Jesus, friend of sinners

Jesus,I’ve been reading Sarah Bessey’s book Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, and something I appreciate about all of Sarah’s writing is you can see how much she loves Jesus. Not the idea of Jesus, but Jesus himself.

There’s a difference.

Jesus, the guy who lived 2000 years ago in Palestine, who was a devout Jew but still showed grace to Gentiles, who taught crowds and healed broken bodies, and said really confusing things.

She talks about sitting on a gym floor singing praise and worship songs as a child, and just knowing that Jesus was there with them by his Spirit. (It sounds weird if you’re not a Christian or churchy person, but yes, we do actually believe that the historical Jesus who died 2000 years ago really was God’s Son and is alive, and is present by his Holy Spirit).

I never sat on an old gymnasium floor and sang worship songs, but I have memories of sitting outside on my pink fleece blanket, reading the stories of Jesus in my Bible, and imagining him sitting right there next to me. Maybe it’s sacrilegious to imagine Jesus sitting next to you while you’re reading your Bible, but if we believe that we need to surrender our intellect to God to understand his words, why can’t we also have sanctified imaginations?

Sarah talks about how this simple intimacy with Jesus from her childhood was replaced with the Industrial Church Complex. Programs, buildings, events. And then, too, somehow, preachers didn’t talk of Jesus as much. “Perhaps Jesus was a bit too wild for the Church,” she says, “It was easier to expand on Paul’s letters for instance. Ah, Paul, here was a finely tuned mind, a man of practicalities.”

Sarah talks about how our culture makes and remakes Jesus:

“There’s a lot of Jesuses running around these days. There is the Jesus who wants you to find a good parking spot at the mall. The Jesus invoked at music awards and the one raised like a flag to celebrate capitalism and affluence. There is the Jesus drawing lines about who is “in” and who is “out”, and there is the Jesus on both sides of the picket lines. There is the one in the slums and the one in suburbia and one in Africa and the one in America and the Calgary…”

Sarah talks about how in her twenties, she decided not to be a Christian, because she didn’t want to be associated with the Church. But she was still fascinated with Jesus. She says: “I didn’t trust Christians…but through it all, I somehow knew one thing: this wasn’t Jesus. Maybe it’s because of my childhood foundation, but I instinctively knew that this Industrial Church Complex was not the stuff of the Prince of Peace.” Sarah talks about reading the gospels and banging her hands on the kitchen table in exasperation, “I would follow THIS Jesus!” …. what has the church done with him?

You should read the book for yourself to see where Sarah takes the rest of her story, but it’s beautiful, and challenging, and thought provoking. (Preorder it HERE!)

Her story made me reflect on my story. I, too, have always loved Jesus. And the reason I get frustrated with some churches is because they are so focused on knowing about Jesus, that they don’t help me know Jesus. That’s all I want, really. I want to go to church and leave with more love in my heart for this amazing person who loved lepers, and outcasts, and tax collectors, and the blustery disciple Peter, and the doubting Thomas, and the busy-stressed-out Martha. I want to be reminded of who he is, and how wonderful and scary it is that he is fully God and fully man, and he freely gave his life for mine.

Sometimes I think people should quit giving sermons and just read from The Jesus Storybook Bible every week. I can’t get through even one chapter without crying. Because that children’s Bible does what all preaching should do: it shows us Christ, it makes him bigger, more beautiful and more real than our flimsy imaginations are usually capable of doing.

One of my favorite old churches in Tennessee has an inscription on the pulpit that only the preacher can see. A reminder of the purpose of every sermon: “Sir, we would see Jesus.

We would see Jesus. Please, that’s all we want. Just lead us towards Jesus.

Lately, I’ve been singing the song, “Jesus, friend of sinners” to myself as I go about my day. I love this song for many reasons: it was one of the last “new songs” that our worship team learned together before we left South Africa. We sang it at church camp, out in the beautiful rolling hills of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, the air just turning crisp, the grass just starting to tinge brown, the smell of golden light and autumn just around the corner. Autumn always smells a little bit sad to me. And we knew that in just a week we would be leaving for the States. So when I sing it, I think of all those things.

But it also makes me think of Jesus, going to the parties thrown by the tax collectors and sinners. It makes me think of Jesus treasuring the prostitute who poured her perfume over his feet at the pious Pharisee’s house, making the whole room smell like a brothel, how she wiped his feet with her tears and hair. How he received her sacrifice with grace and thanks, and honored her in front of all the other guests.

It makes me think of me, with all my pride and impatience and brokenness, and how Jesus knows me and loves me anyway.

Not Jesus the friend of the important, the beautiful or the religious.

Jesus, friend of sinners. That’s what they called him when he was walking around Israel all those years ago. They said it with scorn, “He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners!

But we say it with relief, with thanks, with love.

Jesus. Friend of Sinners.


PS:  I’m not being paid anything to say this– but you should get Get Sarah’s Book. For reals. You can read what I’ve said about it here and on my bookshelf page.

PPS. You can listen to and buy the song “His Forever” here, which is a remake of “Jesus friend of sinners” by Sovereign Grace Music, which is the song I love.

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