Introduction: Several years ago I posted this sermon of mine. I remains one of the top posts on my blog. I have had opportunity to bring this message to four other churches since then. It challenges us to think about what it means to incarnate Christ-like grace to the broken, the lost, and the outcast. The safest place on earth to confess your sins should be the church and the safest people to share your brokenness with should be Christians, but too often this is not the case. My friends we are not called to merely rejoice in God’s grace, but to incarnate and share that same grace with all who need it, especially the lost, the broken, and the outcast! My prayer is that the Spirit will bless your reading of it and be moved to live in such a way as to make Jesus and His offer of grace attractive to the broken world we live in.
Update: Here is the audio and PowerPoint of A Tale of Three Women, given at Abundant Life Church in Wilmington, MA on August 28, 2016.
With whom we are to practice grace? To answer that question I am going to tell you about three women:
A sinful woman who crashed a private party to meet Jesus.
Rachael a Christian woman who got lost in the Church.
and Michelle who is broken outside the Church.
We don’t know the name of the first woman. She is simply described as “a woman who was living a sinful life.” Let’s look at her story in Luke 7:36-50 (NIV).
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
The events of Luke 7:36-50 are poignant, challenging, and showcase Jesus’ grace. In other words, as we pastors are wont to say, “This passage preaches!” If you get a book or a commentary or listen to a sermon to dig into this passage, you will find that the typical lessons drawn from it are things like:
- Jesus forgives anyone who comes to him.
- The importance of repentance.
- That in forgiving Jesus was claiming to be God.
- That whoever is forgiven much loves much.
- We compare and contrast the attitudes towards Jesus of the Pharisee with those of the prostitute. Are you more like the prostitute or more like the Pharisee?
All worthwhile things to consider. Yet I submit there is a much more profound question to ask here. What if we were put in Jesus’ place in this passage? Would we respond the same way both to the woman and to the Pharisee? Would we, like the Pharisee, see a sinner who should be shunned, or like Jesus, see a woman who needed forgiven? Would she be drawn to God because of our life and walk and conversation? Would the Pharisee wonder if we were really a good Christian because we allowed a prostitute to recline at our feet?
A couple of years ago, I read The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. As you might expect, the book focuses around the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15. After exegetically going through the parable, Keller concludes the opening chapter of his book with these words.
The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. We see this throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life. In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31).
Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.
The point of Luke 7:36-50 is that the Pharisee should have been happy that this woman was coming back to God, but instead he was indignant. We should be living in such a way as to make Christ attractive to the broken, the lost, and the outcast.
Too often the opposite is true. We think about how it would make us look. We worry about our image. We worry about the cost: the time, the effort, and the resources. We don’t want to deal with the headaches, the heartaches, or the pain. We fear walking into the pain, loss, brokenness, and sin of such people.
Just last week someone responded to a post on my blog saying that always being gracious while true in theory, is often not practical in the real world. Grace is never practical! It is always impractical! Grace is never going to be the easy or convenient choice. It is too costly. Yet that is what Jesus did again, and again, and again.
If we want our lives to mirror Jesus, we will do the things Jesus did, and say the things Jesus said, and that means living in such a way that the broken, the lost, and the outcast are attracted to Christ.
I have talked about one woman’s story. Let me share by way of illustration and application the story of two others: one who got lost in the church, and another who is currently broken outside the church. Both these women are personal friends of mine and have given me permission to share their stories with you.
The second woman I want to tell you about is Rachael, who got lost in the Church. Years ago I taught at a private Christian School in Central New Jersey. One of my students was Rachael. When I started there she was a junior. Years before, she had been very into Goth—black leather, black and white make up, blood—the works. She had an incredible conversion experience when she was in the 8th grade and made a total turn around. She had become the poster-child for what Christ could do. She loved Jesus, she was the class president, she sang in the choir, and was on my student prayer team. Everyone loved her.
One day she didn’t show up to school. One day became two, then three, then a week, then two weeks. No one seemed to know why. Then one day we were told that there was going to be a mandatory faculty meeting after school to update us on a student’s situation. We all guessed it was about Rachael. We were all led into the library where a square of tables had been set up. Once we were all inside, the doors were closed, locked, the window shades drawn, and the headmaster sat down and opened his Bible. I thought to myself, “He’s going to tell us that Rachael is dead!”
“Many of you know that Rachael has not been in school lately,” the headmaster began. “She has not been here because she is pregnant.”
I remember making an audible sigh of relief. “Oh thank God, she’s not dead!” I said to myself.
The headmaster continued, “I have spoken with her parents. She is repentant, she knows what she did was wrong. However, since it is clearly stated in the student handbook that student pregnancy is grounds for automatic expulsion, her parents have informed me that she has opted to withdraw.”
I will never forget the response of the faculty. “What?! What was she thinking? How could she do that? She’s ruined her life! She had so much potential! Didn’t she think how this would reflect on her parents (her dad was a pastor) and on us?” They were mad. They were shocked. They were indignant.
As we started to go around praying, one of the teachers prayed, “Dear God, Rachael really screwed up…but You can forgive…”
Can? CAN? As in its possible? Might? Maybe? I took my turn to pray next, “God, I am glad that when Jesus died for Rachael on the cross, He knew about this, He paid for it, and forgave her for it 2000 years ago. Help us to care for her and communicate your love, grace, and compassion to her.”
Right after that meeting I went to her house. I sat with her and her parents. I asked her why she did not go to her dad, or to her boyfriend’s dad (also a pastor), or to her youth pastor, or to me if they were struggling with the temptation to sleep together. This is what she said, “Mr. Ledwith, I have felt under so much pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations for so long that I just decided I couldn’t. We were afraid to talk about what we were feeling to anyone because we were afraid of what people would say.”
That was a great indictment against us. That should never, ever be true of any Christian church or ministry. The safest place on earth to confess your sins should be the church and the safest people to confess to should be Christians.
I am sad to say no other person went to visit her that day, or after that day. No students, no other staff. No one else came to see her.
Rachael and her boyfriend Nic got married. She got her GED, and they both went to school to become missionaries. They started Shores of Grace Ministries, and are serving in Recife, Brazil ministering to prostitutes and the abused. Her life was not ruined by her sin! Her potential was not lost! She is a great woman, Christian, mother, wife, and friend. We are still in touch. In fact I just saw her last month. Here’s a picture from that visit…
How would you have reacted? What would you have done in that meeting? More importantly what would you have done after that meeting? Would you incarnate the Spirit of Jesus, or the ghost of Simon the Pharisee?
The third woman I want to tell you about is Michelle, who is broken outside the Church.
As an author, one of the things publishers tell you need to be working on in order to get published is building your readership. One of ways I was counseled to do that was to have a blog. So as I was getting ready to publish my last book, Rest in the Shadow of the Almighty, I started one on WordPress. One of the things I began learning early on, is that you have no idea who is going to read your stuff and what they might say. I quickly began learning that some of the people who liked or commented on my posts were planted by the enemy to tempt me into checking out some morally nasty sites.
One day about three years ago, I got an email saying that I had a new comment from a Michelle Styles. These emails also include a profile picture of the person making the comment if they are a WordPress blogger. Her picture was of a sultry posed twenty-something young woman. That made me nervous. The comment was in response to a post of mine titled, What Angers God is Sin, where I quoted Proverbs 6:16-19 (NIV),
There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
This was her comment, “Your God would hate me then. My hands shed my blood on many occasion. Long story, but I struggle with a horrible past and my release is blood and pain. I do not see god as hateful, He’s too pure for such a thought.”
What to do? Should I respond? Should I let it alone? But I had just read Keller’s book, and his words haunted me. In the end, I decided to respond. “Michelle, thanks for taking the time to share your comment. You shared a lot of yourself in just four sentences. My God would surprise you. Your past and your struggle with it cannot keep Him from loving you. I would love to talk with you more. If you would like, feel free to email me.”
To my surprise, she did. Let me tell you her story.
Michelle is the youngest of seven and was born deaf. One day walking home from school she was grabbed by five men and thrown into a van. In that van, and in a nearby building they drove to, those men—and I use that term very loosely—viciously raped her. When they were done with her, they threw her bloody and broken body into a construction pit like a bag of trash.
By God’s grace, a patrolman driving by for some reason stopped at the pit, got out of his car, and saw her at the bottom and got help. If he had not stopped and looked, she would have died in that pit. To add insult to injury, she soon found that she was pregnant as a result of the attack. She was fourteen.
Michelle’s mother is a Christian. Michelle is not. Neither is her father. But her family all went to church in support of her mother. Of course, they all looked to their pastor and church family for help. They were asking the obvious questions: “Why did this happen? Where was God? Does He even care?”
They got answers like these:
- “Just give it all to God, everything will be OK.”
- “God has a wonderful plan for your life, just trust in Him, He will bring something glorious out of this!”
- “All things work for the good of those who love Him.”
These, however, proved shallow comforts for Michelle. The way they were spoken seemed more about keeping her and her pain at arm’s length, than caring answers from people who truly loved her and wanted to incarnate Jesus’ love to her.
As time went on, she continued to struggle more and more.
A suicide attempt.
As her pain continued, the church’s patience began to wane. They told her and her parents,
- “When is she going to let this go and live her life? It is time to let go and move on!”
- They quoted Exodus 20:5 (NIV) I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, and said God had punished Michelle for her father’s unbelief.
- They told Michelle that God was punishing her for not being a Christian.
That was enough. Michelle left, and didn’t look back.
About ten years later, Michelle began to think about God and faith again. Her girlfriend Sarah took her to her home church, excited that Michelle might finally find the love she needed. Things were ok until they realized Michelle and Sarah were more than just friends. When they discovered they were lovers, they told them in no uncertain terms to leave and never come back.
That has been her experience with the vast majority of Christians she has met. Unfriendly, unwelcoming, impatient, and repulsed by her.
Friends, if we are reviled because people reject Christ and the gospel we live and proclaim, so be it. Jesus was, and told us that we would be treated no less than He.
But if we are reviled because we are rude, judgmental, and graceless to people like Michelle, we should have a big problem with that!
Her story broke my heart. I wept as I read it. I wrote back saying, “What you were made to endure is, to my mind, about the worst that can be done to a person. I do not pretend to know the breadth and depth of the pain and the shame that you have been left bearing for the last fifteen years. What happened to you was unspeakable. It was evil…if through prayer, encouragement, conversation, or any other way, I can come alongside you as you walk this valley, I will.”
Again, quite to my surprise, she took me up on that. From that day to this day, we have been in regular contact with each other. It has been quite a ride walking with her over the last 34 months or so, including a second suicide attempt. But I have seen some amazing things happen in that time.
Today is 808 days since the last time she did any kind of self-harm. For the first time in half her life she has been rising out of her depression and learning that she is loveable and able to love. Her recurring nightmares reliving that horrible event that she had every night, have completely stopped. She is working through forgiving the men who attacked her. She is convinced that God divinely intervened stopping her nightmares and saved her from dying during her attack and two suicide attempts, and is actively working through what that means and why He did. All this started after myself and several other Christians committed ourselves to walk with her and pray for her. Is all that just a coincidence? I don’t think so! I think our tenaciously gracious God is out to get His daughter back!
The Woman living the sinful life was attracted to Jesus, and He welcomed her. While religious and moral people like Simon wanted to keep their distance from , Jesus welcomed her, defended her, and forgave her. He gave her grace. We need to do the same.
Rachael’s story teaches us that Christians sometimes get lost. But even though she was lost, Jesus never lost her. He continued to show her grace. We need to do the same.
Michelle’s story teaches us that Jesus pursues broken people even when they are not pursuing Him. We need to do the same.
If we don’t live in such a way as to make Jesus attractive to the broken, the lost, and the outcast, we are missing the goal of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus laid it out in Luke 4:18 by quoting Isaiah 61:1-2 (NIV),
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.
Michelle, Rachael and others like them can walk through your door any given Sunday. They can walk into your life any hour of the day. Will they find brothers and sisters looking for them and running to meet them? Will they find the incarnated love, grace, and forgiveness that Jesus offered the woman in our text, or will they find the incarnated indignance of Simon the Pharisee? I trust they will find the former.