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To Know Christ and to Make Him Known

July 5, 2020: Saints and Sinners by Bobby Swineford


The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 5, 2020
Bobby Swineford

Text: Matthew 9:13

“For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”


       If someone should ask you what the main point of Christianity is, how would you answer?

       In a recent sermon that I presented, I mentioned that the House of Bishops exclaimed that the Christian Church is the only organization in the world that exists primarily for those who do not belong to it; but I suppose that there are other ways that we could reply to this question. Perhaps most of us would say that our faith helps us to lead better lives. Christianity is important to us, and it is significant in our society. 1) It creates love and respect for other people, and 2) enables us to live in peace and harmony with others, in richer, fuller, and better relationships. 3) It helps us to interpret the often confusing problems that we face. 4) It teaches us to love God with all our hearts, minds and strength, and therefore, it gives our lives a purpose. In a word, the whole point of Christianity is to help to make us righteous.

       All things considered, we might say that it hasn’t done a bad job. Look around you. You see 1) people who try to present examples of honesty and responsibility in the community; 2) people who try to raise decent upright children; 3) people who support charities and give their time and energy to a number of voluntary organizations which accomplish many good things; and 4) people who work for the church and freely give to it. Of course, we all have lapses and we all make mistakes, that’s why we have erasers on pencils and our “general confession” in the “Book of Common Prayer.” But in general, and within realistic limits, Christians are basically righteous people.

       Lift your sights higher and the broader view tends to confirm that conclusion. If you look at history over a long enough period of time – you see that slowly, stubbornly, but none the less really that 1) religious toleration has replaced enforced adherence to a state religion; 2) slavery has been abolished; 3) women have been entering into their full stature as responsible, professional people; 4) prisoners are treated more humanely, no stocks and no whips; 5) the sick are cared for more adequately, and finally 6) we at least try to feed the hungry on a scale that would not even have been dreamed of two thousand years ago. These are desirable changes that have taken place in our society, and, hopefully, they will continue to improve toward a higher level.

       Part of the reason for these changes is probably due to technological competence, but part of the reason is that we have a keener sense of interdependence. We are members one of another, and we know it. We know this better than people did in the time of Henry VIII, or in the time of Charlemagne or Julius Caesar. I think that part of the reason for that better knowledge is that we have begun to learn what Jesus laid on our hearts in today’s text, that “God deserves mercy and sacrifice.”

       The point of Christianity is to make us more righteous, and we might say that, to some extent, it has succeeded. If this is true, our text becomes somewhat puzzling and raises two questions. The first is why on earth would Jesus say, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”? If under the influence and guidance of the Christian Church, under the influence and guidance of Jesus’ own teaching, we have labored to become righteous, then the text seems to say that Jesus will have nothing more to do with us, because we are not needed as much as “sinners” are. Doesn’t that passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, in fact, give us a true picture of Jesus’ attitude? The uncomfortable, but unmistakable truth is that Jesus never sought out “righteous” people, the kind of people that you and I try to make ourselves. He went to sinners. He called Matthew, a tax collector, a loan shark, to be an intimate friend, and He ate with what the good people of the day considered to be riffraff. When He came to town, He didn’t head for the suburbs. We would more likely find Him on skid row. He didn’t say polite things. Some of His teaching and some of His actions seemed to be offensive to “righteous” people. Remember how He rescued the woman taken in adultery and forgave her, and how He said to the people, “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and harlots will go into the Kingdom of God before you.”

       Where does that leave us, those of us who have invested a good part of our lives trying to be righteous? Two answers to that question are possible and they are both important.

       One is to take Jesus at His word. To say that there are some people in the world – some righteous people- who do not need His ministry, His care, and His love as much as others do.

       Today in spirit, as much as two thousand years ago in flesh, Jesus commits Himself to those who need Him the most. 1) He goes to men and women who ache with isolation and alienation from their neighbors; that is what sin is, alienation and isolation and separation. 2) He goes to drug addicts and juvenile delinquents, to liars, to murderers and thieves, but not only to them. Not only to those we can easily identify as sinners. 3) He goes to the rich who barricade their hearts against love by walls of gold, because they are frightened. 4) He goes to the intellectual elite who regard religion with contempt, because they long for the meaning of truth which they cannot find in lazy churches. 5) He goes to the powerful, the bullies who try to push other people around, because they are probably insecure. 6) He goes where He is needed so much and wanted so little. He was crucified once, and He is crucified again and again because His love for us is so deep.

       That is one answer to the question that our text raises. There is another. It comes about like this: suppose we take seriously our commission to follow Jesus to those hard and bitter places. Suppose we offer ourselves to be His hands and feet, His eyes and ears, and mouth. If we do this, isn’t it likely that we will see our own sin in the process, our own separation and alienation from the very people that we should be helping? When we try to feed the hungry of the world, we find out how impossible it is, because of greed for food and power, greed which is sin, sin involving us. When we try seriously to do something about crime, we discover how mixed up it is with conflicting economic and social interests, things involving sin, sin involving us. When we confront vanity in another person, doesn’t it hold up a mirror to our own vanity? Or cruelty? Or lust?

       Jesus, you know, was a subtle teacher. His words can often be understood on several levels at once. Perhaps we should not take this saying about righteous people versus sinners at face value. Perhaps we should not admit so easily that some people need Him and some don’t. Perhaps we should ask our righteous selves honestly: who does not need Him? Who is not a sinner?

       The chain of events which leads to these questions is nearly unbreakable. We think of ourselves as righteous followers of Jesus Christ. We believe that as He is, so should we be in this world. We seek out sinners as He did, and we find out our shortcomings in the process. We discover very quickly that if we are really going to be Christians, we need His presence, His forgiveness, His care and His love – first, last and always.

       We begin this process as the sermon began, confident that we are righteous. We end the process knowing that we are sinners. As sinners we are called into His service. As sinners, we are forgiven. As sinners we are given the power to do His will. As sinners we are made righteous only by His love. Indeed, there is no other way to become righteous. We are led irresistibly to the truth behind Martin Luther’s well-known phrase: “We are at one and the same time righteous and sinner, and “Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

       This second answer isn’t at all obvious. We might never have come upon it at all unless it had been hidden within the first more obvious meaning. We do not know how much we need Christ until we try to follow Him faithfully. Once we see how much we need Him – even in our righteousness, especially in our righteousness, then this hard saying becomes a clear statement of something that lies near the heart of our faith.

       If Jesus calls Matthew to be His disciple, He surely calls people like you and me. If He eats with the tax collectors and sinners, surely there is a place at His banquet table for you and me, and the invitation reads: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Message offered by Bobby Swineford – 7/5/20)