, the family of God:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me”… Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:1-3, 7
And Christians, how has Christ welcomed us, brothers and sisters? He came to us as one of us, sympathizing with our weaknesses, tempted in every way yet without sin, touching lepers, eating with thieves and prostitutes, preaching peace, dying for his enemies, turning reprobates into sons and slaves into free people. Let’s do the same with each other. We are a family, after all.

the cross in a postmodern world

If you hate the taste of wine
Why do you drink it ’til you’re blind?
And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares
How come you say it like you’re right?

Why are you scared to dream of God
When it’s salvation that you want?
You see stars that clear have been dead for years
But the idea just lives on

We Are Nowhere and It’s Now by Bright Eyes

We live in a postmodern world. Our cultural sense of personal morality is dead and our concept of a morally perfect God outdated. Because of this, the culture we live in feels no need for atonement. The very idea of atonement baffles this culture. It cannot understand it or the need for it and thus dismisses the idea as irrelevant.

Meanwhile, atonement is the thumping heart at Christianity’s core. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). That is the center. That is the fixed point around which the rest of the Bible, the rest of Christian thinking, and the rest of the Christian life, revolves.

Some thirty-five hundred years ago, God gave an ancient collection of tribes known as the Israelites a code of laws which were to dictate their society and religion. In it, he included a complex and detailed system for conducting animal sacrifices – known to us as the book of Leviticus – for one purpose: to hammer into the Israelite mind, as they witnessed the morning and evening sacrifices at the tabernacle and temple every day without fail, the human need for atonement.

Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments… “As has been done today, the LORD has commanded to be done to make atonement for you.” Leviticus 8:30, 34

Fifteen centuries after Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Jesus of Nazareth died of crucifixion and a new understanding dawned on a small group of Hebrews concerning the nature of man, sin, and God. One said this: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins… But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:4, 12).

The phrase “sat down” is critical. The tabernacles and temples of the old covenant did not contain chairs, because the work of the priests was never completed. Only when the Son of God himself shed his blood could he say with finality, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

In our day, notions of vicarious atonement and guilt before God are viewed as silly at best and barbaric at worst. I believe, however, that to dismiss these things, which are the heart of the gospel, is not only to believe a lie, but to ignore a truth testified to by our universal human nature.

Any people brave enough to search their own hearts, even without a full biblical understanding of God’s moral law, will see in themselves, perhaps without even being able to name it, a deep wrongness. Such people will know that they are not as they ought to be. They disappoint themselves regularly, sometimes devastatingly. Even the most self-righteous people – or the most postmodern people, completely unconcerned with questions of sin, guilt, and righteousness – will see in their inner being a disjointedness, an incompleteness, an emptiness, a shame. That sense of wrongness that each of us recognizes in our hearts is the remembrance of who we were meant to be, and the longing for who we can be through the scandal of the cross.

Do not stifle the need for atonement that is in your heart. The heart and soul in you knows that you desperately need a stand-in, a rescuer, a sacrifice, a redeemer. Look nowhere else than at Jesus.

this is my prayer in the desert

The Bible is written in the language of ordinary people, not scholars. It is chock full of pictures and metaphors, not technical jargon. Shepherds and sheep, trees and fruit, soldiers and weapons, bread and wine – all these images resonate with us in far more fundamental ways than complex, unembellished prose ever could. One such image, reoccurring often in the Bible, is that of a desert.

The metaphor of a desert is easy to understand. It is dry and hot, showing few signs of life. Survival is difficult. Everything looks empty.

Mentions of deserts in the Bible often hearken back to the forty years that primitive Israel spent wandering in the Arabian Desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt but before entering Canaan, the land God promised to give them. For four decades, a nation of people lived in tents, without farms, without stability or knowing what to expect from the next day. They lived off of food called manna, provided directly by God, and with particular rules: each day, they could only gather enough manna to feed themselves that day. If they tried to gather food for the next day (except on the day before the Sabbath), all of it would rot and stink (Exodus 16).

When Jesus told us to pray for our daily bread, I suspect he had this story in mind.

Individual human life has its own “desert periods” too, the life of faith not excluded. Our emotions and imaginations go up and down continually. It’s part of being human, part of existing in time. Sometimes in the Christian life, God feels close and life makes sense. Faith and obedience still may not be easy, but love for God, people, and life feels right and comes spontaneously. These times are blessings from God and ought to be relished. They do not last forever, however.

“Wandering in the desert” is just as much a part of the life of faith as “flourishing in the promised land” is. Many Psalms testify to this, two of my favorites being Psalms 42 and 43, which may be read as one continuous prayer.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?” Psalm 42:1-3

Three times in his prayer the psalmist asks himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” This prayer is achingly expressive for anyone who knows of life in the desert, life when God feels far away. And yet, the psalm is full of hope and full of faith. Three times he answers himself, saying “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” The centerpiece of the poem comes when the psalmist declares, using God’s personal name, Yahweh (Jehovah):

By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life. Psalm 42:8

As usual in the Bible, God turns our expectations upside-down. Consider what Peter writes in his first epistle:
In this [in being born again to a living hope; in receiving an imperishable inheritance] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:3-7

It is in the desert, in trials and persecution, in suffering and loneliness, that a faith “more precious than gold” results, all to the glory of God – which, amazingly, believers will participate in – when Jesus returns. In one of my favorite C. S. Lewis books, “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis says this, in the voice of a devil instructing his junior apprentice in the fiendish ways of leading humanity astray: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

That’s when the Christian becomes dangerous to evil, dangerous to distrust, dangerous to self-reliance. That’s when our prayer for daily bread, for the day by day physical and spiritual sustenance from God, becomes real. That’s when our joy becomes “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) because it is founded on nothing else than the amazing sufficiency of God to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.

This is my prayer in the desert
When all that’s within me feels dry
This is my prayer in my hunger and need
My God is the God who provides
Desert Song by Hillsong

a higher calling

I am so sick of our self-absorbed culture – and of my own self-absorbed heart.

If you could identify one theme of contemporary Christian music, what would it be? My guess is that it would be something like this: “God loves you. You are beautiful and important to him. Don’t feel alone or dejected, just know that you are loved.”

Are these good, true words that Christians need to hear? Often? Absolutely. “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you” (Psalm 63:3). Let’s revel in how much our Lord loves us, every day.

There is a subtle but significant difference between reveling in the love of God and constantly dwelling on our importance in his eyes, however. The love of God is comforting and encouraging, absolutely. It is also exacting, demanding, awe-inspiring, and shocking. If talking or singing about God’s love leaves us primarily feeling more important and more esteemed by God than we did before, we have missed the point. God’s love cuts us down before it builds us up, it shakes us out of our self-aggrandizing notions of ourselves before it soothes our souls.

“Self-esteem” has been a buzzword in American culture for decades. Lately, some have said that its preeminence in pop psychology will soon end, giving way to some other yet unknown trend. We know, though, that “nothing is new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Every revolutionary idea is simply another expression of the basics of human nature: we all want to be loved, and to feel significant and valuable, and we are all obsessed with ourselves.

The God of the Bible is a God who desires for the people he created to esteem him highly, not themselves. When their view of themselves is big and appreciative and devoted but their view of him is small and uninterested and neglected – understand the absurdity there – his jealousy for his own glory is aroused. God thunders in anger when we rob him of the glory that belongs only to him. Glory-stealing is the primeval sin, the root of evil, the explanation of all wickedness, and it is all too present in our churches, in our thoughts about God, and in my heart.

If our view of God is small, our view of sin will be small, too, as will our view of the love and grace demonstrated at Christ’s cross. These things go hand in hand. A person, church, or songwriter whose God is too small, and to whom sin seems unimportant or irrelevant, will never know “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18) and will never sincerely exclaim “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33) The Bible teaches of a divine love that is holy and avenging and tyrannical and more intensely beautiful than love found anywhere else. C. S. Lewis said this, in his “The Problem of Pain,” quoted in the CCEF book “How People Change”:

In awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God; you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the “lord of terrible aspect,” is present; not senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes…It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.
Have you caught a glimpse of what it is to be obsessed with God’s glory, rather than obsessed with yourself? There is no higher calling. There is no greater joy, or more radical freedom. There is, in fact, no other option for anyone who desires to stop kidding themselves. Healing, restoration, recovery, and all the things we love to sing about do not come when we treat God like a cuddly therapist whose primary concern is our comfort, but when we treat him like the good, righteous, terrible, loving King of the universe that he is.
Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name goes all the glory for your unfailing love and faithfulness. Psalm 115:1
What do you think?