Lev 19: 33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Acts 8: 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”
Notice the huge span of time and history between these two passages! They are at the temporal poles of the Bible, yet the same message speaks in both places with equal power. God’s welcome spans all of scripture.
So, why doesn’t the Christian reputation better reflect it?
When personal faith becomes organized religion there seems to be a universal temptation to set membership requirements and assign status. In his book The Struggle to Be Free, Wayne Oates says that after growing up desperately poor, uneducated and socially inept with a crippling inferiority complex, becoming a Christian came with the realization that he would never be inferior or superior to any other person. That epiphany was part of his life-changing liberation. But many are still imprisoned in the joyless, always-comparing, judgment cycle of either feeling perpetually inadequate or promoting themselves to be God’s gatekeepers!
We start down that road the instant we start defining salvation as a kind of membership. Even when we’ve insisted that salvation is a gift of grace, there is still an impulse to think of ourselves as insiders and to promote ourselves to be the Grand Arbiters of who has accepted grace and who has’t, replacing pagan hierarchies with “Christian” ones. While this has the appearance of being authoritarian, it’s really just fear looking for an organizational remedy for insecurity. Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the tares (Mt. 13) was a nice way of telling his followers to knock it off, to relinquish the illusion of control, and to let God be God.
Once we leave the clubhouse, we realize that the Bible also describes salvation as a process of sanctification, of becoming, of being made whole. Paul sometimes wrote that he “had been saved,” in other places that he “was being saved,” and in still other places that he “would be saved.” He saw himself as a work in progress. His declaration was not: I’ve earned a place in heaven! It was: I am not the man I used to be! I am being redeemed and repurposed for God’s ongoing kingdom work in the world!”
We cannot earn our salvation; we are helpless to do anything but fall upon the grace of God. And we certainly cannot “save” others. But we can submit to sanctification by leading an other-centered life and, as Paul taught the Philippians: 2: 3-4 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’ The result will be a transformation of our selves and then, consequently, our communities: the kingdom comes, here and now.
This is the Bible in a nutshell: God leading God’s people from a members-only, circumcised, circumspect tribe to an in-Christ-there-is-no-
I once met a man who had recently been baptized as an adult. I asked him about his experience. He said, “This church sure cared a lot more about me before I got saved.”
In the membership mentality, once a person is deemed “saved” they are considered to be a completed project. This enables insiders to remain essentially unchanged, causing churches to limp along essentially unchanged, and leaving the communities around them unchanged, all while they smugly sing: “when we all get to heaven,” another convenient distraction from self- examination.
But in the sanctification mentality, all are sinners, all are broken, and the potter is still at work so that transformed people can transform society, which is, ultimately, what pleases God. From that perspective, there is always more room to grow, more work to do, more hospitality to be extended, more discoveries to be made, more joy to be celebrated.
We don't have to wait for heaven to experience that. The joy we seek is found precisely in those places where we offer to others the belonging we so deeply long for for ourselves.