Who are the lost?

Sunday the 11th of September 2016

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke chapter 15 has one of the most popular images of the Christian faith in it. It is the picture of the shepherd and the lost sheep. In the many church buildings that have been in over the years, where there have been stain glass windows, often there is a picture of Jesus carrying the sheep on his shoulders. It is a very vivid and powerful image and it speaks to many people, which is why it is a favourite of many.

The way we use the words ‘lost’ and ‘found’ are also very powerful descriptions of how we as Christians think about the world. The popular hymn, Amazing Grace, has these words: ‘I once was lost, but now I am found…’

I wonder what comes to mind when you hear the word lost. And what do you think it means to be lost? When we as Christians speak of ‘the lost’ we are almost always referring to those who are outside the church, in other words the lost are the non believers. Often when we talk about mission we speak about reaching the lost; we think in terms of our efforts beyond the walls of our church, beyond the people gathered here and toward the reaching those outside; reaching “the lost.” Rather than “preach to the choir” or concern ourselves only with “the ninety-nine,” We can get the idea that a church that is faithful to its mission must develop a heart or perhaps a zeal for the lost: Those who do not know Jesus.

This can be very helpful for us because it is important that we pay attention to those who are hurting, to those who need to hear the gospel. There is some truth to the criticism that often the church gets stuck looking inward, directing all our efforts toward our own community rather than looking and living with an outward focus. We are called to be sacrificial and self-emptying, looking always to those who are in need; to those who are suffering; to those who we see as being lost.

The problem however, is that when we focus on those who are lost in this way we tend to become black and white in the way we see things. We tend to draw a line between those who are saved, meaning us, and those who we believe are lost. I would like to challenge you to rethink this way of thinking about ‘the lost’.

Listen again to verse one and two of today’s reading. It says: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The parables that we hear today, of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin are said as a direct response to the grumbling of these Pharisees and the teachers of the law who were highly offended that Jesus would receive sinners and that he would even consider eating with them. And so the “lost” in the parable—the lost sheep, the lost coin, are these people who are drawing near or close to him to hear Jesus’ words. It is these tax collectors and sinners, whose repentance brings joy into the heavenly places, who Jesus is referring to when he speaks of the lost. And so who are the other ninety-nine?  Or to put it another way: Who are those that Jesus leaves behind? Well they are the so called righteous people who need no repentance. They are the Pharisees and the teachers of the lay of course, the very ones that grumbled and complained against Jesus’ relationship with the lost.

In these parables Jesus is strongly rebuking the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The point of these parables was to condemn them, to make their grumbling stick in their throats. Jesus was directly challenging them and their hard hearted attitudes.

One of the things that I have noticed is that when we talk about the picture of the Jesus the shepherd and the lost sheep, we tend see ourselves and indentify with the sheep. So we are the ones who were lost, but Jesus came into our lives and rescued us, saved us, brought back into the fold so the speak; but it is very rare that someone would identify with the Pharisees, in other words the ‘ninety nine’ in this picture. The ones who like to say who can come in to God’s kingdom and who can’t; the ones who judge others who are not like them; the ones who set standards of behavior for the true people of God; the ones who focus on the sins of others, while blatantly ignoring their own. It is easier to identify with the lost sheep, than to admit that at times we can very much be like the Pharisees. We might indentify ourselves with the lost sheep, but our actions can often be that of the Pharisees and the scribes.

You see the line between the lost sheep and the ninety-nine, the lost coin and the other nine coins is not, as we like to think, between Christians and non-Christians, or between churched and unchurched. This, in my opinion, is not what these parables are about. However, there is a line. The line is between those who, on the one hand, draw near to hear Jesus and his Word, who repent, those who need Jesus, those with whom Jesus chooses to have fellowship with; and, on the other hand, those who have no need of Jesus, who see themselves as having no need to repent, and are secure in their own righteousness.

That was always Jesus issue with the Pharisees, they thought that they were better than others and were okay with God because they saw themselves as being better than others; they saw themselves and being better than those ‘sinners’ Jesus was eating with and having fellowship with.

The reality is that the same temptation faces you and me. We make a serious error when we speak as if the lost is a line that simply divides church members from non-members. We make a mistake if we see our church as one that asserts that we can know who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the body of Christ; that we can identify who are ‘lost’ and who are ‘found’ You and I simply do not have the right to judge others like this, to do so is simply arrogant on our part.

There are strong lessons from these parables for you and me as followers of Jesus. We are not to draw lines and label people. We are not to have and ‘us’ against ‘them’ attitude. Rather we are to be to the true lost ones, who come to Jesus to hear his Word to us, we are ones who need to repent and recognize our own sins before God.

This is where the Gospel is so important. The Gospel is this: That we are forgiven our sins because of Jesus Christ and his death for us on that cross. As Lutherans we believe that we cannot hear this Gospel without knowing our own sin before God. The Pharisees could not hear the Gospel because they simply did not believe they needed forgiveness for their sins. We won’t hear the Gospel either unless we recognize our own sins.

When we turn to Jesus and repent then we can stand alongside the world—not over against it—and bear witness to this Jesus who has come only for sinners—he has given himself for us all.  Then will the world be able to look at us and begin to see in our midst is: “this man who receives sinners and eats with them.”

God in his mercy, searches out those who are lost. Through Jesus Christ he comes to them and they listen to him. Jesus says of those who are lost: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. And again in verse 10: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

To be an effective witness to Jesus Christ in our world, we need to see ourselves as those who are lost, not those who are found and believe we do not need saving; those who need to come close in order to hear Jesus and his Word and respond. And as we do this we point others who do not know Jesus to him as the one who comes to search for them to save them as he saves us. And when we do this there will be much rejoicing in heaven.