Jesus came with a gospel of love and peace . . . the gospel of the Kingdom of God at hand, the Kingdom of God among us now!
Our church, as I have written in earlier posts, is in a process of reinventing itself -- a process of evaluating who we are and what our mission is as we go forward. In our last "family meeting" we had two discussion questions, and one was about how we can do more in outreach to the community around us. That's a fair enough question, and I'd love to see more done to reach out in kindness and love by all of us together as "St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach". But a programmatic response is not enough.
I used to go out with the "Wheaton Evangelism Team" when I was a student at Wheaton College and minister on the streets around the old water tower in downtown Chicago. (It was there that my first husband and I fell in love, and my wedding present to him was actually a framed print of the old water tower.) We set up a stage and sang and had a preacher with a brief message, and then we went out on the streets talking to people and giving out tracts. That is bold outreach, and it was an effective way of sharing the gospel as we understood it and of offering love to the people we encountered. That was part of my idea of evangelism and outreach, and it still is.
The other part of my idea of outreach is much less dramatic, but is much more effective. I have learned to make real friends, and to love them. And in that, it is normal to share my view of life and Jesus and of the church. It is normal to invite people to church with me. It is also normal to keep loving them no matter what their response is! After all, that's what God does with me!
People are highly intuitive. They know what I am after. They know what you are after. And there is a big difference between loving someone and wanting someone to become another "notch on my belt" to show that I am an effective evangelist. And Jesus' way was to speak the truth in love, and to invite people to friendship with Him. It worked, and it works now too.
People are hungry for love and friendship. If that's what I am after, and that's what I have to offer, my life is full to overflowing with friends of all sorts of beliefs and styles. Jesus calls me to love people the way He does -- the "while we were yet sinners" kind of love -- and He also calls me to never forget that I am still just as big a sinner as any of the people "out there", and that I am just as big a sinner as any of the people "in here" with me in my church community. Because if I forget that I need a Savior just as much as anyone else does, it twists my friendships and twists my life, and evangelism becomes something other than the "one beggar showing another beggar where to get bread" that my grandma used to talk about.
A friend asked me once if I didn't find it hard to really get to know people in the Newport Beach area . . . if it wasn't really hard to actually get into their lives. And I kind of went off on him, I'm afraid. But it triggered all my frustrations with our community that can be so pharisaical. The only reason he finds it hard to get into people's lives is because he doesn't make time to really love the people whose lives he wants to get into . . . regardless of whether they ever change. Jesus' words to the disciples that He sent out to preach the gospel -- His words about leaving and shaking the dust off their sandals as witness against them
-- were words to be effective when they were not welcomed and listened to. As long as they were welcomed, they were to stay and keep speaking the truth.
People will keep welcoming any one of us as long as we keep loving them right where they are today . . . and that welcome will include permission to speak the TRUTH of Jesus' Kingdom. But it will cost you. It will cost you your time. It will cost you other priorities. It will cost you the ability to plan and execute programs. It will cost you the ability to achieve the things you wanted to achieve. It will cost you the ability to manage your own time and life and relationships.
Because real love -- real friendship -- is available and enthusiastic. Real love responds to people with eagerness and not with reluctance and regret for all the things that are being neglected in order to spend the time and attention on a friend. Real love builds treasure in Heaven, but it doesn't build any treasure on earth, or achieve any status. Real love costs my whole life.
If I could change any one thing about my church, it would be this: that friends that come to church with me would be enthusiastically and warmly welcomed, no matter what. They would be welcome if they came "dressed inappropriately". They would be welcomed if they came smelling like too much beer, or like they needed a bath. They would be welcomed if they felt the need to chase down one of our members who'd nicked another car in a small parking lot accident. (Yep, there's a story there.) They would even be welcomed if they were gay or lesbian and came boldly holding hands with their sexual partner. And by "welcomed" I don't just mean not kicked out or treated rudely. I mean that they would be able to sense intuitively that they were loved, and that many of us would want to build real friendships with them, even if they never changed.
If the church is really a place of forgiven sinners, it needs to be a place of both TRUTH and GRACE. And if I know the truth that I am no less screwed up than my lesbian friend, but also the truth that there is One who can show both of us a way through the confusion and mess of real life, then I will be able to minister God's grace to her in real love.
But in our church, even someone who talks too much or too little or shows poor social skills in other ways is treated to a sense of "let other people minister to you . . . not me." That's certainly not an indictment of every single one of us -- there are many gracious, loving people here -- but it is an indictment of the community as a whole. If we communicate any kind of "norming" clues as to what is not acceptable and needs to change, we should be communicating that anything judgmental of the "seeker" is not okay.
There is TRUTH. We do need accountability to move forward toward the abundant life that Jesus promised, rather than be mired in our own sin and mess. I am not suggesting that we alter what we believe about sin or about righteousness or about any of the essentials of our faith.
I am suggesting that we take seriously this statement by Jesus:"So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35)
and also His command that we love our neighbor as much as we each love our own self (illustrating "who is my neighbor?" with the story of the good Samaritan to show that "my neighbor" is any stranger that my path brings me past
.)His call that we make disciples of all the nations and teach them to do what He commanded us
was a command to love them and teach them to love each other. That doesn't mean that we teach love apart from truth or apart from Jesus, of course. But it certainly doesn't mean that we teach truth and call men and women to join us in following Jesus and forget that His commandment was no more and no less than love both for the stranger
and for our intimate friends
and our enemies
If you can't get it, may I at least get it. And may it be "catching"!