I still remember what it felt like to be on the outside of the Church, looking in.
A friend had invited me to a youth Bible study, and instead of sitting in the circle with the rest of the group who knew they were Christians and said so, I sat outside the circle, in the corner of the room, and listened. No one told me to sit where I did. But beforehand there was such an emphasis on the meeting being for Christians that I wasn’t sure it was for me. I didn’t know if I was a Christian or not at that point. Years before I’d prayed a prayer with my Grandma Margie that I’d meant, but in this group, I only felt aware of what I didn’t know or understand quite yet.
I sat in the corner surrounded by two bookshelves filled with books and games, under an invisible covering of shame. In my mind, there was a hard, impassable line between me and this group I silently observed.
Years later, I would find myself sinking deep into the Gospels and realizing how much I had in common with many of the first followers of Jesus. There was so much they didn’t understand about who Jesus was and the Church He was beginning to build. There was so much they didn’t get about what He said or who they were, or who He was shaping them to be. Jesus invited them along for the ride despite all they didn’t know or understand. He invited them into intimacy knowing they would turn away and betray Him, and that each of them would walk their own journey of becoming.
Jesus’ wide welcome of others would repeatedly shock many. It’s safe to say that if He was here with us in bodily form, His wide welcome would repeatedly shock us as well. He offered no disclaimers, statements, or stances alongside the invitations He offered or received.
I found belonging in the open arms of this Jesus. I found and continue to form my understanding of welcome in His ways.
When a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner as recorded in the gospel of Luke, He didn’t decline based on what He knew about the man or how they might differ. Jesus went and reclined at the table. And when an uninvited woman showed up at the dinner with an alabaster jar in her arms, knelt behind Jesus and wept, then cleaned the tears off of His feet with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfume on them, Jesus received her offering — despite how uncomfortable his host or friends could’ve been.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Luke 7:39 The Message
Can you imagine how tense the room might’ve been? Jesus didn’t assimilate to the comfortable majority in the room, He welcomed the desperate minority. He didn’t tell the woman to go away or try to keep her separate from His hosts. He brought her story into the middle of His own and told a story so that everyone there could learn and grow.
Jesus led by example, showing up wholly and receiving others wholly, in love.
When I think about Jesus’ ways, I’m reminded that I don’t need to keep a checklist of proof for my belonging or the belonging of others. I can eat with those who don’t realize how deep their need is for Jesus, and welcome those who do. I don’t need to make sure my neighbor knows where I stand on this issue or that one before I catch their tears, listen to their story, or dine at their table. And their tears and story should be able to change my limited opinions and the way I think about this issue or that one. I don’t need to explain or qualify my friendships with those who live differently than I do. It’s not my job to chart where someone is in their faith journey.
You and I are made to extend welcome. We belong, and everyone around us does too.
When it comes to the Church, I am no longer on the outside . . . but I never want to forget what it felt like to sit in the corner, separate and ashamed, wondering what I had to know or do or hide to belong. May that feeling always stay with me as a guide to keep growing my own ways of welcoming wider than I thought welcome could ever be.
How has Jesus’ wide welcome changed you?