Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Community Of Sinners

I wrote a CrossTies article that will appear in our upcoming Sunday bulletin, and then published to the CrossTies mailing list .  In it I used a quote from Eugene Peterson.  I want to reuse that quote here and write in a slightly different direction.  I think he has identified a major issue for today's church.
The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called "pastor" and given a designated responsibility ... to keep the community attentive to God.  –  Eugene H. Peterson, Leadership, Vol. 9, no. 4
I think we know that Peterson is correct when he calls churches, "communities of sinners."  But I'm not sure we practice this community of sinners thing nearly like we should.  Instead, it appears that many Christians work overtime to deny the truth that we are redeemed sinners, and that we are people who still struggle with sin.  At the very best, a church, any church, is a group of sinners seeking help.  We're lost, condemned people looking for salvation.  We're wrong-doers who have hurt ourselves and others.  We're the ones who violated God's will, and any guilt or consequence God sends our way is just and right.  Despite the common attitude that prevails among people today, we're really not victims, we're perpetrators.

The problem?  Many "good Christians" sit in the church assemblies on Sunday, dressed in their finest, and acting as if they are above it all.  "Sin?  Oh, yes, well that's something we might have done at one point in our lives, but even then it wasn't really that bad."  They seem to work hard to leave the impression that they have left it all behind, small and insignificant as it was.  I have known people who openly, verbally, claimed to have no sin.  They firmly believed that they no longer did anything wrong.  While making that claim, they could be some of the most unloving, hard-hearted people you'd ever want to meet, but don't bother telling them.

Could this be the problem when churches become overly concerned with the "kind" of people we want to be members of our congregations?  I've heard the comments made.  "Well, we just don't want 'those' people in our church."  Sometimes that was said because "those" people were of a different race, but just as frequently it was said because "those" people were of a different class, or lifestyle, or some other distinction that involved the way they lived.  In other words, there was something deemed "sinful" about "those" people that made them undesirable.

Here's what I know about the church.  The church is made up of saved people.  It's impossible to be a part of the church Jesus died for, unless one has been saved from their sins.  Oh, you can attend services, and maybe even get your name on a roll somewhere, but I'm talking about real membership.  Only sinners can be saved, and only the saved make up the church.  Of course, scripture makes it clear that all of us fit into the category of sinner, and so we're all eligible for membership, but we're talking about one's perception of themselves that doesn't always match reality.  So, if you're a member of local church somewhere, and a member of the larger body of Christ, something is true that you need to acknowledge.  You are a redeemed sinner.

I know something else about redeemed sinners.  While following Jesus should, hopefully, lead you into a life in which you put away the sins you find present in your life, you will be in a constant and continuing struggle against both temptation and sin.  We need to wrestle with passages like this one:
1 John 1:5-10 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. NASB95
We need to deal with the text here.  First, nobody should expect to purposely "walk in the darkness" and be in fellowship with Lord.  That makes a mockery of our redemption.  The ideal would always be that Christians live a sin-free life.  The problem is not in any effort to avoid and live a sinless life.  That is always the God-desired, ideal life.

But the Bible is also practical.  John knew the reality of human life.  That's why in the next breath, John says, "if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us."  In other words, it's possible for a people who are walking in the light to sin.  The difference between the one in the darkness and the one in the light, is that the one in the light recognizes his/her sin and keeps seeking forgiveness from the Lord.  Forgiveness here is for those who confess their sins, not for those who hide or deny their sins.  John goes on, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us."  That last statement ought to get the attention of every Christian who puts on the front that says, "Sinner?  Oh, no, not me.  You must mean those other people."

The church is a community of sinners, but it's much more.  It's a community of redeemed sinners!  It's a community of hope.  The church ought to be the one group of people to whom anyone might look, not for solace or pity, but hope and an answer for sin.  We are the ones who ought to say to anyone, "Sin?  Oh, yes, I know all about that.  Let me tell you what God has done for all of us!"

See that guy in the three-piece suit?  See that lady with the cute hat and wearing the designer dress?  They're sinners.  Did you see yourself in the mirror this morning?  You're a sinner too.  Are you wondering about me?  I'll tell you quickly and truthfully, I am a sinner.  Oh, yes!  But there is hope for us all.  It's found in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  It's found in his resurrection from the dead.  He knows we're not perfect.  He wishes we knew it, and admitted it.  Jesus does his best work in people who acknowledge their problem.

So, community of sinners, what shall we do.  Continue to treat the church like it was a social club of some kind, or treat it like what it is?  We're really a community of sinners.  Redeemed to be sure, but a community of sinners nonetheless.