Jesus did not call us sinners- but light, salt, daughter, forgiven, clean, whole, beloved…

Jesus came preaching, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”  Most of us first heard this message as, “Repent. Here comes the kingdom of God.” In January, as we celebrated the Baptism of our Lord, I shared how back in 1930, the Southern Baptist professor and New Testament Greek scholar AT Robinson noted that the English word ‘repent’ is the worst translation in the New Testament because the Greek word (metanoeite) carries none of the emotional baggage weighing down the English word repent. Robertson writes that John (the Baptizer and Jesus) did not call people to feel sorry but to change their mental attitudes and conduct. A better rendering of ‘metanoeite’ or repent is turn or change (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 1 Mt. 3:2, SBC Sunday School Board 1930) The Common English Bible that some of our Belmont church members helped translate makes a better translation: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

The Biblical Greek word ‘sin’ carries a lot of religious, moral, and theological nuances, but at its root it means something like to not hit or to miss. It’s not a perfect image, but we might think of sin as missing the bullseye. You look at the target and shoot your shot, but your focus or technique is off and you miss; your hopeful arrow veers to the left missing patience, you fumble with an old wound and fly wide right of forgiveness, the allure of wealth pulls your eyes away and you fall short of soul-changing generosity, or your desire for perfection keeps you overshooting authenticity. Yes, we all sin, but few of us woke up this morning hoping to miss the mark of Christ-likeness. But does the fact that we sin make us sinners? Should we wear ‘sinner’ as an identity? If we let people judge and label us as sinners and take on that label as our identity, we will define ourselves as people who miss the mark instead of beloved children of God imperfectly striving to after faith, hope and love. Shame with its oughts, shoulds, musts, and can’ts usually pulls our eyes downward, taking our eyes off Christ and the Christlikeness that we strive to live into. We need to aim for love.   

How many times do you think the word sinner shows up in the Bible? It shows up just 71 times in the CEB and 63 in the NIV.  With 783,137 words in the Bible is it fair to say the church has perhaps overused the word sinner in its theology and liturgies? The Gospels tell us that Jesus’ critics grumbled that Jesus hung out with folks they labeled as sinners some 10 times. Jesus called these people friends. (Matthew 11) In John, church critics label Jesus a sinner at least 5 times.  The only people Jesus called sinners were the church folks who sought to crucify him. When Jesus looked out at the crowds, did Jesus see a sea of sinners? NO! Looking at the crowds, Jesus felt a deep soul-stirring, stomach-aching kind of embodied compassion. (Matthew 9, 14,15, 20) When a very wealthy young person decided discipleship was too costly, Mark 10 tells us that Jesus loved him. Jesus sees us as beloved. 

Outside of the people seeking to kill him, Jesus did not call people sinners. So what labels did Jesus use  for people just like us? Jesus said, “you are the light of the world”, “the salt of the earth”, “brothers”, “sisters”, “daughter”, “not far from God’s kingdom” ,“God has counted the hairs on your head”, “you are worth more than you know”,  “you are with me and I am with you”,  “you can move mountains”, “you are free”, “you are whole”, “you are clean”, “you are forgiven”, “you are my branches”, “you are my witnesses”, “you are really my disciples”, and “you are my friends”. I love how John sets the tone on Maundy Thursday’s foot washing noting that “having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them fully to the end.” If you need a label, try beloved. You are beloved. 

Perhaps, John Wesley is the godparent of the beloved movement in theology. Wesley loved the image in Romans 5, “the Love of God has been poured into our hearts,” and in Romans 8, “So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death…”  we didn’t receive a spirit of bondage that leads us back into fear, but a God’s Spirit confirms with our spirit that we are children of God… (Romans 8 closes)… For I am convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels nor rulers, not present things or future things, not powers, height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” Nothing can separate us. When we understand that we are beloved, we stop identifying ourselves as sinners and begin to aim our lives after love.    

When we know we are held by that kind of “nothing can separate me from God” love, that changes everything; we do not worry about being cast down, cast off, or cast out for our sins.  Jesus tells us God is waiting like that loving mom and dad in Luke 15. They stand at the gate just hoping that the child who has screwed everything up will turn back towards home. Then God our father and Love our Mother will run to us embracing us before we can shower off the stink of our own mistakes. They hug us and shout to the angels that we must rejoice and celebrate, call the caterer, get a DJ, we must dance because this child of ours has come home.  

Oh, that tonight we might stop worrying about where we have made mistakes, how we messed things up, or when we missed the mark, but instead simply fix our eyes firmly upon the love of God poured out on us through Jesus and knowing that we are loved and resolve to live lives of love.  

When you know you are loved like that prodigal son, daughter, child, that kind of love readjusts your focus and improves your aim. You start aiming for love instead of worrying over what you might have messed up or be missing. When we see love modeled through Jesus Christ, we begin to understand how to offer God’s love to the world. If you came tonight feeling beaten down, cast off, or labeled as sinner, take that name tag off and burn it! Remember, you are the light of the world; shine. Do not be ashamed. You are forgiven, whole, clean, daughter, child, friend, disciples, witness, beloved. This Lent, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith and strive to return Christ’s love back into the world. Amen.

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