|IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 24, August 9 to August 15, 1999|
Last time, we began looking at the question "What is the church?" Our first response to this question was that the church is the people of God. God has always been about the business of gathering together a people for himself. That's what he was doing right through the Old Testament and that's what he was doing in the New Testament as well. So, whatever else the church is, it is about people — not buildings.
But what else does the Bible say about the church? What else is true about God's people? What else do we need to say that will provide us with a more complete answer? Well, in Luke 7 there's a very interesting story about Jesus, a woman, and a Pharisee, which, I believe, points us in the right direction.
Putting this passage in its wider biblical context in just a few sentences: 1) In Genesis 3 humankind rebels against God and sin enters the picture, corrupting the human race and ruining God's creation. The rest of the Bible can be seen as the search for the one whom God would send to undo the horrible consequences of sin. 2) In Matthew 1 we are told that the one whom God promised many centuries before has finally come, in the person of God's Son who was named "Jesus" because "he will save his people from their sins."
In the Gospel of Luke, we have another biography about Jesus which parallels the one in Matthew. In Luke's gospel, the early chapters concentrate on the main theme of establishing the identity of Jesus. And one of the purposes of this particular story, in chapter 7, is to establish the fact that Jesus is indeed the one whom God has sent to deal with the sin problem. We see this in the way he deals with the sin of the woman in this story.
As the story opens, a local religious leader, a Pharisee named Simon, has invited Jesus over for tea, and Jesus has accepted. Now, given the well-known animosity between Jesus and the Pharisees, perhaps you might find this a bit surprising. But you have to remember that the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees developed in stages, over a period of almost three years. At this stage, in the early part of Jesus' ministry, the Pharisees have not yet reached the point of outright hatred toward him that they reach by the end of the gospel. But Jesus certainly has already angered them (Luke 6:11), and it is quite possible that the purpose of this dinner invitation is to entrap Jesus or to gain ammunition which might be used to bring him down.
The proof that the Pharisee's intentions were less than honourable is shown by the manner in which he treats Jesus. As Jesus himself points out in verses 44-46, although Simon has invited Jesus as a "guest" in his own home, he has not even extended the most basic gestures of hospitality toward him — gestures which were commonplace in those days: water for the sandaled feet after walking along hot, dusty roads, a kiss to greet him at the door, and oil for the head. None of that has been extended to Jesus by this allegedly upstanding, godly, local religious leader. It is a calculated insult. And it has not escaped Jesus' notice.
It is the rude behaviour of the Pharisee which causes the actions of the woman in this story to stick out like a sore thumb. She's quite a contrast to this Pharisee. Where he has treated Jesus with contempt and scorn, the woman has shown a deep, almost embarassing devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Let's be honest here, doesn't this woman's response make you feel just a wee bit uncomfortable?
You're sitting at a table across from Jesus, also a guest in Simon's house. You have been watching Jesus carefully the whole evening, listening to his every word. There is something compelling about this man. And as you are reclined at table, your shoulders and elbows forward, and your feet curled up behind you — as was the custom — you notice that across the room, behind Jesus where he cannot see, a woman has come in through the servant's entrance. You don't know her personally, but her reputation has proceeded her. You've seen her kind before — the clothes, the hair, that look in her eyes — this woman was no stranger to sin.
As you stare, she walks up tentatively behind Jesus and stands there, at his feet, silent. Now that she has drawn closer you notice that she is weeping. You look around to the left and the right, hoping that perhaps someone will usher this woman out, this sinner who is making a complete spectacle of herself — and ruining a perfectly good evening! But the host does not move. And neither does Jesus.
You look back at the woman and now she is kneeling behind Jesus, his feet wet with her tears. And then, as if that were not enough, this woman has the audacity to begin wiping Jesus' feet with her hair, and then she kisses his feet! Imagine the shame of it, being touched by this street walker, and then the air is full of spices as an expensive perfume is rubbed into Jesus' feet. Has this man no shame? Is he oblivious to how awkward all this is? Does he not know that in allowing this woman to do as she has done he has offended the social and religious sensibilities of everyone in the room?
Can you feel the awkwardness of this moment? If you had been in the room that night, would you have been embarassed at the devotional act of this woman? Would you have felt uncomfortable sitting there, watching as this person humiliated herself, weeping, washing, kissing, and perfuming Jesus' feet? Would you have felt the urge to step in and say, "Uh . . . look lady, I really think you've made your point. . . . We all know how much you love Jesus but this . . . this is a bit over the top"? Would you have wanted to do that?
Not long after I became a Christian, I went to a beach mission where, on the very first day of my very first beach mission, I had the privilege of sharing the gospel with a young man on the beach and seeing him give his life to Christ. Let me tell you, I was thrilled. I was absolutely bowled over that God would use someone as young and ignorant as me to lead another person to Christ. And I couldn't contain my enthusiasm.
And as I walked along the beach later that evening with some Christian friends, I was still quite enthused about the whole thing and I started singing a song of praise to God. And at that point a friend of mine, who found my whole manner to be quite embarassing, said, "Scott, you're making a complete spectacle of yourself."
Well, right then and there, I stopped making a spectacle of myself. In fact, in the 19 years that have passed since that night, I can't recall a single time when I've ever made a spectacle of myself, like that, again. And to this day, I still struggle to feel the freedom to express joy and devotion to God. It shouldn't be that way.
The reason why the woman's actions in this story are completely appropriate, the reason why what she did was so right, was because she didn't need anyone to tell her what a rotten, horrible sinner she was. She knew it. She was under no illusions about herself. She knew that she was beyond help, down for the count, without a hope, without excuse, without a prayer. And yet she also knew that somehow, hope against hope, in this man Jesus, what was impossible any other way was now possible.
As the parable in verse 41-42 points out, because she has been forgiven so much, it is entirely appropriate that the greatly-forgiven one should lavish such unchecked devotion upon the great forgiver Jesus. It is only fitting that the one who would hold nothing back to secure the salvation of his people should receive no?holds?barred devotion in return.
Could it be that our lack of devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ is a symptom of a deep blindness or unwillingness to admit the depths of our own failure to God? Could it be that our lackluster expressions of praise are a sign that we are deeply out of touch with how very badly we needed saving, how utterly hopeless our situation was before Christ came along? Could it be that the reason we sometimes doubt the sincerity of those whose devotion to God is more demonstrable than our own is because, by throwing rocks at them, we are distracted from facing the ugly truth about why our own hearts are so cold?
This is Simon's problem, you see. Simon is sitting there thinking what a good boy he is. Simon is drawing lines, making labels — making it clear who the sinners are, and who they aren't. This woman is "obviously" a sinner. And what about Jesus? Some prophet he turned out to be! If Jesus is such a crash?hot prophet, what is he doing letting this filthy woman put her hands on him?
Well Jesus, being much more than a prophet, knows exactly what's going on here. So he deals with the issues of who the sinners are, why he's letting this woman touch him, and why he's so much more than a prophet — all in one hit. He does this by telling them a parable. In the story, one person owes a small amount of money, and the other person owes bucket loads of money. Both people get their debts cancelled by their creditor. Jesus asks, "Which one of them will love him more?" The answer is so obvious that even Simon can get it right. And in doing so, he makes it clear that he knows exactly who this woman is, and even what Simon is thinking! Clearly he is a prophet!
However, while Simon seems to have gotten the obvious point of the parable, he hasn't gotten the more subtle point. In the story, while one person clearly owes more than the other, the simple fact is that neither one can pay. Simon has made a terrible miscalculation here.
It's a terrible mistake to think that just because you have sinned less extravagantly than another person you are somehow better off when it comes to God. In the parable, if the woman is the person who owed 500 denarii, then Simon is the man who owed 50 denarii. And what Simon seems to be unaware of is that he too, like the woman, has a debt that he cannot pay. It's like two people in two sinking ships. The one ship has 500 holes in it and the other one has only 50. While one ship might be sinking faster than the other, at the end of the day it doesn't really matter because both ships are going down. Simon may not have been as "bad" as the woman, but he was as "bad off" as the woman. His situation was, ultimately, as desparate as hers.
The woman knew how much she had been forgiven, and her actions toward Jesus proved it. Simon had no idea about his great need, and his actions toward Jesus (refusing to offer even basic hospitality) were just as telling. There is a great contrast between the two.
You see here this connection between sin, forgiveness and love. The more aware you are of your sin and need for forgiveness, and of the price your forgiveness cost the forgiver, the more grateful — and humble — you become. It's like a person who goes out drinking and driving, and gets involved in a terrible accident. Sometime later the drunk driver comes out of a temporary coma to discover that at her bedside are two people who were in the other car. They tell the driver that they forgive her. And then go their own way. Later on, one of the family members comes to the driver and tells her that it was a terrible thing — the way that couple's son was killed in the accident. Suddenly the driver becomes overwhelmed with grief and amazement at this couple's ability to forgive. The driver then learns that the child that was lost was an only child, and the grief and amazement are further compounded. Finally, the driver learns that not only was it an only child, but the couple are incapable of having any further children.
At each stage of the revelation, as the depth and gravity and horror of her own actions increase, so does the wonder of the forgiveness that has been granted by this couple. The driver is broken, humbled, shattered — she does not deserve such forgiveness.
In a similar, but more profound way, this is our situation before God. As we understand how very great our sin is, how deeply entrenched is our rebellion against God, as the knowledge of those things increases in this life, the result in our life should be deepening awe, wonder, humility and gratitude at how truly amazing God's grace toward us has been. That God could look us in the eye and say, as Jesus said to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven," is perhaps the greatest miracle of all. Here Jesus reveals his true identity as the Son of God — with full authority to forgive sin. But more than that, he revealed not only who he was, but what kind of God he was — a forgiving God.
The effect of this upon us ought to be visibly evident. If God has done so much for us, if God can forgive like that — what should our devotion to him look like? Is there anything that would be too much for him to ask of us? Are we ever really going to be in any danger of loving him too much, of praising him too loudly, of expressing too much joy? And what about our attitude toward others? Surely, one result soberly assessing our great need of Christ's forgiveness should be an increased capacity to bear with the shortcomings of others. Surely, a clear sign that a person has been truly convicted and forgiven of his or her sin is an increased capacity to forgive other people, to go the extra mile, to grieve with them over their own sin, to be willing to carry some of the burden.
Which leads to the last thing I want you to see from this passage. After Jesus has pronounced that this woman is forgiven, he says something pretty amazing to her: "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Now, as Craddock helpfully asks, "How in the world is she going to do that?" How is this woman going to go anywhere in peace? Where is she going to go? She can't go to the synagogue — the Jewish community of believers, the religious people. They've rejected her, thrown her out, and locked the door. There's no going back that way. But then she can't go back to the street either. They want her as she was, not as she now is. The one group won't forgive her for sinning, the other group won't forgive her for repenting.
It's all very well for Jesus to tell this woman to "go in peace," but you tell me, where is she going to go? She needs a new place to go. A place for forgiven sinners.
She needs the church.
Luke's gospel, both here and elsewhere, screams of the need for a new place — a community entirely made up of people who know both how much they have sinned and how much they have been forgiven. Forgiven sinners need a place where they can respond with embarassing devotion to a just but forgiving God.
Friends, this is what we are — God's church, his people. We — all of us — are people with a past. Worse, we are people with a present. We are people who hide more than we reveal, and who would be ashamed and frightened to know that our secret just might get out. And yet we are also people who, because of this knowledge of the greatness of our sin, are daily being overwhelmed by the free grace and forgiveness of a merciful Saviour.
Now, knowing these things, knowing that the church is the place for forgiven sinners, knowing that this is our common experience as the people of God, what difference does it make? As Francis Schaeffer would say, how should we then live?
For starters, the fact that we are sinners living in community means that when the particular sins of our brothers and sisters become obvious, we shouldn't be surprised. And yet it is amazing how often churches are surprised to discover that there are sinners amongst them. We need to have a healthy realism about ourselves as the people of God — not pessimism, mind you — but biblical realism. A realism that says that we are confident that God will finish the good work he began in us by his Spirit. And yet, it is a realism which recognises that until God is finished, we are to remain on our guard, for we are not immune to any sin, be it great or small. What is true for us is true for every Christian. It's also important not to be surprised by sin because, when we are surprised, we tend to react poorly rather than to act wisely. We tend to react hurtfully, rather than to respond with understanding.
Secondly, the fact that the church is the place for forgiven sinners means that we have a responsibility to help our brothers and sisters in Christ to be faithful in their fight against sin. A number of passages point to this reality:
Galatians 6:1ff.: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each others burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."
2 Corinthians 2:5ff.: "If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent — not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him."
1 Peter 4:7-8: "The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins."
We are not to sit on the sidelines, as it were, and watch helplessly as our brothers and sisters in Christ struggle to live godly lives. We are not to shake our heads and sit on our hands, saying, "Isn't it a shame?" We are to be actively involved in helping others to resist sin and temptation. If one of us falls, we all suffer, and we all should feel the pain of that fall.
Of course, as we do this sort of thing, as we engage in this kind of ministry to one another, we need to make sure that we do so with wisdom and humility. We need to be aware of the branch in our own eye before we point out the speck in another person's eye. But then we are to go beyond merely pointing it out by offering to help them remove the painful speck in their eye, always being careful, as Galatians says, to guard ourselves from giving into the very same temptation.
Thirdly, the fact that the church is the place for forgiven sinners means that, not only do we help others to fight sin, but we need to enlist the help of other brothers and sisters in Christ to fight against and defeat sin and temptation in our own lives. As James 5:16 says,
"Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."
Now while this verse comes in the context of a discussion of prayer and healing, the basic principle of confessing your sins to one another is clear. And notice the emphasis is upon the one who is confessing. It is not upon the person who is playing junior Holy Spirit and pointing out, unhelpfully, the failings of others. Rather, the burden of responsibility here is upon the individual Christian plucking up the courage to get real and honest, and to take a risk with another Christian or group of Christians to get some things out in the open, to break the silence, to shed some light on a previously hidden struggle.
If there is anything I have learned in my more than ten years of pastoral work it is this: the most effective deterrent I know against sin and temptation is breaking the silence, getting things out in the open, entrusting your struggle to a few faithful Christians with whom you will be honest and accountable, and who will ask you the hard questions. Now of course, this sort of thing takes courage. It takes trust. And, traditionally, our churches have not been very good at encouraging this. We have not been very good at making our churches safe places where people can be who they really are, warts and all. But we must get better at this.
Finally, since we are sinners living in community, since we have a responsibility to help our brothers and sisters fight against sin, and since we need the help of other believers to grow in godliness ourselves, then the obvious implication is that we must be involved in the lives of one another. It means that a once a month or twice a month church involvements are just not good enough. It means that if showing up on Sundays is the extent of your involvement with the people of God, that's just not good enough.
How can we claim to be the people of God, how can we claim to be a community of forgiven sinners, if we are not involved in one another's lives, encouraging each other to grow in holiness, helping each other when we struggle, sharing the victories when we succeed? How can you claim to belong to the church of God, and not be investing your life in the lives of others, not be using your gifts to minister to others among the people of God?
Now probably one of the best arenas in which to practice this sort of thing is the small group. Small groups are great places to get to know and serve other believers in Christ. Small groups are a great place to build confidence and trust between people, to take risky steps — together — toward being real and open about some of your deepest struggles. Small groups are a great place to learn to break the silence, to enlist the support and encouragement of others in pursuing godliness. Small groups are a great way to be the church, to live out the implications of being a place for forgiven sinners.
To be sure, small groups are not the only way one might do these things. Some may exercise this ministry through a number of one-to-one relationships, or in the context of a smaller group — three or four christians together. And there may be other ways. The point is this: certain implications flow from the fact that the church is a place for forgiven sinners; certain have responsibilities and must actively pursue certain opportunities if we are serious about being the church. We cannot let ourselves settle for a nominal Christianity. We cannot settle for reducing "commitment" to merely "showing up." If there is no cost, no personal investment, no personal risk, and no personal sacrifice, then it is a poor substitute for the New Testament image of Christ's church.
Do we do these things because it will make God love us more? Never. We do them because he has already loved us so much. How could we do less?
A few years ago, Leith Anderson wrote a book called The Church in the 21st Century. In the book he told the story about a Special Olympics video he had seen where there was a scheduled 400 metre race in which all the participants had Down's syndrome. As the race was about to start, the camera focused in on this small group of about 12 or so people, of varying ages, but all of them living with the same disability. Suddenly the gun went off, and the racers began. Of course, it wasn't ever going to be your usual 400 metre race, was it? As the camera focus tightened in you could see this tightly packed group of men, women, boys, and girls — all shuffling around the track as fast as they could manage. Nobody was really taking the lead, and nobody was really lagging behind. All at once, one of the racers stumbled and went tumbling, ingloriously, off the track and into the center of the field. And then an amazing thing happened. The rest of the racers stopped. They all rushed over to the fallen runner, helped her up, brushed off her knees and clothes, and stepped carefully back onto the track. They then locked arms and finished the race — together. That, my friends, is a parable of the church.