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Love Like Christ

Love Like Christ

Luke 5:27-32

NFL quarterback, and Christian, Randall Cunningham spent most of his career playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, but later in his career he also played for the Minnesota Vikings. One Minneapolis sportswriter who covered the Vikings wrote this about Cunningham:

Virtually all professional athletes take extraordinary measures to keep from coming in contact with their adoring public, Except for Randall Cunningham. Whenever the Vikings were on the road, Cunningham usually could be found sitting in the hotel coffee shop. He’d have breakfast with anyone who stopped by. Fans approached timidly and wound up sharing a sandwich with an NFL star. Instead of running with the pack, Cunningham preferred the company of ordinary stiffs. Randall inevitably would get deep into the Scriptures with his dining companions. Even the most hard-boiled-looking lug would get an earful of Randall’s testimony. But they never seemed to mind. I have received numerous e-mails from people who wanted to share the random acts of kindness they saw performed by Randall. One father wrote about how his daughter had made a sign for Cunningham and waited by the Dome exit after a game, hoping he would see it. He didn’t. Not at first, anyway. In the crush of back-slappers and autograph-seekers, the girl couldn’t get close enough. But as Cunningham drove off, he apparently glanced in his rear view mirror and saw her standing there dejectedly. He backed up, waved her over to the car and said: “Would you like me to sign that for you?”

Turn in your Bibles to Luke 5:27-32. In Luke 5, we find Jesus breaking down barriers that had been carefully constructed over the centuries in order to maintain the purity of the people of God. Our text for today is the one of several sections in this chapter alone in which Jesus breaks down the walls that divide people. First, he calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John, four commoners, fishermen, rough and tough, course, uneducated seamen as his first disciples.

Then, and I don’t want you to lose the significance of this, Jesus TOUCHES a leper and heals him. It’s important to understand what happens there. Imagine someone living in the 1st Century, with 1st Century medical knowledge, imagine someone from the 1st Century living with a deadly AND highly infectious disease. Everyone in the community knows he has it. His body is full of it. For years he has had to live outside of the town. His family leaves food out for him but stays well away when he comes to get it. If he must come into town, he must cover himself, cover his face, and yell “unclean, unclean” over and over again so that no one comes near him. Even touching the hem of his garment can render you ritually unclean, and will likely give you his disease as well. He’s gone for years without ANY human contact. No tender caresses. No pats on the back. No hugs. Nothing. No contact, period.

Psychologists tell us that the need for human touch is one of the most significant needs we have, and this leper had been deprived of that for years. No touch at all. Think about the role of touch in your life. Think about the human contact you and I experience every day. Hugs, handshakes, embraces, a kiss, a light touch on the arm. Much of human communication takes place in gestures like that. For the first time in years, maybe decades, for the first time since he had been declared unclean, this man experiences human contact. Jesus reaches out and touches him, and he is healed. Jesus could have healed him without touching him. But he didn’t. He knew what the man needed. He needed healing. But he needed more than that. He needed restoration. He needed acceptance. He needed human contact. And Jesus reached out and touched him.

Then Jesus walks by the booth of a tax collector named Levi. Believe it or not, tax collectors were often lumped in with lepers and others considered unclean. Tax collectors have never been liked. No one likes paying taxes. Never have, probably never will. But in 1st Century Palestine, the hatred of tax collectors went far beyond our everyday dislike of taxes. Tax collectors were lumped together with robbers, evildoers, and adulterers, with prostitutes, and with the unbelieving gentiles. They were seen as being beyond the grasp of God’s grace, unreachable, hopeless cases destined for hell. If a tax collector entered a house, that house was considered unclean. They were excommunicated, banished from the temple. They weren’t allowed to worship. They were viewed as hopeless, sinful, unreformable, beyond the reach of God’s grace. They were viewed as enemies of God.

If Jesus were playing by the rules, he would have avoided people like Levi at all costs. No one would have batted an eye if he had crossed to the other side of the street to avoid coming to close. But that isn’t what Jesus did. Luke tells us that “he went out and SAW a tax collector named Levi.” The English word “saw” there doesn’t really capture what Jesus did when he caught sight of Levi. He didn’t just catch sight of Levi in passing. The sense of the word translated here as “saw” is of “careful and deliberate vision which interprets its object.” Jesus isn’t just looking at Levi or noticing him. He’s sizing Levi up with the kind of gaze that makes the person receiving it wonder, “What does this guy want with me?” That in itself is more attention than Levi, having resigned himself to a life of being despised, was used to receiving. For not only was Levi a despised person, he was sitting at his tax collection booth. He was engaged in the very activity for which he was despised. And Jesus stops and takes a good hard look.

And then Jesus says to Levi, “Follow me.” It was probably bad enough that Jesus, who at this time was known for being a popular, up-and-coming, powerful rabbi who taught with authority and performed miracles other couldn’t perform, had invited four uneducated, uncouth fishermen to join his inner circle of followers. But to invite a tax collector to do the same thing? That probably shocked even the fishermen, Peter, James, and John, not to mention the people watching him. The Pharisees would have been furious.

Now, look at what happens next. Jesus ups the ante. Not only does he stop and size Levi up. And then, having done that, which most would have thought would have led a rabbi as savvy and discerning as Jesus was supposed to be to snort in derision and move one, instead invite this Levi to join his circle of closest followers. Now Jesus enjoys a meal with Levi and his friends and acquaintances. And who would have dared be a friend to Levi? Other tax collectors and other unsavory, hopeless, rejected souls. And this wasn’t just any old meal, although as we’re going to see in a minute, that in itself would have been enough to confuse and probably anger most religious leaders. Luke tells us this was a “great feast.” It was a big party. The kind of party that drew a lot of attention.

Eating any meal with someone like Levi and his friends was in itself a significant act. Most of us could stomach sharing a meal with someone we found unsavory if we had to, but things were different in 1st Century Palestine. In the Mediterranean region in the 1st Century, mealtimes were more than just times to receive nourishment. Being welcomed at a table to eat food was a symbol of friendship, of intimacy, of unity. If the people sharing the meal had been estranged, if that relationship had previously been severed, this meal was an invitation that paved the way for reconciliation. Because of that, most people invited only their social, economic, and religious equals to share a meal.

Jesus’ invitation to Levi to “follow me” was an invitation to reconciliation and Levi’s leaving everything behind and beginning to follow him was Levi’s acceptance of that invitation. The meal together with all of Levi’s friends was evidence of that offer of reconciliation and a very symbolic action on Christ’s part that those who had formerly been shunned were now being openly accepted in the Kingdom of God he had come to establish. And so Jesus laughed and shared stories with Levi and the notorious sinners Levi hung out with. Jesus embraced these untouchables as friends.

Now look at what the Pharisees do. They go to his disciples, at this point that would have been Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were likely as confused, perhaps even as angry, as the Pharisees. Remember, tax collectors were lumped in with murderers, prostitutes, and other social outcasts. They were the bottom of the barrel. Social scum. These fishermen probably didn’t want to be disciples with a tax collector any more than the Pharisees wanted to see Jesus was eating with a bunch of tax collectors and other losers. They go to Jesus’ disciples and angrily ask “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” They neither understood nor liked it.

At this early point in his ministry, Jesus’ other disciples couldn’t answer the question all that well themselves. This was new to them too. So Jesus answers “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Nowhere can Jesus be accused of tolerating sin. He knew very well how corrupt and evil the Roman tax collection system was. He knew exactly what Levi and his friends were doing. The call of Christ wasn’t a call to cheap grace. It wasn’t a call to join Jesus with no change in life. Look at Levi’s response. “Leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” First, Levi left everything. He shut down his enterprise. Fishermen might have been rough and rough around the edges, but there was nothing inherently sinful about their work. Peter, James, and John could always go back to being fishermen if this following Jesus thing didn’t work out. But not Levi. He couldn’t go back to being a tax collector. Talk about a step of faith from the kind of person not known for such a thing. He shut down his unethical practice, left it behind, to follow Jesus.

The word translated as “followed him” is in a verb tense that indicates that Levi began to follow Christ. The participle here is in a tense that points to a decisive break with his past. And the verb is in a tense that indicates a continuous pattern of life. The point here is that Levi re-orients his life toward Christ and begins an adventure of following Jesus. And that is something he would never turn back from, for Levi is also known by another name, the Apostle Matthew, one of the Gospel writers.

To respond to the call of Christ to “follow me” is to experience an embracing, welcoming acceptance and restoration unlike any we have received before. And it requires a repentance and change of direction unlike any we have made before. Levi isn’t making “New Years’ resolutions” hoping to do better this year than last. He’s making a decisive break with his past. The orientation of his life has changed, from being oriented toward dishonest gain and the accumulation of wealth to an orientation toward Christ and consistent repentance to the point where the best description of their actions is that of  “following Jesus.”

In Matthew’s telling of this, his own story, he adds this phrase to Jesus’ response “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mat. 9:13). Here, Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament prophet Hosea (6:6). It never occurred to the good, religious people that their distancing of themselves from sinners and those in need of healing had distanced them from God. They had the Scriptures, but had failed to really read or understand them. Hosea condemns the religious Israelites for attending to their religious ceremonies, for putting on a religious show, without caring for others. Hosea’s words were “immensely important to Jesus. They lay at the heart of his mission. He had come to call those who knew they were sinners, not those who thought they were righteous.”

At Christ Church, we’re committed to loving like Christ. We’re committed to repenting of our elitism and tendency toward separatism. We’re going to really love and get to know those Christ loves. We’re going to pray, asking God to help us to see our city, our co-workers, our friends AND our enemies with his eyes, to love them with his heart.

In his book The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, John Dickson writes about his introduction to Jesus Christ:

Under God, my own conversion was the result of one person’s willingness to embody the mission of the “friend of sinners.” One of the relics of Australia’s Christian heritage is the once-a-week Scripture lesson offered in many state high schools around the country. One of these Scripture teachers—Glenda was her name—had the courage to invite [my] entire class to her home for discussions about God. The invitation would have gone unnoticed, except that she added: “If anyone gets hungry I’ll be making hamburgers, milkshakes, and scones.” As I looked around the room at all my friends—all skeptics like me—I was amazed that this woman would open her home (and kitchen) to us. Some of the lads were among the worst “sinners” in our school: one was a drug user (and seller), one was a class clown and bully, and one was a petty thief with a string of [breaking-and-entering charges] to his credit.

I could not figure Brenda out. She was wealthy and intelligent. She had an exciting social life married to a leading Australian businessman. What was she thinking inviting us for a meal and discussion? At no point was this teacher pushy or preachy. Her style was completely relaxed and incredibly generous. When her VCR went missing one day, she made almost nothing of it, even though she suspected (quite reasonably) it was [someone from] our group. For me, her open, flexible, generous attitude toward us “sinners” was the doorway into a life of faith. As we ate and drank and talked, it was clear this was no missionary ploy on her part. She truly cared for us and treated us like friends or, perhaps more accurately, like sons. As a result, over the course of the next year, she introduced several of us from the class to the ultimate “friend of sinners,” Jesus.

I’ve actually preached this sermon before. It was the very first sermon I preached as lead pastor of Christ Church. As we prayed about whether God was calling us to start a new church in Traverse City, we came to the realization that God was calling us to plant a church founded on three core values: the worship of God, the Word of God, and our witness for Christ in this world. Worship, Word, and Witness. And we knew that we were going to be committed to becoming a significant part of our community, a resource for our community, as God led us to the places where he would touch the brokenness of our community through us. When he called us to join with Peninsula Bible Church a little over a year ago, we knew that God was leading us to feed Traverse City both physically and spiritually. To feed those who are physically and spiritually hungry. To meet very real needs. And God continues to lead us as we grow in Worship, Word, and Witness. But the call to witness is bigger than any church program. It is a call to each one of us to open our lives to those around us who no one else sees, to intentionally build relationships, and to introduce them to Jesus, the ultimate friend of sinners. Jesus often shared meals with people, and his actions were very symbolic. He was giving everyone a clear view of what the kingdom of God is like, reminding everyone that there’s room for anyone at his table. So let me close by asking you this question: who will you be dining with today?