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1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Dear Friends in Christ,
Two of the classes I attended at the conference this past week were about reaching people in the 21st century with the Gospel of Jesus. As you would hope and expect, both presenters emphasized that the message of the Gospel has not and cannot change. But we are facing some challenges in communicating the Gospel, especially in America in the 21st Century, that we have not faced in America before. It used to be that you could assume that almost everyone you met went to church at some point in their lives. If nothing else, their parents dropped them off at Sunday school. In fact, in the South, many churches used to have busses that would go through the neighborhoods picking up children for Sunday school. But, as we make calls on people in our community that is still in one of the more churched areas of the country, we regularly find people who tell us that they have never been to church. What’s worse is that most people, even if they have never been to church or read the Bible, think they know what Christianity is all about. They have blindly accepted what teachers and professors have told them about Christianity, and what has been portrayed on TV, in the movies, and in the media. They have a very negative view of Christianity, so if you try to talk to them about Jesus often the walls go up immediately.
This is not completely the fault of unbelieving professors and the media. A lot of the blame lies at the feet of those of us who call ourselves Christians, but don’t do a very good job of living our faith. The thing that turns so many people off is hypocrisy, in politics, in the media, and in the church. In a world that says that there is no such thing as absolute truth, people are still looking for authenticity, for people and organizations that are true to their purpose, that mean what they say and say what they mean, that have actions and programs that align with their stated purpose.
Since there is really nothing new under the sun, the Bible guides us in thinking about how to reach people with the gospel when the culture around us is not just unchristian and Biblically illiterate, but more and more antichristian, the way it was for the first Christians. Consider how Paul, and Jesus, answer the question, “Who will enter the kingdom of God?”
When you hear God’s word through Paul, Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? If you are like most church-going people you probably think, “That’s right! That’s what people need to hear.” Many times throughout my ministry I have heard people say that the church is getting too soft. We need more law. A nice old gentleman who had been a school administrator all his life and who attended a Bible class I conducted at an assisted living home said that schools ought to require students to study the book of Proverbs. Why? Because it would teach them right and wrong, morality, the law of God.
While it is certainly true that everyone needs to know God’s law, to know what he says about right and wrong, such an attitude is part of the problem. You see it, don’t you? It’s the attitude that the Pharisee had in his heart when the sinful woman came and anointed Jesus’ feet. His thought was that Jesus should not let her touch him; she needed to be told that she was a sinner, a wicked person who would not be able to ender the kingdom of God and should not be allowed to enter his house. It’s using the law of God to point out the sins of others in a way that makes you thankful that you have not committed their sins; in a way that makes you think that you have a good shot at entering the kingdom of God because you are better than they are.
Listen to God’s word through Paul again and think about what words stick in your mind. Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. If you are like most people I’m guessing you remember the words that describe things that you have not done and think you would never do. You probably skip lightly over the ones that could maybe hit home, like greed, or slander/gossip, or swindlers/cheaters/liars. We like to use this passage to point out the sins of others, but we don’t like it so much when we see ourselves in the list. Because of our sinful nature we want to say, “I thank you God that I’m not like those people! They are really bad. They are wicked. They should never be able to enter the kingdom of God.” We don’t want to say, “Yes, that’s me. I’m an idolater. I have at times feared, loved or trusted someone or something more than God. I have at times been sexually immoral, at least in thought if not in deed, which breaks the same commandment and deserves the same punishment from God as homosexuality. I have at times had a little too much alcohol, been greedy and jealous of others, lied or cheated to get what I wanted, and I have said unkind and maybe even untrue things about others.” We don’t want to see ourselves in these words because then we would have to admit that we deserve the same punishment as those wicked people, those sinners.
The real answer to the question, Who should enter the kingdom of God, is “no one, including me.”
That’s the point that Jesus wanted Simon the Pharisee to see. He was quick to think that the woman who was anointing Jesus should not be able to enter the kingdom of God. But he failed to realize that he should not enter either. He too was a sinner, maybe not in the same way that she was, but a sinner. And as a sinner, he should not be able to enter the kingdom of God.
Don’t make the mistake Simon did. When you hear a clear preaching of God’s law as we do in the list of sins God gives us through Paul this morning, don’t just think of others. See yourself in that list. Every one of us is there. Let it sink in to the point that you say to yourself, “I don’t deserve to enter the kingdom of God. I have sinned and the wages of sin is death.” Then you will be moved to join the tax collector who recognized his sin and prayed for God’s mercy. Then you will be like this woman who recognized her sin and humbled herself to crash the party, knowing what those around the table would think of her, and wash Jesus’ feet hoping for his mercy.
Who will enter the kingdom of God? The answer is surprising, isn’t it? Simon was surprised. How could this sinful woman enter the kingdom of God? Jesus indicated clearly that she had entered. And remember what Paul writes immediately following that list of sins he says keeps you out of the kingdom! He says, And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. You who have found yourself in the list of sins that should keep you out of the kingdom of God, you who have been greedy, you who have slandered and swindled, you who have committed sexual sins in thoughts or actions, you who have abused alcohol or drugs, you who have been idolaters for every sin no matter how great or small is idolatry; you who have found yourself in that list and been terrified by the statement that YOU, not someone else, but YOU do not deserve to enter the kingdom of God; you were washed, sanctified and justified.
What a beautiful sentence that is, especially when you have seen yourself in that list of sins that should exclude you from God’s kingdom! You saw how dirty you were. You felt ashamed. You didn’t want anyone to know what you did, or what dirty things were done to you. But you have been washed. You don’t need to feel dirty and ashamed. Jesus’ blood has washed all the dirt of sin away so that, in God’s eyes, you are clean and can stand before him unashamed.
You realized how unholy you were, that in God’s eyes even the holy things you tried to do were like filthy rags; that no matter how hard you tried, you could never be perfect as God demands. But you have been sanctified. God has made you holy in his sight by covering you with the perfect righteousness of Jesus.
You realized that, when you stand before God you should hear the verdict “guilty” and the terrifying sentence, “depart from me into internal fire.” But you have been justified. God has declared you “not guilty” because your defense attorney Jesus volunteered to serve your sentence for you.
You are a sinner, born in sin, piling up a mountain of sins every day. You don’t deserve to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, in Jesus, you have been washed, sanctified and justified. Every sin has been forgiven because of Jesus’ life and death in your place. Like the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, when we realize that we have been forgiven much we will also love much.
Jesus’ lesson for Simon was really the same lesson he tried to teach others like Simon. He repeatedly tells them to go and learn what it means that, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.”
That’s the lesson we need to learn if we want to reach people in the 21st century with the gospel. If we use Paul’s list of sins that keep people out of the kingdom of heaven the way Simon did. If we think “those people out there are really bad sinners. They need to know that, unless they clean up their act they can’t enter the kingdom of God, and until they do clean up their act I don’t want anything to do with them; we have not learned what it means that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. We have failed to include ourselves in the list of sins that keep people from entering the kingdom of God. We have not experienced the mercy, the loving forgiveness of God, and therefore, we will not love much, not God or our neighbor.
When we do see ourselves in Paul’s list of sins, and then we hear those wonderful words, you have been washed, sanctified, justified in Jesus, we will realize how much we have been forgiven and we will love much. We will see “sinners” not as those who need to be avoided or condemned, but as those who need to hear the good news; not that God excuses their sins, but that Jesus has paid for them in full! They need to hear that they can enter the kingdom of heaven through Jesus.
The way to reach people in the 21st century hasn’t changed. Jesus and Paul make it clear. Those who realize that they have been forgiven much will love much. They will be authentic. They will understand what it means that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. They will be able to identify with sinners like themselves and share with them the inexpressible joy, beauty and peace of being forgiven for Jesus’ sake and knowing that you are in the kingdom of God, now and forever.