“The world does not understand theology or dogma, but it understands love and sympathy.” – Dwight L. Moody
Once upon a time…
A Young Man, full of love for Jesus and love for others, fell on hard times. Bills crashed out of his mailbox like a tsunami. His bank account was on life support. Every penny was counted. Every number was crunched. To him, his life went from being happy following Jesus and fulfilling his calling to everything crumbling to ruins around him.
His friends? Many of them stopped reaching out. Many stopped associating with him. Why? This Young Man struggled with the most heinous sin – he was same-sex attracted. Like someone infected in a pandemic, he was avoided.
Alone with tears in his eyes, his prayers echoed in the silent rooms of his home. His cries of crisis crescendoed with each day. His demand that God changed him drove him to self-hatred, spiritual performance, and other ways hoping his struggle would disappear like the fog revealing the sunny meadows after a storm.
Many crossed his path. Many interacted with the Young Man. First, a Biblical Counselor came by. He saw the young man’s hurts, pain, and needs. “You are going through a lot right now. Stick close to God. He will get you through this. Keep looking to him for provision. I will be praying for you.” The Biblical Counselor, proud of his wise counsel, shut the door and left the young man on a brighter path… or so he thought.
Then a Pastor, wise, charismatic, caring and compassionate, knocked on the door. When the door opened, the Pastor was greeted by the chaotic collage of sorrowful strategizing. It was like stepping into a hoarder’s home of heartbroken hope stacked and piled up with boxes. He sat down with the Young Man. The Pastor listened intently to thoughts, needs, and desires jumbled in a mix of confusion. The Pastor reached out to embrace the Young Man. “I am so sorry you are hurting. You have a lot of needs. I will be glad to help you with some things, but I can’t support you in ways where others would think I am supporting your struggle and saying I fully agree with you. Keep trusting God. He will provide.” Then the Pastor left humming the latest Christian tune about his love for Jesus…
The Frustrating Reality
How does the story above sit with you? Take a moment.
Does this story feel familiar? It is because you know a story exactly like this that doesn’t start with, “Once upon a time.” A name appeared in your mind. A face filled each characters. Why? Because this story a is a frustrating reality for so many people.
Many face dire situations. They have heartaches, needs, and struggles we do not understand. They battle each day to continue when their emotions tell them to quit. They long for a place at the table – accepted into a community, desired by others to bring their contributions to the table, needs met, and a family they’ve longed for.
But, should we be at the same table as other “Christians” we disagree with? Can’t they sit at the “kiddie table” while the more mature Christians sit at the “adult table”? Do we want to run the risk of having difficult conversations at the table that could lead people away from what we believe is the “correct image” for a Christian?
All good questions to ask. Let’s unpack this.
Are They Even a Christian?
When faced with a Christian who does not look like us or act like us, but say they love Jesus, we immediately are suspicious of their salvation. Are they truly saved? Are they really a child of God? How can we tell if someone is a Christian or not?
I have thought a lot about this question. Coming from a fundamentalist Baptist background, we spent many secret thoughts on questioning someone’s validity as a true follower of Jesus.
First, we must ask, what is a Christian? A Christian is someone who is made right before God by resting their faith in the grace extending from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:27-28 clearly states that our relationship with God is not based on works or image. It is only based on faith.
But, what does faith look like? So many say things like, “My faith is important to me.” Usually that brings up images of going to church, praying, reading the Bible, etc. However, what if faith was illustrated many times, and yet we missed it?
Throughout the gospels, we see this phrase “seeing their faith (Mark 2:5),” or “your faith has made you well (Matthew 9:22).” Jesus sees faith. Faith in the gospels is the desire to come to Jesus for everything. Faith draws us to Jesus. Our faith in Jesus isn’t a theological principle to believe, or a prayer we pray to escape hell. Our faith is an inner desire to come to Jesus knowing he will save us, heal us, redeem us, and sanctify us.
Jesus tells us the standard by which he judges in John 3:18-21. How do we know if someone is born again? They believe in Jesus, the Messiah, and come to the light. Their desires are to be with Jesus through many means – Bible reading, Church fellowship, worship, etc. Fait isn’t found in these actions, but faith is grown through these actions.
So many times we judge Christians by a “changed desire.” However, we tend to be the ones who define what that changed desire is. “He can’t be a Christian. Look at all his tattoos.” “Is she a Christian? I saw alcohol in her home when I visited.” “Is that family saved? You should see the movies they watch.” “Have you seen what kind of church he goes to?” “Have you seen her struggles? She must not truly be a born-again Christian.” How many times have we secretly thought these statements or gossiped about those people as prayer requests and spiritual concerns?
But They Aren’t Like…
Can we finish that phrase? But they aren’t like… me. Often we create our own version of God and the Christian life. We must worship a certain way. We must attend the correct church. We must… And the list grows longer than a doctoral dissertation.
We tend to forget that the basis of our faith is coming to Jesus. Our extended invitation to others is founded on the shared love of Jesus, and our joy in being in his presence. We get so caught up in practices, standards, and choices that we forget to see that the kingdom of God isn’t based on standards. It is based on a life following the Spirit in peace, goodness, and joy (Romans 14:17). We forget there is are two chapters dedicated on how to love and interact with Christians we disagree with (Romans 14 & I Corinthians 13).
I will never forget something a wise, spiritual leader said to me while attending a fundamental Baptist church, “We read in I Corinthians 13:13, ‘Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.‘ But we live like the verse says, ‘Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and separation – and the greatest of these is separation.'”
Isn’t sad that we beat the drum of separation warring against other Christians when Jesus prays for unity and love right before he goes to the cross?
The Fear of the Table
But why do we fear other Christians, who we may disagree with, at our table?
The table in the gospels is seen as a place of teaching, a place of acceptance, worship, and being in the presence of Jesus (Mark 14:1-9; Mark 2:13-17; John 13-16; Luke 7:36-50, etc.) All are welcomed at the table with Jesus. It is a place where sinners find forgiveness. It is a place where our minds our challenged to be more like Jesus. It is the place where the new covenant was established at the Last Supper. It is the place where all come with something to the table and leave changed, because they were in the presence of Jesus. You do not see Jesus turning someone away from the table. He welcomes in order to change their heart. Zealots, prostitutes, religious leaders, tax collectors, fishermen, men, women, children, rich, and the poor were all people seen at the table with Jesus. Yet, Jesus is the peacemaker in this diverse group. We tend to sacrifice being a peacemaker for trying to keep the peace.
Why do we fear the table? Is it because we hold too tightly to a learned theology that we do not want to “lose our faith”? Is it because we do not want to be seen as “supporting those people with *cough* sin problems *cough* unlike we have? How we respond to those in our life in our invitation to our table shows how truly our heart has been transformed by the love of Jesus.
Finishing the story…
The young man sat alone in his home. He was given good advice. He knew the spiritual answers, but he longed to be brought into his community. He longed not to be left out. He had needs that a Bible verse couldn’t fix. He had worries that prayers were only a band-aid for. He longed for an invitation to the table where he could bring his worries, needs, desires, struggles, and be fed, encouraged, and be able to contribute. He didn’t need to be talked to or preached at. He needed a meal with friends.
So, he waited for the knock at the door. He prayed for such a dream to be fulfilled. Then, a noise broke his prayer. A slight, small knock on his door. He unlocked the bolt, and opened the door to…
You get to finish the story. For whoever is on the other side of the door will change the course of this young man’s life. What table is he going to be invited to? Will his needs be met? Will he find grace, standards, or deception?
What kind of table are you preparing for the people in your life?
St. Augustine said, “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
We should offer prayers for others. But, love goes further. It is an invitation to fellowship found at a table.