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The Community of Welcome

Michael Gatlin

Michael Gatlin

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When Jesus is asked in Mark 12 which commandment is the most important, he immediately responds with his top two:

1. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
2. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Or, as I like to put it: “Love God. Love People. Period.”

These two statements sum up everything that God’s commandments are about. To Jesus’ audience, they would have had a familiar ring to them, because they came straight from some very familiar passages of the Hebrew Bible—passages that they would have learned as children and repeated daily in their prayers. Stuff right from the core of Judaism. So Jesus picks out these two commands and puts them into a single creed for his followers to live by.

What would our communities, our churches, look like if we really put these commands, this creed, at the heart of everything we did? If we let it affect every single part of our communities in the same way Jesus and his early followers did? When you put the one true God at the center of your life, it changes everything. And when you have a whole community of people doing that together, it can change whole cities, whole societies. This stuff isn’t meant to be lived out alone. It’s meant to be lived out with others. It’s meant to spread. We see this in Jesus’ first followers. As they committed to these two things, they had an amazing effect on the society around them. And that’s what Jesus did, himself, too. He loved and obeyed God and welcomed and invited people into the kind of life that God offers. There was no place where Jesus wouldn’t go to reach people. There were no people he would not welcome, if they wanted to follow him.

Take Matthew, the tax collector. Now, tax collectors have never been popular people, but in Jesus’ day it was even worse. This was a guy who was profiting from his fellow Jewish folks by working for the foreign occupying forces, the Romans. Everyone around him would have seen him as a traitor. And his frequent contact with Gentiles would also have made him spiritually unclean and unable to participate in worship or religious festivals—basically cut him off from family and friends. So he was rich by siding with the enemy, and hated and shunned for it.

Ol’ Matt would be used to people treating him badly. But what happens when he encounters Jesus? Jesus doesn’t stand back and tell Matt to clean himself up so they can hang out. Jesus meets him right where he is. Matthew is sitting in his toll booth, making his dirty money, when Jesus sees him, goes to him, and says, “follow me.” It’s a simple invitation, but it’s a major one, too. Jesus is inviting Matthew to come be his student—to go where he goes, to do what he does, to become like him. In those days, to be a student of a rabbi meant rearranging your life completely and spending every waking moment with your teacher so that you could be like that person in every way. Most people wouldn’t look at Matthew and see someone who would make a good student for a spiritual leader. He had made choices (like so many of us have) that deteriorated his relationships and left him wealthy, but isolated and empty. But Jesus invites him anyway.

And Matthew, amazingly, accepts the invitation. He recognizes that Jesus is offering something he desperately needs. He doesn’t even take time to think about it or put his affairs in order. He just walks away from a successful career because he wants what he sees in Jesus—the supernatural presence and love of God available to him right then and there. The only thing he pauses to do is to celebrate with a dinner party for all his friends, as well as Jesus and Jesus’ friends.

Matthew himself actually wrote out this story in his account of Jesus’ life, The Gospel of Matthew. As you read it, it’s interesting to see that Matthew places his own story of meeting Jesus right in the middle of a bunch of stories about healing (Matthew 8-9). I think that as Matthew was writing, he realized that, although he wasn’t physically sick at the time, Jesus had given him a different kind of healing—healing from the brokenness, unfulfillment, and isolation he was experiencing. Matthew accepted Jesus’ invitation because it met his real needs, even though they weren’t in the form of a physical illness, like so many others who responded to Jesus.

So if Jesus could go right to where Matthew was—an unclean, immoral, and outcast man in his society—there should also be no place we won’t go with Jesus’ invitation. The religious leaders in Jesus’ time tried to keep themselves pure by avoiding people like Matthew. And many church communities still live like this today. I’ve heard church leaders actually say that they don’t want to be “infected by that kind of person.” But the church of Jesus is supposed to look like Jesus, and that means hanging out with the same folks he hung out with. Not because they’ve got it together, but because they need what Jesus has. These spiritual, moral, emotional needs for Jesus are just as real as the physical need for healing of a sick person. If we are going to love people, we need to address their real needs for Jesus. To invite them to the party.

But we are not allowed to complicate the invitation. Jesus said “come follow me.” Not “come follow me after you stop sinning,” or “come follow me when you are ready to look decent.” He invites us to change the course of our lives. To get up from what we are doing, and go do what he’s doing, instead. There’s no need to get cleaned up first. Matthew doesn’t have time to go put his house in order or tell his old friends how to act around Jesus, or anything. I picture him just inviting everyone together and enjoying the fireworks! And Jesus was totally ok with that. At the table where Jesus is, there is a whole lot of room. Plenty of room for you, me, and everyone else who wants to come. So as a community that follows Jesus, we cannot put other requirements on Jesus’ invitation to make us feel more comfortable. People should never have to look and act and think and vote like you or I do to respond to Jesus’ invitation. Not ever. My comfort, your comfort, is not the point. Jesus’ welcome is the point.

Because Jesus wants to transform our tables, our communities, to be places where he gets to meet with our friends and neighbors, just like he did at Matt’s house. He came right on in and met with Matt’s friends. Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus was always at our table and at our parties, meeting the people at them?

But even though we have simple commandments and a simple invitation, this is still going to be a tough job. Being the kind of community that follows Jesus and welcomes people like Jesus does is hard. For one thing, it’s hard because, as simple as it is, Jesus’ invitation is also offensive. To leave everything and follow Jesus means admitting that you don’t have it all together and you need what he has. In Matthew 9:12, Jesus said, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” That’s kind of offensive.

It also means submitting to authority–something that most of us today have a problem with. But following Jesus means accepting and respecting that he is Lord. Letting him be the king and the boss. A good king—one who takes the fall for us, instead of the other way around—but still a king.

And it means letting our lives be completely changed and switched around. Not just a fresh coat of paint or a remodel. Allowing ourselves to be fully rebuilt from the ground up.

But if we’re going to really love people like God wants us to—if we’re really going to be a community committed to inviting and welcoming people—we can’t be shy about the hard parts. We can’t hide them from the people we invite, and we can’t ignore them for ourselves. We can’t just forget to mention the hard stuff. We have to remember that we are still in need of Jesus’ help, we are subject to his authority, and that he has the permission to completely overhaul everything in our lives and our community. In short, we have to love Jesus, to love God, the way he deserves and demands to be loved.

Which takes us right back to these two great commandments: Loving God with everything we’ve got, and loving people like we love ourselves. If we want to be communities that have an impact, communities that reflect the character of Jesus, then we’ve got to have these two things always in view. That’s how we answer the invitation, how we get to be part of the Jesus community, and how we welcome others into it, too.

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