Invitational: Redemption Stories
Over the last few years, I’ll confess that I’ve become a big fan of reading fanfiction. Anybody know what that is? Fanfiction is stories that fans of original works write in order to prolong or reimagine or recreate the original story. Sometimes authors imagine what a contemporary story would be like if it took place in some other time period, or vice versa – like if Pride and Prejudice took place in 2015, instead of the 1800s. Sometimes fanfiction writers imagine a character who has an untimely end in a story as surviving instead, imagining what it might be like, for example, if Darth Vader lived longer, for better or worse. Other fanfiction stories are about what would happen if your favorite character fell in love with the character you always wanted them too, instead of the one they ended up with. And another big chunk of fanfiction are stories about what would happen if the bad guy was somehow redeemed, and the villain becomes a hero instead. What if Lex Luthor decided to start working for Super Man instead of against him? What if Captain Hook built a home for all the Lost Boys? What if Cruella de Vil was persuaded to become an animal lover?
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has written that it’s amazing to her that people keep writing stories where one of the villains, Draco Malfoy, is more nuanced, becomes a hero. She doesn’t understand why people persist in seeing something in Draco that she hasn’t written there. But I don’t find it surprising at all. We love redemption stories. We love that what once was lost can be found! In fact, I thin, it is our favorite story. It certainly seems to be the favorite story of our scriptures. They are full of stories of people like Paul, who, when we first see him, is looking on with glee while followers of Jesus are stoned to death. But Paul has an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and ends up giving himself heart and soul to the furthering of the gospel. Or there’s the Prodigal Son in the parable Jesus shares, who squanders everything, and comes back to his father, begging for forgiveness, seeing the value of all he had treated as worthless. There’s King David, meant to be a beacon of godliness, caught up in a web of adultery and lies, repentant and humbled. A bandit, crucified next to Jesus, seeking forgiveness at the last. We love redemption stories. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!”
I think, though, that as much as we love redemption stories, when we imagine ourselves in the story, most of us, we’re not seeing ourselves as the one who is lost and needs redeeming. Instead, we’re the ones who love and see the good in those who need redeeming. We’re the ones in the story who can see how much someone else is failing, how much help they need, how they struggle – and perhaps even inspired by what we can see in them, we can witness their redemption. We’re Luke Skywalker, not Darth Vader. I think, especially for those of us who have basically tried and succeeded in walking more or less on the straight and narrow of life, when we think about redemption, someone getting their life together after things being a total disaster, we see ourselves in the role of the helper. The one who can help others get things on track. It’s not a bad impulse – this desire to help others, of course. But we should be wary. Because when we cast ourselves in the role of one who leads others to redemption, the role we’re really giving ourselves is the role of savior. There are many savior-figures in literature, in books, in movies, in TV shows – heroes. Superheroes, even. But when it comes to our journey of faith, if we’re so busy saving other that we don’t need redeeming, is there anything left for Jesus to do?
Last week, we talked about the calling of Simon Peter, as Jesus directed he and his fishing partners out into the deep waters, telling them that now they would fish for people. Remember how Peter responded to Jesus sat first, after the great haul of fish: He said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Simon Peter didn’t fully know yet who Jesus was, but he knew he needed redeeming. So he follows Jesus. Just after he and a few other become disciples, Jesus preaches and teaches and spends time healing – a man with a skin disease, a paralytic man, and many others. Then, we arrive at the start of our text for today. As he exits the house where he’s just healed the paralytic man, Jesus sees Levi, a tax-collector, sitting at his booth. Remember, tax collectors in the gospels were despised not just because everyone hates paying takes – but because they, Jews, worked to collected taxes for the Romans, the foreign occupiers. So tax collectors were considered not only greedy, but disloyal traitors, who chose income from Rome over standing up for their own people.
So Jesus sees Levi, sitting at his booth, and he says, “Follow me.” Levi gets up, leaves everything, and follows Jesus. This brief exchange is certainly astonishing. Levi responds to Jesus without hesitation. Jesus asks for Levi’s discipleship without, as far as we’re privy to, a single word spoken before he’s asking him for his everything. But maybe it isn’t surprising either. How many people see Levi? How many people saw him and not his position? How many people looked at him and saw promise and hope and a future? Jesus did. He saw Levi, and chose him still. Levi, perhaps seeing for the first time in a long time someone looking at him with something other than disgust, maybe it is a no-brainer that he followed.
Levi then throws a great dinner banquet for Jesus, this man who saw him and chose him and changed his life. And naturally, who does Levi invite? Other tax collectors! In fact, Luke says there’s a “large crowd” of tax collectors at this banquet. Apparently, Levi doesn’t leave out the religious elite – the Pharisees and scribes are there too. But even though they’re at the same party, they complain to Jesus and the disciples. “Why do you eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” Jesus responds, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus basically says: “If you’re not sick, you don’t a doctor. If you’re not a sinner, you don’t need to repent. If you aren’t seeking redemption, you don’t need a savior.” Jesus has come to serve those who are sick and sinners and in need of redemption – because they are the ones who realize that they’re lost and need help! How can he heal someone who insists they are well? How can he find someone who insists that they aren’t and have never been lost?
Jesus calls Levi to follow him, and Levi immediately invites every other tax-collector in town to meet Jesus. Because Levi has found something that has saved his life! He’s been redeemed. He’s found a savior. And this impact on his life is so great, so significant, so meaningful, that he can’t help but invite everyone else to experience what he has. He wants to make sure everyone gets to meet Jesus, because Jesus has saved him, redeemed him. Levi invites not one or two, but a crowd. Why would he want anyone to miss meeting the man who saved him? How compelling an invitation is that? Come meet the person who changed my life. Come meet the person who saved me.
Today we wrap up our focus on being an invitational people, just as we turn our hearts and minds to the Lenten journey, traveling with Jesus to the cross and beyond. And as we begin this season of reflection and repentance, here are the questions I’m asking myself, that I’m hoping you’ll wrestle with too. Has Jesus saved me? Have I needed a savior? Have I needed redeeming? Or have I been busy trying to save and redeem others? Maybe the story of Jesus redeeming our lives started long ago, and we need to remember how God found us when we were lost. Maybe, friends, we’ve always considered ourselves redeemed, and so never really dug deep into our hearts to show to God our wounds that need healing. Maybe, even, we’ve been lost, but never willing to ask for directions!
If you met someone who saved your life, that’s a story you’d want to share, right? Levi sure did. He invited a whole crowd to meet the man responsible for his redemption. What about us? Do we have a savior that we will invite people to meet? Amen.