Here is a rhetorical questions that we should ask ourselves: "Who do I spend most of my time with?" The reason I think it is important is because it reveals a few things to us. In growing up my parents tried hard to help me pick the right friends; friends who would not lead me down the wrong path. They were a great believer in "Bad company corrupts good character". This attitude has bled over into my adult life so that when I look at my friends now I do not have one who is not a follower of Jesus. That is sad. Although it is a very wise attitude for children and the less mature Christian, it is actually contrary to the example of Jesus.
Yes, I am saying that "sinners" should make up a good percentage of your friends. You are mature and you have a healthy relationship with Jesus. As long as you maintain that relationship every day there is nothing that the "sinner" can entice you to do, especially when you understand this friendship is part of your mission. Consider for a moment when Jesus invited Matthew to join him.
Matthew was a tax collector, a traitor to Israel, or at least that is how most Israelites would have looked at him. He was hired by Rome to force tax out of the people, and often times they forced a little more than they needed to in order to line their own pockets. However, it wasn't the thievery so much as working for Rome that got them lumbed in with the "sinners". Knowing this then we can understand why choosing Matthew to be his disciple would have caused a stir. What was even worse was when Jesus joined in the party at Matthew's home:
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" (Matthew 9:10-11)
The Pharisees were the defenders of the Mosaic law, a bunch of really stuck-up religious types who would have frowned on things like dancing and public displays of affection in our day. They had a certain code of conduct that they applied to all Rabbi's. They didn't like Jesus in the first place, because he was from Galilee, but they had to admit that his teaching put him in the category of a Rabbi. However, his behaviour was unacceptable. There is no possible way that they could bring him into their circle if he was going to hang out with these people. He was even treating them like human beings, like equals.
Jesus made it clear to them, and to us, what his perspective was on the matter:
"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:12-13)
Many of us live with the same attitude of the Pharisees even if we don't want to admit it. We live with our rules and our lists about what is acceptable and what isn't. Just like the Pharisees we have the things we have attached to the Word to better define and understand what it means. Some people have the rule about no dancing and others about no drums. Some people would never let a girl wear pants and another considers dying the hair to be wrong. Others would never be able to accept Christians hanging out at bars or going to concerts. There are hundreds of additional rules people live by that are not an actual part of the Word of God and all these rules do is put more distance between us and those we have been sent to love.
Now, a cautionary note: Jesus spent time with them, hung out with them, broke bread with them, but he did not enter their sin. He accepted them where they were and he shared the good news to equip them to escape from their sin but he never joined them in their sin. Jesus would never have gone to a bar with his friends and gotten drunk. He would not have gotten caught up in the craze of the performers on the stage. He would not have smashed police cars, or joined a riot. It is possible to be a friend to "sinners" without agreeing or entering into their sin and this is where the immature in Jesus have the problem and why so many of the mature don't want to go there.
The secret to our mission is to remain in Christ; is to allow our passion and love for him to remain on the surface of everything we do and say. He must remain the center of our universe and the reason for our mission. It is wrong to delude ourselves into thinking that we are hanging only with Christians because that is what Jesus demands when in actual fact we are hiding because we know that our faith is not what it should be. To carry out our mission requires us to be in the world and a friend to sinners as Jesus is but this also requires a vibrant, real and passionate faith in the King of kings and Lord of lords.
This means, for many of us, myself included, the real reason we stay separated is because we are cowards of the faith, not heroes. For whatever reason, we do not feel that our faith can stand the testing and battering that happens as we step into the world. We do not believe that others will look at us and known there is something different about us. We do not believe that we are strong enough to be used by God to bring the light and the truth to the darkness. Well, I am glad Jesus was all that and more when he entered into the ugliness of my world and called me friend. So I need to remember that in calling me he also sent me, and he told me that same thing he told you: follow my example. It is time to throw our faith into action and enter the real mission field he sent us to. It is time to dust off our faith and start loving those who are without love and hope. It is time for us to enter the ugliness of this world to share the beauty of Jesus.