This week we continue the series of messages titled I Love the Church Because… This week’s message is I Love the Church Because…I Am Accepted. I want to begin as I did last week with, what someone wrote to complete the phrase, I Love the Church Because…

I love the church because I belong. From the time I was a young child my own family has made me feel like an outsider. Like I had to be a certain way, talented enough, a “proper” lady. I never felt “good” enough for them. But with Christ, in His church, I am enough. I belong. He blesses me with the right talents to have and cherish my husband and children. He blessed me with a new family that needs me as I am. He blessed me with my church family to love and support me. I belong!

Our Scripture text for this morning tells of an encounter Jesus had with a Pharisee named Simon. Simon invited Jesus to his home, for dinner, and Luke’s gospel tells us of what happened in 7:36-47 –

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.

37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.

38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.

42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.

45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.

46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.

47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

I have two simple points to share with you this morning, the first of which is –

  1. People will search out – and find – somewhere they can be accepted.

Listen to the first three verses of today’s Scripture text again, and see if you notice something unusual –

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.

37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.

38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

Did you notice what is odd about that passage? Jesus was a guest in the home of Simon, the Pharisee; he was supposed to be there. The woman in this story simply shows up at Simon’s house, comes into his house, stood behind Jesus weeping, wet his feet with his tears, then wiped his feet with her tears, kissed his feet, and then poured perfume on his feet. Let me ask you this question – when was the last time you had a dinner party where something like that happened? And if you did, what in the world would you think? What would you do?

Imagine the awkwardness of that moment! Imagine how people must have begun to stare at this woman and to mutter about her shocking behavior! I can’t imagine what in interesting moment that must have been. But here’s what we need to know – people will do most anything to find acceptance. People will travel almost any distance, they will do almost anything, they will go almost anywhere, they will allow themselves to be embarrassed and they will embarrass others, all because they are desperate to find acceptance.

This woman did not come to see Simon, the Pharisee. Actually, I’m rather amazed she managed to get into his house! I’m amazed Simon didn’t have her removed! Simon was a religious figure in his community. He seemed to be well known and most likely a person of some means. He probably invited other leading members of his community. He probably invited people of means. Jesus was coming to his home for dinner! Simon was going to invited anyone who was anybody, because he wanted to make an impression. But this woman had not been invited, and she was not coming into Simon’s home because she felt accepted by him; in fact, she came in spite of the fact that Simon had not invited her and had not welcomed her into his home. Simon, one of the most religious members of the community, whose responsibility it was to be hospitable, refused to offer her welcome. Very clearly, his message was, you are not welcome here! But that’s okay, because she was there because of Jesus, and Jesus made her feel accepted.

There are few forces as powerful in life as the desire to belong and to be accepted, and there are few forces as devastating as rejection. The desire to be accepted is one of the primary reasons why people are drawn to church. People come for many reasons, and one of those reasons is certainly to be part of a community, to be part of what we so often refer to as our “family.” Indeed, for many people, the church becomes a surrogate family. But a lack of acceptance can be why people leave a church or the church, and let’s be honest, churches have not always been welcoming to all people. There are modern-day Simons, sitting in church pews, standing in church foyers, and sitting in Sunday School classrooms who are as unwelcoming and as judgmental as was Simon.

I asked a classmate back in my high school days why he got involved with what we called the “heads,” who were the drug users. In my school we had the “heads” and the “reds.” “Reds” was short for “redneck,” which in my school meant someone who didn’t use drugs. For a while some of us got together for an annual “reds” against the “heads” football game, until we finally didn’t have enough “reds” to field a team. I asked my classmate why he became one of the “heads,” which led him into a lot of drug use, which caused him a lot of difficulties and problems. His answer? They were the group that accepted him.

At church camp, again this year, I was struck by how many times in the course of the week I heard those students talk about the fact that they loved church camp so much because they could be themselves there and they were accepted simply for who they are. Some of those students are popular and admired by their classmates and their peers, and yet they still crave acceptance. When I was a student minister, back in the 80s, I often played my students a song called I’m Accepted, by a band named DeGarmo and Key, the lyrics of which are simple, yet powerful –

I may not be rich

Don’t wear fashion clothes

Don’t live in a mansion

Don’t have much that shows

Never won a contest in popularity

Don’t have much to offer

But Jesus loves me

I’m accepted, accepted

I’m accepted by the One who matters most

 

Never set a record in sports agility

Never was magnetic in personality

That don’t really matter

I’ll do the best I can

‘Cause there’s a God above me

Who loves me like I am

I’m accepted, accepted

I’m accepted by the One who matters most

 

If you think you’re a loser

When you fail it seems at everything you do

Just remember there’s a Savior

And you are worth enough

He gave His life for you

I’m accepted, accepted

I’m accepted by the One who matters most

The powerful desire for acceptance is what drives young people to do many things, but it’s not just young people. People of all ages need to know they are accepted, and for the church, acceptance is one of our bedrock principles and callings.

  1. We are accepted.

Listen again to the rest of the Scripture text –

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.

42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.

45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.

46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.

47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

I find that exchange to be interesting on several levels. One is that it sounds like it was spoken in tenderness. Jesus says, Simon, I have something to tell you, to which Simon responds, tell me, teacher. It doesn’t sound to me as though Jesus was scolding Simon, although his words surely very stinging to Simon. I think Jesus had a great deal of affection for Simon, but Jesus also had a measure of disappointment because of Simon’s rejection of this woman.

Obviously, this was not the first encounter Jesus had with a Pharisee; Jesus had many encounters with Pharisees. The Pharisees are often portrayed as the “bad guys” of the gospels, and there is certainly plenty of evidence that they lived up to the long-held stereotype that they were possessed of much self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Not all Pharisees, however, fit that description. Some, like Nicodemus, are portrayed in a more positive light. Nicodemus, in his encounter with Jesus in the third chapter of John’s gospel, is genuinely interested in what Jesus had to say and also recognized him as being sent by God (Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him – John 3:2). Nicodemus also gave a defense of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51) and helped with his body after the crucifixion (John 19:39-42).

The tragedy of the Pharisees is that their original purpose was very well-intended and much needed, but eventually went far off track. The Pharisees came into being during the time we call the intertestamental period, that is, the time after the end of the Old Testament era and before the dawn of the New Testament era. In that time period the religious life of God’s people had grown stale and was in need of revival. The Pharisees began as a movement to bring about revival by emphasizing personal holiness, study of the Scriptures, and a close adherence to the Law of Moses. That was all well and good, but after some time their efforts at reform and their desire to increase holiness devolved into legalism, which is always a danger to movements of personal piety. Such movements can quickly become more about following religious rules, while in the process forgetting the intent behind those rules.

It’s easy to find ourselves in the position of Simon. Simon was blind to the fact that he was unaccepting of this woman, and we too, have our share of blind spots. Perhaps we’ve been in church all of our lives and have been in all the positions churches have to offer. We’ve served faithfully and the church has always been able to count on us to do whatever was needed. Now mind you, I’m not diminishing that at all, but we must be careful lest we fall into the same trap as Simon, and that is thinking we are more righteous than others, because we’re not. Our lives might be a bit more together and we might have less dysfunction and we might not bother our neighbors or any such thing, but that doesn’t mean we are more righteous, and it should certainly never lead us to believe, as Simon did, that some people who wander into our midst our of lesser value, worth, equality, or dignity.

It is a sad testimony when any group of religious people – such as Simon – pride themselves on who they exclude rather than on whom they include. This attitude has, sadly, been well represented among religious people over the centuries, as too many continue to construct walls of exclusion rather than building bridges of inclusion. Jesus reminded Simon of his lack of hospitality, as he did nothing to make Jesus feel welcome, which is ironic, as hospitality was an important hallmark of the religious life of the time. This serves as a powerful warning for us today – one can keep all the “official religious rules” of the day and yet be a long way from the core tenants of the faith.

Too many churches have fancied themselves as the gatekeepers for God, believing they are the ones who control access to God and are the one who get to determine who can be associated with God. Isn’t that nuts! Sometimes, I like to think of the church as being like the Island of Misfit Toys. Do you know what I’m talking about? The Island of Misfit Toys is in the cartoon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I like to think of the church that way because there ought to be some place where people can go and they can belong. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you have, or what you don’t have, whether or not you’re rich or poor, and regardless of much of a misfit you might be – in the church, you belong!

Charles Spurgeon, the famed English preacher of the 19th century, said that we are accepted in the Beloved. We are accepted by God, but Spurgeon saw that acceptance as being necessarily extended to others as well, and not just reserved for those within the church. Spurgeon was opposed to slavery, because he believed that all people were accepted by God, and because of that view he lost many of his admirers and supporters in this country. His sermons, once best-sellers, dropped to almost nothing, and he received threatening correspondence. What a sad testimony to the closed hearts and minds of people!

I want to close this morning with another one of the statements I was given to complete the phrase I love the church because…. It also speaks to the desire for – and discovery of – acceptance. Acceptance was the primary theme in the responses I received, which was not surprising to me.

I love the church because I feel accepted as a believer. I have a place to study the Bible. I have a place to go to when I feel judged as a believer. I have a place to truly call home.

Amen to that!