As we continue through John Dickson's book, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, we come to the third chapter...a chapter in which many of us will find challenge. It is the challenge to be a friend of sinners...to have social lives that intersect with Christians.
Jesus stirred strong feelings among the religious elite by His attitude toward "sinners." Dickson gives a helpful contextual note about the word "sinners." "'Sinners' were those in Jewish society who lived outside the laws of the Old Testament as interpreted by the rabbis. They were not all prostitutes and thieves - that would be a caricature. They could just as easily be wealthy businessmen who neglected going to synagogue and/or did business with the occupying Romans (tax collectors, for instance). They were, if you like, the 'unreligious' in a strictly religious society.//Social interaction with sinners (and with Gentiles) was religiously prohibited in Jesus' day" (p. 49).
This was especially true when it came to eating a meal together. When you ate a meal with someone, in that culture, you identified with them and gave acceptance to them. And yet, this is the very thing that Jesus did...over and over again (cf. Matt. 11:19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 7:37-39; Luke 15:1-2; Luke 19:1-7). Why would Jesus do this? Why doesn't He avoid "those people"?
The answer is that "Jesus' friendship with sinners gave people a tangible sign of the welcoming grace of God. His questionable dining habits were not merely and attempt to buck the system of his day; they were an illustration of the fellowship with sinners God so keenly desires...this is the mission to which we are called. Our entire life, including our social life, should demonstrate the Lord's desire to have fellowship with sinners" (p. 51).
If you are reading the book along with me, then you saw the amazing effect that a woman named Glenda had on John Dickson's life. As a teenager, he spent Friday afternoons (along with several friends) in her house, eating her food, and hearing her talk about the Lord Jesus. She was influential in his life, and the book is actually dedicated to her. Do you have a Glenda in your life? Is there someone that first opened up their home, their dinner table, their life to you as part of God's plan to save you? Was there a teacher, a friend, a coach, etc., that holds this kind of place in your heart? Maybe today's a good day to send that person an encouraging card, letter, or even call him/her.
Going on from Jesus' ministry, we move to the ministry of the apostle Paul, who has the same kind of agenda in his social life. "Paul, the one-time Pharisee, became (in)famous in Jewish and Christian circles for his scandalously flexible social conduct. Not only did he preach to pagans, he broke his Pharisaic customs and ate with them as well...[This] was for Paul exactly what it had been for Jesus: an embodiment of the salvation message itself" (p. 53-54).
Read 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to get a taste of his attitude in this regard. After that, we jump down to the end of this section to find out more. "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1, emphasis added).
What we find is that Paul is flexible in his social life so that he might embody and share the gospel. Think about this practically...and basically. Under God, those who contribute most to the salvation of unbelieving men and women are those who interact with them. That seems pretty basic. Dickson writes, "Those who most regularly get into spiritual conversations with others are usually the ones with a wide circle of nonbelieving friends in the first place" (p. 57).
This challenges us to think...how wide is the circle of my unbelieving friends? Are there enough to form a circle? Is there even a line? Have I "bubble-ized" my life so that I never interact on a meaningful level with any nonbelievers? Is my social life restricted so that these people are shut out? Let me leave you with two more quotes from the chapter which are meant to challenge us and stimulate us to grow in promoting the gospel.
1. "Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved. Every aspect of our lives - including our social lives - can and should be directed toward the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbors" (p. 60). I would add that they are to be directed to the good of fellow Christians, but you get the point.
2. "Paul is not advocating a specialised adjunct to Christian living called 'mission' or 'evangelism.' He is asking us to put on what (in my more pretentious moments) I call a 'salvific mind-set,' that is, an outlook on life that cares deeply about the salvation of others" (p. 60).
May God challenge us and change us through the examples of the apostle Paul and our Lord Jesus.