by Philip Sudworth.
In Jesus’ time there were lots of social and religious boundaries, which excluded people. If you associated with people who were unclean, you became unclean yourself. It mattered a great deal who you ate with, because eating with people was to accept them as equals. Yet Jesus went for a meal to the home of Zacchaeus, who was a collaborator with the Romans, not only collecting taxes for them but cheating his own people as he did so; and who had, in both the general view and in his own eyes, sunk as low as it was possible to sink. Jesus didn’t go in order to tell these people how sinful they were; they knew that. Instead, he enjoyed their company, and they enjoyed his. Indeed, he was accused by the Pharisees of partying too heartily – not an image we tend to associate with Jesus! But his was a personality that attracted children as well as men and women. I suspect that he told some of his stories with a twinkle in his eyes and had a chuckle at some of the responses.
He breached other conventions. He spent time at the well with a Samaritan woman, who was spurned by her village because of her immorality. He touched lepers and handicapped people, and healed a woman with a haemorrhage. All these people were desperate, and Jesus reached out to them. His love and compassion were not constrained by social and religious rules. These outsiders were healed spiritually as well as physically. He accepted them but offered them the chance to live fulfilled lives and to realise their potential.
In an old Jewish story about the End of Time, all people are gathered when God announces, “Gabriel will read out the commandments one by one. If you’ve broken that commandment, you must depart into Outer Darkness.” The first commandment is read and half a million troop off with downcast faces. Thousands more depart after the second commandment; and so it continues. When Gabriel reaches the tenth commandment, God looks round at the smug, self-righteous faces of those few who are left and imagines eternity surrounded by these. “Whoa!” he shouts, “Everybody come back. I’ve changed my mind.”
Paul in the letter to the Galatians is anxious to point out that Christ has brought us freedom from legalism. We are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone. He is also insisting that no one group is better than another group. Their differences as Jews or Gentiles, slave or free, male or female are subsumed in their identity as Christians. We all acquire our value in and through our relationship to Christ. Perhaps in our day, instead of “neither Jew nor Gentile” we should substitute, “In Christ there is neither Catholic nor Protestant; neither Evangelical nor Progressive; neither black nor white; neither straight nor gay; neither resident nor refugee.” Anyone who feels morally or spiritually superior to another group has rather missed the point.
There have been times when the church has been too focused on who is and who isn’t acceptable. – you are only acceptable to God, if you belong to their denomination, believe what they believe, follow their rituals, and conform to their moral standards. In contrast, rather than try to convert Muslims and Hindus on their deathbeds, Mother Teresa encouraged them to grow closer to God within their own religious tradition. How willing are we to encourage people whose journey of faith differs markedly from our own to continue on the route that suits them? There are Christians living alongside and working with the poorest people in shanty towns across the world. They’ve taken the view that the church doesn’t just exist for those who are in it, but also for those outside. They obey the instruction, “Go out into the world and take the Good News of hope and love. And be good news to those who need you.”
We’re called to support one another, practically and spiritually, to encourage one another on the journey of faith, to recognize that we’re all at different points on our journey, and that, while some are enjoying high points, others are going through dark valleys of suffering or distress, or of doubt, or are struggling with the mists of confusion. We’re also called to reach out beyond the church walls. John Wesley said, “Go not only to those who need you, but to those who need you most.”
- Who is Christ for? Are there groups that are outside God’s love?
- Which groups feel excluded by the Christian church? What can we do about that?
- How do we overcome, or learn to live with, differences within the Christian church?
- Who are the people who need us most?
- How helpful is it to imagine the tone in which Jesus said things? Did he have a sense of humour?
6 thoughts on “Who is Christ for?”
Excellent Piece. Thanks, – Geoff.C.
No doubt one should be wary of define the distinctions that do not exist in Christ, but I am curious as to why ‘progressive’ is contrasted with ‘evangelical’? I have only come across that comparison here I think.
I have some understanding of what progressive is in economic and political discourse. Many evangelicals (even theologically very conservative ones) are progressive in political and/or economic terms. Is the term used in ‘social’ terms (e.g. progressives would support equal marriage)?
Is it ‘just’ a pseudonym for ‘liberal’ or is there something more than that?
Progressive Christianity in the UK and in the USA is a clear grouping which contrasts markedly in theological stance from Evangelical groups such as the Evangelical Alliance and Methodist Evangelicals Together. The linking and contrasting of these two very diverse groups is an indicator that we shouldn’t be dividing people according to the beliefs they are willing to sign up to.
Of course, organisations which have claimed for themselves the terms ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Progressive’ forget that the terms have a much wider use. A person who self-identifies as an evangelical can be very progressive in the ways in which s/he celebrates and shares her/his faith. Similarly, someone who self-identifies as progressive may be very active in outreach and in spreading their understanding of the gospel.
Thank you James. Progressive Christianity is clearly a well recognised ‘thing’ and it is bizarre that I have not really come across the term except on this site. I am somewhat embarrassed that I asked (revealing my ignorance); glad I asked (because my ignorance is lessened by your reply); and sorry I asked (it may have distracted from the point of the article).
This seems a very simple matter to me: If a group is inclusive and non-judgmental in their dealings with others then they are “inside”God’s love. Furthermore this applies to interest groups, such as railway enthusiasts, stamp collectors and Manchester United football supporters. The Klu Klux Klan are exclusive and judgmental, so “outside” God’s love, even if they consider themselves to be a Christian organisation. It deeply saddens me to see exclusive and judgmental attitudes in any “Christian” groups: This is in direct contradiction to the inclusive and non-judgmental love shown by Jesus towards all he met.
Phillip, thank you. I am often at a loss for words when wanting to express thoughts such as what you said. I hope I will become better at that with the help of your words. I also don’t feel qualified to declare anyone is beyond the reach of God’s grace. In my flawed humanity, I may not love everyone, but I don’t ever question who God loves. I believe He loves all of us. I agree with Mother Teresa. A person’s faith is his/her business. God will bring His children home.