Sharing Our Faith with Tolerance

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about “Sharing Our Faith”.  If we’re going to follow the example of Jesus Christ, then we’re going to have to reach out to the lost because Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  That was his mission, and it’s our mission as well.

            The first week, we talked about the importance of sharing our faith with integrity.  Because we can’t share our faith until we first live out our faith.  We can’t expect to teach other people to put God first in their lives until we’ve learned how to put God first in our life. 

            And then, we talked about the importance of sharing our faith with grace.  There are people out there who are hesitant to listen to what we have to say because they’ve seen people who claim to be Christians, and yet, those people evangelize in a hateful and angry way.  But Jesus was someone who spoke words of grace, and we’ve got to do the same thing as we share our faith.

            Then, last week, we talked about sharing our faith with intimacy.  Jesus ate with sinners.  And, for the Jews, eating wasn’t just a meal.  It was a way of saying, “You and me, we’re connected.”  But as long as we have the attitude that “people like us don’t associate with people like you”, we’re never going to get close to anyone to be able to share our faith with them.  We’ve got to tear down some fences and be willing to associate with those who are lost.

            This morning, we want to talk about sharing our faith with tolerance.  Arron Chambers says in his book, Eats with Sinners, there are two things that you never want to do.  First, never scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and secondly, never say the word “tolerance” in a church gathering.  He was being facetious, but it is true that most Christians don’t want anything to do with anything that has the word “tolerance” in it.

            And the reason for that is that our society today has re-defined that word to mean what they want it to mean.  So, most of the time the word “tolerance” is used to mean that people should be tolerant of sin.  No one should ever say that homosexuality is wrong, or that fornication is wrong, or that any religion is wrong. 

            To most people, tolerance means that we ought to say, “You believe whatever you what to believe and you do whatever you want to do, and I’ll just say there’s nothing wrong with that.  Because I’m a tolerant person.  Which is a wonderful thing.”

            But the Bible makes it clear that tolerating sin is not a wonderful thing.  David said in Psalm 5, “O God, you take no pleasure in wickedness; you cannot tolerate the sins of the wicked.” (Psalm 5:4, NLT).  In Psalm 101, “Whoever slanders their neighbor in secret, I will put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, I will not tolerate.” (Psalm 101:5, NIV)

            As Christians, we stand firm on God’s Word and so we refuse to ignore, to compromise, or to water down any of the clear teachings of scripture about sinful lifestyles, wrong beliefs, or sexually deviant behavior.  None of those sins should be tolerated.  But this morning, I’m not talking about being tolerant of sin.  I’m talking about being tolerant of sinful people.  In particular, I’m talking about being tolerant of sinful non-Christians.

            Because if there is a Christian within the body of Christ who continues to commit sin and refuses to repent of that sin, we cannot tolerate that for a moment.  But non-Christians are different.  They haven’t yet learned how they’re supposed to live.  We can’t expect them to act like Christians.  But we do expect Christians to act like Christians.

            Paul put it this way in his letter to the Corinthians, “When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin.  But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. 

            “I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people.  Don’t even eat with such people.” (I Corinthians 5:9-11)

            Paul tells us that continued unrepentant sin in the church should never be tolerated.  Sin is like a cancer that, if left untreated, will spread throughout the body and eventually lead to death.  And so, Paul, says we’re not supposed to eat with Christian sinners who refuse to repent because they want to act like everything’s okay.  It’s not okay. 

            But Paul says we are supposed to eat with non-Christian sinners.  We are supposed to associate with non-Christian sinners.  Sinners should always be allowed into our presence.  It’s their only hope.  It’s our only hope for reaching them.

            Let me give you an example.  For many years, I served as a chaplain for a sheriff’s department in Virginia.  Just about every Friday night, I would go out riding with one of the deputies.  And, during the course of our evening, it would not be unusual during our conversation for the officer to include some profanity or vulgar language.  Sometimes, there was quite a bit of it.

            Sometimes they would catch themselves and they would say, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that in front of the chaplain.”  But others didn’t even try to stop.  It was so much a part of their normal language that they didn’t think anything of it. 

            But suppose I had said to those officers, “I’m not going to tolerate this kind of language.  If you’re going to talk like that, then I’m not going to ride with you anymore.”  My guess is that they would have dropped me off at the next corner and said, “So long!”  And I would disappeared along with any chance of trying to help them to get to know Jesus.

            You see, when we’re around non-Christians, we have to be tolerant.  You can’t expect non-Christians to act like Christians.  Someone may say, “But if you don’t fuss at them for using language like that, then they’ll think that you think it’s okay to use language like that.”  Nonsense!  There wasn’t one single officer who thought I was okay with profanity and vulgar language.  They could tell by the way I talked that I wasn’t okay with it.  But, by being tolerant of them until they learned better, I had many, many opportunities to share my faith.

            We’ve got to be tolerant of sinners.  That’s what Jesus did in Luke chapter 7, which is our text this morning.  We pick up in verse 36

            “One of the Pharisees asked [Jesus] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.  And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.” (Luke 7:36-38)

            Last week, we saw in Luke chapter 5 how Levi, the tax collector, was called by Jesus and he followed him, and then he threw a big feast, and invited all of his non-Christian friends, tax collectors and other sinners. And the Pharisees criticized Jesus for associating with sinners.

            But there was one of those Pharisees who was intrigued by Jesus.  We learn in verse 40 that his name was Simon, and Simon invited Jesus to another feast.  This time, it was a meal in his own home with some of his buddies.  Now it’s difficult to determine just how sincere Simon was, but he wanted to know more about Jesus. 

            And I can imagine that everyone around the table was thinking — on a scale from one to ten, how are we going to rate Jesus?  Do we like him or do we not like him?  Was this the prophet they had been looking for all their lives?  Is he the real thing or is he just an impostor?

            And so, the meal is underway. Jesus has reclined at Simon’s table along with the other dinner guests.  Everyone is engaged in conversation, asking questions, trying to learn what they can about Jesus when it happens…..An unexpected guest enters the room.  This isn’t just any guest, it’s a woman.  And not just any woman, it’s her!  The woman everyone in town knows about.  The sinful one.  

            Now every woman in that town was a sinner to some extent, but this woman was not just a regular sinner.  She’s a sinner with a capital “S”.  Let’s just go ahead and get this out there.  Luke doesn’t tell us the nature of her sin, but most commentators assume that she was most likely a prostitute. 

            And here she comes into the room, bringing a jar of perfume.  She goes to Jesus’ dirty feet and she weeps.  And as her tears fall on his feet, she lets down her hair (which was inappropriate for a woman to do) and she used her hair to wipe away the tears and mud and clean his feet.  Then she kissed Jesus’ feet and poured perfume over them.

            Let’s just stop the story right there.  I want you to get a picture in your mind of what’s going on here.  This was not your everyday event in the life of a Pharisee.  It’s an amazing scene, but it’s also a very uncomfortable scene.  Think about it.  Wouldn’t you be uncomfortable?  How would you have reacted to something like this?   

            Simon’s reaction is this.  He doesn’t say anything out loud, but here’s what he’s thinking, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39).

            Simon the Pharisee has some very clear notions about the rules of relationships.  Not all his rules are wrong, but Simon is very careful about what kind of people he associates with.  And when he sees this woman doing all this to Jesus, he is convinced that Jesus can’t possibly be a holy man!  No holy man or prophet would ever allow a woman like this to get near him, much less do everything this woman has done.

            On the other hand, Jesus was clearly not bothered by what this woman was doing.  He didn’t stop her. He could have said, “I appreciate what you’re doing, but it’s not appropriate here” but he didn’t.  And that was what confused Simon.  He didn’t understand why an upstanding man like Jesus would tolerate this woman.  If Jesus really was a prophet of God – as the people claimed – why would he even allow a woman like this to be in his presence?

            And it’s easy for us all to criticize Simon, but let’s be honest.  A few weeks ago, we had Jerrie Barber here for the weekend.  And after our morning worship, we had a pot luck meal.  Suppose, during that meal, a woman from the community who is obviously a prostitute came into the fellowship area while we were eating and started kissing Jerrie’s feet and pouring cologne over them.  Then, to make matters, worse, Jerrrie just leans back in his chair and lets her do it, and does nothing to stop her.

            Is there anybody here who can honestly say that you wouldn’t raise your eyebrows and wonder about this supposedly “gospel preacher” that we invited here to speak?  I have to confess that kind of affection would make me wonder.  And so, I’m pretty sure that if I were sitting around that table at Simon’s house,  I would have reacted the same way that he did.

            To the Pharisees, this woman was like an infectious disease.  This was not someone you wanted to even get close to.  Why would Jesus allow himself to be contaminated by this woman’s evil deeds?  And where do you think she got the money for that expensive perfume?  We all know where she got that money!  And Jesus is letting her spend that money on him! 

            Wasn’t he condoning her lifestyle by receiving her attention and allowing her to anoint his feet with the money she made through her sexual immorality?  The answer is, no.  Jesus was not condoning her sin.  He was just showing love toward her.  You see, Jesus was more tolerant of lost people than most of us will ever be, because he loved lost people more than most of us ever will. 

            Tolerance is viewed by many in the church as watering down the message of Jesus, but when we look at how Jesus interacted with sinners who were in need of salvation, we see that tolerance toward sinners was an important part of how he reached out to them.  He chose to be with sinners because he wanted them to have hope.  He allowed this prostitute to be in his presence at this dinner because he wanted her to be with him at the banquet he will host for all eternity.

            It’s all about the choices we make.  Sin is about choice.  We choose to sin.  But faith is also about choice.  We choose to believe.

            This woman had made some bad choices in the past, but those choices had not made her intolerable.  They just made her sinful, so Jesus chose to have faith and to see the best in her.  Arron Chambers said it well when he said that, “Tolerance is really an act of faith.”

            When it comes to sharing our faith in Jesus, allowing someone to be in our presence is a statement of our faith that coexistence between Christians and non-Christians can result in positive changes.

            We have to believe that people can change.  Simon the Pharisee had no faith in this woman who knelt at Jesus’ feet.  He didn’t believe she could ever change, even though the evidence of her transformation was right in front of him.  He wondered why Jesus couldn’t see “what sort of woman this is” (Luke 7:39), because that’s all he could see. 

            And sometimes it’s all we can see.  We look at sinners and all we see is the sin.  We look at an alcoholic or drug abuser, and all we see is the sin.  We look at someone who uses profanity and all we see is the sin.  We look at someone who is sexually immoral and all we can see is the sin.  What we can’t see, and what we desperately need to see is that this is a child of God created by God in his image who has been enslaved by sin and needs to be set free from that sin.

            We are all sinners, but our sin does not define who we are.  We sometimes say, “We need to hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  And we’ve said it so many times that it’s become sort of a cliché that doesn’t mean much, but it’s true. 

            God hates sin.  But, one of the reasons that God hates sin so much is because that’s what separates sinners from him.  And he loves us more than life itself and wants to be with us, even though we are sinners.  As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  God doesn’t hate sinners; he loves them.  And so should we.

            God loves drug dealers, child abusers, tax cheats, cross-dressers, women chasers, men chasers, liars, drunkards, swindlers, dirty politicians, movie stars who bash Christianity, telemarketers…and prostitutes with jars of perfume.  So, he tolerates them because he has faith that everyone can change if given the chance.

            Which is exactly what Kris Hogan believes, too.  Kris Hogan is the head football coach at Grapevine Faith Christian School in Grapevine, Texas.  His love for sinners and his desire to do something that might draw them closer to God led to an amazing event in 2008.

            There was a football game scheduled between his school and Gainesville State School on November 7, 2008.  And it would have been an ordinary football game between two Texas high schools if Coach Hogan hadn’t decided to show some Christian tolerance to the players from Gainesville State.

            You see, Gainesville State is a maximum-security correctional facility for teenage boys.  Every boy in that school has been convicted of something.  One of the perks of good behavior was being able to play on the football team, and there were 14 boys on that team, barely enough to play a game.  Needless to say, they were not very good.  That season, they were 0-8.

            Most high schools have a home field, but not Gainesville State.  All of their games are played away.  They don’t have parents on the sideline, they don’t have cheerleaders.  The only people that go with them to the games are twelve uniformed officers.

            No one comes to their games.  No one cheers for them.  No one seems to believe in them – at least, that’s what they thought until that special November night.

            Coach Hogan, at the Christian high school, decided he wanted to do something special for those Gainesville players.  So, before the game, he sent an e-mail to his players and all the fans at the Christian school and said, “I want you to send a message to those students that they are just as valuable as any other person on planet Earth.”

            Some people asked the coach why he wanted to do something, and Coach Hogan replied, “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life.  Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you.  Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”

            So, when those 14 Gainesville State players showed up at the game and stepped off the bus, here’s what they found.  People from the Christian school were lined up forming a 40-yard-long spirit line for the players to run through as they cheered.  At the end of the spirit line, there was a paper banner for the Gainesville Tornado players to run through and break.

            More than 200 of the Christian school fans sat on the Gainesville side of the field to cheer them on.  Half of the cheerleaders went over and stood on the Tornadoes side of the field and cheered them on for the entire game.

            Later, one of Gainesville State linemen, named Alex, said, “I thought maybe they were confused.  He said, “They started yelling ‘DEE-fense!’ when their team had the ball. I said, ‘What? Why they cheerin’ for us?’”

            Another Tornadoes lineman named Gerald said, “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games. … But these people, they were yellin’ for us! By our names!”

            The Gainesville State players were so overwhelmed that although they lost the game, at the end, they reacted like they had just won the Super Bowl – jumping up and down and giving their coach a Gatorade bath.

            After the game, both teams gathered in the middle of the field for prayer and the Gainesville State’s quarterback surprised everybody by volunteering to pray.  He said, “Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank you, but I never would have known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”

            When the game was over and the Gainesville players boarded the bus, each player was handed a bag for the ride home – with a burger, fries, can of soda, some candy, a Bible and an encouraging letter from a player from the Christian school.

            The Gainesville State coach saw Coach Hogan, grabbed him hard by the shoulders and said, “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You’ll never, ever know.”

            An ESPN reporter said of this game, “While it didn’t erase the mistakes [the Tornadoes] made [in their lives], it showed fourteen teenagers that regardless of the bad things they’ve done in their past, there was reason to look ahead.”

            And sometimes that’s all it takes.  A little tolerance.  A little faith that people should be allowed into our presence so they can be given a chance to change.  But do we believe that all sinners have the ability to change?  Furthermore, do we believe that God can forgive anyone of anything?  Do we really believe that?

            I’m sure you’ve all heard of Jeffrey Dahmer who was convicted in 1992 of murdering, dismembering and cannibalizing 15 men and boys.  But, have you also heard that while Dahmer was in prison, he became interested in Christianity, studied the Bible and was eventually baptized into Christ by Roy Ratcliff, a minister in the Church of Christ?  Does hearing that make you happy?  Or do you share the sentiments of the college professor who said, “If Dahmer’s in heaven, I don’t want to be there”?

            Because if we don’t believe that God can forgive other people’s sins, then what makes me so sure that he can forgive mine?  How can I be so arrogant as to believe that I deserve God’s grace, but somebody else doesn’t?

            I believe that with Jesus there are no lost causes.  The woman at Simon the Pharisee’s house had been written off by the “faithful” people around her.  Simon had already judged her and ruled that she was a sinner, untouchable, intolerable.  She wasn’t allowed to be in the presence of any self-respecting preacher.

            But Jesus disagreed.  And although he acknowledged that she was a sinner, he forgave her of her sins.

            We sometimes say we believe that God can do anything, but usually it’s in the context of healing cancer, or restoring broken marriages, keeping us out of bankruptcy, and allowing the Cubs to win a World Series.  God can do anything!  But do we really believe that everyone who is lost has the hope of forgiveness – that God can forgive anyone of anything?  Because, if we truly believe that, it will change everything.

            Jesus associated with sinners because he knew that God is willing and able to transform them.  The Pharisees distanced themselves from sinners, because they wanted to avoid contamination.

            Jesus knew that God responds to repentance and humility with grace and forgiveness.  The Pharisees — whose responsibility it was to teach God’s law and love to the people — withheld the experience of God’s grace from the people who needed it the most.

            And so, Jesus taught us that we need to tolerant of sinners. It’s important to be honest about sin and to address it, but it’s also important to be clear about God’s grace and forgiveness for sinners who are honest about their sin and approach God in humility. Our response to sinners should not be judgment, but love.

            We need to tolerate sinners because we believe that God has the power to change people’s lives.  We need to tolerate sinners because we believe that with God there are no lost causes.

            And I believe it can happen.  It happened at Simon the Pharisee’s house.  It happened on a football field in Grapevine, Texas.  And it can happen while you’re eating a meal with a sinner.  Let us share our faith with tolerance.

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