A couple years ago, after a small church gathering, a volunteer approached me and said, “I’m afraid my wife and I won’t be helping at the gathering anymore.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I replied.
He continued, “It’s just that so many of those who attend have no reverence for the church. Especially Bill. He’s always a little drunk and he cusses like a sailor. We just believe people ought to act differently when they’re in church.”
I explained to this volunteer that our gathering was open to all people, especially those struggling with addiction of any kind. We should be celebrating when a man like Bill sits down to study the bible with us. Bill was homeless. In fact, half of our small congregation was homeless.
It was kind of the point.
The volunteer didn’t agree.
The kingdom of God is gritty. It’s filled with the types of people we’d never expect to be there.
Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can read the gospels and not come to this conclusion.
I think of the the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-30. In the story, a wealthy prince tries to impress Jesus with his flawless adherence to the Jewish law. Jesus isn’t impressed and tells the young man:
“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21, ESV)
The man walks away, sad.
Because he wanted more religion.
More rules. More parameters.
Jesus explained that rich people have an awfully hard time entering the kingdom of God. His disciples can’t believe it. How can a man who follows all the rules and has received financial blessing not enter the kingdom?
“Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (v. 30)
In the next chapter, Jesus tells a story of workers in a vineyard. In this story, several men work but for varying amounts of time. Some work all day while others only work one hour. The owner of the vineyard pays everyone a full day’s wage. Naturally, the hardest workers are angry and complain, but the grumbling doesn’t change the landowner’s mind. He can be generous to whomever he wants.
“So the last will be first, and the first last.” (20:16)
The point is clear in both stories: We don’t get to decide who enters God’s kingdom, God does. Who he lets in will surprise us – and probably make us a little uncomfortable.
Bill is no longer homeless. This past week, I gave him a ride to his apartment.
“Bill, have you ever been baptized?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“When you choose to believe in Jesus, that’s the first thing you do.” I explained.
“I know,” he said.
“Bill, do you want to come to men’s retreat this fall?” I asked. “A large group of guys goes up to a campground to worship Jesus, listen to preaching, and eat awesome food. Would you be interested in that?”
Bill looked over to me and smiled, “Shit yeah, I would!”
When he got out of the car, he told me he loved me. He also said, “I know I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.”
“I know, Bill,” I said. “And I love you too.”
He repeated, “I love you. And tell the other guys, I love them too.”
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, ESV)