Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 6/17/07

Jesus Christ accepts you the way you are.

Jesus Christ will change your life.

If you had to choose just one, which of those two statements do you think most clearly reflects the gospel?  Both are biblical.  Both are good news.  So it’s not like there is a right and a wrong answer here; you could argue either way.  It has more to do with how you hear the gospel.  Anyway, keep those two statements in mind as we think about today’s gospel lesson. 

It’s a story involving three characters; Jesus, Simon the Pharisee and a nameless woman, identified only as a sinner.  At first the encounter between these three might seem a little bit strange and quite unlikely.  First of all, Simon the Pharisee, a well respected man of God, invited Jesus, a controversial religious teacher, to a banquet at his home.  Considering Jesus’ ongoing problems with the Pharisees this might seem a bit surprising although not shockingly so.  There had to be a curiosity factor surrounding Jesus even for those who didn’t think much of him. 

What seems shocking is the arrival of the sinful woman at this event until you learn that occasions like this were much more public than a dinner party in a private home today.  In that culture dinner parties were something of a spectator sport so upon hearing of the arrival of a noted guest, townspeople would gather around the walls inside the home or outside in the courtyard to gawk and to listen to the conversation.  So knowing all that, having these three people at the same dinner party isn’t quite as strange as it might first sound.  The woman’s presence can be accounted for.

She does cross boundaries though.  If she had just looked on from a distance it wouldn’t have been so bad, but even for a “nice” woman to approach a man in that culture was forbidden, never mind washing his feet, which is said to have possible sexual overtones, never mind letting down her hair, which is said to have possible sexual overtones, all of which leads to the assumption that this woman’s sins were of a sexual nature, that she was a prostitute.  We don’t really know that, only that she is identified as a sinner, unclean, which meant that by touching Jesus, she would make him unclean as well.  Didn’t she know that?

Simon the Pharisee knew it.  He knew the rules.  He knew where the boundaries were.  Lest we be too negative about Simon though, he did invite Jesus to eat with him which was something of a risk and might have put him on the outs with other Pharisees.  Eating with Jesus could reflect badly on him as there were rules about who you could and couldn’t eat with and I don’t think Jesus was real high on the guest list of most Pharisees.  Simon though, was ready to give Jesus a chance, maybe it was the curiosity factor, but when this woman approached Jesus and Jesus didn’t reject her approach as inappropriate, Simon had seen enough.  A real prophet would have known better; but Jesus accepted the woman as she was and Simon wasn’t sure he could handle that.

Then again, Jesus accepted Simon the Pharisee as he was too.  I’m sure that didn’t seem very remarkable to Simon because he no doubt was pretty sure he was righteous and good, unlike the sinful woman.  But remember that Jesus had issues with the Pharisees.  He could have said no to the invitation, could have said I’m not going to waste my time talking to you narrow minded legalists.  But Jesus did talk to him; knowing what was going on in Simon’s mind, he told him a little parable about debts and forgiveness and after Simon had kind of convicted himself, Jesus said to him, “Do you see this woman?” 

It’s the key question for Simon, the kind of question where your first response is probably to indignantly say, “Of course I see her.”  But the truth is, Simon didn’t see her.  Her kind was invisible to people like him.  The only reason he paid her any heed at all was because she forced herself into his presence.  But even then he didn’t see her…not as a woman anyway.  What he saw was a sinner…which meant that he couldn’t accept her as she was.  She was bad and he was good and that took care of it.  For Simon it was impossible to think that there was anything he could learn from this sinner. 

Jesus however, didn’t just see her.  He accepted her…as she was, leaving us to ask, “Who don’t we see?”  Or, “Who do we see not as a person but only according to the label we place on them?  Who do we not accept as they are?”  Each of us wants to be accepted as we are, but most of us have those “others” who we’re not so sure about.  When I look in the mirror I have to remember that it’s often Simon the Pharisee who looks back at me. 

I do want Jesus to accept me as I am and I suspect you want him to accept you as you are as well.  That is an important part of the gospel for me.  But…I don’t always like who I am either.  I need that other statement too.  I need Jesus Christ to change my life because I know I can’t do it.  Jesus accepted the sinful woman as she was, but Simon the Pharisee’s assessment of her wasn’t all wrong either.  Her life needed to change, but so did his which was Jesus’ point.  He wanted Simon to understand that this woman who he could only see as a sinner wasn’t all bad.  She extended hospitality to Jesus in ways that Simon either couldn’t or wouldn’t.  And while Simon was interested in Jesus, curious, this woman saw something else; she saw hope for acceptance and maybe she saw hope for change too. 

Having been accepted by Jesus as she was, Jesus ended his conversation with her by saying, “Go in peace.”  We say that all the time, at the end of every service.  I’m sometimes not sure if it means much more than, “The service is over; you can go now.”  Or, “The service is over.  Coffee’s on.”  Forgetting about all that though, Jesus says, “Go in peace,” but where is this woman to go?  She needs to have her life changed.  She’s probably happy that Jesus accepted her, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has. Maybe she’s saying, “What would really be nice, what would really be good news is if he changed me so I didn’t have to be this way, so I could accept myself and…others would accept me too.”

The second of our gospel statements is that “Jesus Christ will change your life.”  That starts with acceptance, or in Lutheran terms we would say it starts with being declared righteous not because of what we have done but because of what Jesus has done for us.  But then what?  That’s where the church comes in.  Jesus told the sinful woman to go in peace, and we could say where she needs to go is to church, a church where she is accepted as she is.  The church is the place where we’ve all heard that declaration of acceptance or righteousness in baptism…which in its deepest sense is a mystery beyond our comprehension.   Baptism itself is a change though, a gift of grace, a transformation, just as Jesus acceptance of the woman was a transformation.  That’s one reason she needs a church.  But there’s more. 

In the church the word of grace and forgiveness and acceptance is proclaimed week after week, but with that comes the recognition that while we’re declared righteous, that while we’re declared saints, we are still sinners; change is still needed.  Another reason she needs a church.  But there’s more.  In the church, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, in the bread and the wine, we participate in the very being of Jesus, another mystery beyond our comprehension.  But that participation reminds us that we are to be more like him.  Christ present in faith makes the Christian a Christ to the neighbor.  Those are Luther’s words.  In other words, the Christian is to do what Christ does, not because it has anything to with salvation, but for the good of the other.

We believe that it is by hearing the word and participating in the mysteries of the church’s sacraments that Jesus Christ changes our life and allows us to be Christ to the neighbor.  That’s why the sinful woman needed to go in peace, to church (although of course the church in a literal sense didn’t exist yet as she had this encounter with Jesus).  She needed a place of acceptance where she could continue on the way, on the journey, where she could join the other women mentioned in the final verses of today’s gospel, women whose lives had been changed by Jesus and who were now out there proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, being Christ to others.

Simon the Pharisee and the woman known as a sinner were both works in progress, people on the journey, people who Jesus accepted as they were.  In addition to that, he placed the possibility of change before both of them.  He does the same for us.  That’s the gospel.

Go in peace.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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