Who Needs Jesus Anyway?

“How dare you call me a sinner?! How dare you think you are better than me?! How dare you think that, if such a thing as heaven exists, you are worthy and I am not?!” This might be the kind of thing we hear from people as we share the Good News that Jesus came to save sinners. Good news, but with the bad news that you are a sinner. This also might be the kind of thing someone might not say, but that we imagine they will, so we shy away from sharing the Good News for fear it will come across as bad news. Let us consider a time “sinners” are the focus of Jesus.

The Pharisees came to the disciples with a question about Jesus: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16 ) A good question considering the likelihood the people Jesus is friendly with would not be welcome in the local synagogue, never mind the Temple. Why is Jesus eating with these types? The answer is twofold.

One reason is so obvious we can easily miss it; Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners because he invites them to do so. This is made clear from the preceding verses.

As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” Mark 2:13

Levi, also known as Matthew, would have been collecting taxes on behalf of Herod Antipas, who would have been ruling by the power of, and on behalf, of Rome. This would make Levi one of those guys you do not want to be associated with if you have any desire to be truly Jewish and truly holy. At least according to the Pharisees. But this is the kind of guy Jesus invites to follow him.

The second reason is just as obvious; Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners because they accept the invitation. Notice Levi’s response to the invitation: “And he got up and followed him.” Mark 2:14. And then notice something about the tax collectors and sinners surrounding Jesus:

15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. Mark 2:15

Although Levi gets a specific invite to be a disciple, there are many tax collectors and sinners following Jesus around. They want to be with him. These are the kinds of people Jesus eats with because these are the kinds of people that want to be with him.

We see these two reasons reflected in the reason Jesus himself gives as to why he is eating with these sinners:

17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:17

Jesus comes to call the sick, and the sick respond to the call. Jesus comes to bring grace and healing to sinners, and sinners know they need grace and healing. Now notice how annoying these words of Jesus are for the Pharisees. They do not see their need of Jesus, but Jesus is clearly telling them that they do. But are they not the righteous, therefore not needing Jesus? Consider that the Pharisees would have known well the verses from the Old Testament that Paul brought together in his letter to the Romans:

What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin,
10 as it is written:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.”
13 “Their throats are opened graves;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 ruin and misery are in their paths,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  Romans 3:9-18

The Pharisees would likely have agreed with Paul’s summary of the above: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). They would have agreed about the need for God’s saving work in the lives of the sinful. But they also would have thought that if God was coming to save, they would be the insiders looking out, not the outsiders looking in. They would be eating at the table of God’s representative, congratulating themselves on how deserving they were of such an honour. But if God’s salvation activity is in Jesus, they are the outsiders looking in on tax collectors and sinners, the least deserving of society, sharing at the table with Jesus.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

So what are we to say to those offended by the bad news part of the Good News? To those who would object to being called “sinners”? To those who would object that we Christians in no way deserve the hope of heaven any more than anyone else?

We say

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

We spend time with Jesus, not because we deserve to, or because we are better, but because He invited and we know our need of him, just like the sick know their need of a doctor. And he invites you also:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. Revelation 3:20

(All scripture references are from the NRSV)

Resurrection Fact: From Sinner to Saint.

Do you feel worthy of the title “saint”? You may be thinking of a saint as someone recognized as special within the Roman Catholic tradition. Or you may be thinking of the word as used of someone who is known to be a very good person. We are thinking more of the word as we find it in many English translations of the Bible where it usually translates a word meaning “holy one.” It is used to refer to every Christian. So do you feel worthy of the title? Do you feel like you fit the description of a saint, a “holy one?”

Though “Saint Clarke” has a nice ring to it, I often do not feel the title is fitting for me. This is especially true during renovations. I am not too handy but my wife thinks I am, and so I sometimes get in over my head during renovations. If you are around me when I am you will discover that I can be far from what you might call a saint. So what are we to do when the Bible calls every Christian  a “saint” but we do not feel worthy? We are not alone in being uncomfortable with a title. Watch for the apostle Paul’s discomfort with his calling and title as he describes Jesus’ resurrection appearances:

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:8-9)

So how did the Apostle Paul deal with this title that did not fit comfortably? The first thing Paul does is admit the truth. Indeed, he is not worthy of the title: “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle.” Paul does not point to anything about himself that would make him a fine candidate for the job. He points to Jesus: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” This was God’s choice. This was God’s grace. Paul who blew it, knew it:

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am. (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)

This is far from “I was born this way, so leave me to remain what I am” that we often hear today. This is “by the grace of God I am now something I do not deserve to be and would never be able to become on my own.” When the title of “saint” feels uncomfortable, it is a reminder that  “by the grace of God I am what I am.” Though a sinner from birth, by the grace of God we become saints.

But how is that possible? Paul has already pointed out the answer:

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3,4)

“Christ died for our sins.” That is what enables us to become saints. It is our sin that makes the title of saint uncomfortable, if not impossible to wear. But “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Which scriptures? They include the prophecies of Isaiah 53. The whole chapter is worth reading, but here is a selection to ponder:

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. . . .
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people. . .
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; . . .
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities . . . .
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors
(Selected from Isaiah 53)

Just as the apostle Paul could not point to himself for his apostleship, but only point to Jesus, so we can only point to Jesus for our sainthood. He is the One who clears away the sin standing in the way of becoming a holy one.

But since Jesus makes our sainthood possible, does this mean sin does not matter, and that we can therefore go on sinning all the while calling attention to our sainthood? First off, notice how different Paul’s activity was from before meeting Jesus to after. He went from persecuting the saints to trying to convince everyone he met that they should become one. There was a big change in Paul’s life. There was repentance.

Paul is the one we often quote when we speak of salvation being by faith and not works. And yet Paul worked hard:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10)

This is not a work to ensure salvation. This is work to ensure salvation is not in vain. This is work God called and enabled Paul to do. Even our works are a sign of God’s grace.

I have a remarkable watch. It is a Pebble smartwatch which does many things including counting steps and tracking sleep. Mind you I was surprised to find out that according to it I slept through an important meeting one day. I can take no credit for this remarkable watch. I did not think of it. I did not invent it. I did not get involved in the engineering of it. I was not involved in the manufacturing of it. I was not involved in the distribution of it. I did not even pay for it. Well I might have paid for it but I did not buy it for it was a Christmas gift. But what I do is wear it. In fact the watch is not very useful if I don’t. This is what salvation is like. We can take no credit for it. It is purely by the grace of God that we are what we are; saints. But we must wear it. We will want to wear it. And at times the clothes of salvation may seem too big for us, but as we keep going and growing in the Spirit, we will grow into them. Salvation is by God’s grace alone, but we are involved, we must wear it.

So you are a Christian and you don’t feel like a saint today? By the grace of God you are what you are, and what you are as a Christian person is a saint. By the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit, you will grow into the title, just like Paul did his.

So you are not a Christian and you don’t think the title “saint” could ever apply to you? God has a history of calling the most unlikely of people to become saints. Perhaps that most unlikely person today is you?