Jesus Receives Sinners – Do You and I?

By Mike Hale

Notice our keynote scripture today is a very short verse indeed. It is Luke 15:2, spoken by Jesus’ enemies the scribes and Pharisees. Their accusation was, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

Little did Jesus’ critics know their statement of judgment against him was an accidental proclamation of Gospel truth. Yes thank heavens, Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, receives sinners and eats with them.

Barth and the Barmen Declaration

Soon after Adolph Hitler assumed power in Germany in 1933 he appointed Ludwig Muller as Reich Bishop. Muller referred to Hitler and the Nazis as “presents from God.” Another pastor claimed “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler…We know today the Savor has come…We have only one task, be German, not Christian” (Johnson, A History of Christianity, page 485).

Karl Barth and some evangelical friends saw this as idolatry. In 1934 Barth and Rudolph Bultmann organized a synod of pastors from all over Germany at Bremen (Bremer-Haven). Part of their Declaration directly opposed the “false doctrine that the church ought to accept as the basis for its message, besides and apart form the one word of God, other events and powers, figures or truths as if they were God’s revelation.” Pastor Martin Niemoller of Berlin was almost immediately arrested as “Hitler’s personal prisoner.” The young theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer decided to return to German from England to found “an underground seminary.” Barth refused to sign the statement all professors were forced to sign proclaiming loyalty to the Hitler regime and returned to his native Switzerland.

This “Confessing Church” is a testimony to those very few people who stayed loyal to the essential precepts of the Gospel in a dark time. Even Barth knew he had not done enough. As he left Germany in 1935 he spoke of “the millions that suffer unjustly for whom the Confessing Church “does not yet have a heart” (Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, page 437).

Still, the Barmen Declaration gave Barth and his colleagues enough moral authority to teach the principles of forgiveness that helped lead millions of Germans back from the wilderness of guilt and shame.

As we read in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Sinners are the reason Jesus was born, lived, died, was resurrected, ascended and now lives for us and will return for us. Micah 7 had spoken of the compassionate and merciful God who had cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

We may try to put people into various categories but we are all in the same boat as far as sin is concerned. We are all cut from the same cloth – all formed from the same dust of the earth. I want to speak about that today and ask if we accept people the way Jesus did.

A Historic Parallel

This June 6 I had to think of my own father who was sent ashore at Normandy during World War Two. You remember that June 6, 1944 was the invasion of Normandy. Dad went in later than the first wave for which I am thankful…or I might not be here. But he soldiered on, seeing enough death and devastation for 1000 lifetimes.

World War two was a horrific tragedy – some say it took the lives of 60 to 80 million people. The numbers vary because many were exterminated without records being kept.

We have a fairly good idea how all this started, that a whole nation in the middle of Europe got led astray by a maniac leader and ended up doing horrendous things, things that the world still hasn’t recovered from in some ways.

Karl Barth

There was a Christian teacher and a professor named Karl Barth living in Germany during the 1930s. He refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the Hitler regime so he left Germany to return to his native Switzerland. Some of his students stayed in Germany and paid the ultimate price.

After this most destructive war was over the German people as a whole were brought to zero, They had nothing. Their cities lay in ruins. The worst of it was they didn’t know what to think about all this – to think about their history or themselves.

The parallel here is that today a similar thing happens to individuals. Through sin, bad choices or becoming entrapped by events that spin out of control, a person is brought to zero and no longer even knows what to think about themselves or how they even got there. They’re stuck, sort of like the apostle Paul was when you read Romans 7.

Can’t Be Neutral

Barth knew the Swiss had decided to stay neutral during this awful carnage. After 1945 they were living next door to the defeated Germans who had no hope for the future and were weighed down by a great sadness. Barth began to speak and write to this situation. In essence he said, This is neither a time for victors to gloat, nor for those who have been neutral to refrain from helping. This is a time for a fresh start for those brought so low.

This was a courageous thing for Barth to say, but as a leader of the resistance to Hitler he could say it more forcefully than most.

Sometimes today Christians gloat. We see people in terrible trouble and sad situations and say, I told you so, or, You brought this trouble on yourself.

Barth the theologian knew that all of us were equal as sinners at the foot of the cross. He knew the German people needed friends, someone who is with them at the zero point.

Barth cautioned Swiss Christians not to approach the Germans as a Teacher would. A teacher is a corrector, someone who stands above the students. Job’s so-called friends wanted to be his teachers. They reprimanded him as he sat on his ash heap. But Barth knew that Jesus said I have not called you servants, but friends. A friend is someone who is unconditionally for you, not putting you on probation.

At Our Zero Point

We are reminded that lost, defeated people carrying the weight of shame and guilt may have little grasp of forgiveness, and have a hard time believing that God and other people would forgive them. Yet Jesus said, Come to me you who are heavily laden or burdened and I will give you rest. And Barth taught it was the time for that rest to be offered to those lost individuals who had been Hitler followers, collaborators and compromisers.

Receiving sinners. Our theme. You know it makes it a lot easier when we realize that we have all been to Zero. As the grieving father told Jesus in the Gospels, Lord I believe, help my unbelief. Too often we are too weak to admit our weakness and we end up resisting God. But...1 Peter 5:6 says we find healing when we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God so that he can lift us up…in due time.

Today Germany is a loyal part of the Atlantic Alliance and a bulwark of the European economy – in large part because people back then had to sense to receive those who felt like the chief of sinners and didn’t know where to turn. Our job is to go and do likewise.

Yes, Jesus still receives sinners, and welcomes us all at the Lord’s Table.

Big Beak, aka Mike Hale.

(Mike Hale of 1980s Big Beak fame, is the father of four and has been a Christian journalist, musician and composer across five decades. He and his wife, Janet, visit Glendora regularly.)