One of the real tragedies of church, family and life itself is that far too often the very place where we are supposed to get help, ends up hurting us instead. Some days it is overwhelming to hear the stories of people who have either given up completely on church or on God because they simply don’t believe there is anyway to please God and be accepted in church anyway. It is painful to me when a person says, “I just gave up because it is so hard to please God and be right with him and I just don’t see how anyone can do it.” That seems like such a strange feeling that anyone would have when we serve a Savior whose personal invitation was, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened down and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am gentle and lowly of heart and my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Did you notice what the last phrase was in Jesus great invitation? My yoke, my commands or my teachings that you are to follow are EASY. The burden I want you to bear as one of my followers is LIGHT. So, what has happened that so many who have tried to follow Jesus have given up because it just seems to them that the burden is heavy that Jesus wants them to bear and that his yoke or teachings are hard, difficult and near impossible to follow?
Too often we pick the Bible up and read it as though it were a new set of rules for us to follow instead of a message of grace, love and hope. Think of something else Jesus said for a moment. Do you remember when the scribe approached Jesus to test him and asked “What is the first and great commandment that we should follow to be saved?” Jesus responded by asking him, “What do you think? How do you read the law?” The man answered honestly, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus answered the man, “You are right. That is the first and great command. Do this and you will live.” Jesus even said to the man, “You are not far from the kingdom.” It is amazing to me that of all the times anyone asked Jesus about what they needed to do the answer was never a long list of do’s and don’ts. Too often we sound more like the religious leaders who tormented Jesus than like Jesus. They were constantly complaining because Jesus and his apostles didn’t observe the Sabbath as they thought they should. They didn’t fast like they should. They sure didn’t stay away from people who were living sinful lives like they thought they should. Jesus came to seek and save the lost so he went where the lost were and reached out in love to change their lives.
In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 Paul pleads with the church in Corinth to forgive and bring back into acceptance a man who had done wrong. Look closely at his message to them. “If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent – not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.” Now I sure wish we knew more about what the man had done. Some have thought it was the man who was having sex with his step mother as described back in I Corinthians 5. This doesn’t sound like the same thing when you read it though. This seems like something that people felt was an offense to Paul so they had pulled away from the person after rebuking his sin. What is vital to see is that Paul was concerned the punishment inflicted by the church might lead to the person being overwhelmed with sorrow. He feared Satan would take advantage and scheme to so discourage the person that they gave up on Christianity altogether.
Think of all the people you know personally, who were once devoted Christians and very active in church. Something happened along the way and they became involved in some wrong that led to their being ostracized by folks at church. They became so upset and discouraged that now they not only don’t live for Christ, don’t go to church that now they don’t really see any way they could ever be right with God again. What sin is there that is so big that God can’t forgive it? What sin is so big that the blood of Jesus can’t cleanse it? He could cleanse Saul, the chief of sinners who persecuted him, blasphemed his name and hurt the cause by pushing for the stoning of Stephen. He could forgive the Samaritan woman who had been married 5 times and was now living with someone who wasn’t her husband. He could forgive Zacchaeus the tax collector who had stolen from the people and been a general crook for years. He could forgive Peter who denied him three times even with cursing and swearing. He could forgive the thief on the cross when asked. So who is God unwilling to forgive today?
It is really different sins with different people. The one I most often hear about is that “I got a divorce and married someone else and the church now doesn’t welcome me or my new husband or wife back.” Recently a lady told me of attempting to place membership with a church and being told by the leaders that they didn’t accept her as a member because she had been divorced and remarried. I have known several who as young ladies got pregnant and were not welcomed back either because of their keeping the child or because they didn’t. It seems there is no right way for them to handle it if they made a mistake. I have never known of a young man being pushed out because he got a young girl pregnant. I just wonder what the difference is. It’s no wonder that Paul needed to remind the church in Corinth where many of them had come from. In I Corinthians 6:9-11 he said, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy not drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Tell me something, when was the last time you heard of a church rejecting someone or pushing them out because they were greedy? Have you known of anyone being rejected because they were slanderers or gossips? What about anyone who has turned money and things into their god and become an idolater, have you known of anyone with that problem being rejected at church? Neither have I! Is it not just a little strange that we pick out the few sins that relate to immorality or marriage problems and make them the big sins that we just can’t accept at church? What is so odd about that is that our Lord and Savior went completely against the religious crowd during his life time by showing mercy to the very kinds of people that we so often feel there is no hope for them to ever return and be right with God again. Can you in your wildest imagination picture Jesus saying to a person, “You had an affair so there is no hope for you. You are going straight to hell?” Can you imagine him turning to a person who was divorced and remarried no matter what the reason may have been and saying they aren’t welcome with him unless they divorce again and remain single for the rest of their life? I just can imagine it. Perhaps because I know that divorce and remarriage was a huge problem during the time Jesus was on earth and he never said anything like that to anyone then. Even when he gave his teaching about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19:9 his apostles were so confused by it that they declared that if that is the way it is it would be better for a man not to marry. They were struggling to picture the application of the words and they had been walking with Jesus for nearly three years already.
Here is the challenge folks. The church isn’t some kind of museum for saints. It is intended to be a place filled with sinners who are being saved by the grace of Almighty God. It is the one place where the worst of sinners can come and rub elbows, sing along with and share the pew with those who have lived for God devotedly for 60 years and feel loved, accepted and welcome. You don’t have to measure up to be a Christian. Jesus measured up for us. We must come in faith, and obedience to him, trusting his love and grace to forgive us and give us new life in him. If we push people away, Satan will always move in and make the wall as high as possible so that the person who did the wrong can’t even see over the wall to see a path back to God. Our job is to tear that wall down and go after the sinner like Jesus did. Our motto must be, “We accept people where they are and strive to help them become all God wants them to be.” “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and one of them becomes lost, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go searching for the one that is lost until he finds it and then with joy he takes it into his arms and brings it back rejoicing. Even so I tell you there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine just persons who do not need to repent.”