In preparing for this week’s sermon, I have given a lot of thought to why the Church exists. You (generally) don’t go to a hospital if you are already well. You go because you are sick and in need of healing. Christ said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” So also, the Church exists for the sake of sinners. We don’t go to church because we are already clean, holy, and righteous. We don’t go to get a pat on the back for good behavior. We go precisely because we are unholy and unclean. We go because we are sinners, desperately in need of being cleansed of our sins. Baptism, Absolution, Preaching, Communion–all of these were given by Christ for that very reason, so that Christ could continue to “receive sinners.”
It is also important to note, I think, that those who were drawing near to Christ to listen to him were not proud, brazen sinners, but penitent sinners. The parables that Jesus tells suggest that this was so. “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Jesus was not overjoyed because proud sinners were coming to him, but because these tax collectors and “sinners” were repenting of their sins and looking to him for grace and forgiveness, which they found in abundance.
Our culture today is such that churches, in an effort to avoid the difficult task of calling people to repentance, treat impenitent, hardened sinners no differently than they do thsoe who are sorry for their sins and despise who they are. This confuses people, because they tend to read a passage like this in Luke 15 and think, “Wow, see how Jesus welcomed sinners? Why can’t our church be more welcoming to sinners?” What they mean by this, however, is that the church should just allow people to live in their sins without repentance.
Certainly it is true that if you will not be a sinner, then neither can you have Christ as your Savior and Redeemer. Because Christ came into the world to save sinners. The Church exists for the sake of sinners. The Sacraments are given for the sake of sinners. The Pastoral Office was established for the sake of sinners.
That is why the Pharisees and Scribes didn’t like Jesus very much–they refused to be numbered with sinners, and so Christ was of no use to them. God help us, that we might see our sins, and draw near to Christ for mercy and forgiveness.