I was standing next to a keg at a party hosted by a friend of mine. I was holding a red Solo cup, reliving my freshman year at college, and drinking a beverage. I honestly can’t remember what it was, hopefully giving me enough plausible deniability to comfort any teetotalers reading this. Anyway, a guy walked up and started pouring beer while spilling words all over me. He was hilarious - a gregarious guy with a penchant for vulgarity. I loved him immediately.
He told me funny story after funny story, many autobiographical and all peppered with enough expletives to resurrect the late George Carlin. And then it happened. He took a sip of beer, looked at me, and said, “So, enough about me. What do you do?”
I looked him dead in the eye, smiled, and said, “I’m a pastor.”
He didn’t flinch. He looked me dead in the eye, smiled, and said, “No $%#.”
And then we laughed. A lot. And then we talked. Even more.
I usually hate telling new acquaintences that I’m a pastor, not because I’m ashamed of my vocation; I’m not. I hate it because that simple disclosure renders so many people downright distant, even fearful, instantly. Their countenance changes - maybe to fear or disgust or anger or an angst-filled mixture of them all. In any case, many look at me expecting judgment and condescension when they should be expecting love and compassion. That is so sad!
Why is this? I think one reason for these responses is that we Christians have, for far too long, inverted the relationship of belonging and behaving. We’ve taught, either implicitly or explicitly, that behaving precedes belonging - that if we think the right thoughts, say the right words, and do the right things, God will accept us. And so, instead of sharing the love of our Heavenly Father, we've been busy trying to be everyone's mother. This notion of acceptance through moral performance is tantamount to salvation by works, something the Bible rejects vehemently (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Jesus flipped that script entirely. Jesus knew that it’s the other way around: that we belong before we behave. Sinners don’t become saints at a distance, so Jesus drew near to them and loved them - and his love transformed them.
No one loves God until they know they’re loved by him, and - guess what - God’s chosen to love them through you!
Consequently, Jesus was quite popular among many outsiders to his movement. The multitudes followed him. Jewish religious leaders broke rank to seek meetings with him under the cover of night (John 3:1-15). Political officials sought after him (John 4:46ff). Roman soldiers chased him down because they believed in him (Matthew 8:5-13). Jesus attracted and openly associated with notorious sinners and tax collectors (Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 19:1-10). He associated with despised Samaritans, and they believed in him (John 4:1-45). The worst of the world so often loved Jesus, and chased after him.
One guy that literally chased after Jesus was Zacchaeus. Do you remember him? Short guy? Chief tax collector? Thief and traitor to his countrymen? Hated and despised? Climbed a tree to see Jesus? Ring a bell?
Why did he do that? I imagine Zacchaeus did so because, while rejected by all the religious leaders of his day, he heard that Jesus was different - that he was loving and compassionate toward outsiders, that he was good to people who weren’t so good.
And how did Jesus respond when he saw Zacchaeus in a tree? Jesus told Zacchaeus that he must visit his house. Jesus entered into a notorious sinner and scoundrel’s house, not by accident but as a divine priority.
As Jesus entered into Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus entered into Jesus’ circle - and his life would never be the same. He started to behave differently because, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, he first belonged.
Child of God: We love because he first loved us. It's the same for anyone and everyone who turns to God. No one loves God until they know they’re loved by him, and - guess what - God’s chosen to love them through you! Like Jesus entering the home of Zacchaeus, you must enter their lives. As you do, don’t make it your goal to change people; you can’t. That's God's work. Make it your goal to share God’s love with them; that can change anyone. As my friend Steve Brown says, "God called us to be fishers of men. He just wants us to catch them. He'll clean them." Amen.
You're loved. Don't forget it.