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FRIENDS OF JESUS
Psalm 138 (responsive reading)
There is a little church just down the road from us. It's a small, white building set back from the road. The sign out front says, "Christadelphians." I know enough about Greek to know that it means literally "Brothers of Christ." Since I see both men and women going into the church I assume they mean Siblings of Christ, or better, Friends of Christ.
Most people would think that's a very pleasant name for who we Christians are: "Friends of Christ." But I wonder if we realize how shocking it really is.
If we didn't already know the story, we might think we know who the friends of the Son of God might be. Maybe we would imagine an enormous religious gathering (it's God's son after all!). All the uppity-ups of the religious world would be there in their finest flowing robes, golden crowns and ornate vestments. You would, of course, dress to the hilt because this is the Son of God.
Gathered at the front of room would be the elite, powerful, most successful - those for whom an audience with the Son of God was appropriate. There would be great pomp and ceremony. The pipe organ would be blasting away in an enormous cathedral.
Think of who you have to be, today, to get in to see the Pope, and then magnify times ten thousand. If you are important enough, successful enough, significant enough, and you try to get on the calendar a year in advance, then you might be able to get an audience with the Pope. Since the Son of God is infinitely more important than the Pope imagine how difficult that should be.
Of course, we know that's not the way it is. That whole scenario is laughable. Jesus is right there walking the dusty streets of Galilee in his common robe and dirty sandals.
Who are the friends of Jesus? The closest people to him are probably his disciples. There are a couple of sets of brother's who have the distinct smell of fish. Another of the disciples was a tax collector. If you know how much people dislike the IRS then you are beginning to understand how much tax collectors were despised. It worked a little differently in Jesus' time. The tax collectors had to collect the money for the government but they could charge as much as they wanted and keep the rest for themselves. So, a lot of tax collectors were wealthy and they got their wealth from over-charging people. You can imagine why they were considered sleazy crooks.
One of the people who was closest to Jesus was Mary Magdalene. Christian tradition says that she was a woman with a bad reputation, and many have considered her a prostitute, but that's not what the New Testament says. Luke simply says she was a woman who was cured of seven demons. He doesn't say what the demons were. At any rate she had serious problems, was cured, followed Jesus and supported his ministry.
In our scripture today we read the story of the woman caught in adultery. She was brought to Jesus to try to trick him into saying something they could use against him. The religious leaders remind Jesus that the penalty for her crime is to be stoned. Jesus looks at the woman, who is now facing a horrible death. Then he looks around at the people pushing toward him with stones in their hands.
Jesus is quiet for a moment. Then he says, "Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone." The looks on the people's faces melt from anger and judgment to reflection on their own failures. Then John says they went away beginning with the elders.
When we look at the friends of Jesus, they are quite a motley group: some ordinary hard-working people, a man despised for what he did, a woman with serious problems, someone who had really messed up her life. Rather than the elite and powerful they were the nobodies; they were the people considered useless, evil, or damaged. These were Jesus' friends.
Even though many of them were considered failures, they realized where they had made mistakes - they didn't kid themselves - and they were looking for help. They were genuine people who realized what they needed and worked to make things right.
In what the world thought worthless, Jesus saw great value.
But what about church people? Weren't they Jesus' favorites? We know that Jesus spent a lot of time in the synagogue worshipping. He often taught there. Contrary to what you may have heard the New Testament is clear that Jesus was frequently in the synagogue preaching, teaching, and worshipping.
But we know that Jesus was critical of many of the religious leaders. Does this sound endearing? "You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth." Jesus attacks the religious people who look like they are pious on the outside but inside are full of hypocrisy.
It was hypocrisy that angered Jesus. He condemns insincere people who love appearances and empty ceremony but don't live out their faith. He attacks those who are quick to judge others but don't bother to look within themselves. Jesus is upset with those who know all the rituals by heart, but don't know faith by heart.
Of course, this is not all religious people but it includes many of their pretentious leaders.
Clearly Jesus gave himself completely to those who were lost and troubled and knew that they were. He reached out to the people others considered worthless - who maybe thought of themselves as worthless - to offer hope, forgiveness, and a new foundation for life. Jesus accepted people, even when they had committed great sins, if they were honest and they wanted to start a new life.
Remember when Jesus came across Zacchaeus in Jericho? Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, the head over several other tax collectors, and he was wealthy. So if tax collectors were hated, he was despised.
Zacchaeus was a short man who really wanted to see Jesus. With the crowd around Jesus he couldn't see so he decided to climb up a tree to get a better view. Maybe he thought it was a chance to see Jesus and yet be hidden from sight by the branches and leaves of the tree. A crowd of people might not have been the most comfortable place for someone as disliked as Zacchaeus.
But Jesus sees him and calls out to him. "Zacchaeus come down. I am going to stay with you today." Do you wonder how the crowd reacted to Jesus' words? He wants to stay with this man everybody knows is a crook. What kind of Messiah is that?
There's grumbling. "What's this? He's going to stay at the house of a sinner?" Don't you imagine some of Jesus' followers are disappointed? "What's Jesus doing with him?"
Jesus accepts people who are honest with themselves, but he offers them a new kind of life. He's not afraid to surround himself with sinners but he has a higher calling for us. So when he sees the woman caught in adultery he doesn't just say to those who would kill her, "Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone." He also says to the woman, "Go and sin no more." He offers her a chance to start life over again. He helps us learn from our failures and especially learn of our need for God.
So Jesus is glad to be with those who have made serious mistakes in their lives. He certainly seems to be more comfortable with them than with pompous, hollow religious leaders.
Jesus is always helping us see that God gave us life for a higher purpose. He shows us that because of our relationship with God we can live a more meaningful life.
Look at the difference Jesus' concern made in Zacchaeus' life. When Jesus wants to come to his house, Zacchaeus responds, "I will give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will repay them four times as much."
Zacchaeus experienced a radical change in his life. Jesus not only changed his mind and heart but changed the way Zacchaeus lived. Zacchaeus demonstrated that change through his actions. He puts his money where his faith is. He acted to make things right with other people.
Zacchaeus' life turned around, his values changed, and the direction of his life renewed, all because Jesus embraced him, a sinner.
Among the friends of Jesus there are some surprising people.
Amen1. See the memoirs of Mary Karr, The Liar's Club and Cherry, and especially the third of the trilogy, Lit.
© Richard J. Henderson 2011