Recently, a young couple started coming to our church. They're very likable. They married a few years ago on the other side of the country, then migrated west to our town, and visited several churches until they ended up in ours. Both take their faith seriously. Both are seeking a place where they can worship, serve, grow. They want a loving and Christ-centered environment in which to raise their daughters in the "nurture and admonition of the Lord."
Both are women. Linda and Rita are lesbians.
My first question to them: "Why us?" There are two or three churches nearby that have no theological issue at all with same-sex marriages: they perform them, celebrate them, welcome those in them. Our church is not one of these churches. We're firmly embedded in our evangelical heritage: a strong emphasis on the Bible, on personal holiness, on evangelism and activism.
And strong feelings about homosexuality. Very strong feelings.
Linda and Rita actually grew up in this kind of a church, and that was part of their answer to "Why us?" The other part of their answer was intriguing: they see life and joy in our church, and they want in on it.
We didn't know what to do with them. I lost more sleep over this than almost anything else in my 20 years of pastoral ministry. My heritage told me to give them the heave-ho. My theology told me they were living in defiance of God. But a stirring inside me, which I can only describe as the Spirit of God, told me something else: that God himself had drawn these women here. He was doing something deep in Linda and Rita, and he was entrusting our church to join him in his work.
But let me back up.
Our church embraces two values with equal vigor, and as in this case, those two values are in almost constant tension.
The first value is the truth and trustworthiness of the Bible. As good Baptists, we teach, believe, and try to live out that the Bible is "our one true guide for life and godliness." We are under the Word of God, and though our understanding of it is often patchwork and our obedience to it halting, we have no right to impose on the Bible our own meanings or agendas. If we have done our best interpretive work with the Good Book and have concluded that it teaches a particular truth, then we are beholden to that truth no matter how costly or awkward or unpopular it might be.
That's one value.
The other value is that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. He did this, and then asked you and me to keep up, on his behalf, this work.
Jesus—we all know this—shocked, angered, and offended the religious community in his day by his easy rapport with disreputable people. He not only liked them; he sought them, welcomed them, invited himself to their houses, enjoyed meals with them, and let them off the hook, with scarcely a reprimand, for big-ticket sin items like adultery and thievery and shacking up.
God is doing something deep here, in Zachaeus and Mary Magdalene, in the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery and the woman who washes his feet with her tears. In all these "sinners and tax collectors," God is revealing, convicting, wooing.
That's the source of the stirring I had with Linda and Rita. So we followed Jesus' example with Linda and Rita and joined whatever the Father was up to.
As of this writing, we're still in the thick of it. It's been an interesting, often awkward, mostly grace-filled, always amazing journey. One of our pastors, Shane, was counseling Linda about some communication struggles she was having with Rita. Linda was trying to explain her frustration. Finally, she looked up at Shane and said, "Well, you're married to a woman. You know what they're like."
As Shane said later, "They never taught me at Bible college how to handle that sort of thing."
Our journey with Linda and Rita clarifies some of the convictions we've developed at our church. I've already shared two of those convictions—the Bible is our only true guide for life and holiness, and Jesus welcomed sinners, just as his Father did, and asks us to welcome them too—but let me walk you through a few of our other convictions. I think this will help if you find that your church is too prone to avoid "sinners and tax collectors"—and you would like your church to join God in the deep work he's doing in the lives of people all around you.
Conviction 1: God is here. There are few professing atheists in the world. But there are a lot of practical atheists—people for whom God's "thereness" registers not at all. I sometimes call them apatheists—joining the word theist and the word apathy. Apatheists believe God exists but don't care.
I'm trying not to be one. So I nurture the conviction that God is right here, right now. The main spiritual discipline for fostering this sense of God's nearness is curiosity. I try to stay more interested, regardless the situation, in what God is doing than in what man is plotting or in what the devil's up to. I don't want to be unaware of the devil's schemes. But I want to obsess over the Father's presence and the Father's work. I want to reserve all my strength for pursuing the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
So my deep conviction is that God is here.
Shortly after Rita and Linda arrived, the pastors and elders gathered to think through biblically and practically our response to our gay friends. I began the conversation with this question: "If gays and lesbians want to come to our church, do you see in that mostly God at work, or mostly the devil?"
To a person, everyone answered, "God."
God is here.
Which leads to our next conviction.
2: When someone comes into the light, it's always God at work. Jesus said that he is the light that has come into the world. Those who come into the light step into a place where they can receive truth and grace (see conviction 4). Those who don't come into the light condemn themselves.
Anytime a man or woman brings their true self into the light—letting themselves be seen for who they really are—God is at work. Think of the two men in Luke 18 who go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, one a tax collector. The Pharisee is a moral exemplar. He is a paragon of virtue. And he knows it. His prayer is lengthy, polished, eloquent, and the entire thing an extended brag on himself.
The tax man is a scoundrel, a bad egg. He's the sort of person "good" people look at and say, "Thank God I'm not him." And he knows it. His prayer is short, stark, desperate. It is a confession and a plea. He's a sinner. He needs God's mercy.
Jesus is pointed in his verdict: the tax man walks away justified before God; the Pharisee doesn't.
Why? Jesus says, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." That exaltation and humbling has much to do with light and darkness. The Pharisee brings into the light only those parts of himself he wants God and others to see—his virtue, his fidelity, his generosity. But most of who he is remains in the dark. But the tax collector hauls his whole sorry, sordid self into the burning light. He hides nothing. He brings before God all his miserable fallenness, folly, brokenness, and evil. He stands without excuse. He dares to ask for the only thing that can help: God's mercy.
And God gives him mercy in spades.
Jesus doesn't demand that first we sort ourselves out and clean ourselves up before we dare step into the light; he invites us to step into the light in order to get sorted out and cleaned up. It's impossible to clean a mess in the dark. We usually only make more mess.
And that leads to the next conviction.
3: When someone brings their mess into the light, their mess usually doesn't get cleaned up unless one of God's people wades into the mess with them. "Brothers and sisters," Paul writes to the Galatians, "if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."
This is a remarkable passage. The role of the mature—those "who live by the Spirit"—is to wade into another's mess, not to judge them or join them or feel superior to them or codependently take responsibility for them." The goal: to "restore that person gently."
The Greek here is worth noting: katartizete, literally "be ye attuning." The picture is of an instrument capable of producing beautiful, resonant , evocative music, but badly out of tune. Roughing up the instrument will only worsen and make permanent the problem. Discarding the instrument is stupid; it's a Stradivarius, a possession of inestimable value. It's just badly mistuned, and what should sing and woo instead squawks and yowls. It needs a gentle, masterful touch, a tightening here, a loosening there, to restore it to its true potential.
That's the work of those who live by the Spirit.
Often, those who step in to help clean the mess will look to others like they're endorsing the mess. I think of a pastor from another church who called me a while back and told me he was concerned about our church. He had heard rumors. I asked what rumors. He listed three: a couple living together, a couple having sex outside marriage, and a gay man attending. All three were "messes" that we knew about and had stepped into in an effort to "gently restore." When I told him that, it made matters worse. "What are you doing helping these people?" he asked. "I would have kicked them out a long time ago. I don't understand how you can tolerate sin in the camp."
I don't know how I can avoid it. Several years ago, our church made it our prayerful ambition "to win the heart of the Cowichan Valley." We've been doing that, but the heart of the Cowichan Valley is coming to us broken, afflicted, confused. It is, for the most part, a deeply hurt and unhealthy heart.
But we asked God for that heart. And so we're trusting God that, as we live by the Spirit, he'll give us what we need to tune that heart to sing his praises.
Which leads to the next conviction.
4: What we bring to the work of tuning hearts is grace and truth. Jesus Christ, a reflection of the Father, came full of grace and truth. "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth … . Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known" (John 1:14, 16-18).
John makes clear how Jesus reveals the Father. It's through grace and truth. John contrasts this way of revealing the Father with Moses' way of revealing God—through law. The Mosaic law is an unambiguous manifesto of the standards of a holy God. Law largely deals in commands and prohibitions—do this, don't do that. It's cut and dried.
Then Jesus comes. It's not that God no longer cares about his own standards of holiness. But Jesus brings a fresh revelation. Where Moses revealed, in stone, the unbending standards of a holy God, Jesus reveals, in flesh, the beating heart of a Father God. It's a heart full of grace and truth.
Jesus never had to ponder how to act or to speak in any situation. His holy instinct, wired in by the Father, was always and everywhere to act and to speak with complete grace and complete truth. He didn't choose between the two. He didn't dial one down to play one up. Every time Jesus spoke, everywhere Jesus acted, he revealed God in the fullness of truth and grace.
That day the pastors and elders met to talk about how to respond to our gay friends, we spent most of the time looking at John 1. "What does it mean," I asked, "that whatever we say or do be full of truth?" That, frankly, was well-trod territory for Baptists: sin is sin.
But then I asked, "What does it mean that whatever we say or do be full of grace?" It means, we concluded, that at every point Linda and Rita—or anyone else we "who live by the Spirit" come near to—should know in their bones that we love them and that our deepest desire is for them to win.
We ended that day by coming up with a little proverb of sorts. It's this: When we speak truth, it should be so grace-soaked it's hard to reject; when we show grace, it should be so truth-soaked it's hard to accept.
All this leads to what may be our most startling and most subversive conviction.
5: Jesus reverses the flow of influence between clean and unclean, and empowers us to do the same. The teachers of the law accused Jesus of breaking the law of Moses. What Jesus actually did was more radical: he reversed it. The law was established to keep us safe from moral and spiritual taint. But Jesus, full of grace and truth, came to make us dangerous. He came to turn us into agents of moral and spiritual cleansing and wholeness. He meant for any ordinary Christian to be able to show up at the gates of hell with no more than the Holy Spirit brimming inside them, and for the gates of hell to collapse beneath the weight of our presence.
One more story, from Matthew's Gospel: "A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, 'Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.' Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. 'I am willing,' he said. 'Be clean!' Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy" (Matt. 8:1-4).
Touching a leper was an out-and-out breach of Levitical law. A person with leprosy had a clear mandate: "Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp" (Lev. 13:45-46).
But this man with leprosy understands that a new power is loosed on earth, a power that emboldens him to run right up to Jesus and fall at his feet: "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean."
Somehow this man knew that in Jesus the world has been turned upside-down. Instead of unclean defiling the clean, now when clean and unclean touch, it's the unclean that must surrender its claim. That's revolutionary!
This reversal of influence—the clean can make the unclean clean—represents one of the biggest insurrections that's ever occurred within any religion anywhere, where its own rules get rewritten in a single stroke. But it's one revolution the church has many times in many places lagged behind on. We sometimes just don't get it. We often just don't practice it. I suspect we sometimes just don't believe it.
Our church is starting to believe it. Our church is starting to put it into practice. Our church is trying to catch up with the revolution Jesus started two millennia ago. We're making as many mistakes as discoveries as we go. But as we walk in the fullness of Christ's grace and truth, we find him right alongside, ready to tune even the most out-of-tune heart to sing his praise. And we find that as we walk in the power that was in Christ, we can touch unclean things and not only are we not tainted by them, we make unclean things clean.
Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community Church in Duncan, British Columbia.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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