Who is welcome in our community? Who is not welcome? Who is welcome conditionally, on the basis that they first change, or are making certain changes? Whose presence in our midst makes us feel uncomfortable, concerned that we might in some way be contaminated by sharing bread and wine with them at Jesus’ table (despite Jesus clearly stating that it is not what goes into a person [certain foods] that makes them unclean but what comes out of them [certain speech, the outworking of certain attitudes]; despite Jesus’ own practice of eating with Pharisees and sinners)? The Church is invited to believe that everything that has been made is being reconciled – to one another as created beings and to our Creator – by and in and through Jesus...and challenged to live into this new reality. And yet, the Church is fraught with division and worry over who we can or should not embrace...those we disapprove of, and those we disapprove of because of who they disapprove of whom we affirm...
One of the most precious gifts God gave me last week was the opportunity to listen to Deb Hirsch (Los Angeles), and Sean Gladding (Lexington), each share their radical Christ-centred compassion.
Here are some observations/reflections/discussions that resonated with my spirit:
We are all sinners. There is no hierarchy of sin (though there are sins that harm the body as well as the soul); to break one part of the Law is to break it all.
We come to Jesus because it is him alone who can transform us, can cleanse us of our stains and heal us of our brokenness. We come on level ground, invited to the same table, and who are we to demand that we be welcome while demanding that someone else be turned away?
Our job is to point people towards Jesus – whether they are far away from him or very close, for the journey to him starts a long way off and the journey away from him can start as close as his first disciples, indeed as close as our own heart – and to leave the rest to him.
Moving towards Jesus is a journey. Can we really only affirm movement towards Jesus when it gets to a certain point? And can we really only affirm movement towards Jesus when it gets to a certain point, while adding barriers to getting to that point?! For example, an orthodox Christian view of sexual behaviour advocates marriage for heterosexuals and celibacy for homosexuals: while this is not the only view held by Christians, can those who hold it affirm the move from promiscuity to monogamy – from A to B, but not yet to C – as movement towards Jesus? Who are we to judge against those we believe to be moving away from Jesus, when we also wilfully or unwittingly turn our backs on him; when what is lost is to be sought and found and brought back and celebrated? And who are we to judge whether another person is ‘genuinely’ seeking to follow Jesus?
This is how sanctification works: when the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin in our lives, we cannot help but repent - Isaiah says “Woe is me!” and Simon Peter says “Get away from me, Lord!” – and believe, not because repentance and belief are coerced but because conviction is compelling. So if someone does not feel convicted that some part of their life we believe to be sinful (and it may be) is sin, rather than telling them that they are wrong and that they need to address this sin in their life before we can go any further, we do better to ask them, “Where in your life do you feel convicted of sin?” and to offer, to the best of our own provisional understanding and ongoing experience, to help a fellow child of God repent and believe and so enter into the experience of the kingdom of heaven. (Thanks, Sean Gladding, for sharing this profound observation.)
Who are we to say in what order God should address the brokenness in another person’s life? We might want him to start with the thing we feel most uncomfortable about; but God might want, or need – and he knows better than me – to start somewhere else or proceed in a different order to my agenda.
Every one of us is broken, in more ways than we are aware, and through a tangled mess of the consequences of those things we have done that we ought not to have done, those things we ought to have done that we have not done, wilfully or unwittingly, those things others have done to us that they ought not to have done, those things others have not done to us that they ought to have done, wilfully or unwittingly, and indeed the wider consequences of these things having been played out throughout history...The careful experience of being healed has begun for us, but every one of us will enter eternity broken and only be fully alive, fully free, fully comforted, fully healed when Jesus makes all things new. So who are we to decide what aspect of another’s brokenness must be made whole this side of then, or before any other?
If our theology prevents us from the embrace of another (sinner); from sitting down at table with another and breaking bread with them to remind ourselves that God comes to set his people free and to offer ourselves to live as those who have been freed; if our theology causes us to keep anyone from coming to Jesus (as the disciples tried to keep mothers from bringing their children to Jesus); then our theology is wrong and we bear false witness to the One we claim to love.
Perfect love drives out fear; and fear flourishes where we shut out perfect love. By whom am I afraid to be embraced? Where do I need to welcome Love? Where do I need to welcome Jesus, in the face of the person excluded for being gay/Muslim/alcoholic/racist/Reformed/autistic/[insert] – someone who bears the imago dei and who, with me, may be transformed into the imago Christi as we gaze together on his face, not least in each other’s eyes?
For me, personally, one of the hardest choices is to choose to welcome those who create a theological hierarchy of men over women. On this, I profoundly disagree with them, and am deeply saddened by their behaviour, by the impact of their behaviour not only on women but also on men who look to such leaders for their lead. I know where I stand – and it is important to know where we stand, while knowing that we have not arrived. But I also need to know that welcome is not the same as condoning their actions, any more than God welcoming any sinner condones any sin. If I will not love what is not lovely, I can have no part in Jesus. Sometimes, that is a very hard thing to do. But whoever thought that the great vision of reconciling all things – the state of glory, which Jesus chooses to share with us – was a small matter?
In a Church that seems intent on devouring one another in front of a world that looks on with bewilderment and curses Christ’s name, the wisdom, grace, and courage I have witnessed these past days strengthens my hope for what we do not yet see, and invites and challenges me to go and do likewise. For this, I am deeply thankful.