Monday, August 3, 2015

"Turning Point"

If you are a regular churchgoer, then chances are you are there because somebody invited you. Or, if you weren’t directly invited, then when you visited the first time, somebody welcomed you. If you’re still attending the church where you grew up, it might be that you’re there because someone welcomed your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. If you’ve joined a church, then chances are they voted to receive you. Most churches these days are glad to receive visitors of all kinds, and welcome as members those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Because Jesus already paid a high price to show us God’s love, we want to make it easy to become part of the family.

Not every organization is that way. Some want to make it tough to get in. A lot of college fraternities and sororities have seriously had to dial back their hazing rituals because they were cruel and illegal. A group of people were asked, “What are the craziest initiation rituals you have ever experienced?” One said, “My first job was as a cashier in a small family-owned grocery store. Apparently, the stock boys had a tradition that went back years where they'd tell the new guy that one of his jobs is to shake up the Italian dressing bottles every couple hours. It makes them look better, after all!” Another responded, ““My boyfriend said at his job their favorite was making the new guy mop the freezer floor.” One college student responded: “Had to drink a gallon of prune juice then walk 12 miles back to campus. [i]

We’re certainly glad that the churches we’ve joined never had hazing rituals like that. However, the early church wasn’t as easy to get into as ours are today. Up to that point, the church had been predominantly made up of Jewish believers in the Messiah. But, largely due to Paul’s evangelism efforts of Gentiles, non-Jews were beginning to tip the scales. Threatened by the influx of “outsiders” into the church, many of the Jewish believers began to teach that if a Gentile man wanted to become a Christian, he had to first be circumcised and had to keep the whole law of Moses. It seems to me that the goal of this wasn’t truly conformity, but an effort to keep outsiders out. Who would be willing to submit to such a thing, after all? In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we read about a council in Jerusalem, where the church had to decide how far initiation rituals were allowed to go.

Peter, Paul, and Barnabas all made convincing arguments for the inclusion of Gentiles. In verse 11[ii], Peter said, “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

After much debate, finally Jesus’ half-brother James said, “It is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath (Acts 15:19b-21).” Though there must have been many who disagreed, the council decided to adopt this standard, and wrote a letter to ratify the decision.

This was a turning point in the life of the church. Before this, Christianity had been a Jewish sect. After this, it was a separate religion. Anyone was free to come to Christ through repentance and faith, regardless of their race, nationality, or background. The behavioral requirements that the letter imposed weren’t designed to keep people out, but to keep them from offending the very Jewish Christians who had welcomed Gentile believers. Because Jewish believers would be bothered by Gentile converts who ate defiled meat, they were kindly asked to avoid it. Because so much pagan worship involved sexual ritual, they were also reminded to keep themselves sexually pure. And that was it. Suddenly a wall that kept Gentiles out came toppling down, and the church was a welcoming place to all who would receive Jesus.

Without realizing it, many Christian fellowships today operate the same as the Jewish church did in the first century, imposing rules and expectations that are difficult for people meet. Sometimes they may even intentionally want to keep some kinds of people out of the church. Yet Jesus who said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” wants today’s church to make the same turning-point decision that the first generation of believers made. Jesus throws his arms open wide to receive all who will come to Him. How can we fold our arms and not receive all who would respond?

Recently, I read a story that reflects our need to receive all God’s people, without limitations:
One Sunday morning a children’s program leader noticed a little girl standing outside the room, looking in with great eagerness at the fun the other children were having. The leader went outside and invited the little girl inside. 
“They’ll all laugh at me.”
“Why do you think that honey?”
“Because I don’t have any shoes.”
Heartbroken at this little girl’s poverty, and knowing that she really wanted to join in, the leader tried to convince the little girl that the other kids would not laugh at her. But despite her assurances the leader could not persuade the little girl to join in with the other kids. Another leader came over, one who seemed to have a great ability to minister to children in situations like these. He took the little girl aside and spoke with her.
This second leader then left the little girl and rejoined the group to lead the next activity. Before he started he said, “OK everyone, before we go any further I want you all to take your shoes and socks off and place them by the wall. For the rest of today we’re going to operate with bare-feet.” The little girl who had no shoes beamed, ran over and joined in with the rest of the group.[iii]

Instead of expecting people to become like us, or instead of keeping out people who just aren’t like us, maybe it’s time we became a little more like them. That’s what God did—became one of us so that He could save us. It wasn’t because we deserved it. It was only because of God’s grace. Acts 15:11 says, “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” Everyone who is saved, is saved by God’s grace. Isn’t it time we had our own turning point, and learned to show the same grace to others?

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