God is going to let the wrong people in

I recently attended a church convention that included a question-and-answer session with a new bishop, and during the session, an attendee stood up and asked a question about who would be welcome in the pews and who would be welcome to serve in the church.

The questioner had recently met someone who belonged to a minority-identity group, one so niche I’d never heard of it, or at least I had never heard of it under the name they gave; the minority-identified person thought that they might one day be called to common labor with or within the church. The question actually made sense in the convention context since the bishop’s sermon the night before and the longer talk he gave that morning both focused on finding ways to open doors and make more people feel and be welcome. Who, the questioner asked, who would we openly embrace, and in what capacity? What about a limited embrace? What about weirdoes?

I think the questioner was asking in good faith rather than looking for a reason to exclude anyone, but the  framing was a little unnecessarily panicked because no one at the convention was clamoring for any significant changes in policy or polity in that regard. Instead, the focus of the weekend’s comments was asking people to consider that the Kingdom of Heaven is not bound by the politics of respectability or an allegiance to tradition that makes it so rigid that no new people are welcome.

For his part, the bishop answered that, yes, everyone is welcome in the church, and yes, everything must be done in a way that gives life and that affirms life, which is what Christ came to do and to do abundantly — even for weirdoes. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, but it may also mean that just because we think that someone is strange, that doesn’t mean they are doing anything wrong or that they don’t have something to contribute to our shared life.

In an unrelated instance, a pastor acquaintance told me about a local situation where a church of one denomination had instructed its members not to do any more common ministry with members of a church of another denomination because of that church’s denominational politics. Those national-level politics had little to zero bearing on the ground locally and didn’t enter into the common cause ministries in which the members participated. No observer would have thought that the church moving to sever ties — a member of a conservative denomination becoming more conservative — would be endorsing the theological or social commitments of the other, which were moderate and unchanged despite recent shakeups at higher levels. Still, the one group thought, better to sever ties than be mistaken by absolutely no one for appearing too friendly with those folks.

I might have been tempted to hand-wave that instance away, except that soon after hearing about it, I heard from multiple friends and acquaintances working with connections to separate denominationally-affiliated organizations that people working for those institutions were suddenly getting word that — if they wanted to continue their relationship with the institution — they would no longer be allowed to associate with certain churches or church ministries even in their time away from it.

Churches, if not Christianity itself, have always tended toward factiousness — see the earliest epistles of the Christian Bible — but the recent anecdotes have gotten me wondering if the apparent anti-ecumenism I’ve seen and heard about isn’t part of a desire to keep things exclusive, to define the Kingdom based on one’s theology alone, or to make sure that one’s interests are represented even if it means that others are not.

An older man recently told me that, “Lots of the churches say that they want young people to come, but it doesn’t appear that they want to listen to young people about why they don’t come.” I replied, “The biblical line that ‘I have become all things to all people’ has become ‘All people must become like me.’”

All these instances of thinking about groups defining who is and is not acceptable have had me pondering Jesus’ parable in Luke 13.

Starting in verse 23, someone asks Jesus if only a few people are going to be saved. In the preceding text, Jesus has been teaching about how the Kingdom of Heaven spreads in significant ways, comparing it to yeast working through bread or a tree that grows large enough for birds to nest in it. For some reason, these expansive metaphors prompt a hearer to interrogate if God is actually going to constrict the scope of salvation.

At first, Jesus appears to affirm their question, telling them that the gate into Heaven is narrow:

Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.

But then Jesus turns the story on his hearers, telling them that they’re on their way to being among those who will not be able to enter the door:

Once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’

As he continues, Jesus upends the narrative that his hearers are anticipating even further, saying that there will be a surprise — not only themselves, but everyone that they expect to be getting through is going to be on the wrong side of the door. The prophets, patriarchs and everyone they have pegged as worthy of the Kingdom somehow missed the mark:

There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.

Instead, people that they never anticipated to show up and be part of the kingdom, coming from all parts of the world, will pass by them as they make their way to the feast:

Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and take their places at the banquet in the kingdom of God.

But in the end, having been shown how wrong their assumptions were, those who showed up before everyone else, who expected to be first in line, will be allowed in. The patriarchs, prophets and others, so assured of their place, will make it into Heaven, but not without having realized the dishonor they did Heaven and themselves by trying to crowd out the rest:

 Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (NRSVUE)

In this parable, those who tried to enter the gate and were not able were the people who arrived earliest, who were confident in their own invitation to the banquet, and who thought themselves well acquainted with the master of the house. Those who got in first were from east and west, north and south — an ancient colloquialism for places far and sundry, the entire world — and they were the people that those who were so confident in their invitation would not have considered letting in ahead of themselves.

This was supposed to be an exclusive event, but the wrong people were getting in.

The right people were locked outside, weeping at having been called “evildoers.”

They got in last, but they got in. The Good News is still good news, even to those whose presumption initially had them blocking the door so that the owner of the house couldn’t open it to everyone.

I am hesitant to make a judgment call about any particular church or institution’s decisions without being part of them, but when it comes to my own life, I hope to remember that the vision of Heaven that Jesus presented when asked about how exclusive it was included a master who cleared the door to let in more people than the initial guests would have allowed.

God is going to let the wrong people in.

So should we.

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