Who Are the Lost Sheep?
Sunday Evening Vesper Service
Copeland Oaks, Sebring, Ohio
September 11, 2022*
By Pastor John Partridge
This morning at Christ Church I shared a message about welcoming sinners the way that Jesus welcomed sinners, and as a part of that discussion I read a passage from Luke 15 that most of us here are likely familiar. In that passage, Luke 15:1-10, we hear these words:
15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins [each worth a day’s wage] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
In our story, we know that the sinners that the Pharisees are talking about are the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other people who were generally excluded from polite society. These were the people who didn’t come to the Temple or make an appearance at the synagogue although some, if not many, of them had likely grown up in good Jewish families, had gone to Jewish school, attended synagogue services, and had their bar mitsvah (or bat mitzvah). Some of them, of course, were not. These might have been Samaritans, or Roman soldiers, or others who had never been a part of the church but, for the most part, in the story, the vast majority were almost certainly ethnically Jewish.
And that’s a kind of a weird problem. These people that Jesus calls God’s “lost children” were family. They literally shared DNA with the people who were critical of Jesus. They had grown up in the church, but now they were outcasts and found it almost impossible to come back to the church even if they wanted to do so because of the stigma that they bore as, quote, “sinners.”
Obviously, those of us who have gone to church for any length of time, or who have read this story with us, know that Jesus, and God, were of a different opinion. Although Jesus told them that they needed to stop sinning, he still went out of his way to find them where they were, to be friends with them, and to make them feel welcome. Jesus wanted to be sure that they knew, and felt, that the door to rescue, reconciliation, and redemption was wide open to them.
But if we skip ahead twenty-one centuries, we find ourselves asking the same question…
Who are the lost sheep?
When we attend a Gentile church and few of us even know someone who is ethnically Jewish, it seems obvious that the lost children that we know aren’t Jews. But we’ve learned that while Jesus’ mission on earth was to seek and to save the lost children of Israel, the mission that he left to his disciples, and to his church, is to seek and to save all of God’s lost children, that is, all of humanity.
With that in mind, let’s look again at the people that Jesus was criticized for hanging out with, talking to, and to whom he offered grace, mercy, and friendship. The people that Jesus invited in, were the people who the church liked to discredit and write off. They were the people that didn’t fit in, didn’t have enough status, had the wrong status, who chose the wrong side, had the wrong kind of job, or otherwise fell through the cracks in the society of New Testament Israel.
Many of the people on that list are the same people in our communities today. Churches full of Democrats can find it hard to minister to Republicans, and vice versa. We look askance at people who don’t dress like we do, or who don’t smell like we do, let alone prostitutes, drug dealers, drug users, gamblers, smokers, folks covered with tattoos and piercings, single mothers, teen mothers, fussy babies, bikers, the poor, and a bunch of other people who just don’t fit into our idea of church membership. And let’s not forget the difficulty that we sometimes have welcoming people of color, the deaf, the blind, the mentally handicapped, the disabled, or people whose first language isn’t English.
But the parable that Jesus told says that “…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” And so as mixed up as we might get, or whatever it is that makes us think that we know who belongs and who doesn’t belong, at the end of the day Jesus says that everyone belongs. And every one of those people that we might be tempted to discredit or write off are exactly the lost sheep that Jesus was talking about. Every one of those people that frighten us a little, or anger us a little, or make us cringe when they come through the door, are exactly the people for whom we should drop everything, leave behind the ninety-nine, light a lamp and sweep the house, or whatever it is that we need to do to make them feel welcome, show them mercy and grace, so that they can hear the message of Jesus’ rescue, restoration, and reconciliation.
Jesus’ message of the lost sheep was never an easy one, and it isn’t easy now. But our mission isn’t to make the ninety-nine sheep inside our church comfortable and well fed, our mission is to rescue the one that’s missing.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.