I heard Scot McKnight on a podcast the other day where he made an interesting observation. “I grew up in a Paul church,” he said, and went on to explain that in America there are “Paul churches” and “Jesus churches.” I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, and I may not parse it out exactly the same way McKnight does, but I realize that he’s right. This is not to say that some churches openly worship Paul instead of Jesus (though a few come close). The difference is between churches that worship and celebrate Jesus according to ideas about Jesus, especially those gleaned from the writings of Paul as interpreted by the church fathers and reformers, and churches that seek to follow the teaching and way of Jesus himself. This isn’t really about Paul vs. Jesus, it’s about the often shocking disparity between our doctrinal beliefs and the kingdom ethos that Jesus taught and embodied.
Even though I’d never considered the “Paul church/Jesus church” rubric before, I have been meditating for a long time on the glaring disconnection between the Protestant church’s doctrines of sin and grace and the attitude and behavior of Jesus toward “sinners” in the gospels. In a “Paul church” setting, the tendency is to focus on legality and guilt, and to treat sinners like offenders and defendants. When there is talk of forgiveness and atonement, it is usually reserved for those who have entered into a process of confession, conversion, and belief. But is that how Jesus dealt with sinners? Jesus urged his hearers to repent and turn from sin, to be sure, but did he withhold blessing and salvation until his subjects proved sufficiently contrite or devout?
In my opinion and experience, stories speak much louder than doctrines and axioms. Stories are interactive, designed to engage and provoke thought. And the Bible is full of stories and testimonies, especially about Jesus. So here are three stories about Jesus interacting with sinners that a “Jesus Christian” might take to heart.
Jesus Versus a Blind Man (John 9)
Wait a minute, you protest, a blind man isn’t the same as a “sinner!” And in your cozy, enlightened, twenty-first-century context you may be correct. But in this story and in the larger ancient world, the overwhelming belief was that anyone with an infirmity or disability was obviously being punished for some violation of God’s laws and/or the natural order. Jesus’ followers spell it out: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (9:2) Jesus responds, “He didn’t sin nor did his parents; this happened that God’s works could be seen in him!,” (9:3) and then proceeds to heals the man. For Jesus, pain and brokenness are not signs of divine punishment but opportunities for divine blessing. And this is why I include this particular story on this list. In a Jesus-based view of humanity, the category of “sinner” has a radically different shape than it does elsewhere. Before we talk about how to deal with “sinners,” we might need to radically rethink the label itself.
Jesus Versus an Adulterous Lady (John 8)
OK, this is more like it. A real live sinner, caught in the act, even! Spicy! In this famous incident, a crowd of extremely religious gentlemen are set to stone a woman they caught in adultery (I guess the man she was with had to get to jury duty or something). They’re super excited to put their Bible-based doctrine into action and “deal with sin” when Jesus crashes their party and ruins everything. He exposes their hypocrisy, disperses the crowd, and sends the woman on her way to continue being alive. In a “Paul church” environment, Jesus’ admonition to “sin no more” (8:11) is the instructional takeaway. But really, “sin no more” is the least radical aspect of this story. This woman, guilty beyond doubt of a top-ten sin, is pardoned and rescued by Jesus with no lecture or ceremony, without so much as a word of contrition or devotion from her. What does this story tell us about Jesus and sin? In this account, like so many others from the gospels, the danger of punition and violence comes not from heaven but from the human religious establishment. Jesus’ only role is to invade and disrupt that system and advocate for the “sinner” that it seeks to victimize.
Jesus Versus His Own Murderers (Luke 23)
I’ve talked about this story many times here on the blog, because it always gets to me. In fact, if I was tasked with summing up the message of the New Testament in a single short passage, it might have to be this one. Jesus has been betrayed and abandoned by his followers, taken into custody, tortured, and is being executed, all on trumped-up charges. The son of God hangs there, degraded and mutilated, the victim of wicked collusion between religion and empire. And with his dying breath, what does he do? Does he call fire and death upon his persecutors? Does he speak ominous prophecies of vengeance and vindication? No, with his last breath he simply and bafflingly pronounces pardon upon his killers: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!” (23:34) Is there a more moving and powerful sentence in all of world literature? Not only does Jesus forgive his oppressors – unrepentant pagan murderers who will never believe in him or embrace the kingdom of God – he dies advocating for them. In a stunning and prescient sociological insight, Jesus recognizes the systemic and environmental forces behind the heinous deeds of his executors and looks upon them with inexhaustible understanding and compassion.
What if our doctrines of sin and grace were based on the words and deeds of Jesus in stories like these instead of the musings of philosophers and theologians? What if being a Christian meant being like Jesus rather than believing Christian things about Jesus? And what if God looked more like Jesus the lover of sinners than any of our shame-based doctrinal formulas?