(Nearly) All are Welcome…
Creating fellowship with people we find it hard to accept.
Holy Communion Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from Psalm 130 and Matthew 9, verses 9-13
(Nearly) All are Welcome
There was no doubt about it: Matthew the tax collector was a changed man.
No-one likes paying taxes. Even legitimate, fair-minded tax officers are considered easy targets for hints that they are thieving sharks but Matthew was not even a legitimate, fair-minded taxman. He was employed by the occupying enemy forces to squeeze as much money as he could out of his fellow countrymen on the understanding that he could pocket any excess tax collected. He knew full well that the money he took from his neighbours and handed over to the Romans would be used to brutalise and oppress innocent people, spreading a regime of terror further and further across the world. He knew that his neighbours were struggling even to pay what the Romans demanded and that to add his own “cut” would reduce many to serious poverty but he did not care. The only way Matthew could do this kind of job was by putting money at the very top of his priority list. Money had to be more important to him than friendship, patriotism, social justice, self-esteem and faith and we don’t think much of that kind of person, do we?
But then Jesus called him to be his disciple. He went to Matthew’s house and ate a meal with a whole lot of other tax-collectors. He referred his religious critics to their own scriptures-that God desired mercy, not ritual. And, by the grace of God, Matthew’s life was transformed. He left his job to follow Jesus, which meant moving money from the top of his priority list down to the very bottom. To the best of our knowledge, he never went back.
Since then, the Church has prided itself on welcoming the undesirable in the name of Jesus Christ. The Christian church believes and proclaims that no-one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Our history is filled with the testimonies of reformed tax sharks, prostitutes, slave traders, gangsters, drug addicts and hardened cynics. We believe in the transforming power of God’s forgiveness and it is awesome to see it happening in front of us. We accept that no-one changes permanently overnight and do our best to make allowances for mistakes and setbacks. We try to incorporate people of very different cultural backgrounds or with dubious-sounding histories because we have heard for ourselves the tales of those whose lives have been turned around by the grace of God. Maybe one of the most thrilling stories of all is that of John Newton, the Captain of a notorious slave ship, making his money from seizing innocent men and women from Africa, cramming them into crowded ship’s holds, chaining them up for the duration of the voyage and, if they survived (many did not), selling them into a life of slavery in foreign countries. How low can you sink than to get rich this way? Yet it was John Newton whose hymn we just sang: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
We may live lives that are very different to Matthew’s or to John Newton’s yet, as our Psalm stated, we have to admit that we are all sinners; that we are less than perfect; that we need God’s mercy. We sing John Newton’s hymn with him, as a whole community of less-than-perfect people who trust God’s grace to make us whole. It is the basis of the Holy Habit of ‘fellowship”- that we are not here through our own merit but by the grace of God. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
So far, so good. But what about the people who cannot or will not change? Those who seem quite content with who and what they are, despite causing the rest of us serious grief? It was pointed out, quite rightly, at a Church Meeting last year that we are not being wholly truthful when we sing that, ”All are welcome in this place” because there are people we would find it very hard to welcome into our fellowship.
Like: those who take delight in ridiculing our beliefs; those who are living a seriously evil lifestyle and with no intention of changing; those who might pose a serious threat to children and vulnerable adults; those who constantly carp at the church without good reason or creative suggestion; those who are aggressive and unreasonable, causing others to feel intimidated. Can we welcome them? Should we welcome them?
Our Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church, whilst accepting wholeheartedly the diversity of the Holy Spirit’s gifts and the rights of personal conviction, actually states that “for the sake of faith and fellowship it shall be for the church to decide when differences of conviction hurt our unity and peace.”
In other words, there may be occasions on which certain people need to be made to feel unwelcome and even encouraged to leave the church because they are posing a serious threat to our unity and integrity.
And that is a hard thing to hear. It seems to be totally at odds with the all-inclusive nature of the Christian Gospel. Jesus welcomed everyone. Or did he? There were people he spoke to very forcefully, reminding them that they could not worship both God and money. He threatened the harshest punishments on those who hurt little children. He made it quite clear that he would not allow his ministry to be compromised by religious or political bullies; by control freaks; by those who simply wanted an easy ride through life. “Anyone who comes to me, I will not turn away,” he said and he meant it. But many turned away of their own accord because the atmosphere he created made them very uncomfortable.
Jesus did not suggest that his followers should condone the evil things people do, just for the sake of making them welcome. He did not teach that we should let men and women get away with being unjust, greedy or cruel. We would not be doing them any favours, as well as ourselves. More than once in the Gospels we read of Jesus being “sad,” very sad because people he loved and reached out to turned away from him. They would not let him help them. Perhaps one of the hardest things sincere Christian people have to face is that there will be some people we cannot help; some who will reject every single olive branch we ever extend to them.
The real challenge, then, as I see it, lies in knowing when to welcome and when to condemn; when to stand up to someone who is hurting us and when to turn the other cheek; when to pass a controversial resolution that will leave a lot of people feeling excluded from their church and when to vote against that resolution, knowing that a whole lot of other people will feel excluded. (Yes, I am thinking of the vote on same-sex marriage)
What Would Jesus Do? How do we know?
St Paul wrote two letters to the church in Corinth. It was a church he had founded and he loved the congregation there very much. They were not perfect people. His first letter deals with many of the usual issues you find in churches: loyalty to one minister over another, games of spiritual one-upmanship, how to celebrate Holy Communion, making public worship relevant and accessible to everyone, how to face grief and death. It is a manual of good advice but a deeply positive hope runs through it. Despite their mistakes and misunderstandings, Paul has no real fear for these people. They will get there in the end.
But by the time he wrote the second letter, things had changed. In his absence, a group of strong, self-willed religious leaders had infiltrated the church and were stirring up doubt and confusion behind his back. They were spreading ugly rumours about Paul himself, suggesting that he had exploited the congregation at Corinth for his own personal gain; they raked up stories of his past, rather like the tabloid press, demanding whether a man who had once been an enemy of the church should now be accepted as a leading apostle. They poured scorn on his humble style of leadership, hinting that surely a “proper” minister would have more personal clout. And when Paul was prevented from making a return visit to Corinth by circumstances beyond his control, they accused him of deliberately letting his people down.
Paul was at his wits’ end. He did not know what to do, either for himself or for the people he loved and wanted to serve in Corinth. Should he go back and stand up for himself or would this simply cause more trouble and confusion for the congregation? Should he try to take these new leaders on? Were they attacking the Christian faith itself? Or might they be right to suggest that he was an unfit apostle, a disappointment to his people, an unreliable minister? They were hitting him where he was the weakest and he did not know what to do.
In chapter twelve of his second letter, he speaks of what he calls “a thorn in the flesh,” describing it as a “messenger of the devil himself, sent to torment me.” We don’t know what this “thorn” was. It might have been a recurring physical illness, tormenting him with pain and weariness. It might have been a psychological condition- serious depression, or that thing the advert calls “nagging doubt.” Or it might have been a person who was constantly getting him down. It might have been these very church people who were spreading slander about him; taunting him with his past failures; thwarting every attempt he made to reach out to them; infiltrating his very soul with the poison of self-doubt.
We do not know what Paul’s “thorn” was but I guess we have known one or two of our own: people or circumstances that have made our lives intolerable. Paul said that he pleaded with God to take this thorn away. He had done nothing to deserve it. He had a ministry to fulfil. How could he work fully and faithfully while this thorn was driving him mad? Then he heard the voice of God saying, “my grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.”
And Paul realises that Christian ministry is not about him but about God. Maybe he was weak. Maybe he had made some serious mistakes. Maybe his ministry had not achieved as much as he would have liked. Maybe there was some truth in the nasty things people were saying about him. But none of this was the point at issue. His ministry was called, inspired, empowered and brought to fruition by God. Just as the Psalmist had said, we need to have more faith in God than we have in ourselves. Once we start relying only on our own abilities, we push the grace of God to the margins -we will call you when we need you- by which time we are generally in such a state of despair that we have forgotten how to talk to God at all and seriously question his existence. “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.” So even this “thorn” might become the means of bringing Paul back to the source of real strength?
Where does this leave us, then, when we are confronted by people we do not seem to be able to welcome in the name of Jesus? Where does this leave us when we are tormented by “thorns in the flesh” who drive us to despair? Where does this leave us when we are called to practise the holy habit of fellowship but fear that there are some who will destroy the fellowship we have? Three things:
1.Without belief in the sufficiency of God’s grace, we none of us can have anything to hope for. We all make mistakes. We all do wrong. We all contribute to the evil in our world. All that we can bring to God is a prayer for his grace. But that is all God wants: our recognition that we cannot cope alone and our willingness to allow him to forgive and to save us.
2.Once we get this far, we realise that we are in fact “in fellowship” with the whole of the human race, all fallible creatures standing in need of God’s mercy. And once we start excluding certain people from any hope of the grace of God, it will only be a matter of time before we are exclude ourselves. When we cannot forgive others, the time will come when we cannot forgive ourselves or believe in God’s forgiveness.
3.So, if there are some in this ‘fellowship” of humanity whom we find it impossible to love, to accept, to forgive, to welcome in the name of Jesus Christ, then our only course of action is to turn back to God rather than batter our own hearts and consciences to pieces. We call on God to forgive where we cannot. We call on God to keep reaching out when our arms have no more strength in them. We call on God to heal relationships that are beyond our skills. We acknowledge our own inability in coping with some people and pray for God’s grace in their lives and in our own.
Does this sound like a cop out? An excuse to exclude people we do not happen to like? “We’ll just let God sort it out.” To keep praying for someone who is a thorn in our flesh is not a cop-out. It is seriously hard work. To keep praying for people who are systematically destroying peace and justice in our world is not a cop out but a real spiritual battle. To pray for those who hate us, offering ourselves to be used by God in answering that prayer is not a cop out but an act of courage. To keep ourselves in such a relationship with God that we can hear his voice guiding us and see the path he is asking us to take is not a cop out but a very serious commitment.
Going back to our Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church, having admitted that we shall not always be of one heart and mind, it continues that “we commit ourselves to speak the truth in love and grow together in the peace of Christ.”
In order to do this, we must be continually searching for truth, listening to those whose ideas are very different to our own, recognising that God can speak through the most unlikely-looking people. We need to build up our own faith and our own spiritual strength through prayer, through Bible Study, through engaging with the church community and the world we serve. It may be that we are not called to turn ourselves inside out struggling to cope with people who are making our lives a misery (this may be a work for someone else to do) but we are called to turn ourselves inside out in the quest for a stronger faith and a closer walk with God. For fellowship is only a Holy Habit as it is rooted in our dependence on God’s grace.