If Jesus was considered a friend of sinners, then it would seem the same should be said of his church. But it feels like we mostly struggle to get it right on this point. At least I do. We seem to swing wildly between a harsh and self-righteous veneer toward our generation’s “sinners”, or a friendly embrace of our culture that becomes so tight we lose our Christian distinctive along the way. I think we need to look more closely at the formula Jesus used when encountering sinners.
First of all, Jesus did not initially refer to himself as a friend of sinners. It appears that this had become a popular derision cast in his direction by his enemies. However, in Matthew 11:19 Jesus does not appear to run away from the title, but instead embraces it, even saying “Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” In other words Jesus is saying that his redeeming acts of mercy and kindness directed at tax collectors and prostitutes proved that he had a better grasp of truth than the self-righteous hypocrites who were pointing the finger of accusation his way while ignoring their own sin in unrepentant pride (which is the theme of the section of Matthew being referenced here). So, it seems referring to Jesus as a friend of sinners has at least some merit, as long as we understand the nature of the friendship, and I think that is the disconnect for most of us.
Today it is not common to include accountability in the mix of our friendships, but Jesus did. He encounters a woman at a well, and she seeks to engage him in a mindless pseudo religious cultural debate of the day, and he turns her religious banter into heartfelt introspection by forcing her to be accountable for her history of toxic relationships. He intervenes for an adulteress who is about to be stoned by a group of self-righteous hypocrites, and as she quietly slips away from the mob he reminds her “Go and sin no more.” Can you imagine saying “sin no more” to one of your friends? How would it be received? Few of us want friends who actually hold us accountable. We tend to prefer friends who LOL at our bad behavior. Yet Jesus engaged in remarkable, gracious and loving communication with these individuals in a way that both encouraged and challenged them at the same time!
So what was Jesus’ formula? The phrase most utilized by Christians seems to be “hate the sin and love the sinner.” I have been thinking about that phrase quite a bit the last few years. I hear it used in the debate related to gay marriage and gay rights, but also a multitude of other situations that play out between a modern church attempting to be obedient and a modern culture becoming more crude and secular with every passing day. Is it still a valid formula? Does it work? Is there a better option? And, most importantly, how did Jesus go about this? I have concluded that there is a better formula, and here it is: “Love the sinner,” “love the sinner,” “love the sinner.”
I suppose those who know me might say, ‘pastor, that is not like you to go soft on sin.’ I think God hates sin because of his nature. Sin is an unwelcome intruder into God’s creation. He is holy and He is love, and He is light, therefore darkness has no place in His presence. God does not have to talk himself into hating sin, because sin is to God as oil to water. When we are God’s we will hate sin, but the sinner is not “God’s” yet. I think Calvin was mostly right about that total depravity thing.
I am not saying “ignore the sin.” We are light according to Matthew 5:14. So how can we have fellowship with darkness? I am saying that we must learn to shine God’s love on sinners first. By making “hate the sin” our headline, most are likely to get blinded in the brilliant glare of God’s righteousness. It is really hard to come out of the darkness into a glare like that.
I think this is the reason that Jesus’ “first contact” with a “sinner” almost always was marked by overflowing grace and love. The sin was dealt with eventually, even residually, but always dealt with. To put it in modern context, our mostly pagan culture does not comprehend the possibility of a church hating what they do while claiming to love them. Pride, and that lack of accountability thing keep getting in the way. It makes sense to us, but we are standing in the light. Try to comprehend it while standing in the darkness.
In fact most Christians I know cannot abide being called out for sinful behavior, do we really expect something different from the secular culture? There is only one strand of common language left between genuine people of faith and this culture… and that is the ancient language of Jesus’ love. A thief on a cross heard it. He did not get a lecture about his wasted life of misdeeds, he just got close enough to the light that his sin was suddenly apparent. “Love the Sinner!” “Love the Sinner” “Love the Sinner” Say it with me… maybe it will catch on.
And the truth shall set you free