Sunday, January 13, 2013
How does Jesus identify about people who are (A) outside the religious establishment and (B) who are far from God? In Luke chapter 5 we find the story of Jesus calling Levi the tax collector. “Follow me,” Jesus says. Tax collectors and sinners is a formula Luke uses to indicate he is describing disreputable people; bad guys. These are those who do not go to worship; those who are widely known to live out immoral behaviors. The ones popular society identified as righteous, the Pharisees and scribes, complain. They are grumbling in the story in Luke 5. They say to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” To and eat and drink, to share the table – that was intimacy; that act gave legitimacy to the humanity of the other. Why are you, Jesus, who would be a rabbi, eating with such lowlifes and riffraff?
Jesus responded, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31).
A similar scenario arises in Luke 15. Again, Luke tells us that the corrupt and the immoral – the degenerates of society – are gathering. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]” (v.1). The dutiful religious leaders had to have their say. Grumbling, the Pharisees and scribes muttered through red faces and clenched teeth, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds with three parables, one about a lost sheep, a second about a lost coin, and the third, his most famous, about a lost son.
We have our metaphors. I began asking, how does Jesus identify those who are outside the religious establishment and how does he identify those who are far from God. He compares them to those who are sick and in need of a doctor. And he compares them to those who are lost. There are different ways one is lost. The lost sheep mindlessly wandered off. The lost coin did nothing to be lost. The woman lost it. The prodigal son chose his hedonistic way. He would not have said he intentionally got himself lost, but his state of being lost resulted from his own choices.
In modern evangelical language, often the world is divided up into categories, the saved and the lost. But we say that without thinking. Jesus used different metaphors to describe those cut off from God by sin. And when he did say lost, the word contained more than one meaning. What is clear is that there was in the Gospel and there are today people who are not walking in faith. They do not have relationship with God and do not worship Him. In the Gospel, those inside the religious establishment despised those they called sinners. Other texts from Luke show these same Pharisees were blind to their own sins.
How did Jesus feel about sinners? He wanted to be with them, to eat with them and spend time with them. He loved them. The ultimate example he gives is the Father, representing God, in the Prodigal story. The Father ran to meet the son who had walked out and all but declared the father dead. This son brought shame on the family and ruin on himself, but this father ran to him, embraced him, and loved him. Throughout Luke 15, Jesus demonstrates that in God there is overwhelming joy when someone is saved from sin, saved from death, saved from Hell, and most importantly, saved from life apart from God. In fact, scholar Fred Craddock says this joy that bursts out from God when a lost person is saved, when a sick person is healed of the worst of diseases, godlessness; this joy is at the heart of the Gospel.[i]
How did Jesus feel about sinners? He repeatedly butted heads with the Pharisees because he felt the Pharisees were merciless and actually did things to grind hurting people into the ground. In 18 Jesus tells a parable in which a self-righteous Pharisee is condemned but a repentant tax collector is forgiven. In Matthew 23, Jesus unleashes a furious sermon of condemnation against Pharisees. What did they do to draw such ire from Jesus? They failed to love and help sinners. In Luke 19, riding into Jerusalem, knowing his crucifixion is coming, Jesus weeps openly. He’s crying because the state of spiritual brokenness fills him with deep sadness.
If someone displayed this open anger and emotion over another’s pain and if he did it publically, today someone might derisively call him a bleeding-heart liberal. I have, in conversations, expressed concern and even sadness over issues like hunger and poverty and lack of clean drinking water. Conversation partners who thought of themselves as devout, conservative Christians suggested I was aligning myself with bleeding heart liberals. Their tone implied an accusation.
Because this is so-weighed and terms like liberal raise tempers and needless red flags, I decided against suggesting we should approach evangelism as bleeding heart evangelicals. But there is no denying that people who are not Christ-followers, people we might call “lost,” bring sadness to God’s heart. He loves them so much, he sent his only begotten son that whichever of those outside his family would believe in Jesus would not experience eternal death, but being born again would have everlasting life with God in God’s loving presence. Did you note my wordy paraphrase of John 3:16? The popular song that is out now gets it right. We absolutely need to pray that what breaks God’s heart would break our hearts.
One of the things that breaks God’s heart is when the sick, the sinners of the world, come looking for salvation or wander aimlessly in need of salvation, and God’s church ignores them or even worse scorns them and judges them. We’ve talked about equipping ourselves to do evangelism, to share Jesus with the world. In this series, I have proposed that we listen before we speak. We listen to unbelievers so that they know we will not judge them. Secondly, I have said we need to know ourselves. We need to know what a Christian is and we need to spend our entire lives growing that knowledge. We need to be able to speak fluently and seamlessly about our faith and about who Jesus is.
A third way we are equipped is by loving those outside the church and outside the faith with the irrational mad love of Jesus that we see in Luke 15. We have to have a posture of love and that love has to come from deep within us. It can’t be faked. But it can be developed. And when we develop within us a real love for people far from Jesus, the lost sheep of the world, it will have a dramatic evangelistic affect because Christianity has not done such a great job of projecting love in the age of mass media. As I mentioned in the last couple of weeks, Christianity has shown the watching a world a lot of things other than love: judgment; exclusion; prejudice; elitism.
To get a sense of this, I want to share a snippet from a book that was wildly popular a few years ago, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.
In this section, he’s on campus at his college, Reid College in Oregon. He has already established that Reid is a party school without much of a Christian presence. But, he and his friend are in fact Christ-followers at Reid. Here’s what he writes about representing Christ in this secular and possibly even hostile environment.
Each year at Reid they have a festival called Ren Fayre. They shut down the campus so students can party. Security keeps the authorities away and everyone gets drunk and high, and some people get naked. … The school brings in White Bird, a medical unit that specializes in treating bad drug trips. The students create special lounges with black lights and television screens to enhance kids’ mushroom trips.
Some of the Christians in our little group decided this was a pretty good place to come out of the closet, letting everybody know there were a few Christians on campus. Tony the Beat Poet and I were sitting around in my room one afternoon talking about what to do, how to explain who we were to a group of students who, in the past had expressed hostility toward Christians. Like our friends, we felt like Ren Fayre was the time to do this. I said we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said, “Confess your sins.” I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spirituality begins by confessing your sins and repenting. I also said it as a joke. But Tony thought it was brilliant. He sat there on my couch with his mind in the clouds, and he was [scaring me senseless] because there for a second, then for a minute, I actually believed he wanted to do it.
“Tony,” I said very gently. “We are not going to do this.” He moved his gaze down the wall and directly into my eyes. A smile came across his face.
“Oh, we are, Don. We certainly are. We are going to build a confession booth.
We met in the commons – Penny, Nadine, Mitch, Iven, Tony and I. Tony said I had an idea. They looked at me. I told them Tony was lying and that I didn’t have an idea at all. They looked at Tony. Tony gave me a dirty look and told me to tell them the idea. I told them I had a stupid idea that we couldn’t do without getting attacked. They leaned in. I told them we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said, “Confess your sins.” Penny put her hands over her mouth. Nadine smiled. Iven laughed. Mitch started drawing designs for the booth on a napkin. Tony nodded his head. I wet my pants.
“They may well burn it down,” Nadine said.
“I will build a trapdoor,” Mitch said with his finger in the air.
“I like it, Don,” Iven patted me on the back.
“I don’t want anything to do with it,” Penny said.
“Neither do I,” I told her.
“OK you guys,” Tony gathered everyone’s attention. “Here’s the catch. We are not actually going to accept confession.” We looked at him confusion. “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the crusades. We will apologize for televangelists. We will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely. We will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”[ii]
Silly idea, right? Don Miller thought so too. Of his friends, he was elected to sit in the booth first. He sat there in the dark waiting, thinking there was no way the intoxicated, high revelers would stop their insane partying to step into a confession booth. But they built it and set it in the middle of campus, in the middle of the craziness. At one point during the construction of their booth, 100 people wearing nothing – and I do mean nothing – but body paint streaked by waving. They waved back. Then he sat there thinking of the ridiculous stupidity of it all. He was about to quit when someone came in.
I am sure that visitor half-intended to make a mockery of it all. But when Don told the young student, “No, you don’t confess to me, I, the Christian, have to apologize on behalf of Jesus for the crusades and the trail of tears and slavery in the south other things Christians have done,” when he said that, something changed. This agnostic ended up talking to him for a long time. He shared the gospel with this kid. Over the course of many hours, Don Miller and his friends “confessed” to over 30 people. They did it because they were convicted. They believed Christians had failed to show love and they wanted to, in some small way, in their little corner of the world, right that wrong.
I don’t think their method would work if it was repeated elsewhere, at least not in our context. But I do wonder. Are we are worried about loving those outside the family of God, those who have not given themselves to Jesus? Do our hearts break for the son who has wandered off to a far country? Do we, with the shepherd’s desperation, leave 99 to go find one lost sheep? Do the things that brought tears to Jesus’ eyes make us cry? Are we brokenhearted evangelicals?
One of the best ideas to come out of the book Evangelism without Additives is the author Jim Henderson’s designation of non-Christians. He refuses to call them “lost.” Rather, he calls them the people “Jesus misses most.”[iii] I don’t know about you, but I think differently about someone when I think of them that way. To say someone is “lost,” the way I think the term is understood by Christians today is to categorize that person in a negative and judgmental way. I don’t feel positively about a person who is defined as lost or nonbeliever or unbeliever.
But to identify a person as someone Jesus misses most is another thing altogether. Henderson writes, “I want Christians to want to be with the people Jesus misses most, not out of a sense of duty, but of adventure and partnership with God. I want Christians to love people who don’t know Jesus, not be mad at them for not believing the right things” (p. 20). It is fine that Henderson says he wants Christians to be with non-Christians out of love and not out of duty. More importantly Luke 15 clearly shows, and this is seen in all four gospels, that Jesus expects his followers to have a heart love for people who are not his followers.
So, do we? Do we love the lost, the people He misses most? For me this take works. My inclination is to stick with church folks. I am not proud of that and I am working on it. I have friends who as far as I know don’t attend church. I am making space in my life to spend time with them and get to know them more. I would love it if they would meet Jesus and give their lives to Him. If they ask, I am ready to talk all about the salvation He gives.
But it doesn’t come immediately. The shepherd had to go out and search. The Father had to wait for his lost son. For now, I am setting aside time for my unchurched friends. I plan to listen to them attentively and compassionately. I am asking God to fill me with love because I know, from the stories Jesus told, that Heaven will be filled with joy when these friends of mine turn to Jesus. And it will happen when you friends, those Jesus misses, come to Him.
I close by asking God to come and break our hearts. O God, help us see the world around. Help us notice the people in our lives who are not following after Jesus, who do not worship, those who do not know you. Help us see them and notice them. And Lord God, our Master and Savior and Friend, fill us with love for these you miss. Fill us with Love and send us to them.