If you were going to have a party, who would you invite? Maybe it’s a special birthday, you’ve just won the lottery or a long-lost relative has just returned from darkest Peru. Take a moment to think about the people you would want to have at such a gathering. My guess is that you would put your favourite friends and relatives at the top of the list and then some you felt you ought to invite because they might get huffy if you missed them out.
How does that compare with inviting people to church; either for a Sunday service or a special event? Perhaps your first reaction to that is to say that a party is fun and people want to be there while church appears boring and lots will say that it’s not their cup of tea. That’s the way it can so easily seem, but does it have to be like that? Unlike a party, church is not first and foremost entertainment but if it’s important to you that you’re here, if there is something in it for you, then surely there must be for others too. There can be a danger that we want church on our own terms; church in our own image with just the people we feel comfortable around us, the ones who been there for years rather than opening it out for others to join in.
At the heart of church is or should be the person of Jesus, our risen Lord. The gospel reading today from Luke 15 begins: ‘Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ (Luke 15.1-2) If Jesus had these tax collectors and sinners gather around him during his earthly ministry, if he welcomed them and ate with them, do you really think he’s changed his ways now he is risen from the dead; now that he is present where two or three gather in his name, (Matthew 18.20) when he is remembered in bread and wine? Is it a different Jesus who is present with us in church through the Holy Spirit? Or is it in fact the same Jesus who welcomed sinners and ate and drank with them.
So just who were these people that Jesus welcomed? Tax collectors and ‘sinners’? In the society of Jesus’ day, these people were looked down on and discriminated against. Tax collectors or toll collectors were not regarded as respectable people working for the Inland Revenue fulfilling a necessary function in society. Rather they were seen as dissidents Jews who had thrown their lot in with the occupying Roman forces. They collected the Roman taxes and tolls often working as freelancers collecting more that was necessary and pocketing the rest. They made a comfortable living but lost the esteem of their fellow Jews. They were thought of as ‘sinners’ and classed along side a whole bunch of other people who did not fulfil all the requirements of the Jewish law for one reason or another. This may well have included shepherds for instance who were often too nomadic to attend the synagogue each Saturday and whose work often meant they broke sabbath rules and were deemed unclean. It would also have included prostitutes, people reduced to begging, lepers and many other unclean people. Earlier in his gospel, Luke has made clear that it is these people who are drawing near to Jesus who are receiving his teaching and becoming his followers rather than the ‘righteous’ people who ticked all the religious boxes and were well regarded in society.
As Jesus is surrounded by all these undesirables and is being criticised for his association with them, he tells three closely related stories which make clear that he/his heavenly father offer a welcome to tax collectors and sinners; to the ‘lost’. Jesus teaches that there is no discrimination in the kingdom of God.
We have heard two of these stories today. The lost sheep teaches that actually God goes out his way to find lost sheep even at the expense of ninety-nine others who need his care. Indeed, Jesus’ ministry, his death and resurrection are all about God’s outrageous care for those who have got themselves lost in life. The lost coin tells the same message from a woman’s perspective. She interrupts her whole life to find the missing coin. She is joyful when she has found it reflecting on the great joy there is heaven over the lost being found, tax collectors and sinners entering God’s kingdom. The third story you probably know as the prodigal or lost son, welcomed back by his father after going on a massive bender.
As we hear this teaching today, Jesus is bang on message. He speaks for equality and equal opportunity; of open access to the kingdom of God. He speaks up for the marginalised and those against who society discriminates against. Yes, he does…but there is a ’but’ and it is an important one that some spokespeople for Christianity today are liable to overlook. Each of the three ‘lost’ stories include repentance, that is regret of past sin and a resolve to change behaviour to avoid it happening again. The joy in heaven, the joy of the angels is over the one sinner who repents. (Luke 15. 7 & 10) It is the act of repenting, of recognising what offended God and turning life around to make a difference that brings joy to heaven. Jesus does not accuse the woman caught in adultery when everyone else is about to stone her, but he does say ‘go and sin no more’ (John 8.11)
Yes, the welcome of Jesus is to everyone, everyone who will open the door to him; (Revelation 3.20) everyone who will come and eat at his table. But he requires repentance and by repentance, he means to turn life around, to move in a different direction, away from a life of sin, away from a life that denies God to one which embraces him and his perfect plan for that life; a plan that laid out in the scriptures and given life by the Holy Spirit.
A life lived the Jesus way, a life as a student in the school of the Lord Jesus will inevitably look and feel very different from one that is lived solely by the standards of the world. There is an ethic in the bible, which is distinct, holy and true; that is given by God, lived out by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit. It challenges the age-old desire of human beings for freedom which ends up in more entanglement to sin. Jesus will sit down and eat with the worst of sinners who come to him ready to be forgiven healed and transformed. During his life on earth, tax collectors and sinners saw that and wanted some of it as indeed has happened in many places and times since. How much do we want to see that here in our experience?
The truth is Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Hebrews 13.8) His is risen and amongst us by his Spirit. He still invites and attracts everybody, whatever place they find themselves in life to come. God in Christ is the God who gives priority to the lost and rejoices when they repent and find a new way of living in him. The challenge for those of us already in his circle is to share the same heart for the lost as our heavenly Father; to share his welcome and invitation. Now that Jesus is not a physical body, he relies on us to do the inviting. Are you up for it?
Trinity 13 15.09.2019