I come from an area of the country not known for its hospitality. Bostonians are known for their abrasive attitudes, especially toward outsiders. It’s interesting to travel to other parts of the country and discover cars eager to stop for pedestrians, dining room staff eager to chat about the weather or the french fries, and strangers eager to know someone’s name. It feels unusual to be so warmly welcomed when I leave home. Let’s use this as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Earth is often inhospitable. People so frequently treat each other with hostility, disdain, cruelty, and apathy. Earth can be very Bostonian.
Boston sports teams garner the sometimes passionate loyalty of their fans. Old rivalries illicit not-totally-kidding attitudes of superiority and aggression.
Also, our chowder is better than yours.
It’s humorously obvious that these attitudes miss the gifts of sports teams and food from other cities. When made in good fun, that’s what these statements are. But often, what starts as a little good fun can turn into real biases that cultivate an erroneous notion of superiority. The notion is satisfying, and people cling to the attitudes that allow them to imagine themselves God.
In Latin, “outside the Church, there is no salvation” tells Christians that their team is the winning team. And to the extent that I believe Jesus shows us the way to our Heavenly home, I agree. But various denominations of Christians use this phrase to dictate which church is the right one. They use this phrase as a weapon against other Christians whose baptism is the same.
However, no person or group has a monopoly on God. The key to salvation isn’t telling each other who’s out. The key is making sure we see how each other could be in. And, indeed, helping each other get there.
The problem with this phrase isn’t that it isn’t true, but that it’s used as a weapon. It says to non-Christians, or to different types of Christians, “you’re not one of us” and therefore, “you’re not going to Heaven.”
If I am assured my salvation is a result of my picking the right denomination, then my salvation depends on others’ lack of it. The problem with this thinking is that it’s completely alien to the message of the Jesus I claim to follow.
God is the original in-group. A communion of three divine persons perfect and complete in every way with an eternity of secrets and beautiful truths we could never know. And yet, this God decided to do what it didn’t need, but we desired. (It is our very nature to desire it, after all.) This God pulled out a fourth chair and said, “Join me.”
This metaphorical fourth chair is extended to all of humanity. Our “yes” to God’s invitation is constantly thwarted by distractions and temptations, and yet this God loves us and wants to meet our innate desire so much that he arrived in history time and time again, ultimately experiencing betrayal and death just to win our love. He shared the innermost in-group secrets with us, promising us that if ever we knock, the door will be opened to us. (Matthew 7:7) He treated us like friends and family even as we said, “Do I know you?” Best of all, he offers endless chances for do-overs, an infinite number of chances for forgiveness and re-entry to the table if w come with contrite hearts. All he asks is that we extend the same grace to each other.
And yet, the Christian denominations do the opposite. We tell each other our diverse interpretations of scripture and approaches to authority nullify our familial ties as children of the Most High. We lie.
We tell each other the rituals and customs of one sect are constitutive of acceptance by the God of infinite chances. We lie.
We take one step toward creating consistent in-group language among one another and then take concrete steps to change it. For example, the English speaking Catholic and Protestant world has, for several decades, enjoyed the shared custom of answering “The Lord be with you” with “and also with you.” My Church, the Catholic Church, decided in 2011 to change the response to “And with your Spirit.” Imagine my discomfort when in an ecumenical group of Catholics and Protestants. I know half the room is going to answer, “And also with you.” Do I answer the “Catholic” way to be true to my denomination? Do I answer the “old” way to accommodate the wider audience? Is this a betrayal of Christ?
In-group language seems to me a lot like flying a Red Sox flag from your NYC apartment window after a big Yankees win. What exactly is the point? Are we trying to be funny? Stir up trouble? Ruin a good night for Yankees fans? Is any of it making you feel better about your own life?
Please enjoy thishoti if In-group language among denominations serves to undermine the reality that we are all already included in the most sacred in group that exists.
I began this post by talking about the hostility of Bostonians. This week, I am struck by the kindness and hospitality of the people of Wisconsin. They ask me about the weather and about how I slept. They didn’t antagonize me about my team allegiance.
Mid-westerners aren’t perfect either. But I’d like to believe this contrast is a small illustration of the difference between Earth and Heaven. The coldness with which we exclude each other on Earth (even in the midwest) means the supernatural hospitality into which we are invited will strike and shock us with its warmth. We aren’t used to the kind of tenderness, embracing, and acceptance of the next world.
Our job is to try and tune ourself into that reality even in this life. It isn’t in our power to bring it about on our own, but we don’t have to rely on ourselves. The God of the universe has already outstretched his hand and offered us infinite spiritual power to respond. It’s merely our job to find that within ourselves, and to live it in relation with each other.
In-group language attempts to place ownership on God. Earthly structures don’t confine God. Churches are a gift of God. Churches don’t own God. We’re concerned with keeping people out. Let’s shift to being concerned with how to invite people in.
The key is not trying to own God. The key is delighting in God’s choice and desire to claim us as his own.
I hope you might like to know what I’m doing in Wisconsin. I’m attending the annual gathering of the Initiative, an ecumenical gathering aimed to bring together Christians of all different denominations for friendship and worship. The hope is that our initiative (hence the name) will result in “deep and growing friendship with God and others that the love of Jesus might exceed all divisions.”
The week is part lecture and preaching, part praise, and part intentional relationship building. It’s about as awesome as it sounds. If it sounds awesome to you, please click the link.
One of our leaders, Scott Brill, remarked yesterday that God doesn’t see denominations. Those are of human invention.
Others have shared stories amounting to what I would call “Christians getting it of the way of Jesus.” These feature such things as not recognizing each other’s baptisms because “you were baptized into the same Jesus, but not in MY church.”
The gathering of people here are modeling a true desire to change and grow. They are all true ecumenists in heart and in mind, and I am honored to be among them.
My prayer as I journey with this group this week is that we continue to be aware of God’s outstretched hand to us. Unity isn’t something we have to create. God has already created a perfect heavenly unity for us. Our job is simply to stop getting in one another’s way and keep Saying yes to the prompting of the Spirit, the beautiful, diverse, Spirit. It has many gifts, but is the same Lord.