Friday, January 14, 2011

Friend of Sinners

When he walked into our little country church, everyone’s head turned. Black leather jacket, hair down to his waist tied in a ponytail, dirty jeans and motorcycle boots. Our church was in farm country, attended by regular ol’ people who faithfully sat in the same pew and talked to the same people each week. His name was John and he came late that Sunday, slipping into the second row behind my dad, the pastor. He sat quietly throughout the service, soaking in everything that was said. Following the sermon, John and my dad had a long conversation in the front row. Mom watched pensively from the back foyer of our church, her heart both worried and filled with prayer for this disheveled, rough looking man. These types of people rarely darkened the doors of our quaint church.

The conversation ended with Dad praying, his hand firmly placed on this man’s shoulder. Dad prayed with a look of authority and earnestness. John shook my dad’s hand, wiped tears from his eyes and left quietly through the doors he entered. Later, Dad shared with us that John had lived a hard life filled with drugs and booze. Someone had recommended that he try going to our little church. He said John prayed for the first time, asking God to enter his life and forgive his sins. Dad was confident John’s heart toward God was authentic and that we’d be seeing John again. God was interested in bringing a dramatic change to his life.

As a preacher’s son, I heard plenty of sermons on how God loves to radically transform people. But this, perhaps, was the first time I had actually seen radical change in someone. Over time, we saw John grow. He cleaned up; inside and out. He read his Bible, came to church faithfully, prayed and did Bible studies. He enrolled in a local Bible institute, studied to become a pastor, moved to Texas and started preaching to anyone who would listen. John, once a dirty, drunk biker, is now a missionary and pastor. And, I got to see my parents dedicate themselves to his growth. This, I believe, was a stretch for my mom and dad. They were wonderful people that I don’t they ever had many people in their lives with such rough of edges as John did. John stretched their ability to love the lost and wandering.

This memory from my childhood flooded my heart the other day when I was sorting through my father’s things. In October, my dad who was in his mid-nineties, passed away marking the end of his days of pastoring and caring for lost people. I was flipping through dad’s last piles of mail, I found in the stack a prayer card from John. Attached was a picture of him and his family. For the past 20 years, John has been a traveling preacher; he calls himself an “evangelist.” His home is in Texas but he travels from town to town, church to church in impoverished areas of the world telling his story. John has shared with thousands the Good News about Jesus’ forgiveness of sins, His love and His desire to give a true, meaningful life. This all began during those nervous, awkward moments in our little church over 30 years ago.

When Jesus walked the earth, he had a habit of hanging out with people who were known for their sin. The nickname Jesus inherited, “friend of sinners” was not meant as a compliment. Jesus put his reputation at risk by who he hung with. But, what was his mission? To seek and save those who were lost. What if John hadn’t been accepted by my dad and our little church? What if he had been ignored, avoided or even worse turned away at the door? What would our world have lost if John remained lost?

This week's author- Phil Niekerk, senior small group pastor


  1. Pastor Phil,
    I have a few questions about this weekend's sermon. Maybe you can help me out.

    Jesus did hang with sinners but He is God. Am I to follow Christ's example and also hang with unsaved people? What about verses like "abstain from all appearance of evil"? What about not being a "stumbling block to my brothers and sisters"? What about potentially placing myself in temptation?

    I also have a question about personal safety. I was thinking about this when we saw the video of John talking about the lady who taught his Scripture class when he was 15. Some of the kids in his class were a little scary but the teacher let them in her house. How did she know they wouldn't rip her off or cause her physical harm? Obviously she trusted God. Faith and trust are frequently the opposite of common sense. How do I know when I am trusting God vs doing something stupid or dangerous?

  2. What a series of great questions, Julie. I believe many people wrestle in the tension between reaching out to people who need Jesus and trying to live a godly life. If I hang out with people who engage in sinful behavior, will I become sinful with them? Will they influence me negatively as I try to influence them toward God, positively? My mom used to say, "It's easier to get pulled down then it is to pull someone up. Be careful who you have for friends." She was right.

    However, Jesus was known for his relationships with sinners; the tax collectors, the woman at the well who had five broken relationships with men, etc. I do believe he was setting an example for us to love on those who are "sick" in the sin. Here are a few bullet points to consider in this tension:

    1. Jesus hung out with sinners but didn't engage in sinful behaviour with them. He ate with them but didn't sin with them.

    2. Jesus commissioned us to "go" and make disciples. There appears to be a highly relational aspect to discipleship and may require that we spend time with those struggling in their sin.

    3. Jesus' disciples fulfilled Jesus' commission as told in the book of Acts. There lives were filled with risk. And... faith. They trusted God for their protection and the outcome. At times, they needed to withdrawal from a situation for their safety. That was just wise. Other times, they did experience harm for the sake of the mission.

    Some questions to ponder:
    1. What three people is God laying on your heart to pray for? Who are the people in your life who need God and perhaps are trapped in sin.

    2. Which of those three can you begin to make a personal investment into? Who can you offer "hamburgers, scons and milkshakes to?"

    3. How can you guard yourself so you aren't pulled into environments that may compromise your standards or lead you into a temptation you cannot resist? Can the environment be controlled? Does someone need to be drunk to reach a drunk man? The answer is NO.

    Regarding your question about Glenda, the lady in the story at the end of the sermon. Remember, Glenda was their teacher and was building a relationship with the boys at school. There must have been something she saw with them for her to feel safe to open her home to them. Or... she was willing to take the risk for sake of these boys. This week, Jeff will finish the story. Don't tell anyone, but we learn this week that Glenda had been praying for these boys for a long, long time. She believes God was honoring her prayers.

    Hope this helps. Welcome to the struggle. Live well and love well. Yes, you can do them both. Be prayful and be wise. God desires it.

  3. Great response! You have given me much to think about!