On welcoming sinners

Your responses last week to my three questions – What is your greatest need? What is your greatest hope? What is your most urgent question? – were thoughtful and challenging. It will be an enriching experience to explore them with you. Among your responses were several about how to live a more faithful life. Then during God Talk on Wednesday, we talked about God’s rules for living a faithful life: 611 of them (or 613, depending on how you count).

Several years ago, A.J. Jacobs wrote a book, A Year of Living Biblically, describing his attempt to spend a year following all 611 (or 613) of those rules. He failed, of course, as we all do, but his report of his attempt was instructive as well as humorous. It made me grateful that Jesus named two of those laws as the greatest: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31). Maybe if I concentrate on just those two, I’ll have a better chance at success.

Right away, however, I run into trouble, because Jesus says it’s not enough to love my neighbor. I’ve got to love my enemy as well. I’ve got to pray for those who persecute me because that’s what God does, makes the sun rise on the evil and the good alike and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous without distinction (Matt. 5:43-45). Jesus even gives us an example of that kind of faithfulness when he “welcomes sinners and eats with them,” which makes all the decent and upright folks in town cringe (Luke 15:2).

In his rule for monastics, a guide for Christian community still in use after more than 1,500 years, St. Benedict says, “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ” (Rule, chapter 53) – not only the decent, upright, faithful guests, but any guest, even sinners. Receive them just as you would receive Christ. Any guest who happens to arrive at your church should be received just as you would receive Christ. Welcome them as those who bring with them your healing and wholeness. Welcome them as those who restore your relationship with God.

Without the people of whom we disapprove, we are incomplete. It’s not that the sinner without a restored relationship with God is incomplete. Rather, without a restored relationship with the sinner, with the one we have judged and rejected, the one who makes us uncomfortable, the one who confronts and challenges the rules that define our life – without a restored relationship with such neighbors we are incomplete, our relationship with God remains broken.

Each year, to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, the United Methodist Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in New York City holds an interfaith dinner, bringing together fifty Christians, fifty Jews, and fifty Muslims for a meal they call the Peace Feast, where they share readings from their different traditions about peace.

“My favorite part,” the pastor says, “is always in the beginning when we’re trying to mix up all the tables. We always have people who are calling out, ‘Hey, we need another Muslim over here.’ Or, ‘we need some Jews over here.’ ‘Anybody got a Christian?’”

One year, a rabbi noticed beauty in the chaos. “This is paradise,” he said. “This is how it’s going to be. It’s not going to be like, ‘You’re not like me. Stay away.’ … It’s going to be, ‘Hey, Jews, Muslims, Christians, come here together.’” Come, those of our faith, and those of other faiths, and those of no faith in particular, and let’s sit at the table together. Come saints and sinners alike, let’s break bread together.

It doesn’t matter if we follow the same rules or not; it doesn’t matter if we worship alike or think alike. What matters is whether we love alike. Do we recognize in one another the image of God? Do we value each other as essential players in God’s ongoing creation? Do we realize that without the other person, no matter how different, our own lives would be incomplete? And do we welcome one another, even sinners, as we welcome Christ? When that happens, it will be some party!

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