I warn you, I am one of those liberal, open-minded Christians who thinks church is just as much for the sinner as for the saint. Maybe more.
I remember as a teenager, struggling with what I had been taught in church set against the backdrop of junior high life. When a friend confessed to being gay, I immediately wondered if I should end that friendship, remembering a verse I learned in Sunday School about not associating with sinners. When several other friends picked up a marijuana habit, I saw my social life falling apart all around me as I worried I would have to cut all ties with my former friends turned sinners.
When I read the gospels, I notice something.
If Jesus had cut ties with sinners, he would have been a very lonely man. Jesus thrived among sinners. Even better, they thrived and grew in His presence. The sinners who were drawn to Jesus found themselves changed and challenged by his loving and convicting (not judgmental) demeanor. They wanted to be better simply because they wanted to be with him.
A great example of this is Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus had become “very rich” as a tax collector, cheating those he had collected from by lying about the amount and keeping the extra for himself. One chance to see Jesus and Zacchaeus, “too short to see over the crowd,” climbed a tree just to get a look at Jesus. As Jesus walked by the tree, he looked up and called Zacchaeus by name.
What would it be like to have Jesus call you by name?
I like to imagine that for a second, Zacchaeus’ heart stopped at the sound. He might have even done a double-take, using whatever free arm that wasn’t gripping a tree branch to point at his chest and whisper, “Me?”
“Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”
So, a notorious tax collector/con man climbs a tree to see Jesus. It’s hard to miss the real-life symbolism of this kind of guy trying to get above everybody else to get the best view of Jesus. He’s not even really interested in meeting Jesus. He just wants to get a good look at him.
In a crowd of probably hundreds, Jesus stops, calls Zacchaeus out by name, and insists the he be a guest in his home that very same day.
According to Jewish tradition, eating a meal meant entering into friendship. It didn’t mean let’s grab a quick bite, chat for a bit, and if we hit it off then great. If not, oh well. No, to share a meal with someone meant you were expecting to begin a worthwhile and wholehearted friendship with someone, a friendship to last, not just some convenient passing acquaintance that ended as soon as you got what you needed. Jesus meant to start a friendship with this known swindler and he meant to start it now.
Right now, Jesus wants to start a friendship with you.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you’ve been, or how terrible of a person the rest of the world thinks you are.
Jesus is saying, right now, “Quick! Come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”
Jesus didn’t ask Zacchaeus to pray a prayer first. He didn’t ask him to get right with God first. He didn’t tell him to pay back all the money he stole. He simply invited himself into Zacchaeus’ life with compassion and urgency. “Quick!” “I must…!”
There’s more to the story. Amid the grumbles of the people who were “displeased” that Jesus had befriended a “notorious sinner,” Zacchaeus took Jesus to his house with “great excitement and joy.” As Zacchaeus spent time with Jesus, something happened.
“Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!'”
It was only after spending time with Jesus, entering into friendship with Jesus, that Zacchaeus’ heart was changed.
“Jesus responded, ‘Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”
That’s me. That’s you. We’re all floundering about, looking for something more to life. Wondering what our purpose really is in this world. Acting out in ridiculous, selfish, and harmful ways just to get some sense of placement, just to be noticed. But when the dust from the rubble settles, we still feel…
Jesus wants to start a friendship with you. He doesn’t want to demand you change your ways. But he does want you to be changed. And that only happens after you spend some time with him. Jesus said, ” Remain in me, and I will remain in you.”
Like the old hymn, ” Just as I am” Jesus just wants you to show up, just as you are, full of sin and fury. Start with prayer. It might feel weird at first, but just talk to Jesus. Tell him why you haven’t believed all this time. Tell him why you’ve doubted or hated or questioned. Tell him why you’re hurting, who hurt you, and why you’re struggling to get over that hurt. Tell him whatever you want. Cry if you need to (although you probably will anyway.)
If you want to get to know Jesus better, a good place to start is the gospel of John. If Bible reading isn’t your thing, I recommend watching a very accurate portrayal of “The Gospel of John” available on Netflix.
As best you can, surround yourself with other believers. Try a local church or call a friend who goes to church and invite yourself. I guarantee they’ll be thrilled.
I’m not going to sugar coat it. Jesus will wreck your life by compelling you and convicting you to change your ways and walk instead in the ways of mercy and grace. You’ll start thinking more about others than yourself. You’ll realize that life isn’t about you, that you do not exist on this earth to bring success and glory to yourself. You will feel the battle waging inside between your old self and who God truly intended you to be. That is the real identity crisis and it is raging inside even the most devout believers.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t feel it right away. Just trust that Jesus will change your heart. You know the old expression that says you are who/what you spend time with? It is especially true of Jesus.
Just be quick. Jesus wants to be a guest in your house today.