On the way home last night, I heard the Casting Crowns song "Jesus, Friend of Sinners". I'm not trying to single them out or say that the thoughts that followed were directed against them, this song was just what got me going. And, in fact, I wasn't really thinking about any of the lyrics, other than the title.
Of course we are aware of this picture of Jesus; we make much of it, and like Casting Crowns we find joy in the fact that Jesus seemed to prefer the company of "sinners" rather than the influential pious people who seemed to have it all together. And, of course, in His word God happily points out our sin, and so we know that as fallen, helpless sinners we, too, can find Jesus' love for us, making Paul's words our own: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." (1 Tim 1:15, ESV). It's safe to say that these two points, the depth of our sin and the magnitude of God's love for us in the midst of it, are cornerstones of the form of Christianity I find myself in. A common saying at my church is, "The most graceful thing you can know is how sinful you really are."
First of all, if you take the Bible seriously, you can't be the foremost of sinners, because Paul is. He said so himself. But more seriously, I'd like to point something out. Notice in the previous paragraph how many times I used first-person pronouns: "we", "us", "our". I tend to do this in lots of my posts, but it's a tendency that's far from specific to me. I think this is at least partially reflective of our western tendency to personalize and individualize our spirituality. You accept Jesus as your "personal Lord and Savior", you tell people about entering a "personal relationship with Jesus", and so on. It's pretty big right now.
Of course there is a danger (maybe even a certainty) of self-centeredness with this kind of thinking, which is why I tend to try to avoid this kind of "personal relationship" language. But when the song reminded me of how Jesus was the "friend of sinners", I realized another danger, which, in typical fashion, I will present in the form of a question: what if, by focusing on and emphasizing our own sinfulness and then taking comfort in the fact that Jesus befriended sinners, we are forgetting that everyone sins and is loved by God? In other words, we often hear that "Jesus loves sinners" and, in our modern personalizing way, mentally add: "like me." Which often shortens to, "Jesus loves people like me." As comforting as this is, we also need the challenge of mentally adding, "like those people", whoever "those people" are to you: the bus driver you can barely stand, the guy who asks you for money to buy soda every time he sees you, the man you look down on because you know he's going to a casino. (If you couldn't tell, those are all real people from my life, and I'm feeling pretty convicted about how I view them)
The really ironic part is how we take the designation of "sinner" that the Bible assigns us and turn it into almost a kind of privileged status by rejoicing in how "Jesus loves sinners like me", unaware that the whole point of passages of Scripture like, say, Romans 3 is not to show the depth of our sin (and therefore how much we have been loved and forgiven by God) but to utterly demolish any pretense we might field to gain a moral high ground over anyone else. We often call the kingdom of God, which Jesus frequently preached about, the "upside-down kingdom", and for good reason, but this doesn't mean that the standards for being a bigshot have been turned on their head. The implications go much deeper in His words, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." (Mar 9:35)