by Peter Lockhart
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
In these few words, that we hear nearly every week after the prayer of confession as part of the affirmation of forgiveness, is the heart of the gospel message. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Christ Jesus did not come to give us a pat on the back about how we are good people. Christ Jesus did not come simply to be an example of how to live our lives. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and that means you and me and everybody else.
Most of us do not want to hear this message. Most of us do want to be told that we sinners, that we are not righteous and holy people. Most of us like to meditate on the first few verses on the Bible that asserts that when God created “it was good” and ignore the rest of the story about the corruption of that goodness. Moreover I would say that speaking about sin is not that popular in many places and in many churches these days.
But to ignore sin is to ignore the reason for Jesus presence in the world. Paul writes to Timothy that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost. Paul was under no illusion that he was a sinner, even after he had encountered Jesus Christ and become an apostle. In his letter to the Romans he reflects his own predicament “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” This is Paul the Christian who asserts his own inability to respond to God appropriately.
As Christians we cannot avoid the confrontation with God’s declaration concerning our estrangement and failure to be God’s people as God would have us be. A failure that is captured in the words of Psalm 14:
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
They have all gone astray,
they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
When God looks upon human beings he does not see righteousness and goodness he sees that we have become corrupt, that we have gone astray, that none of us do good.
Regardless of how good we think we might be, regardless of how moral we think we might be God sees us as sinners. Our relationship with God is broken. On its own this Psalm does not comfort us it confronts us. You are all sinners.
Once again in Romans Paul asserted that the law was given so that sin might be revealed. The law is not given so that we can follow it and earn our way into heaven by what we do. The law is given so that we would be confronted with the truth of our sin. So for example, if we learn the Ten Commandments it is not affirm our righteousness in our following of them but to expose our inability to be God’s people because we cannot follow them. Paul reminds us even if we can follow the law by our action in our hearts we resist the law and this is no different to breaking the law itself.
But are we left in this predicament of estrangement and sin? Are we left to be abandoned to death and destruction and the hot winds that will lay waste? We have all gone astray we are lost like sheep without a shepherd.
But listen to the good news of Jesus Christ as he speaks his parable to the tax collectors and sinners who had come near and to the Pharisees and Scribes who grumbled.
|Creative Commons: Charles Roffey source Flickr|
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Until he finds it! Jesus is that shepherd who has come into the wilderness of human existence to find all of us who have gone astray. He is looking for the lost sheep of all humanity and having found us in the midst of our sin and God-forsakenness he lifts us onto his shoulders and bears us in himself back into the presence of the Father. He takes us home into relationship with God - into the fold of the Father’s love.
Notice the paradox of the telling of the parable that Jesus says that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than the 99 who do not need to repent. The sheep did not seek the shepherd it had gone astray, like we who in our sin have gone astray from God. The sheep was lost and it was found, it did not find itself through repenting. The shepherd saves the sheep, the sheep does not save itself.
Here the parable echoes that wonderful Psalm, Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want he makes me to lie down in green pastures. I do not choose to lie down but my Lord my Shepherd makes me to lie down. It is the shepherd who acts in my and your best interest.
In this parable there is a sense that Jesus is not only the shepherd but the one sinner who repents, he is one with us, the lost sheep, and we are found in him as he seeks us in our lostness.
Grace is all the action of God, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And this is what baptism is all about.
Baptism is not a naming ceremony. Baptism is not simply the celebration of the birth of a child. Baptism is the celebration of God’s unconditional loving grace. As Christians we do not think of the innocent child rather we remember the words of Psalm 51:
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
The baptismal candidate does not repent but is drawn through the Holy Spirit into Christ’s own baptism by John the Baptist. This is a baptism for the repentance of sin which he undertook for our sake. The baptismal candidate is not required to know or understand but becomes a sign for us all of reconciling love and mercy of God. This truth is summed up in the words of the prayer which I quote often:
for you Jesus Christ has come,
has lived, has suffered;
he has endured the agony of
and the darkness of
he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!”
For you, he has triumphed over death;
for you, he prays at God’s right hand;
all for you little child,
even though you do not know it.
Even though you do not know it! Here in these readings today is the heart of the gospel. Joy to the world the Lord is come, and he has come to bear us lost sheep, even if we don’t know we are lost, on his shoulders back into the presence of the heavenly kingdom.
So where does all of this leave us. What are the implications for how we are to live? To return for a moment to Paul’s words to Timothy, Paul says, “For that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might displays the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”
We are called to live with patience and humility not thinking that we are no longer sinners but always remembering that we are forgiven sinners. People who though we go on sinning God patiently goes on forgiving and loving.
This humility means that we celebrate the repentance of Christ for us and our repentance in him with praise and thanksgiving. We worship God, not only on Sunday but everyday, we meditate on his word to us, we pray, we celebrate baptism and communion.
This humility means that we do judge one another or anyone else and that the doors of the church are open to any who would wish to be with us in God’s presence, for we forgiven sinners are not the ones who say who Christ can bear on his shoulders into the Father’s presence and whom he cannot.
This humility means remembering the truth of the gospel, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This is the good news of Jesus Christ to we who are the foremost among sinners. Through God’s mercy we are set free to live our lives no longer burden by sin but in celebrating the steadfastness and the patience and the mercy and the great love of God.
Take a few moments to meditate on God’s love for you this day.