Summary: Grace. Those most people thought were least likely to become God’s people are the ones who come to Christ; while the ones often thought to be most likely became his enemies.
Two of the surprises that we come across as we read the New Testament are the people who become close to Jesus, and the people who are alienated from Jesus. It is surprising because it is exactly the opposite of what we would expect to find. We would expect Jesus to be close to the religious folk of his day, but in fact he is in conflict with them from the outset of his ministry. We would expect Jesus to avoid the sinful rabble of the world, but in fact that is the crowd that seems most attracted to him — and he to them. The highly committed religious crowd who give a lot of money, are faithful at religious worship, work to establish a God-fearing nation, obey the moral law and expect the same from others, seem suspicious of Jesus at best, and outright hostile at worst. They dog him as he goes about his ministry, criticizing his every move. They plot against him; start false rumors; try to get him arrested, and finally accomplish his murder.
The sinful masses, whom we might expect Jesus to be turned off by, are instead the ones he seems to hang out with. He goes to their parties, and is even criticized for being a drunkard because he frequents them. And we would expect the sinners to be turned off by someone who talked about God so much, but instead they can’t stay away from him. They invite him to their homes and become his closest disciples. Those whom the religious aristocracy would have nothing to do with, are a part of Jesus’ inner circle. There are prostitutes and politicians, Roman soldiers and gentiles. Among his twelve disciples there is a revolutionary who is a part of a militia group. There is a tax collector who has betrayed his own people by working for the government which has occupied Israel. Two of the disciples were so hot tempered that he called them “Sons of Thunder.” One of his disciples was the devil incarnate. It was a ragtag bunch. Not a very impressive group by the world’s standards, and certainly not what we would have expected to see among those who were closest to the Son of God.
How do you explain the revulsion, and outright hostility of the religious people toward Jesus, and the attraction and tremendous following Jesus had among those who had serious moral and social problems? The gospels teach us many things about what it means to have a relationship with God. The first thing I learn from the gospels is: I become close to God, not when I become a good person, but when I become honest about myself. The Christian life is not a performance; it is a relationship. It is not about being good enough to be accepted by God. It is about being honest enough with yourself and God that you admit that you are not good enough, and will not ever be good enough, to earn God’s acceptance. You stop trying to be good enough and become honest about whom you really are.
I love the story of Jesus’ encounter with Peter. The Bible describes the scene this way: “One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’” (Luke 5:1_8). Before he met Jesus, Peter was a very rough character. His language and lifestyle were not something that anyone would have called virtuous. He was domineering and sharp in his mannerisms. He was a natural leader, but it was not leadership by admiration, but the sheer force of his personality. But the one thing Peter had going for him was that he had a realistic picture of himself, and he did not try to pretend to be something he was not. He was always trying to reign in his temper. He wished his personality was not so tempestuous, because he was not the kind to purposely hurt someone. And when he was wrong he was willing to admit it and ask for forgiveness. When this brash sinner came into contact with Jesus the first thing that occurred to him was that he was an appalling sinner. He did not try to overpower Jesus with his personality. He did not try to point out his good points. He fell on his face and said, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Something happened as a result of Peter’s encounter with Jesus: When he saw Jesus he saw himself.