Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Friend of "Sinners" - Luke 5: 17-32

For Jesus it was never enough to simply diagnose what was wrong with the world or with us.  He claimed the authority to bring a treatment.  The religious leaders of his day were very good at diagnosing sin, but to grant us the assurance not only of God's forgiveness but of his transforming power was Jesus' mission.
In Luke 5: 17-42, Jesus touches the life of a paralyzed man, bringing him more than physical healing...but a healing of his soul. To the friends who brought this man to Jesus, he was truly that "...friend who stays closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18: 24).  Immediately after this encounter, Jesus touches the life of second man, Levi the despised tax collector, who not only begins following Jesus but invites all his fellow tax collectors to meet him too.  How can we, who are Jesus’ disciples, offer such transforming hope to “sinners” like Jesus did?  We can begin by being for them what Jesus has been for us…their friends.

We can be friends who simply care. (17-18a)  In a typical Middle Eastern house, there was a large central court that one entered from the street.  Jesus would have been teaching and healing in this central court.  Luke says in v. 17 that “The power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal,” and thus a large crowd was pressing into this central court in order to see him which included many Pharisees and Scribes.  Luke makes it clear that early on in his ministry, Jesus experienced the criticism of these religious professionals, the "pastors" and "bible teachers" who were troubled by his message and his methods. The Pharisees, or “Separated Ones,” advocated a rigorous interpretation of the Law of Moses, insisting on observance not only of the written Torah but also the oral Torah ascribed to Moses that was developed to guard the Law against violation like a fence. The primary duty of the Scribes was to study the Law of Moses, teach it to the people, and even to help settle disputes involving questions of the Law. With Jesus they shared several common convictions including a passion to see God's kingdom realized, and a firm hope in the resurrection of the dead, but whereas the Pharisees and Scribes sought to hasten this day by the strict observance of Torah, Jesus emphasizes that the Father's mercy and its transforming power is our one true hope.

Into this unusual crowd of desperate souls, curious seekers, and hard-nosed skeptics, (v. 18a) four men are carrying a man on a stretcher who is paralyzed.  Before we begin talking about how these men took their friend to Jesus, we shouldn’t miss the fact that they were carrying him, period, and that it probably wasn’t the first time. They had a history with this man.  They cared about him, and their friendship was genuine.  Jesus does not call us to make friends only for the purpose of sharing the gospel with them, or evangelizing them or curing them.  No, a faithful witness to Jesus is often first called to be a genuine, faithful friend, period.  Sharing our faith with others is a natural thing when it is built upon a foundation of genuine caring and compassion.   

I like the fact that Luke, the Physician, describes this sick man differently then Matt./Mark who call him simply “the paralytic.” Luke, in v. 18 uses the more medically accurate description: “a man who was in a state of paralysis.”  If you have a chronic medical condition as I do, it does not need to define you or your family, but it does take adjusting to.  In "Adjusting to Life with Chronic Illness," Mary Yerkes suggests that we: (1) Educate ourselves about our condition. (2) Recognize our limits and learn to say no.  (3) Build fun into our lives (4) Focus our physical and emotional resources on those things that matter most.  (5) Share our gifts and talents.  (6) Accept help from others.  Don’t suffer in silence…and don’t assume other people know what’s going on. To these men (and to God) this person was not just a medical condition to fix he was a man, a friend they deeply cared about who happened to have an illness.  Friends begin by simply caring.  But then… 

We can be friends who risk bringing our friends to Jesus. (18b-19, 27-29). Luke tells us that these four men had a plan: “to bring him in and lay him before Jesus” (18b). But unable to bring him in through the front door because of the crowd, they got very creative.  They climbed up on top of the roof, removed some of the roof tiles and lowered him down (19). The point is that the faith of these men was bold, determined, and unconcerned about consequences.  Their faith was driven by one great desire: to get their friend to Jesus, to get him to the head of the line, to tear the roof of that house and lower him right into the middle of the joyous circle of his friends.

The Institute for American Church Growth asked 10,000 people about their Christian pilgrimage. What led them to faith? Answers: A special need, 2 %; Walking-in, 3 %; Pastor, 6 %; Personal visit with someone, 1 %; Sunday school, 5 %; An evangelistic crusade, 5 %; A Program, 3 %; A Friend/relative, 79 %.  I was eating at a local market with my family in our area the other day when we ran into two boy from our youth group.  They were completely unselfconscious about the fact that I was their pastor, and even introduced me to one of their friends woh was sitting with them.  “Hey Pastor Steve, meet my friend, he’s an atheist,” he said smiling at him.  “I know quite a few...and some are my friends” I said.  It’s nice to meet you.” Frankly I was impressed that these boys even knew their friend's worldview.  It implies that they had engaged in some conversations about faith and doubt, Christianity and secularism.  Our Lord can work through relationships like that…penetrating the darkness of doubt and despair with his light …and all because of friendship.  Personal relationships are the primary means through which men and women, boys and girls are introduced to the Living Christ. 

We can be friends who know the true Friend of sinners (20-26, 30-31).  Notice that these men asked nothing of Jesus.  They simply lowered their friend down before him with tremendous faith that He would know what to do. In response to that faith, Jesus does not say, “Your sickness is healed” but rather, (v. 20) “Friend, your sins are forgiven you!”  In John 15:15, Jesus says to his disciples, "I do not call you servants any longer...but I have called you friends...What this man needed most was to know he was not the enemy of God but his friend, that he could be forgiven of his sins and set free from his guilty past.  What this man needed most was to know that God loved him and forgave him for everything wrong he had done. The most important healing we can receive in this life, is the healing of our relationship with God.  

I was meeting with my doctor the other day when I saw a colleague of mine sitting in the waiting room.  We knew we had the same endocrinologist, but it was the first time we had seen each other in his office at the same time.  In the exam room, my doctor pointed out this coincidence to me; and then took the opportunity to say, “There are very few people who do what you guys do; and I want you to know that I respect what you do, and wish there were more people like you doing it.  It meant a lot that my doctor, who I respect very much, would share that he highly values my work as a pastor; and that he felt that this work complimented his own.  In truth, minety-five percent of doctors now recognize that there is a powerful connection between our spiritual/psychological state and our physical health (see Dale A. Matthews, M.D., The Faith Factor, New York, NY: Viking Press, 1998).  So when Jesus says, “Yours sins are forgiven” he is reminding us of this powerful connection...that there can only be genuine healing when the separation occasioned by our sin has been mended through God’s mercy and our repentance.  David makes this very point in Psalm 32: 
1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Selah) 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Selah) 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. (Selah) 
Karl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, wrote at length about the reality and power of sin in a world that no longer takes sin very seriously (Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin)! Menninger purportedly said, “If I could convince patients in psychiatric hospitals that they were forgiven 75% would walk out the next day.”  Before she died, Marghanita Laski, a well known atheist claimed that, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me” (John Stott in The Contemporary Christian. Christianity Today, Vol. 38, no. 7).  Many of us carry around with us a powerful load of guilt.   

The pastors and bible teachers who heard Jesus pronounce this man’s forgiveness objected because they saw true forgiveness as something that could only be experienced on the Last Day, when we stand before God’s judgment seat.  So they began mumbling to themselves that this was blasphemy: "Who is this?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (21)  And they were quite right.  It was blasphemous if Jesus was just another man.  But if Jesus was and is the incarnation of God who brings the promise of divine forgiveness and new life from the future into the present, this is not blasphemy, it is a liberating blessing. Therefore Jesus asks, “Which is easier to say?  ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Rise and walk’? (23) I’m sure they were thinking, "It's easier to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' because the truth or falsehood of that claim cannot be verified."  But in fact, to be able to say truthfully, 'Your sins are forgiven, and your relationship with God is restored' is the harder thing by far.  The cleansing of leprosy is easy, calming of storms simple, the casting out of demons child’s play compared to this.  

As Jesus stands before this man, he demonstrates that he not only has the divine authority, but the divine power to do both; and so “he said to the one who was paralyzed – ‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home’” (24).  Notice that Jesus does not simply say, “Rise and walk” but tells him (even before he is healed) what he should do after he is healed… "Take up your bed and go to your home!"  Such is Jesus confidence and authority over illness, and over sin.  Luke tells us that the man immediately “stood up before them, and took what he had been lying on, and went to his home” (25)  -- just as Jesus had commanded, and no doubt his friends were leaping and praising God with him.  

Not long afterward, Jesus sees a man seated at a tax booth, a tax collector despised by his fellow Jews because he profited from the Roman domination and worked with Gentiles, even on the Sabbath.  This was a man who may have been paralyzed by guilt.  I can imagine that Jesus lovingly challenged him to be just in the way he collected taxes, no longer stealing from the people, assuring him that he could begin again, that he could rid himself of the terrible guilt that he carried and the scorn he suffered from his own people.  Jesus told him that he could turn back to God, experience his mercy, and begin to use his tremendous resources to bless others.  Luke does not recount this conversation but reports that Jesus simply said, “Follow me."  And so Luke record that “[Levi] got up” using the same Greek verb that described the man with paralysis after he was healed.  The man got up…not to argue with Jesus, not to tell Jesus to mind his own business, not to walk away from Jesus, he got up to follow him, as if to say “Yes Lord, I want to turn from everything I know is wrong and receive God’s forgiveness. I want to treat people justly.  I want to walk in the light of God’s truth. I want to experience God’s mercy and be merciful to others.  I want to follow you and learn from you how to live the eternal kind of life.”

Levi’s heart was so filled with joy over the experience of God’s forgiveness, and the prospect of a new life here and now as the friend of Jesus that he threw a great party for Jesus and invited all his tax collector friends to come and meet him: “Come and spend an evening with my new Friend, the man who changed my life.” Again, the Pharisees and scribes were complaining to Jesus’ disciples saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, "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 to repentance." (vv. 30-32)  I'm not interested in simply diagnosing sin, I want to treat the sinner…to bring help to those in desperate need, to bring people back to God.

I’m struck by the picture of friendship in these stories; compassionate men who carry their friend to Jesus’ house where he is healed of his illness.  A man touched by the mercy of God who invites his friends to a dinner party where they can meet Jesus for themselves.  I would not have been born if it were not for a friend who decided to invite my mother to a church where she met Christ and eventually met and married my father.  I wish I could thank that woman today.  I wish I could meet that friend.  I can’t, but I have met men and women that in small and large ways have befriended those who did not know Christ…and gradually shared with them the gift of His friendship, men and women who have become the friend of "sinners" like them.   

Some of you need to know that Christ desires to be that friend "who stays closer than a brother."  Others of you are being called to carry someone into the middle of the joyous circle of Jesus’ forever friends, to invite them to the great banquet table of His grace.  

Lord Jesus, Crucified and Risen Lord, thank You for inviting us to the great banqueting table of Your grace, for welcoming us right into the middle of the joyous circle of Your forever friends: a circle of friends who have been forgiven and set free from guilt and shame; a circle of friends who are learning to live lives of goodness and love, turning from everything they know is wrong in order to more boldly and passionately follow You; an ever-widening circle of friends who have made the risky commitment to really care about others, and to look for opportunities to carry them into the healing light of Your presence through prayer, worship, hospitality, compassionate service, and personal testimony. Thank You, King Jesus, for being the Friend of sinners like me; and for making us therefore the friends of God.  Amen.

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