Some years ago I was speaking at a conference in Birmingham. During the lunchtime a man wandered in off the streets. One of the organisers tried to remove him because he was loud and noisy. I went across to where he was and sat down next to him. His name was Robin and he was a drug user. I got him some food and then sat and listened to his story; he eventually left happy that he had been listened to and affirmed, rather than just rejected and removed.
I had not found it easy to sit with him. The smell was enough to put me off. It was not comfortable to listen to his terrible story but something inside me impelled me to stay and try as best I could to show the face of Christ.
All the Gospel writers turn the social order upside down and have Jesus sitting with those who are excluded and alienated. By doing so, Jesus made himself unclean but he had to do what God was calling him to do – to show the world the face of God.
It is difficult for us to understand the Jewish culture of the day. Tradition held that to exclude the poor and the sinner and the tax collector was the right and moral thing to do. Their sin had separated them from God. They had broken the covenant. The Jews believed that if they sat and ate with sinners then they too would break that covenant and bring the wrath of God down on their heads.
So for them Jesus was not just a crazy rabbi being nice to people. He was a threat to the covenant and ultimately to the whole existence of Israel as a nation. He had to die but love is too strong to kill and so God raised him to life and we followers of the crucified one are to love as he loved, affirming the dignity of every human being as a child of God.
That means we will be brought into conflict sometimes with the authorities around us, often with our neighbours, relatives and friends because of our attitudes. The question is whether, like Jesus, we hold dearly enough the truth of who God is and how God sees every human being to stand up and be counted. The challenge of the Gospel is to proclaim the good news of a risen saviour for whom love meant everything. In this Easter season and beyond, will love mean everything to us?