So I’m teaching this class on Thursday nights on the Gospels & Acts. As we weave in and out of the various Gospels in order to proceed through the Life and Ministry of Jesus in a chronological way, it’s stunning to notice something in the first few chapters of the story.
In his genealogy, Matthew includes the likes of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
In his birth narrative, Luke points out that the lowly shepherds first received the birth announcement of Jesus.
After Jesus is born, Gentiles from way out East make the trek to worship Jesus.
Before Jesus is out of diapers, it’s clear that He is for everyone. He’s not too good to have some adulterers and tricksters and foreigners in his story. He’s happy to go to the outcast, low-caste, downcast field workers first to share his Good News. And, wherever you are from, you’re welcome to gather around Jesus.
It’s kind of staggering when you slow down to think of it. The Gospel authors are clear — before Jesus preached his first sermon, performed his first miracle, or formally invited his first follower — Jesus is for everybody.
So in my class we got to talking about all the people we exclude. Sure, Christians know that Jesus is for everyone. But a question that nags me when I read Scripture is this:
Who do I exclude that Jesus includes? What barriers exist in the way we “do” church that wouldn’t be there if we were to “be” the church of Jesus in a purer way? Churches know we’re supposed to welcome the outcast, the foreigner, the “other.” But what is it that we do to really facilitate what the Gospel authors communicate so clearly in their opening chapters? Is what we say backed up with how we actually act?
“We accept everybody!” … except.
“We welcome everybody!” … except.
“We’re a church for people who don’t like church!” … except.
I’m persuaded — churches shouldn’t be exceptional.
I think a lot of churches say the right things about being accepting. But really, they are being “except-ing.” What they really mean is that they accept everybody so long as you quickly clean up your act. We welcome everyone…once. Maybe twice. Maybe for a month or two. Then you’d better start acting the right way or we will eventually treat you different. Soon enough, you’ll be uninvited.
The story of baby Jesus set the stage for an “acceptional” ministry. Adult Jesus had some stern words for those who were exceptional:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13)
I wonder if we’re being exceptional when we should be acceptional?
I should note here that there’s a difference between accepting and approving. Obviously, there are things that are wrong that we should never approve of. But can’t we accept people anyway? Indeed, I think this is the main issue with the church today — we spend a lot of time arguing about what we should approve of and lose sight of the fact that Jesus accepted all kinds of folks who didn’t behave themselves. He went out of his way to accept those who had behaved badly:
- Matthew was a Jewish traitor who collected taxes for the Romans
- Simon was a zealot, an ancient terrorist who likely had blood on his hands
- Judas was a betrayer that Jesus never kicked out of the club
- Peter denied Jesus in his most vulnerable moment
- Paul was a persecutor of the worst sort, and Jesus invited him into the club
He didn’t wait for them to clean up their act. He just accepted them. So often we preach a good game — this church is for everyone. Some folks far from Jesus buy it. They believe us. They start hanging out with our churches. And then they start reading between the lines. If they don’t get their act together, they’re not accepted. They become “excepted.”
I admittedly don’t have all the answers, but I do have what I think boils down to (perhaps) the most important question facing the Church in these turbulent times:
Must we approve of people’s behavior to accept those people? Did Jesus? Are we unknowingly (or more tragically, in some cases, purposefully) slamming the door into the Kingdom in people’s faces like the Pharisees did, insisting that they believe and behave rightly before they can fully belong? I don’t know if I know any of the answers to those questions for sure, but one thing I am pretty convinced of:
The Church should not be exceptional.