Monday, 30 May 2011

Only By Grace Can We Enter

It seems very strange, yet I'm sure a lot of churches are like ours. We have a thriving set of youth groups coming into the church building, where they are welcomed and gently introduced to God's unconditional love and care, whatever their background, their lifestyle, or their felt sexuality.

Meanwhile, in the adult part of the church, at least whilst we had a pastor (we are between pastors at the moment), anyone who came was at risk of being lectured from the pulpit on permissable and impermissable sexual behaviour. To be fair, at the moment - in the absence of a pastor - I think it is true to say that preaching tends to be rather more grace-focussed. Nevertheless I strongly suspect that anyone who wanted to become a full member of the church, whilst living with their partner without being married (or who was living with their same-sex lover, even with the benefit of a civil partnership), would be unlikely to be successful. Although I could be wrong.

Other churches maybe have different barriers to entry. Nevertheless, high barriers seem to me to be a widespread characteristic of 21st-century churches. Some churches have explicit rules to keep people out, others have cultural barriers, or simply "This is the way we do things here", that lead people to feel excluded and unwanted. If you want to feel part of an 'evangelical' church you have to look at life - and especially God - one way; if you want to be in a 'liberal' church then you have to take another, similarly restrictive, viewpoint.

Doubtless this was always the way with religion, but the barriers over the past decade appear higher as the rest of the world moves on and many churches just stay put. The vast majority of non-churchgoers are just not willing to go so far against their own grain to conform to norms which actually have little or nothing to do with Jesus, not to mention being decidedly unhelpful in engaging with God in their everyday lives.

Yet, in the very early days of the church things were different. In the Bible the early chapters of the book of Acts chart a removal of the old Jewish barriers. The Temple at Jerusalem was full of restrictions on who could go where. Non-Jews were restricted to the very outskirts, Jewish women and eunuchs were restricted to their area, Jewish men were allowed fairly close - if they were ritually clean according to the rules of the Torah, the Jewish Law - but only priests got to be where the sacrifices were made, and only the High Priest got to the Holy of Holies, where God was believed to be especially present. The Christian Church, in contrast, was fully opened up to non-Jews, to eunuchs, and to women very early on.

When Paul of Tarsus went out starting churches in southern Galatia, a Roman province in what is now north/central Turkey,  he founded churches for whoever wanted to join, Jew and non-Jew, where all could worship God freely. This was fine until some conservative Jewish Christians turned up, after Paul moved on, telling people that now they were part of the church they had to obey the rules: the Jewish Law, including becoming circumcised.

Paul wrote a very angry, very idealistic, letter, in which he makes clear that in the Church of Jesus everyone is accepted: Jews & Gentiles, men & women, slaves & free. All can freely come to Jesus in his body, his church, and all can freely remain. There are no rules, other than the rule of love. There are no restrictions, other than the requirement of Baptism as a sign of turning to God through Jesus, and acceptance of God's gift of His Spirit. That was it.

A wise woman once said to me: "You have to have rules, otherwise there will be anarchy". According to Paul, in his letter to those Galatians, God has thought of that. If you don't have God's Spirit then rules are not enough, fallen human nature will break through anyway. But if you do have the Spirit of God within you then it will bear fruit in your life. And the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Given these you don't need all those rules, just time and space for God's love to bear fruit.

Now, in 21st century churches, it's as though Paul never wrote his letter to the Galatians. Many churches call themselves 'Bible-believing', yet deny the freedom that Jesus won for us! They throw away God's Grace - his free gift to any who will respond - and replace it with empty rules and religion. Why?

There is a popular song in Church circles; it's a pity people don't always listen to what they are singing:
Only by grace can we enter
Only by grace can we stand
Not by our human endeavour
But by the blood of the Lamb
Into Your presence You call us
You call us to come
Into Your presence You draw us
And now by Your grace we come
Now by Your grace we come
Gerrit Gustafson

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