Each time I read the Gospel of Luke, I am impressed with the responsiveness of “sinners” to Jesus. This responsiveness and the ease and care with which Jesus reacts provides insight into how churches can and must grow.
One scene from the Third Gospel stands out more than any other. The story is told in Luke 7.36-50 of Jesus being entertained in the home of Simon, a Pharisee. During the meal a woman enters the house and comes to Jesus. “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair” (v. 38). The action of this woman repulses the host, because this woman was “a sinner” (32), a woman of the streets, a prostitute.
The exchange that follows between Simon and Jesus is instructive. Jesus condemns the man’s prejudice, and commends the woman’s contriteness. He concludes, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (47).
This episode illustrates an important truth about the Gospel and provides insight into how church growth should be viewed. This woman, convicted of her sins (at the very least, moved to find healing and wholeness) comes to Jesus. She views Jesus as one who could help her, one who would be compassionate, one who would not drive her out into the streets again, one who would not condemn and exclude. Perhaps she had witnesses his interaction with others. Perhaps she had heard of his gentleness from those he had met. And, as she came, she found the one she sought: the Lord, who, with gentleness not scorn, responded mercifully and decisively.
What is the challenge for the church? What is the pattern given for church growth? Are we viewed by the broader society and community as an “institution” (I do not like the word, but it fits) where the “sinner” can come and find the answers for which they are searching? In other words, does the person on the street view the church as a people where he could and should be a part? Does he see us as a gentle and merciful people and not as scornful and harsh?
Yet another way to ask the question: are we “pricking people’s hearts” with the Gospel (see Acts 2.37), or are we shaming them with our self-righteous smugness?
Zacchaeus sought out Jesus. Jesus did not reject Peter when the fisherman said, “Lord, I am a sinner.” He touched the leper. He ate in the home of Levi. He told the story of the Samaritan. He condemned the old brother of the prodigal. He blessed the centurion with the healing of his servant. He restored Legion to renewed health and mind.
I am afraid that most churches today are viewed by the broader society and culture as peoples and places of exclusion and condemnation. We are not seeker-friendly. A poverty of spirit (Lk. 6.20) is needed in our churches. We should look and feel more like hospitals than country clubs.
The mission of Christ needs to serve as our inspiration. At Nazareth, he declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4.18-19). To those who criticized his fraternizing with Levi, he said, “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” (5.31-32). To Zacchaeus, he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (19.10). And, in the context of his lost but found parables, he explains, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15.7)
When churches are viewed as a people of acceptance and as places of healing, phenomenal growth can and will take place. It is an evaluation, however, that is not produced passively. In other words, merely leaving the door open does not answer the challenge. We must be present and visible in the broader community. Our lack of conformity does not demand isolation. (After all, salt must be tasted and light must shine.) We must be present in the world, upholding what is good, opposing what is not (see Ephesians 5.11), and aiming to draw people to us and not driving them away.
A humility of spirit, all-encompassing faith, and a deep, genuine compassion for all persons are the fundamental building blocks needed in the construction of churches. The eyes of Jesus were cast on the hurting and those in need; our gaze must be directed in the same way. We must understand that we are all digging our way out of the same pit (rather, we are all being rescued out of the same pit!).
This is why our buildings need windows! What message do we send when our gaze cannot be cast beyond bricks and mortar? What message do we send when we cannot present ourselves transparently before the world?