“Well it was nice to meet you, but I’ve go to go. Maybe I’ll see you around.” That’s what he said after we’d been talking for almost 15 minutes. Who knows, we could’ve become pretty good friends, but he had to go and ask what I did for a living. And that’s when it got awkward, so awkward that he quit talking to me and moved on to the next machine.
It’s not the first time something like this has happened at the gym. On several occasions I’ve struck up a conversation with someone about sports or whatever else, and the minute they find out I’m a “Minister of Students and Outreach” they bow out of the conversation and leave me standing there wondering why people “outside” the church don’t want to hang out with, or even talk to, a Christian minister.
I get it, there are all kinds of reasons someone might feel uncomfortable befriending a Christian minister, but it seems to me there’s something deeper going on. Evidently Christian’s don’t have the best reputation in the wider culture; matter of fact, my experience has led me to believe there are a growing number of people in the United States, and the world at large, who possess a rather negative perception of Christians.
We could say peoples’ negative perceptions of Christians are unfounded, but you don’t have to look very far to realize there are a lot of Christians out there who look nothing like Christ. They have all the “right” answers and attend church every Sunday, but the Good News they possess has been so distorted by individualism, consumerism, nationalism, and militarism that one could easily wonder if it’s still the Good News of Jesus or merely an adapted version of the American Dream. To which I can hear Jesus saying, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by people.”
So while attending church seems like an obvious choice for some, for others the question is, why go to church? For many of these people, Christianity, particularly as a religious institution, has nothing to offer the world because it has neglected to ask the hard questions and has spent an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about the good ole’ days instead of engaging the problems of today.
I mean, why get up on Sunday morning and gather together with a bunch of people to talk about Jesus when no one has any real intention of patterning their life after him? What good is personal piety if it doesn’t lead to social responsibility? How long will Christians go on talking about heaven all the while ignoring the hells that so many people are living in on a daily basis? What is distinctive about Christian community? Does the Christian church embody an alternative story and ethic that incites passion and fuels transformation?
If it’s not already obvious, I’m sympathetic to those who critique the Body of Christ for not taking Jesus seriously. But as a follower of Jesus, I’m also aware of how demanding Jesus is. Declaring Jesus as our Lord is not easy, but if for no other reason, we must become more faithful disciples of Jesus for the sake of those who want nothing to do with Christian ministers, because I’m getting tired of qualifying my job title with, “I’m a Christian minister, but we probably have more in common than you think (which is my way of saying, please keep talking to me because you might be surprised to find out I’m not the person you think I am).”
Though it’s easy to search out the comfortable and the familiar, we can’t afford to cloister ourselves from the “other” anymore. The love and life of Christ implicates us towards our neighbor and demands we become radical proponents of grace, extended first to ourselves and then to all people equally. In as well as we can do this, we give people a reason to get up and go to church.
Keeping all that’s been said in mind, let’s take a brief look at how grace transforms us, and perhaps this will give us some insight as to how grace should also compel us to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters.
For the longest time grace was described to me as a gift that God has offered us, and that each of us has a choice whether we will receive it or not. But when you put it that way, it’s as if grace is outside of us, and there’s something we have to do, like pray a particular prayer, in order to take it as our own. As I read Scripture and reflect on my own experience, however, I am beginning to believe that grace isn’t outside of us, but within us. And the choice is not so much whether we will receive it or not, but whether we will dig deep enough to find it. Will we have enough courage to move past the surface, to step back, to sit silently, to wait patiently for God to bubble up from deep within our being and burn away all that is evil, sinful, false, and illusory in us?
Contemplating the place of grace is important because if grace is exclusively outside of us then we must, at some point, decide to receive it, and as such, we may think that a one-time decision is the only decision we need to make. But when we recognize that grace is also within us, we can’t deny that faith is a life-long process of digging and excavating. As people of faith, therefore, we never arrive but are constantly caught up in the process of conversion, and must keep coming back to grace, seeking to follow Jesus more closely, and trusting the Holy Spirit will shape us and form us more and more into Love.
Too often we busy ourselves building boundaries, but faith isn’t a formula for determining who’s in and who’s out. And it seems to me it’s more than a three-step program or a prayer of repentance. Though these things are all good and well, faith is even bigger and broader than Romans Road.
What if faith is simply trusting we’re accepted and loved right now, just as we are? Will we allow the gift of grace to be that good?
I think one of the challenges of the gospel of Jesus is how simple it is. We want to complicate it, but it seems to me God’s only requirement for acceptance is a child-like trust that the work of Christ is as good as it sounds—that all are accepted who believe.
Full acceptance through faith in the redemptive work of God in and through Jesus Christ is the kind of thing that has the power to transform one in the deepest parts of their being, such that it leads one to reorient they’re entire life, to aim everything they do and say at the realization and further inauguration of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Surely this is the kind of thing that led the apostle Paul to reach out to Gentiles in spite of the fact he was constantly being imprisoned, flogged, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, and hungry because of it.
Surely this is the kind of thing that led St. Francis to leave a life of affluence in order that he might share what he had with the poor and build a life with them.
Surely this is the kind of thing that led Clarence Jordan to establish a community in Americus, GA, where blacks and whites lived together and served together in spite of the fact that Jim Crow laws said they weren’t equal.
Surely this is the kind of thing that led Mother Teresa to pray with her feet, to walk out of the church building and hit the streets in order that she might embrace the dying and touch the lepers.
Surely this is the kind of thing that led Nelson Mandela to champion the reconciliation of blacks, whites, and coloreds in South Africa when it would have been easier to rally the troops in retaliation.
And surely this is the kind of thing that can led us to embrace one another and our neighbors as Jesus did, regardless of who they are, what they believe, how they’ve hurt us, or what they think about us.
Jesus has invited us to follow him. Should we choose to do so, we are to lead the kind of life that is not content with going to church in search of Christ but seeks to create a church that goes into the world as Christ. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, there are a lot of people who have no plans of stepping into a church, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a step towards them and love them recklessly. Surely this constitutes a grace-filled life, and hopefully this will affect the way those “outside” the church view Christians, and my fingers are crossed for Christian ministers as well.