By now, you’ve probably heard about the mostly white church near Jackson, Mississippi, that refused to allow a black couple who had been attending the church to be married there. It’s a horror.
If you haven’t heard the story, here it is in a nutshell: The couple had made arrangements with the pastor to be married on July 21st. According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, “insiders say five or six members went to [the pastor] after seeing the couple's wedding rehearsal the Thursday night before their Saturday wedding.”
Out of a desire to “avoid controversy,” the pastor, who said he was surprised by the members’ reaction, offered to perform the ceremony elsewhere.
I don’t want to belabor this. The pastor and most of the members of the church know that what happened was utterly indefensible – a point that has been made by many thoughtful Christians.
But instead, I want to use this sad story as the occasion to talk about what it means to be the Church – both in theory and in practice.
In his book, “Jesus and the Victory of God,” N. T. Wright carefully unpacks and explains what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of God” (or “heaven”) and the way that this kingdom is already present.
One of Jesus’ central teachings about the kingdom is summed up in His saying, “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, many of those presumed – from a first-century Jewish point of view – to be on the outside looking in would, in fact, occupy places of honor in the kingdom.
Conversely, those who, by reason of ethnicity and religious observance, saw themselves as the consummate insiders would find themselves on the outside where, in Jesus’ words, there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
It’s a lesson that the church has struggled with throughout her history. The first half of the book of Acts is, in large part, the story of how the first Christians came to terms with God’s inclusion of the Gentiles. Even after God had made Himself perfectly clear on the matter, no less a stalwart than Peter found himself behaving a lot like that pastor in Mississippi, withdrawing from his Gentile brethren to please his Jewish ones. In the end, the Apostle Paul, as he wrote the Galatian Christians, had to, in modern parlance, “call Peter out” on the matter.
Nearly 2,000 years later, some of us still haven’t gotten with the program and still others will go to extraordinary lengths to “avoid controversy.”
The willingness to risk controversy is part of what it means to be salt and light. As Wright, among others, has pointed out, when Jesus spoke of hiding a lamp under a basket, He was referring to His contemporaries’ failure to be a light unto the nations, as YHWH had intended. Instead, they were content to follow the prescribed rituals and enjoy their status as “children of Abraham.”
If we’re honest, we’re not all that different. Too often, instead of being agents of reconciliation and living in ways that allow others to see that the kingdom of God is within their grasp, we take comfort in our rituals and our way of doing things.
That is not being the church – that is dead religion. It’s the kind of thing that can leave us on the outside looking in.
And speaking of dead religion, I’ve got a lot more to say on that topic in my new e-book, “Jesus Hates Dead Religion,” which is based on the talk I gave at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast. You can get your copy at the BreakPoint online bookstore at BreakPoint.org.