Let me tell you a story I recently heard.
A preacher was recounting a time several years ago when, during the “invitation hymn” after the sermon, a lady came forward to be baptized. Now the preacher had previously heard about this lady, as he had been told that she was currently living with her boyfriend, who was a member of the church. As they stood together in front of the congregation, the pastor reflected that he knew he “needed to confront her about her sinful relationship.”
And that is exactly what he did.
As they exited to change clothes and prepare for the baptism the preacher cornered her and said, “There is no way I can baptize you unless you quit living in sin.”
The couple gave him their assurances that they wouldn’t live together. The lady was baptized. And they never went back to his church again.
I wish I could tell you that a story like this is an anomaly, an aberration.
But it’s not.
I remember a time, when as a young man, I overheard chatter among people in my church about a lady who was wearing a mini-skirt and how she needed to be told to dress modestly in the “House of the Lord.”
As soon as the service ended, an elder of the church approached the young woman, who by the way had never been to our church before, and told her that if she was going to come back she needed to dress appropriately.
She never came back.
How have so many churches ended up comprised of “righteous gatekeepers” who believe it is their responsibility to manage and control who enters through the gates?
It is eerily reminiscent of Jesus’ strong words to the Pharisees when he said, “You shut the door of the kingdom of God in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
The absolutely fascinating thing about the words of Jesus, which ought to serve as a lesson to many, is that the very people who believed they were righteous insiders, were actually not even on the inside at all.
In fact, they were on the outside and preventing others from entering.
What do you think about that?
The Kingdom of God, of which Jesus spoke, is all around us, but it is a reality into which we enter, changing our hearts and giving us new eyes to see the world. The Kingdom of God is the present, in-breaking reality of God’s presence in our lives. A reality, that once embodied, looks like the life of Jesus, a life ruled, not by heavy-handed laws and rules or by “who’s in and who’s out,” but by grace, love, and invitation.
And the door to the Kingdom of God is always open and there is not one religious person or leader who can stand in the way of you entering. There is not one religious leader who can decide whether you are in or out. There is not one religious leader who can keep you from a seat at the table.
The religious may stand on the outside and try to close the door, and prevent others from entering, but Jesus opens wide the door of God’s Kingdom and invites us all to a seat at the table with him, without judgment or condemnation.
No matter your background, your present life situation, your socioeconomic status, your level of education, your appearance, your diseases, your addictions, your afflictions, your offenses, your burdens, your heartache, your despair, or even your past or present sins, there is no single person, not one religious person, not one holier-than-thou person, not even the most theologically-minded, well-respected, or studied preacher who can keep you from the love of God, who can keep you from God’s forgiveness, who can block you from entering into the kingdom of God, or who can take away your seat at the table of invitation.
You are an honored guest. You have been invited.
In another instance, I heard the same preacher recall a funeral he was to give to a 19-year old young man he did not personally know, but whom he soon found out was a biker. As the preacher was on his way to the funeral, he detailed his approach to the funeral home, seeing a parking lot full of “stereotypical [bikers] with long hair and tattoos all over the place, right there in public smoking their joints and drinking a [beer] with several of them having their girls along with them dressed immodestly on the back of their bikes.”
And as I listened to these heartbreaking words and the tone in which they were spoken, all I could think was- Would Jesus be riding passed these bikers and their “immodestly dressed girls” in judgment based upon how they look and then thinking how he needs to preach the Gospel to them when they come into the funeral home- or- would he have gone out to them, embraced them, listened to their stories of how they knew the young man, and then told them about the beautiful invitation and present reality of God’s kingdom and how they may enter in.
To me, the answer is clear and evident throughout the Gospels. Jesus was always at the table of invitation with various sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes.
As followers of Jesus, we have not been given the task of shutting the door or preventing “sinners” from entering into the Kingdom of God.
Rather, we have been given the task of entering presently through the open doors ourselves and accompanying every single person of the world to the table so that they, too, can taste and see just how good the Lord is.
The Kingdom of God is not a place that needs guarded or protected. It’s not a place entered into by the self-described righteous or religious. And it is certainly not a place where the untouchables, outcasts, or unholy sinners are banned or restricted.
The doors to the Kingdom of God are always open wide. There is always an invitation and a seat at the table. And Jesus is always standing there, at the head of the table, with his arms open wide for every untouchable, every outcast, every unholy sinner, every person ever pushed aside or crushed by the religious apparatus, and every single person who has ever been told that God doesn’t love them or that they are anything less than precious, worthy, and valuable.
The invitation into the Kingdom of God and a seat at the table is always there.
You are always, always, always invited.
Peace and love…