There is a conflict between how the church lives and what the church says. Part of the reason the church is often charged with hypocrisy. We say, often without thinking, things like, “God’s love is for everybody.” We justify that with a passage like the Great Commission at the end of Matthew where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” The love of God is for everyone.
But if we think about it, we will end up adding some exceptions to the statement that God’s love is for everyone, maybe based on behavior, maybe based on discomfort. If we look at how the church has formed and how it has reached out there are sometimes implicit statements about who we accept made by the way we live. I have told story of my time in the Slovak Zion Synod, a small non-geographical synod of the ELCA, made of congregations of Slovak heritage. They were small enough that synod assembly was just held at one of the larger church buildings in the synod, so not just sitting for hours of meetings, but sitting in pews for hours of meetings. In such a situation I have been known to exert my Christian freedom from the law and get up and walk out for a little bit. So I was in New Jersey and walked out of the Slovak church into what had clearly become an Hispanic neighborhood. The Slovak-heritage members of the congregation had mostly moved out of the neighborhood and drove by the Spanish-speaking casas y mercados to have a service in Slovak. So the implicit message was God’s love is for everyone but not exactly for everyone in this neighborhood. Go around the ELCA and you can find churches that have similar stories.
My internship congregation was founded by Swedes working the textile factories in Lowell. In the early 1900s, they were approached by a group of German immigrants who wondered if they might worship in English so that all could take part. I read the letter from the president of the church who insisted that the Swedes should continue to worship in the true Lutheran language; the German should start their own community.
My point is that as much as the gospel pushes us to share the love of God with all people, we still have a sense of insiders and outsiders, those who belong and those who do not. We are a community that claims to welcome all people and at the same time we are a membership organization. As soon as you have people formally join a community as members you have people who belong a little bit more than everybody else.
I think this is a natural human impulse, we tend to surround ourselves with people who already a little bit like us, with whom we have something in common, but it also something that gets justified by a misunderstanding of the gospel story . In the gospel there are definitely some people who are a little closer to Jesus in the narrative, the Twelve. And among the Twelve you have Peter and James and John who seem even a bit closer, who get to see this amazing moment of transfiguration, the encounter with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop, and then are told to hold it close, keep it secret until the right time.
You have Paul in the reading to the Corinthians, talking about the gospel as veiled, acknowledging that some people can hear the story, encounter the gospel and have no reaction. So the gospel is for everyone, but the shiny objects of this world can blind us from seeing it. The scales have to fall from our eyes, probably every day.
It wasn’t that Jesus was trying to create a secret society, God’s special friends, those who get it right. It was more that Jesus was modeling a specific way of sharing this good news. He gathered a group around himself and he taught them and lived with them and walked with them. That is how they learned the good news, through a relationship built over time. He didn’t just give them a speech or offer them a pamphlet, as though the gospel can be learned from an instruction manual. All through the story, through the teaching and the healing and the feeding, through the betrayal and the denial and suffering, through the cross and the death and empty tomb, he was showing them the life that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God.
And if you read the scriptures and get into the book of Acts, you hear what happens next, those twelve are sent to do the same thing, to start communities that live the life that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God. He didn’t send them out with catechisms and creeds. He sent them out with stories and with acts of love and acts of sacrifice. He sent them with the good news that the gospel is for everyone, not to start closed communities, holy members-only clubs, bastions of cultural religion. He sent them out even though, as Paul discovered, not everyone would respond positively to that good news, a good news that challenges the powers that be, that questions the market economy, that ignores social status and deplores racial bias.
And you thought you were just going to church, but you have stepped into the stream of God’s love that is the gospel. You are on the path that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God. Do we always get it right? Of course not. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of least racially diverse Christian traditions in the United States. Now we can blame that on our heritage, most churches begun by Northern Europeans, but only for so long. The Swedish neighborhoods are no longer Swedish, but still can’t figure out why no one gets excited by the Santa Lucia festival. Somewhere along the way we lost that outward view. Many of the original immigrant communities had it. New people would come into the area and the church would reach out, it’s just that often those new people shared the same cultural heritage, moving into specific ethnic communities. We need to rediscover that outward sense of church, that the gospel invites into community with Jesus so that we can turn it back outward. If God’s love is for everyone, then everyone already belongs, they just don’t know it yet. It’s our job as the church to keep reminding everybody that they belong.
So we will respond to this idea with our hymn. I have talked to a few people who have a love/hate relationship with this following hymn, “All Are Welcome.” They love the idea of the song, but they also know that it is not quite true, whether our lack of diversity or people glaring at children for being children. We sing of an ideal that in practice we haven’t realized yet. And we need to sing it with a humility that recognizes that fact. We are not singing “All Are Welcome” because we have the welcoming thing down. We sing it because it is where Christ is calling us to be, “ a house where love can dwell and all can safely live.”
As I said at the beginning of our discussions on love, we are disciples learning to love, learning to lean on God as the source of love. We probably won’t truly understand the nature of love until the end of things, but we can glimpse it in this place, in the gospel story, in the love of Christ. So we sing of a place that is not where we are yet, but where God is calling us and leading us to be, a place where all are welcome.