[House Church Seminar on ‘The Roman Way,’ Port Elizabeth, South Africa]
Years ago I came across a statement, ‘The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners!’ Or something to that effect. I think it confirms the testimony of Scripture and Jesus.
For a few months now I’ve been reading, I must say with much pleasure, the Gospel of Luke. The introduction to the well-known story of ‘The Lost Sheep’ (Lk. 15:1-7) reminds us of Jesus’ constant battle with the religious establishment of his day in getting it to grasp that his mission was not to ‘righteous’ people but to the ‘unrighteous.’ For the umpteenth time, as he reached out to despised ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (v. 1-2), the Pharisees and law-teachers (the so-called ‘covenant people’ of Israel) were heard muttering ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ But that was his mission! The previous chapter, Lk. 14, relates the story of ‘The Great Banquet’ (v. 15-24), making the same point. After his general invitation to dinner resulted in excuse after excuse, the master of the house ordered his servant to ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled and the lame’ (v. 21), and when there were still empty seats, ‘Go out to the roads and the country lanes and make them come in, so that my house may be full… not one of those men who were invited (full of excuses) will get a taste of my banquet’ (v. 23-24).
The NT ekklesiae we’re also reminded of the apostle Paul’s exhortation in Romans 15:7, ‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you (including you and me, sinful, self-centred, ‘warts ‘n all’), in order to bring praise to God.’
- This exhortation was preceded by Paul’s masterful exposition of the ‘Good News,’ in all its fullness and beauty – creation, justification by faith alone, sanctification by faith alone, the gift of the Spirit, the sovereignty of God in his saving purpose for mankind, etc (ch. 1-14). What a motivation!
- Paul proclaims this gospel of grace to the small, scattered house churches in Rome (1:7) and beyond.
- He exhorts his readers to show respect both to the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong,’ those still struggling with dietary issues and special days, and those who had worked through those peripheral issues and experienced the liberating grace of Christ (ch. 14).
- Paul addresses the perennial issue of Jew vs Gentile, with the Jews seeing themselves as the chosen ones and the Gentiles as untouchable. In ch. 15, on the Jew-Gentile issue, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand’ (Is. 52:15; Rom. 15:21). Right from the start God’s people were intended to be ‘light to all the nations.’ Somehow most modern Jews in their spiritual blindness have failed miserably in this high calling.
- It’s wonderful when we today begin to see ourselves as people complete in Christ, ‘a new creation in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17), perfectly accepted in him through simple faith. It’s just as great a thing when we see Christ’s corporate body as a new creation in Christ, entrusted with God’s ministry of reconciliation everywhere on earth! (2 Cor. 5:11-6:3) I like to think of Jesus’ little ekklesiae, wherever they are, as places of acceptance. Forgive me if I have my sources wrong, but I seem to recall reading about Jim Cymbala, church-planting in down-town Brooklyn New York, inviting a prostitute to the Services, only to be told that a church would be the very last place she would visit and feel accepted. [Thank God for Jim and his wife who persevered in that difficult church-plant, whose ministry and famous choir has gone on to be greatly blessed and used of God]
Some time ago I was inspired by the words of Jurgen Moltmann,* taken from The Passion for Life. I recently shared the following quote at one of our house church gatherings: ‘Congregation is no longer the sum of all those who are registered on church rolls. Congregation is a new kind of living (I love that. My words) that affirms:
- that no one is alone with his or her problems;
- that no one has to conceal his or her disabilities; (aren’t we all ‘disabled,’ in one way or another? My comment)
- that there are not some who have a say and those who have no say; [recently here in my city a church member was prohibited by the rector from serving communion to his bed-ridden mother because as a layman he was ‘not licensed to do so.’ My comment]
- that neither the young or old are isolated;
- that one bears with others even when it is unpleasant and there is no agreement;
- that we can also leave each other in peace when the other needs it.’ (I love that! I enjoy community but also my privacy. My comment)
Another of my favourite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,* had this to say:
- ‘Where a people pray, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness.’
- ‘God wants to see human beings, not ghosts who shun the world.’ [We live in a day of ‘Gnostic Christianity,’ with believers aspiring to escape the real world into some super-spiritual world where ‘Christianese’ prevails, refusing to be ‘salt and light’ where it really matters and among the lost of the earth. Cf. Mt. 5:13-16. Own comment]
- ‘Christ has been exiled from the lives of most Christians – we build him a temple but we live in our own house.’
Of course, ‘learning to accept one another as Christ has accepted us’ is a process, a journey, a long road. I have often, too often, stumbled along that road! That’s why I changed my blog caption to LEARNING To Accept One Another. Let’s all, as Jesus’ humble disciples (Gr. mathetes, i.e. learners/apprentices), learn to walk in his footsteps in utter dependence on his indwelling Spirit. And may all our faith-communities become gracious places of acceptance!
* Jurgen Moltmann, now in his nineties, is a renowned German Reformed theologian, who has specialised in eschatology (study of the last things), ecclesiology (study of the church) and ‘a theology of hope.’ He was drafted into the German Air Force in 1944 at the age of 18, surrendered to the first British soldier he came across at the end of WW2, broken and disillusioned by German culture at the revelation of the Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz and the other death camps.
* Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young German theologian who received his PhD at the age of 22. He defied Adolf Hitler and joined the Confessing Church in the 1930’s. He was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis at the age of 39, just 2 weeks before armistice in 1945. [Quotes from Bonhoeffer’s biography by Eric Metaxas]