Churches are divided by doctrine – Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal – and by ethnicity – African, Korean, Chinese, Greek, and Ukrainian. We choose to segregate by age, by social status, and by politics. Enter a church, and chances are that a majority of members look alike, behave alike, think alike, and vote alike. Even when a church does enjoy diverse membership, young people may attend the contemporary hour while older members wait for the traditional service. We may claim to welcome everyone with open arms, but our actions speak louder than our words. The uncomfortable reality is that we embrace those who are like us and shun those who are different – singing songs from our favorite radio station, sharing polite conversations with friends, and frowning upon dissenting opinions. By taking the path of least resistance, we have splintered Christ’s church.
On a recent holiday weekend, a leader in the Mormon community asked a makeup artist to transform him into an ugly and disheveled vagrant. Panhandling outside the local church building, his friends mostly ignored him and avoided eye contact. Some even asked him to leave. Only children, in their Christ-like innocence, came up to him, smiled at him, and wished him a happy Thanksgiving. Later, he entered the building itself, and there was considerable disquiet when someone asked this “homeless man” to say a few words. Once the vagrant’s true identity was known, the congregation experienced considerable regret for having shunned him: The message had hit home.
In similar vein, an apocryphal tale is told of a gay young man, rejected by his family, who had sought comfort in drug use and turned to prostitution to fund the habit. Homeless and suffering from AIDS, he encountered a well-meaning Christian who invited him to visit a local church to obtain help. The response was damning: “Why ever would I visit a church? Everyone there will look down on me. They will suggest I am paying the penalty for my sins, that I am a welfare scrounger, that my sexuality is an abomination, and could I please leave before the right kind of visitor arrives.” In his despair, he concluded: “Blessed are the church-goers, for they are holier than thou.”
Contrast churches that are little more than pious Christian social clubs with the life and times of Jesus and his disciples. As they sat around the meal table, Jesus must have smiled as Thomas, the critical thinker, sighed at the impetuous Peter as he rushed to answer every question. During casual conversations about the Roman authorities, Matthew, a collector of their taxes, may have relieved lingering tensions by winking at Simon the passionate and revolutionary Zealot. James and John, with family ties to Jesus, had known him since childhood, whereas Nathaniel was chosen by his master even before he had set eyes on him. Jesus’ followers were different in many ways, but they embraced one another in his name. As the early church grew, even Jews and Gentiles came together to follow the risen Christ. We are called upon to administer that same sacred mystery by revealing the supremacy of Christ over personal opinions and preferences.
We must take seriously the poignant observation that many have unknowingly entertained angels. Maybe an angel appeared to us as an AIDS victim or as a pregnant single mother. Maybe an angel assumed the form of a child with Downs Syndrome or of an unwashed vagrant. Maybe an angel approached us as an illegal immigrant or as a young Muslim student. Did we welcome that angel in the name of Christ? Did we demonstrate genuine love and compassion? Did we sit with him, hold his hand, and just listen? Did we spend the time and money needed to help him? Did we offer food, put fuel in his car, or welcome him into our home? Did we encourage him to share a care, a thought, or an opinion without fear of criticism? When such angels are one day revealed to us, will we jump for joy or seek to hide our awkward embarrassment?
“For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We must not deny this truth by choosing instead to hyphenate the church.