Recently the news brought some very terrible revelations to our community. Two school teachers were arrested for having sexual relations with students, one in Franklin and one in Oil City. This has far reaching impact. Students in both schools, families who feel a renewed fear for their children’s safety, persons who have experienced sexual abuse as children have wounds reopened and all of us lose again our sense of innocence and peace. In addition, there are four families, (families of the two students and the two offending teachers) who are affected. These families are filled with innocent people who are now caught up in a whirlwind of confusion, fear, and pain. Many of these family members will suffer as if they are guilty by association.
As pastor I sought to speak to these events in this Sundays message (listen to it at gallowaychurch.org). I couldn’t just mention this in passing inviting everyone to pray. I also could not talk about it as if it concerned people we do not know. I do not know the identity of the students affected nor do I know who is related by family ties or friendship to them. I do, however, know the men who were arrested for their actions. These men are both connected to our church. They have been part of our ministries in the past. Their immediate families are deeply involved in our church family. As pastor, I wanted to make sure that our congregation was aware of that. I didn’t want some neighbor or coworker giving them that information. I wanted us as a congregation to wrestle with how to be God’s people in the midst of such a crisis.
Even though we talk about sin at church fairly routinely, sin is too often something we discuss like an abstract idea. Sin becomes a much more sensitive subject when it is personal. Sin that affects a wide circle of people becomes an even more sensitive subject. Sin is never a victimless act. There is always harm done to more than just yourself by sin. Yet, when we declare that Jesus Christ died to offer forgiveness of sin, we immediately realize a tension between justice, forgiving sinners and caring for those harmed by the sin of others. It can feel like walking a tight rope trying to balance truth, righteousness, and justice on the one hand, with mercy, grace, and forgiveness on the other. When we try to address sin that does great harm to individuals and impacts a large number of people, the tension between those elements becomes even more intense. Any discussion of forgiveness for sinners can immediately seem like we are diminishing the harm done to others. One thing that I have tried to emphasize is that pursuing forgiveness and redemption in a sinner in no way shape or form means that the harm that their sin has done to others is lessened or that the pain and suffering others endure is any less significant. There is endless compassion for those harmed by sin.
In this Sunday’s message I reminded us that sin is more than just breaking a rule and redemption is more than just an effort on our part to stay under the speed limit in order to avoid a ticket. James 1:13-15 describes in simple terms the way that sin develops out of our own natural desires through which we are tempted to turn away from God in order to indulge and fulfill those desires. The Apostle Paul describes our inner struggle and makes it very clear that sin is a force to be reckoned with that we cannot conquer without the power of Jesus. This dispels the common myth we hold when we believe that there are good people and bad people. We foolishly believe that good people don’t do bad things. The truth is all of us, good and bad, wrestle with sin and good people sometimes do really bad things.
So the central question for us is how do we respond to sin in this present situation? To seek an answer, we looked to Jesus in a situation where he was called, “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” in Luke 7:28-50. Jews under Roman occupation had a visceral hatred of tax collectors. They were singled out among sinners. They were people who betrayed a public trust. They were Jews hired by the invading Romans to rip off taxes from other Jews. Yet, Jesus socialized with tax collectors and sinners. This made him guilty by association in the eyes of many, particularly of the religious Pharisees. What they did not recognize is that Jesus was not approving of the wickedness of tax collectors or other sinners by associating with them. Jesus was seeking their redemption and life transformation. The religious leaders saw only the damage done by these sinners and had given up hope on them. They saw no redeeming hope for them. Therefore, they simply rejected and avoided them. Jesus was thus called a friend of sinners as a severe criticism.
Luke gives us a clear depiction of Jesus purpose and attitude by telling the story of “women who had lived a sinful life” who interrupted a dinner at the home of Simon, who was a Pharisee. The uninvited women slipped in and bowed at Jesus’ feet where she wept until her tears wet his feet. She dried his feet with her hair, poured perfume on them and repeatedly kissed his feet. In response to this amazing act of contrition, Simon was only concerned that Jesus did not recognize her sinfulness and reject her. Jesus called out Simon, however, pointing out that, as his host, Simon had not shown him any descent hospitality. Simon had not provided any normal means of allowing Jesus to “freshin’ up” by washing his feet or putting oil in his hair. He hadn’t kissed Jesus, which would be like not shaking hands. Jesus told Simon that those who are forgiven much, love much. Clearly this woman loved much, but Simon did not. This is Jesus cause for being a friend of sinners, their forgiveness and redemption to new life.
While I am deeply sensitive to the pain and harm done by sin, I will be a friend of sinners. Confession and repentance are an absolute necessity. If a Christian who has fallen in sin does not display these, then there is little I can do for or with them. In some cases it is best to walk away until there is a change of heart. But when there is a willing heart to confess and repent of sinner and take instruction, it is our task as Christians to seek the redemption and restoration of their lives. This in no way diminishes the impact of sin, it acknowledges it and takes responsibility for it. I invite anyone hurt by this kind of sin to reach out to me and allow me the opportunity to demonstrate the compassion and grace of God to you for healing and hope in your life.
This is a balancing act that can be very challenging. But truth, righteousness, and justice balanced against mercy, grace, and forgiveness are what the Gospel is all about. Jesus died for sin because it is bad. Jesus died for sinners to save us. Jesus is a friend of sinners so that they can receive new life. I don’t want to be in the seat of the Pharisee. I want to be a sinner saved by Jesus, who like Jesus, is a friend of sinners.