The whole city was in an uproar, and the people turned into a mob. They grabbed Paul and dragged him out of the temple. Then suddenly the doors were shut. Acts 21:30 (CEV)
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be a Christian. At the core, a Christian is one who follows Christ. However, I think I like Bishop Will Willimon’s definition of a Christian as one who recognizes their sinful nature and understands the need to depend on God’s grace. (That’s a total paraphrase, by the way. But, I think it works)
Being a Christian isn’t about obtaining membership into an elite club. It’s not about special privileges, eternal security or self-righteous indulgences. Being a Christian isn’t about pretending that we are better than others because we have God on our side.
Being a Christian is not about exclusion.
When Jesus walked through Judea, he didn’t practice exclusion. He welcomed all who would follow him. He healed all who came to him. Interestingly enough, many of the people who flocked to Jesus had been excluded from the church. The church told those who were “unclean”, “unfaithful” and “non-traditional” that they weren’t good enough for God. Jesus, on the other hand, gave them his life.
In the book of Acts, the apostle Paul makes a return trip to his adopted hometown of Jerusalem. Prior to his conversion Paul (known as Saul) was a member of the “it” club. He was a rising star among the religious elite. A passionate speaker and zealous in the pursuit of righteousness, Paul set out to persecute those who followed Jesus. He was even involved in the murder of the apostle Stephen. Paul was dedicated to the practice of exclusion–until Jesus stepped into his path.
Paul had a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ. His eyes were opened, literally, to what faith in Christ is all about. Paul turned from the religious practice of exclusion to Jesus’ practice of inclusion. The once proud member of the elite Jewish rabbinical system now lived, worked and preached to the Gentiles. The Jewish leaders of the time were incensed. They were also, most likely, afraid. Paul was one of their own. What did his defection mean for their positions of power and authority within the community?
The religious leaders did what many of us do when our very way of life is threatened. They fought back. They ensconced themselves in their self-righteousness. They doubled down on the idea that their church traditions were more sacred and more holy than the message of Jesus Christ. They rioted against Paul. They called him names, beat him and had him arrested. They followed him to the prison crying, “Get rid of him!” (Acts 21:36) Sound familiar?
Once again, the religious leaders completely missed Christ.
That’s the thing about exclusion. When we practice religious exclusion–when we see Christianity as an elite club rather than a community of grace–we completely miss Christ.
Our American churches are struggling. We’re losing an entire generation of believers. And yet, what do we do? We double down on elitism. We increase our ante on exclusivity. We politicize our faith, forgetting that Jesus didn’t care about politics–he cared about people. As churches, we need to start caring about people, too. Not just people who look like us, act like us, speak like us or vote like us. We need to start caring about all people, remembering that we, too, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
We need to embrace, like Timothy, the fact that we are human. As humans, we will make mistakes. We will mess things up, sometimes colossally. But, the beauty of Christianity is that God gives us grace. God offers forgiveness. God extends his mercy. And as followers of Christ, it is our job to offer that grace, forgiveness and mercy to others.
How different might our churches look if we operated from the perspective of the following verse?
This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all. 1 Timothy 1:15 (CEB)
Are you a sinner? Do you need some grace in your life? Welcome to the club!
Blessings and Peace,