“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16
As a church, who are our community? Being honest, we could probably sit down and write the names of those we consider to be part of our community, but, if we are being faithful to Jesus, isn’t our community meant to be more than just the people we know. And what about the people who would identify themselves as being members of the Church of Ireland but who would probably be crossed off the lists of most parishes?
I remember an encounter with someone who would have wished to be counted in, but who would be counted out by most churches.
“You must have a great life”, she said to me across the table in the kitchen of her mother’s house. I was lost for words and mumbled some reply. I might have been from a different planet. Her spiky orange hair and zebra-striped, skin tight trousers were the only cheerful things about her. She was perhaps eighteen or nineteen. She hated the flat she was meant to be living in and spent most of her time in her mother’s house to keep warm. Her husband was serving a three year prison sentence; her baby was suffering from a virus and cried loudly. It was a few weeks before Christmas of 1987; she wasn’t looking forward to the occasion. She hoped to buy two presents with her benefit; she would not be receiving many in return.
Yes, she had been to church. I remembered her being there. One evening the previous summer, she and a friend had appeared. You couldn’t have missed her orange hair. They hadn’t understood what was going on. The orange haired young woman could have been anywhere in Ireland and, seeing her, I suspect most people in a church congregation would have reacted in a similar way: we would think to ourselves “she is not one of us”. Were the young woman in most parishes, I suspect the fact that she never attended nor subscribed would lead to her removed from parish lists.
The idea that people are “not one of us” is not new. The religious people in the time of Jesus would have been scandalized by the idea that the Christ could be for anyone except the devout Jews; they would have greatly resented Saint Paul’s teaching that the Gentiles and Jews together had a place in God’s plans. They would have protested that such people were “not one of us”.
Perhaps we need firm ideas of who is “in and who is “out” in order to hold our community together. I remember being at an Open University summer school back in the 1980s. A lecturer talked about something called “group closure thesis.” It was near the end of the week, and I probably misunderstood what he was saying, but in my memory, he seemed to say that people could find an identity in a group by defining themselves against someone else. Applied to a church, we decide who we are by deciding who doesn’t belong to us. Yet Jesus warns us against doing this, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”, he says in Saint Matthew Chapter 5 Verse 47. Saying someone belongs to our community while someone else is not one of us is a defiance of what Jesus teaches us.
What Saint John Chapter 3 Verse 16 teaches us is that everyone who believes in him is “one of us”. The first Christians had trouble with this idea of “everyone”, they were Jews and they expected anyone who wished to join them to become Jews. “Everyone” was not an idea that fitted in with their Law, they were the chosen people and as far as they were concerned membership of God’s people was not open to “everyone”. Paul has to write to the early churches a number of times to make the point that they couldn’t carry on with their old attitudes, they couldn’t carry on with their “us” and “them” attitude.
What we see as the centuries passed is that the church became about church doctrine rather than being about Jesus, it was about accepting the rules of a particular community rather than about faith in God. To have a hope of a place in heaven you had to be subject to the rule of the church, you had to receive the sacraments, you had to accept everything the hierarchy said. If you refused, it wasn’t just a religious matter, it was against the law of the land and you could end up being burned at the stake for heresy. So much for Jesus saying that everyone who believed would have eternal life, so much for the idea that everyone who believed in him was part of the Christian community.
The church’s official teaching was that outside of the church there was no salvation, in other words, if you don’t think and do as we do, then you are not part of our community and you are going to burn in hell. In times when people lived in daily fear of death, the idea that you would face eternal damnation if you were not on good terms with the church was a very powerful threat. It made the Church very influential and very, very rich. Jesus did not say that the way of salvation was controlled by the church. Jesus said, “everyone who believes in him”. Jesus didn’t expect everyone to believe obscure philosophical doctrines, he didn’t expect everyone to belong to an organisation that had become corrupt, he just asked that people believe in him.
Saint John Chapter 3 Verse 16 asks us a question, is being part of our church community open to everyone who believes? Or is being one of our community a matter of accepting all the rules and regulations of the church and accepting the authority of every church teaching;, is it about personal faith or written doctrines? Jesus says being part of our community should be open to everyone who believes.
Jesus could have taken the easy option; he could have saved himself a lot of trouble. If he had said the things the religious leaders wanted to hear, he could have made himself very popular Jesus is a man who comes to break down barriers. What welcome is there for anyone different from ourselves? What concern have we for the people we don’t like; for the people who don’t live by our standards; for the people we would prefer not to meet? Do we count in the people who never come near us?
Our community should be an open community. We cannot say we are Christians and ignore all the people who are not like us. We cannot be exclusive about whom we let into our club. It is very hard for people like me to adjust to the realities of 21st Century society. Coming from a traditional country background, I know I am much happier with the traditional way of doing things. I like services done in the old way and people who live according to the old values and it is much easier to stick to what I know. But Jesus comes, and he shakes up people like me. He asks questions of us about how we relate to people who are not like us, those who are not one of us..
The whole way in which we do things can seem very odd to a stranger. We sing songs with words they don’t understand to tunes they can’t follow. We have ceremonies and rituals that seem odd and even bizarre to someone coming for the first time. Worst of all, we have people dressed in medieval outfits in charge of what is going on.
We can be a hostile environment for teenage single mothers with orange spiky hair and zebra-striped, skin tight trousers. We can be a hostile environment for a very large number of other people as well. Is that being faithful to Jesus? In the days of Jesus the world was split into Jews and Gentiles; those who were on the inside and those who were on the outside. Two thousand years later, and we easily slip back into those times.
How can we be a community that would we make a place for the woman with the orange hair? It’s not an option; it’s at the heart of being a Christian.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Everyone who believes.