We have spent the past few weeks talking about the forgiveness of Jesus. When Jesus offered people God’s grace and mercy, it completely changes their lives. It was the forgiveness of Jesus that helped the lame to walk and the blind to see. It was forgiveness of Jesus that released people from their sin, and the guilt and shame that comes with sin. It was the forgiveness of Jesus that helped move people into the new life that God had for them.
When Jesus extended forgiveness to people, what he offered them was a restored relationship with God. In the original story we looked at of the prodigal son, when the wayward son returned home, the father forgave him, and that forgiveness opened the door to the father and son being in a relationship once again. When we forgive someone, it opens the door for a friendship or relationship to be restored, and the same is true with the forgiveness of Jesus. Through Jesus, God’s forgiveness opened a door for people to feel connected to God. While sin separates us from God, the forgiveness of Jesus connects us, it restores that relationship.
What is special about the forgiveness of Jesus we will look at today is that forgiveness is offered before the person has turned back to God. The forgiveness of Jesus takes the first step, it initiates the restoration and new life. Matthew 9:9
As a tax collector, Matthew would have been seen by all in the community as a sinner. While we don’t know Matthew’s heart, and we don’t get a glimpse of his conscience, he was a sinner because he was working against God and for the Roman government, which oppressed the people of God. Many tax collectors also abused their position and cheated people, so their relationship with others was strained. Tax collects were sinners because they were far from God and far from the people of God, and yet here we find Jesus calling out to Matthew, at his tax collecting booth, still in his sin, and yet inviting Matthew to come with him and be a disciple.
When Jesus says to Matthew, Follow me, Jesus extends forgiveness. By inviting Matthew to follow him, to be a disciple, Jesus is saying to Matthew, your sins are forgiven. Your past is behind you, and there is a new life waiting for you, and that new life is now characterized by having a relationship with me, which is the beginning of a relationship with God. Forgiveness restores our relationship with God, and notice that the forgiveness given here comes before Matthew asked for it, before he repented, changed his heart, or promised to live a new life.
Now this doesn’t mean Matthew didn’t repent and change his life and live a new life – he did. When Matthew walked away from his tax booth, he was making a bold decision and a clear change, he was turning away from his old sinful life and embracing a new, more faithful one, but God’s invitation came before Matthew made that that change, or promised to change, or even asked for help.
Here we see one of the most important truths about the forgiveness of Jesus– the forgiveness of Jesus makes the first move. While Matthew may have been part of the crowd that had been listening to Jesus as he preached, and he may have seen the miracles Jesus performed, we have no record of these two men having had any conversation before this moment. Matthew hadn’t poured out his heart and soul to Jesus, he didn’t tell Jesus how sorry he was for the life he was living, or that he even wanted to live a different way. Matthew was a sinner, and Jesus offered him forgiveness before he even asked.
The forgiveness of Jesus always takes the initiative in our lives. God’s grace is always at work in us before we turn to Him. God’s grace always takes the first step in restoring our relationship with God. Even the people who came up to Jesus asking for forgiveness, or looking for healing, were not coming to Jesus first – the only reason they are able to come to Jesus was because God sent Jesus into the world. God made the first move by sending Jesus into the world, and here Jesus makes the first move by seeing Matthew at his tax booth, sitting in his sin, and inviting him to be a disciple.
John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, called this movement of God prevenient grace. This is the grace of God that is at work in our lives before we turn to God or even think about turning to God. It’s God’s grace that actually helps us think about our need for forgiveness. It’s God’s grace that opens our eyes and our hearts to see the darkness that we live in and our need for Jesus to be the light in our world. Prevenient grace is seen in all those little ways that God works in our lives before we thought about turning to God to ask for help or to seek forgiveness.
Prevenient grace is the sudden longing we have to learn more about God. It is the prompting to go to worship, or the unexpected invitation to attend worship that comes from a friend or coworker. It is what draws us to read the Bible, and it is that verse that suddenly speaks to us in a new way, or in a personal way, when we do. Prevenient grace is what opens our eyes so that we see our need to change, our need to set things right, our need to love God and be loved by God. It is God’s grace that always takes the initiative to reach out to us and begin a process of reconciliation with God – restoring a relationship.
In my own life, prevenient grace was seeing a sign for Intervarsity before I knew what Intervarsity was all about and only later realizing that it was a Christian fellowship that would offer me encouragement, friends, and a deeper relationship with God. The thing about prevenient grace is that we never see it in the moment, we only see it when we look back. It is after we are in a relationship with God that we are able to see how God had been working to restore that relationship. If you can’t see God’s grace working in your life today, don’t worry, it’s there. In fact, you are here today because God’s grace has been working in you. You are here today because God wants you to hear once again that you are forgiven, that you are loved, and accepted, that the same invitation given to Matthew is given to you – Follow me.
If you take nothing else with you today, take this – God’s grace is at work in you at this very moment. It is already at work in forgiving you, and God is inviting you to follow Jesus into a deeper relationship with him. The forgiveness of Jesus is a forgiveness that restores us into a right relationship with God, but not just God, it also helps restore our relationship with one another. The forgiveness of Jesus not only restored Matthew’s relationship with God, but it also begin to build a new community.
Matthew invited his friends together and then he included Jesus and his disciples at the table. In the Jewish tradition, if you shared a meal with someone it meant that you accepted them fully. You were honored to be there, you were part of their family, and their community. If you ate with a community of sinners, in some sense it made you a sinner, but here is Jesus at the table with sinners not to become one of them, but to invite them to be part of him. Jesus eating with them begins to create a new community centered on Jesus.
While Jesus doesn’t approve of their sinful ways, notice that he doesn’t force them to renounce those ways, confess their sin, repent, and promise to live a new life before he eats with them. Jesus knows that being with them, eating with them, inviting them to be part of his family, and his community where they can experience love and grace will help them know God’s love and grace and begin to restore in them a relationship with God.
I was thinking this week what it must have been like to be one of the disciples at this dinner with Jesus. They know how inappropriate this looked, but Jesus was there so there must be something they needed to learn from this moment. There is something they needed to see. I wonder if they looked around the table and slowly began to realize that they all had something in common, they were all sinners! Did being a table with people known as sinners make them more aware of their own sin, and their own need for God’s grace?
This was a new way of doing ministry. For the religious leaders, sinners were to be avoided, for Jesus they were to be embraced. For the religious elite, their community was only open to those who thought of themselves as pure and righteous, but for Jesus the new community welcomed sinners, which reminded everyone that we are all sinners, and that we are all in need of God’s grace.
Now more than ever we need the forgiveness of Jesus to build a new community. Our differences seem to be driving us apart. We are becoming increasingly intolerant of people who live, think, dress, act, and believe differently than we do. We are becoming more and more like the religious leaders who only wanted to surround themselves with people who thought like them, acted like them, and believed like them, but what we need to do is build a community where what brings us together is Jesus. If we are able to come together with Jesus as our focus, we will see two powerful things.
#1. We are all children of God. As we gather in a new community centered on Jesus it opens our eyes to seeing everyone around us a child of God. We spend less time judging others, and putting people into categories, because we are all children of God.
#2. It is the forgiveness of Jesus alone that restores our relationship with God. When we gather as a new community with Jesus as the focus, we realize how foolish it is to think that our own morality, and ability to be faithful, is what makes us right with God. It is not. We are saved by faith through grace. It is the forgiveness of Jesus alone that restores us in a relationship with God.
The forgiveness of Jesus began to build a wide and diverse community. Jesus brought together tax collectors and religious leaders, rabbis and prostitutes, the rich and the destitute, outcast Gentile women and devote Jewish men. We often only think of Jesus living among the least, the last, and the lost, but at the end of his life it was two religious leaders, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who took Jesus’ body and buried it in a new tomb, Joseph’s tomb, which tells us that Joseph was a wealthy man. So on the last day of Jesus life he brought together a powerless thief who had nothing and a powerful religious leader who had it all.
Jesus gathered together all kinds of people with one basic message, we are all children of God – not because of our ability to live righteous and moral lives and always be faithful, but because we can see clearly our need to be forgiven. Maybe the gift that the church has to offer the world is that we can become a new community that comes together around Jesus and that despite our differences we chose to focus on what unites us. And what unites us? We are all God’s children and we all are in need of the forgiveness of Jesus.
The forgiveness of Jesus always takes the first step in reaching out to us and the forgiveness of Jesus always works to restore us as God’s children. When we are forgiven, a new community is also formed and it is this community that needs to now take the initiative and invites others to experience the grace of God and the forgiveness of Jesus.
A forgiveness that restores
Connect with God
• Identify how God’s grace reached out to you before you reached out or turned to God. (Prevenient Grace)
• Thank God for loving you before you loved Him.
• Thank God for loving you whether you follow Him or not.
• Accept the grace and forgiveness Jesus offers you today.
Connect with the Church
• Identify one way you can deepen your relationships with people in the church.
• How can eating with others be part of your life of faith?
• How can the church become more of the “new community” Jesus created? How can you help?
• Begin to pray for someone you would like to invite to worship on Easter Sunday.
• Share the name of this person with a trusted friend and invite them to pray with you.
Connect with the World
• Identify any relationships in your life that need to be restored. Pray for the ability to forgive
• Identify one place in the community that needs the love of Jesus. Get involved there.
• Pray for those who need to hear about the grace of God here and around the world.
• Ask God for opportunities to share your faith.