Summary: Christ loves us unconditionally, and we the church are called by Christ to share that same love in the world today.
What would our church look like if Jesus were the pastor? Would it be exactly like it is here today? Would we even be here at all, or would we be gathering in a different place? How would we spend our time and our resources as part of the church? How might Grace be different if it was Jesus standing in the pulpit every Sunday and answering the phones and sending out emails during the week? Now, as your pastor, I serve Christ and I strive to lead the church in becoming what Jesus would have it be. But I am only human, and to a great extent the church is a human institution. So if Jesus were in charge here would things be different? Who would be sitting here this morning? Would a person like Matthew the tax collector be welcome in our church?
Now, in my view, it is ultimately Christ who is the pastor not only of this church, but of every church. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t stand before us in the pulpit on Sunday mornings or make hospital calls and run meetings during the week. Whether we speak of Jesus’ ministry on the earth 2000 years ago or the ministry of his church today should make little difference. They should be the same because the church is called to nothing less than continuing Christ’s vocation in the world. So how are we doing? Do we reflect the ministry of Christ through our own ministries?
As we consider this question, our gospel reading from this morning provides a good measure. This is the story of the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. Now, tax collectors were not highly regarded in Jesus’ day, particularly by the Jews. Of course, even now it’s hard to find a person that likes to pay taxes, but it was particularly painful for the Jews in Jesus’ time. Taxes were used to pay for the Roman conquests and occupations. It’s no wonder the Jewish people didn’t like paying taxes that supported the harsh force occupying their lands. Then, on top of that aggravation, there was also the fact that tax collectors could collect monies in excess of what was taxed by Rome; and they often did so extravagantly, lining their own pockets greedily. Quite simply, tax collectors were social outcasts. They were regarded as thieves and robbers, equal with prostitutes and adulterers. Such was Matthew; an apparently greedy social outcast who surely kept company with the likes of thieves or robbers. These people would be Matthew’s friends because they were the social outcasts. But Jesus chose Matthew to be his disciple anyway. What does that tell you about the heart of Christ? What does it mean that Christ has called even us to be disciples?
The name Matthew means “gift from God.” That’s what Jesus saw. It didn’t matter that Matthew was a tax collector or that he hung out with sinners. Jesus wants Matthew to be one of his disciples. And when Jesus calls Matthew, he doesn’t say to him, “Matthew, tell me about your witness, theology, and fruit of the Spirit, and then maybe I’ll let you be a disciple.” Rather, Jesus just looks at Matthew the tax collector and says, “Come and follow me.”
Are there any Johnny Cash fans out there? For those of you who are familiar with Cash and his work, you probably know of his album, American Recordings. Late in his life, Cash shared that of all his albums, the cover for American Recordings was his favorite (show album photo cover). The cover photo was shot in Australia (ironically), and as Johnny Cash tells the story, at the last minute, these two dogs trotted up and stood on either side of him. Now, the reason that Cash so loved this album cover was because of those two dogs. You’ll notice that one of the dogs is mostly white with some black spots, while the other one is mostly black with a white streak on his front. Cash says that those two dogs remind him of humans; we’re all either mostly sinner, or we’re mostly saint with a black streak running through our lives. We are all in need of redemption. And still Jesus calls us; still Jesus wants to be in relationship with us! No matter who we hang out with or what our history, God came to pardon sin; to remove those black marks on us and to wash us white as snow. Jesus came to save us from ourselves and our sin, and that is the greatest pardon of all.
The gospel is for sick people. And we are all sick people. Even if we’re not like that black dog on Johnny Cash’s right, we’re like the dog on the other side, with some black covering our white undercoat. We are all sinners, and we are all in need of a savior. There’s not one of us that has any room for judging someone else because we’re all in need of the same medicine from God. We gather here today because Christ showed compassion on us just as he showed to Matthew the tax collector. And as Christ’s body in the world today, we are called to show that same compassion to every person. As a church we are called to love the people in our community and to share our lives with them. Christ tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all we’ve got and to share God’s love with the people around us; showing compassion on people, having pity on them, offering help to meet their needs. Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors. He ate with people who were social outcasts, and then he called them to follow him and be a part of his kingdom. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been; it doesn’t matter if you’re the white dog with the black spots or the black dog with a tiny streak of white. We’ve all been there, we know the saving love of God in Christ Jesus, and we are called to share that love with the world. It doesn’t matter if you are completely pious like the Pharisees; if you have not love, you are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and what matters most is the compassion that we have for people.