This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
Through the course of studying for my sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, I grew incredibly fond of the sermons of Alexander Maclaren. His expositions became a beloved resource to which I often resorted. I am particularly keen on his articulations of the gospel which serve to inspire my own proclamations of the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 1:3) A thread which binds Maclaren’s expositions together, though, was the lowly, compassionate love of God as seen in Christ’s fraternization with and even embrace of sinners. He was unafraid and unashamed to welcome the uncleanest of the unclean and the worst of the outcasts with the sincerest grace.
There is a particularly fascinating detail in this same vein in the concluding chapter of Mark’s Gospel. It occurs when “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome” venture to the tomb where Jesus was buried “so that they could go and anoint him.” (Mk 16:1) Once there, however, they are greeted with, perhaps, the last thing they expected to find. Not only had the tomb’s door been open but the tomb lay empty. The vacant grave certainly confused these women, leading them to assume it had been pillaged. “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb,” Mary reports, “and we don’t know where they’ve put him!” (Jn 20:2) It is evident that the idea of a resurrection was the last thing on their minds.
But to add to their bewilderment, they are greeted by an angel who speaks directly to them. “Don’t be alarmed,” the angel declares. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they put him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there just as he told you.’” (Mk 16:6–7) The fascinating part of the angel’s message is his explicit mention of Peter among all the other apostles. “Go tell the other disciples, but especially tell Peter what you have seen,” the text seems to say. It was not by accident that the angel cited Peter by name. Perhaps some would point to this detail as being just another indication of Petrine inspiration. Tradition holds that John Mark composed his Gospel based off the sermons of his mentor, St. Peter. And there are several instances peppered throughout Mark’s account which corroborate this notion. But there is more going on here than simply the evincing of apostolic inspiration.
Such is what Maclaren declares in his sermon on this passage, in which he proceeds to elaborate on the expanse of God’s love from this mere mention of Peter’s name. This, Maclaren attests, is an insignia of the undying love of Christ for the lost, and the outcast, and even for those who deny him. Maclaren writes:
We cannot get away from the sweep of His love, wander we ever so far . . . His arm is too strong for us to shake it off, His love to divine for us to dam it back . . . Our sin cannot check the flow of His love . . . Christ’s love is extended to us; no sin can stay it; no fall of ours can make Him despair. He will not give us up. He waits to be gracious.1
I like to imagine the scene where Peter is informed of this news. He and the other apostles don’t believe the women’s report at first, dismissing it as nothing but an “idle tale.” (Lk 24:11) But I can still picture that moment when Mary and the other ladies rush into the room where the apostles are hiding out, and Mary specifically mentioning Peter. “He called me by name?” Peter surely asked. “He wanted me?” For one who had outright rejected any fellowship or relationship with Jesus of Nazareth a few days prior, this particular acknowledgment and invitation to restored fellowship must have been more than hard to believe. It must have sounded impossible.
In that way, I can relate to Peter. Not only because he appears to be a thick-headed, stubborn student of the Word who can’t get out of his own way half the time, and the other half he spends taking his foot out of his mouth. But I can also relate to him with what I imagine him feeling in that moment. That there was no way Jesus could love him. There is a sense in which we are conditioned to think that our sin is a barrier to God’s love. That in order to experience the fullness of God’s loving disposition we must maintain perfect conduct. That his love is contingent on our goodness. This has led some to conclude that the churchgoers are the good ones and the non-attenders are the bad ones.
But such conclusions are unfounded and full of error. The church is not a place where good people gather to learn life lessons on how to get better. The church is a place for bad people to assemble and hear the good news that the only One who is truly and perfectly good is tenaciously and graciously seeking after them. There is no basis, then, for thinking, I’m not good enough for church precisely because there is never a time when the church is absent of bad people. The sanctuary is never not full of sinners. Indeed, sinners are the church’s business. Therefore, a church that excludes sinners and screw-ups from its gathering through an implicit idea that divine love hinges upon one’s conduct is a church that has ceased to be a church. “The church has to be told loud and clear that tossing out sinners is a violation of the gospel of grace,” the beloved Robert Capon once quipped. “A church that can’t manage to say in communion with sinners makes about as much sense as a carpenter who can’t stand to handle wood.”2
There is not a soul who crosses the threshold of the sanctuary who is excluded from the message of the gospel of forgiveness. Such, indeed, is the expansive import of the angel’s declaration that Jesus wanted Peter’s company. The resurrected Lord was desirous of his dissenter’s heart. The denier is brought back into fellowship. The prodigal is welcomed home. “Christianity has founded a colony for the outcasts of society,” Charles Spurgeon says. “Zion’s inhabitants are to be gathered from haunts of sin and chambers of vice.”3 I am, then, predisposed to proclaim a gospel which reaches out to sinners, notwithstanding the wreckage from which they come, the baggage with which they carry, the damage which they have inflicted. The cross knows nothing of a soul it cannot forgive. Capon writes elsewhere:
Everybody, even the worst stinker on earth, is somebody for whom Christ died. What a colossal misrepresentation it is, then, when the church gathers up its skirts and chases questionable types out of its midst with a broom. For the church to act as if it dare not have any dealings with sinners is as much a betrayal of its mission as it would be for a hospital to turn away sick people . . . Sinners are the church’s business, for God’s sake.4
Yes, indeed: sinners are the church’s business because sinners are all that there are. Back to Maclaren, though, who echoes the same sentiment:
There is no condition of human misery which Christ cannot alleviate. None is so sunk in sin that He cannot redeem them. For all in the world there is hope. Look on the extremest forms of sin. We can regard them all with the assurance that Christ can cleanse them — prostitutes, thieves, respectable worldlings. None is so bad as to have lost His love. None is so bad as to be excluded from the purpose of His death. None is so bad as to be beyond the reach of His cleansing power. None has wandered so far that he cannot come back . . . The Saviour is greater than all our sins . . . Christianity has no belief in the existence of “irrecclaimable outcasts,” but proclaims and glories in the possibility of winning any and all to the love which makes godlike.5
This is the good news. This is the church’s message. The Savior has become the exile so that we, the exiles, may be brought home. The Shepherd hones in on lost sheep. The Lord speaks words of grace and peace to the outcasts.
For this is what the Lord God says: See, I myself will search for my flock and look for them. As a shepherd looks for his sheep on the day he is among his scattered flock, so I will look for my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and total darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples, gather them from the countries, and bring them to their own soil. I will shepherd them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will tend them in good pasture, and their grazing place will be on Israel’s lofty mountains. There they will lie down in a good grazing place; they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will tend my flock and let them lie down. This is the declaration of the Lord God. I will seek the lost, bring back the strays, bandage the injured, and strengthen the weak, but I will destroy the fat and the strong. I will shepherd them with justice. (Eze 34:11–16)
Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel According to St. Mark: Chapters IX to XVI (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 291, 293, 300.
Robert Capon, More Theology & Less Heavy Cream: The Domestic Life of Pietro and Madeleine (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2016), 137.
Charles Spurgeon, The Saint and His Saviour: The Progress of the Soul the Knowledge of Jesus (Houston: Christian Focus, 1989), 33–34.
Robert Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 157–58.
Maclaren, 304–5, 310.