I embroiled myself in a minor twitter scuffle about that mean post I wrote this week. Although, it couldn’t really be described as a true scuffle because I didn’t have the time or inclination to bring all the words necessary to answer the charge–which, incidentally had nothing to do with the post, and which is the Usual Accusation of the more progressive against those who think that Jesus has to be taken at his word. Jesus ate with sinners, they say, and have been saying for lo these many years, each time as if it is a new and special thing to announce. Adding, by way of emphasis, hater.
I am always irritated by this reduction of the biblical witness–the deep well of the person of Jesus, the disarming simplicity of the good news of the gospel–into the slogan, ‘Jesus ate with sinners.’ Of course, he ate with sinners, but to say that is like saying there’s war in Syria. It’s true, but it stops the tongue short of biting down on anything of substance.
Because, of course, a meal is central to the life that we share in Jesus. It is for a meal that we gather over and over and over again. And we are all of us sinners who come, every single one of us. And we are eating in all kinds of ways. There is the bland taste of the bread on the tongue, the sharp surprising taste of wine. There is the spiritual nourishment of being carried into another week by the One who holds the cosmos together in his Person. There is the binding together of the body as each one comes and grabs on to the only source of hope in this life. All of these tastes point to the catastrophic work of the cross–the singular moment when God broke open the stranblehold of the very sin by which each of us are ensnared.
That is the trouble. We are sinners. Which is a beastly thing to have to say. I know that I myself am a sinner. I’m one of those wretched people who sometimes intend to do good, but most of the time I just intend for everything to continue to revolve around me. I am the center of the cosmos. And I am necessarily stressed and sad when I bash up against other centers of the cosmos. I am always sure the trouble with life is out there, with my neighbor and my enemy. But I am always wrong. All my troubles spring up from my own heart, my selfish inclinations, my first love. So when you say, Jesus ate with sinners, the first insult goes to the person saying the line. Who is the sinner? I am, you are. If Jesus ever ate anything, he had to do it With Sinners because there weren’t any other kind of people.
The sinner isn’t the person over there. It isn’t the prostitute or the tax collector or the republican or the Trump supporter. It isn’t the democrat or the government or the IRS. It isn’t the person you point to as the problem, or the one whom the system failed. It isn’t the person who just needs more money and more services, or who needed better rehabilitation in prison. It isn’t the addict or the single mother. It’s not the person who irritates you so that you obsess over him, trying to figure out what’s wrong with him and in the end making him into your enemy. Those may all be sinners. But the one of most concern to you, the one who is most in trouble, is you. You are the sinner. There’s no way to locate the problem with everything outside of yourself. You are the one Jesus came to save.
Because sin isn’t something you can solve by more talking. It’s not just getting your mind right and making better life choices. Sin isn’t a bland problem that it can be solved with a few good conversations around a pleasant dinner. I help you out of your sin, and maybe you help me, but mostly I help myself. The sinner is actually the person for whom there is no temporal help, for whom hope has come to naught. That’s why Jesus is described as a Savior. He rescues the one who is perishing, dying, who has only done all the wrong things and has run out of options.
Indeed, all the meals that Jesus ate in his earthly life, leading up to his Passion were only possible because of that last meal, and the suffering that it pointed to. Had there not been a cross on the horizon, had Jesus not been willing to become the curse, the slaughtered lamb, there would have been no eating with sinners before hand, nor after. Indeed, the first juice stained bite in the garden would have been the last had not the cross been fixed in the center of time, there to look at by everyone who is perishing. Every mouthful that sustains you is brought to you by the cross, by Jesus taking the cup of God’s just wrath and drinking it down to its very dregs. In as much as you eat or drink anything, it is Because of the Lord’s Supper that you eat and drink it. Because God had mercy in the face of your rebellion.
But everything that you eat and drink is assuredly not the Lord’s Supper. That is for people who have crumpled in front of the dark horror of what sin really looks like. Who look up at the one who hangs with head bowed, the blood running down, the flesh pierced. The bread, the wine, that is for those who have stopped pointing fingers at those sinners and realized where the problem really lies. The body, the blood, the life of God is for those who see that there is no other food, there is nothing else to eat that matters, no one to turn to but Jesus for help, no solution that doesn’t involve him.
Jesus ate with sinners because, in that single dark hour when the sun disappeared, he became sin–he, who knew no sin became sin–so that you might have life. He didn’t just eat with sinners, he became the ugliness that separates you from him. So when you eat of the Lord’s Supper, in repentance and faith, you are not eating With him, you are biting down On him. And I think I know which is better.