Even smart people can say dumb things! Like the head of a penal system who was being grilled on TV about riots that had recently occurred in his state’s penitentiaries. The reporter’s aggressive attempts to get him to admit responsibility for these ‘failures’ eventually goaded him into blurting out this gem: “Well, let’s put the blame where it belongs – if our society sent us a better class of people, we wouldn’t have these kinds of problems.” Well, duhhh!
Something equally misguided occurred when some complained that Jesus was hanging out with “tax collectors and SINNERS.” Imagine that! Jesus nailed the silliness of that criticism when He pointed out: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Mark 2:17 NIV)
Well, we can kind of excuse Jesus’ critics in this case because this was early in His ministry and people were still trying to figure out what He was all about. But it’s harder to excuse the people who, 2000 years later, still don’t grasp the essential point of membership in His Church. This takes two primary forms: some who don’t think they are ‘good enough’ to be in the Church, and a great many more who express surprise when they observe less-than-perfect behavior by church members. They’re different mistakes, but they both miss the point that the Church is only interested in sinners!
The reader is probably smiling at that observation because, of course, we routinely confess that we are all sinners. But there is more to it than that – the ONLY people for whom the Church has anything to offer are those who acknowledge that they are hopeless sinners in need of a Savior!
It’s been observed that “the church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” Comparing the church to a hospital is certainly apt — at least so far as ‘admissions’ and ‘treatment’ are concerned. But unlike a hospital, whose goal is to restore sick people to health and quickly discharge them to return to their ‘normal life,’ the Church is a hospital that, when it is doing its job, keeps all its ‘patients’ in ‘critical care’ for the remainder of their earthly lives, and ONLY THEN sends them ‘home.’
When you think about it, the church is a very odd kind of ‘hospital.’ Yes, it is dedicated to healing those who enter, but a critical part of its mission is to teach people that they are even sicker than they thought they were! Yet, at the very same time, to reassure that they’re in far better shape than they ever dreamed they could be! As Luther put it, “Simultaneously Saints and Sinners!”
“But, isn’t the Church supposed to make folks into better people?” Well, yes and no! Of course, the goal of every Christian is to become more Christlike, but that’s a ‘work in progress’ that isn’t completed on earth. For one thing, as we let the Spirit of Christ illuminate our lives, we see more clearly what REAL health looks like. And there’s also the brutal reality that church people are particularly susceptible to certain sins that our world commonly considers virtues: self-righteousness, hypocrisy, pride, and silent tolerance of immoral behavior, to name a few. It is the task of the Church to expose these fatal cancers to the light of God’s Truth, which is why many stay away, but this then deprives them of the healing which is freely offered to the repentant, as well as the motivation to be transformed by the Spirit.
And there’s another very odd thing about the ‘hospital’ of the church – the patients (members) who are themselves there for desperately-needed care are also the ‘medical staff’ entrusted with the care of other patients. Unlike a hospital, there is only one ‘doctor’ (Jesus Christ) and everyone else is both patient and staff. Though some have specially designated roles in the life of the congregation (such as the pastor), all need healing, and none is ultimately more important to Christ’s work of salvation than any other. We cannot know how our casual remark, a smile, a scowl, or even our simple presence or absence might be a crucial part of the ‘treatment’ that shapes the eternal destiny of our fellow member. Thus, it is both because we need healing ourselves, and because we also have a responsibility to heal others, that we take our church membership as a lifelong commitment.
“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)