The Embrace of Jesus

On a bookshelf in my office is a new decorative piece that I received in Jerusalem. It is an olive wood carving of Jesus.

It is not the only such carving that I have in my office, but this one is different. When you look at it, the first thing you notice is Jesus embracing two children as he is sitting down. One child is cradled near his neck and likely a young toddler. The other is a young girl, perhaps no older than my own child, who is standing and brought in close to Jesus.

Of course, when you see the carving, your mind goes to the story in the Gospels when Jesus is confronted by his own disciples for welcoming children into his care. Children, in those days, were not to approach religious teachers until they reached a certain age, and a child approaching Jesus would have been unheard of and unacceptable. Jesus has other ideas, and says, “let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14, NIV) Jesus is accepting and welcoming of children.

We know this. We celebrate it by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Perhaps that might be all you think about if you looked at the carving. But beyond that, I’m drawn to Jesus’ arms when I look at it on the shelf.

His arms are embracing and welcoming, and they bring in those society has discarded as unwelcome. There is more to the carving, and perhaps more to Matthew 19:14, than just the idea of welcoming children to the church and making sure they are part of Sunday School, worship, and children’s activities.

I cannot help but think of how the same arms that lift up a toddler and a young child in a warm embrace, also bring in the least of these and the unwanted in our own time. Jesus’ words of welcome to the children are not limited to those who have yet to reach a certain age. It is also extended to the people who live upon society’s margins.

In Jesus’ time, you would be hard pressed to find just one group that lived on the margins. There were the poor who lived in the same communities Jesus traveled through, who barely had enough money to provide food for their families. There were the religious outcasts – women, Gentiles, and others – who were not allowed to worship with the entire community. There were people who were discounted simply for where they lived or what had occurred in their lives.

Each of these groups of people, Jesus routinely welcomed… to the consternation of both the religious elites and his own disciples. The embrace of Jesus is wide and welcoming to the very people society says “no” to including.

Our participation in the life of Christ calls us to have the same embracing attitude of society’s outcasts and undesirables as Jesus does. The embrace of Jesus calls us into society’s margins to share the love and hope of Christ to the least of these. It also calls us to go into places of power and privilege, to the communities that believe they have no need of the God of holy love, and to express the truth of God’s hope.

The call to live like Jesus is one that brings us into places we are not always comfortable with going. Our invitations of welcome and care, in the life of the church universal, are often limited to those we find acceptable and approachable. We are often more comfortable with reaching people who are “like us” and desire churches to be filled with only like-minded individuals. We do this to the detriment of true discipleship and the embrace of Jesus.

Living like Jesus takes us into areas where we might be uncomfortable and requires us to live with arms wide open. What often holds us back is our own fear of what may happen, our biases, and, ultimately, our own trepidation of truly living like Jesus. When we allow fear to consume us, our embrace is limited and our arms do not fling open as wide as we see Jesus’ arms do.

I cannot help but ponder how we might be called to reflect upon this as we approach Holy Week on Sunday. The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be just Good News for those who sit comfortably in the pews of the sanctuary. It must also be Good News for the poor, forgotten, and unwelcomed of society.

Perhaps as we go to the cross with Jesus, we need to contemplate how truly embracing the church, as a whole, can be towards those society does not accept. Perhaps we also need to contemplate our own contribution to those situations in our own limited welcome and embrace of others.

As we do, we need to consider the hope of the resurrection that announces God is doing something new in the world. Something new and amazing – not just for me. Something new and amazing – not just for you. Something new and amazing – not just for those who sit in the pews of the church. But truly, something new and amazing for the poor, the forgotten, the outcast, the shunned, and the unwelcome.

The hope of this season is that Jesus’ arms are flung wide open with love for everyone. We get to share that good news.

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Celebrate with the Outsider

A common tool in group gatherings, whether it is a seminar or some other type of discussion, is to use an icebreaker to get the conversation going. The thinking is that asking a fun question can help jump start the discussions and bring everyone closer.

One common icebreaker question is one we have likely all been asked before. That is if we could have dinner with three other people, living or dead, who would it be? The question is often altered based on the needs of the day or the context of the gathering. For instance, since we are in the church if we were to ask that question we may say you couldn’t name Jesus, because we would assume everyone here would want to have dinner with Jesus. No matter who we say we want to have dinner with, our answers tell us a little bit about ourselves and help us to learn more about one another. For the record, the three people I would choose would be Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. I may not talk at that dinner.

The way we answer that question is even more interesting once you start to think about it. The people we name are, typically, people we have already welcomed into our lives. Whether we name political leaders, athletes, or celebrities, the people we would like welcome at our fictitious meal are people whom we like, want to learn from, or want to say, “hey, I ate with that person.” In a way, we want the people who are like us to be around us. Few of us likely would name people like drug addicts, abusers, or the poor as welcomed guests at our dinner table.

I wonder how Jesus would answer our icebreaker question? Who would Jesus invite to fellowship with him around his table? Our passage from Luke 15:1-10 may help us to see how Jesus would answer this question. The people Jesus would eat with are likely not the same people we would want to dine with.

Luke tells us Jesus routinely celebrated with the outsiders of the community. He seldom surrounded himself with society’s elite. Instead, he often dined and socialized with the one’s society had so often ignored and forgotten about. Jesus ate with the poor. He laughed with tax collectors. He conversed with women. Classes of people that society, in Jesus’ time, said were not welcomed in the religious circles and celebrations.

It was Jesus’ interactions with the outsiders that drew the ire of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were highly annoyed that Jesus would “waste his time” with such people. The fact Jesus would fellowship with tax collectors and sinners was often used to discredit Jesus’ earthly ministry. They could not understand how Jesus would associate himself with groups of people God had “clearly” said were not loved.

Jesus wasn’t concerned about their frustrations. It wasn’t going to make him stop. Jesus did something else. He instead showed everyone the depths of God’s love. By associating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus shows us just how amazing God’s love really is. God does not simply love the few, but indeed loves and welcomes all people. Even more, Jesus shows us that God actively goes out and searches for the people society often ignores and welcomes them into the kingdom of God. Here is another amazing piece of truth. God isn’t just doing this so that we may be able to say, “isn’t that nice, God.” The Lord does this so we might go out and do the same today.

God invites us to be people who welcome all people into our communities and fellowship in the name of Christ’s love. We get this picture from Luke 15. Chapter 15 features three parables that are connected to this idea of welcoming the people society believes to be outside of God’s love. They follow what we see from Jesus in the chapter’s first few verses of how he welcomes outsiders into his very own community. When we take a hard look at these parables from Chapter 15 we see that Jesus is about embracing those who society has excluded.

To understand this, we have to understand these dueling ideas of exclusion and embrace. To exclude means to separate ourselves from someone else. Think about exclusion being like a wall. A wall is intended to build separation, whether from rooms or, sadly in the course of human events, different people and cultures. A wall prevents communication and relationships from taking place. That is what happens when we exclude someone from our lives. We are telling them that they are not welcomed in our circles, our homes, our churches, or our lives. We keep ourselves distant from them. This is what the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted with the tax collectors and sinners of their day. They believed that because tax collectors often took more money than they should from people and that sinners were in violation of God’s laws that they should not be welcomed into their lives and in God’s love.

Jesus followed a different path. Jesus is not the Lord of exclusion, but the Lord of embrace. If exclusion is like a wall then embrace is like a big hug. A hug that pulls someone in and welcomes them into our lives and our community. A hug that, with out stretched arms, welcomes in those who were once outside. A hug that closes the distance that our acts of exclusion once created.

Jesus’ entire ministry was about embracing the very people who the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted no part of. When we embrace someone or a community of people we are making them feel loved, wanted, appreciated, and cared for. To embrace means to share God’s love with everyone, regardless of who they are, what they did, what they look like, how old they are, or where they came from. This is the embrace Jesus calls us to, because it is the embrace he lived into in his earthly ministry and continues to live into today. Jesus brought tax collectors into his inner circle. He healed people that were often left to themselves. He allowed women to be involved in his life and within the community. Jesus embraced all people and shared God’s love with all people.

More than this, Jesus also sought after these people. They didn’t just come to him to fellowship and hear his teachings. Jesus went out and sought them. God makes the first move in reaching out to those who are outside our communities. That is the message we can take from the parables of Luke 15:1-10. The parables of people searching for lost items – a sheep and a coin – are symbolic of Christ’s going out and finding those who were lost. Through these parables, Jesus says God reaches out for the people who are not in the community so that they may be welcomed and experience a new relationship and fellowship with the Lord. Jesus goes out and searches for those who are brokenhearted, who are struggling with their finances, who have done things we couldn’t even begin to imagine, and shares with them a hope, a love, and a peace that is beyond all understanding.

As well, Jesus says through the parable, God celebrates with them when they see the love and hope that comes from a relationship with the Lord. God celebrates with the forgotten and the outsider, as they experience a deep transformation and new hope in a relationship with the Lord. Jesus goes out into the world and embraces the people we may not be willing to embrace, shares love with them, and celebrates with them as they are brought into the community and the kingdom of God.

What does this say to us? If anything, I hope it reminds us of our calling to embrace as Christ embraces. As the church, we are called to imitate Christ in all things including making room in our lives, and in our churches, for those who society often rejects. So often the church can be seen as a place of exclusion, where only the selected few (those who look like us) are welcomed to the celebration. This kind of exclusion that we see all across the church today is no where near the love Christ wants us to offer to a hurting and broken world.

As followers of Christ, we are called to make room for the people that we so often believe God could never love. Look around our neighborhood and surrounding region and ask yourself this: Who are the modern day tax collectors and sinners who need to hear that God loves them and so do we? Who are the people in our communities that we so often forget about, believe God could never love, or do not want in our lives? Who do we need to make room for in our hearts, and in our church, so that all people may know the amazing hope of God’s love for them? God calls us not just to recognize that God loves them, but to go out and invite them into our community, our lives, so that they may experience the hope and love of God for themselves.

I know I have not been here long, but it does not take long to learn that Latonia is a community of deep hurts and pains. It is a community filled with many who are often excluded from our lives. There is a mission field all around us. A mission field where we are called to go out, in big and small ways, to share a hope that is embracing, a hope that is forever, a hope that is welcoming of all people. We have a mission field all around us filled with people who have a deep desire and need for the church to come together and search for ways to tell everyone who that God loves them and so do we.

Let us be that church! Let us be the church that is not defined by our exclusions, but our embrace of all people. Let us be the church that is not defined by our separations, but our desire to welcome other. Let us be the church that is not about who is out, but defined by who is welcomed in the kingdom of God. Let us be the church that welcomes all people as God has welcomed us.

A Theology for Political Engagement in the Church: Part 2

We continue, today, in looking at a theology of welcome based on an idea of political engagement in the church. Today’s topics will include an analyzation of the problem, and a historical review of the problem. A reminder that I do not intend to cover every potential historical issue that has ever came up in political discussions with the church. The purpose was to give a broad overview to indicate this is not a recent problem.

Analyzation of the Issue

After looking at the problem and considering two potential groups that are affected by our acts of vehement disagreement with the other in the realm of political thought, it is right to analyze this issue on a deeper level. To do so, the issue of political disagreement has to be framed in its proper context. We cannot analyze this issue from merely political standards of what is right and ethical in an election year, but from Christian ideals of hospitality, welcome, and embrace. To do so requires an analysis of the problem by seeing how attacking the other, simply because of what they may believe, rejects one’s humanity and, ultimately, excludes them from any form of community.

So what is taking place when Christians taken on the image of the secular world and express personal attacks and innuendos based on what someone may believe? On the first level, Christians who partake in political attacks based on what someone may believe ignores the worth and the humanity of the other.

Words that we would never use to describe the homeless, the Haitian refugee, or the poor often freely flow from our lips when we debate someone whom disagrees with our basic political position. Those whom we disagree with are called “liars” and “evil.”

In our hearts, we question how one can be fully Christian and articulate such “un-Christian thinking.” We ignore Paul’s belief that we are all “one in Christ Jesus,” a belief that takes us on the path to recognize there should be nothing in terms of our political thinking which separates us from the communion with fellow Christians.

When Christians resort to name-calling and attacking the other simply for the way they believe, it is a form of nonrecognition. We do not recognize the worth of the other’s position and the possibility someone could come up with a line of thought different than the reasoning we have established to be right, accurate, and Christian. Miroslav Volf writes that nonrecognition damages the identity one receives because our identity is shaped and molded by the reception we receive from society.

He adds that nonrecognition “can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.”

When we attack the other simply because a Christian may hold conservative or liberal political thoughts, we commit a form of oppression by not recognizing the value and worth of their opinion, thus reducing the political other to a form of evilness that is likely not intended by the person’s political beliefs. It is contrary to the notion of true recognition that “involves respecting the dignity and equal worth of every person and valuing their contributions, or at least their potential contributions, to the larger community.”

When we opt to not recognize the worth or value of the other’s opinion, especially in terms of political thought, then we exclude them from relationship and fellowship. To understand this deeper, we must come to a definition and application of what it truly means to exclude someone. Volf argues that “exclusion takes place when the violence of expulsion, assimilation, or subjugation and the indifference of abandonment replaces the dynamics of taking in and keeping out as well as the mutuality of giving and receiving.”

Exclusion, Volf writes, has two central ideas. First, it cuts off bonds that connect us to one another, and second, it creates separation among people, especially among the body of Christ.

In attacking other Christians simply because they believe that the health care law is unconstitutional or that capital punishment is inconsistent with God’s call to forgiveness of our enemies, we exclude and create boundaries that limit the potential for dialogue and communication. Even more, when we exclude, we prevent the true message of Christ’s love to be revealed in our daily actions.

It is our language that promotes exclusion of the other based on their political thought. This is mainly through our emotional responses to the beliefs of the other. These are emotional responses that range “from hatred to indifference” and “call forth emotional responses and are sustained by them.”

When we get challenged in our political thoughts, our emotional responses to this disagreement define how we see the other. They are no longer a child of God created in God’s image, but instead a supposed vile representation of the worst form of evil which no good could ever come from. This is also carried forward in the way we spin our messages. Volf argues that sometimes we “rewrite the histories and fabricate injuries in order to manufacture hatreds.”

The language of exclusion exists here when we spin our messages to focus on negative aspects of the other, then argue the worst possible outcome because of that message. We’ve seen this recently in how some Christians argue that President Obama is a Muslim, even though he has repeatedly said he is Christian. In arguing this, some Christians are attempting to make the inappropriate and unfortunate claim that President Obama is not like us, and, in its worst possible form, could lead some to connect Obama to the worst forms of Islam, simply because they do not agree with his political viewpoints.

While the language of exclusion is a problem in this issue of attacking one’s political thought, so too is the issue of assimilation. Volf argues that assimilation results in an argument where “[y]ou can survive, even thrive, among us, if you become like us; you can keep your life, if you give up your identity.”

In terms of exclusion based on our beliefs or thoughts, we exclude the potential that the body of Christ can include other viewpoints and applications of the Gospel in the world. While we do not deny basic truths or basic doctrines, there are multiple ways that Scripture can be applied, especially in terms of the political realm. The body of Christ can have multiple views and many parts when it comes to politics.

But when we exclude based on assimilation, we make a deal with the political other.

That is, you can be in fellowship with us, but only if you represent our conservative political views or liberal political views. We exclude the potential that someone may come at Scripture and have a different way of thinking.

We also exclude simply by abandoning the potential for dialogue with someone with whom we may disagree. Volf uses the line of thought from the story of the Good Samaritan to claim that “we simply cross to the other side and pass by, minding our own business.”

Instead of entering into a relationship with someone, we keep a safe distance. For example, if we believe that there is nothing good or wholesome about the Tea Party movement, we are less willing to engage or to enter a relationship with someone that ascribe to Tea Party beliefs. We place barriers and keep them “at a safe distance and close ourselves off from them.”

This is not an acceptable form of barrier. In the early church, barriers of hospitality were only allowed based on false teaching or immoral actions.

To close off dialogue and abandon communication because one may have a different point of view hinders the body of Christ from being fully accepting and welcoming of all and from truly teaching the full breadth of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Why do we exclude on the basis of political thought? Perhaps it is because at the root of the discussion, we have to be the one who is right. It is our political viewpoint, our application of Christian thought, that must win the day, and in the eyes of that competitive viewpoint, we exclude the potential that we could be wrong or others may have a different views.

We – our version of what is right and wrong, and our ideas and application of those ideas – become the ultimate center of our reality. Instead of having the mind of Christ and being centered on Christ’s humility and passion, we become centered on being on the right side of the political debate.

Our center is focused being aligned with the virtues of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party instead of the Risen Lord, which Volf argues is our true center.

Thus, exclusion comes because we are not focused on the right things and have allowed ourselves to be determined more by the world’s standards than a Christian ethic of what is right or wrong. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon add to this, saying, “It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.”

Historical and Future Examples of Exclusion Based on Political Thought

While we have analyzed the issue of the political attacks that can occur among Christians based on the lens of exclusion, it is proper to turn to a historical reflection of the issue. It would be easy to think of the issue of political exclusion within the church based on one’s viewpoint to be a recent issue brought on by the days of 24-hour cable news shows and the Internet. Yet television and the Internet only stand on the shoulders of what has been a long history of exclusion based on ones political views within the church. Even John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, noted the struggle that some have towards others who may not think like we do.

This section will give a brief history, including recent examples, of elements of exclusion based on political thought which has taken place, concluding with a look at where this issue may be heading.

It is perhaps best to start with an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, which has often driven the notion that politics is to remain in its corner and religion in the other corner. The First Amendment writes that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

While there is debate on what was intended by the Founding Fathers in this First Amendment, some, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, have argued that it places a barrier on religious involvement in the public square. This idea promotes, in a secular way, the ideas established by St. Augustine that there is an earthly kingdom and a spiritual kingdom.

When taken into the context of how we interact with politics, we believe that our faith and our politics are separate from one another, thus giving us freedom to act one way in the political world and another in the church.

This can be seen in some of the most historic elections in American presidential history. It is perhaps appropriate to include a discussion of the 1828 presidential election, which has often been viewed as one of the dirtiest in American presidential history.

Both John Adams and Andrew Jackson claimed some Christian affiliation in their lives, but did not let the mind of Christ influence their campaign rhetoric. Jackson claimed that Adams was a pimp during his time in Russia, while Adams claimed that Jackson’s wife was promiscuous, at best, for not being divorced before marrying him.

Similar other attacks marred the campaign, which was won by Jackson. These attacks did not represent an ethic of Christ working in their life, nor did it show care or respect for the other. Instead, these comments were perpetrated by a deep dislike and distrust for each other, which impacted how they campaigned in 1828.

In more recent history, we’ve seen how politics and one’s religious preference can keep Christian voters from voting for a certain candidate, even though that candidate may have the same views as the individual. This was true in 1960 and in 2008. In 1960, many Americans had trouble with the notion of electing then-Sen. John F. Kennedy as president because of his Catholicism. Thus, many Christians and Americans excluded Kennedy from having a claim to the presidency simply because he was not a Protestant. In a famous speech, Kennedy responded to this form of exclusion. He said, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish.”

While Kennedy was able to overcome this form of exclusion and went on to defeat then-Vice President Richard Nixon, the same cannot be said of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and his Mormon beliefs. Many people, including many evangelical Christians, disqualified him simply because he was a Mormon.

It is outside the realm of this paper to discuss the truthfulness of the Mormon faith and its relationship to Christianity. However, in light of Romney’s defeat in the Republican primary in 2008, it could be argued that Romney was excluded from interacting with other like-minded conservatives simply because of his religious beliefs, especially among Christians. As Christians, we are not responsible for the actions or beliefs of others, but for our own response.

The recently-completed 2010 election also gives examples to these ideas of exclusion and political attacks among Christians based on one’s political thoughts. In what became a very polarized election, representative of an ever-widening polarization of political parties,

the election year marked vitriolic campaign rhetoric which impacted both the Religious Right and the Religious Left. It is a polarization that began long before the Tea Party Movement and Glenn Beck dominated headlines. The polarization between these two political camps within the Christian movement was established with the creation of the Moral Majority by Jerry Falwell.

The group, which promoted conservative political views from a religious standpoint, helped elect President Reagan in 1980 and President George W. Bush in 2000 and  2004. But it also led to a polarization within Christianity among those who did not agree with Falwell’s tactics or views. Among those was Jim Wallis, whose Sojourners organization was created to be a progressive voice in the political debate. Wallis has written that “our faith has been stolen, and it’s time to take it back. In particular, an enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place.”

It is from this point of polarization that the exclusion, inhospitality and attacks among Christians that took place in 2010 gets its start. Few Christians who are active in the political arena were spared from taking on personal attacks in the defense of their personal political views. This included Wallis, who took on Beck and the Tea Party movement throughout the year,

got into a war of words with Beck and FOX News,

and, sadly, suggested a reporter was lying for reporting that Sojourners took money from liberal campaign funder George Soros.

Wallis had to apologize when it was learned that Soros had contributed money to the organization.

While this is just one example, and there were many more that were much worse, it is representative of the fact that defensiveness often takes place, even among Christians, in relationship to political thought.

Where is the trend moving? What is the future for the church with regard to potentially excluding others based on political thought? In 2012, President Obama will be up for re-election, and the country continues to be polarized on the subject of politics, especially within the church. If we – as the living representation of the body of Christ – do not come to a recognition of our language and actions of exclusion of the other and continue to claim that Christians can only have my political view, then we will continue to see a fractured body of many parts unconnected and not unified by the Risen Lord. We will continue to limit welcome to only those who are like us and think like us, and miss the opportunity to engage and learn from others. And, even more potentially harmful, we will continue to give those outside the Christian faith fewer reasons as to why they would want to communion with Christians or learn what it means to follow Christ.