In my last writing, I talked about cuss words. But we all know that there are plenty of family friendly words that can cut much deeper than a thoughtless four-letter word. Hearing the word “exclusive” only sounds good when we’re on the inside, when we’re behind the sturdy fences, invited to the fancy dinner, wearing the Members Only jacket [actually, I don’t think those have ever really be seen as cool or exclusive].
As long as there have been human groups and organizations, there have been questions of exclusivity. Who’s in? Who’s out? What do you have to do to make it in? And once in, can you ever get kicked out? The Church is no exception here, and has unfortunately been guilty of preaching this dirty word for as long as it has existed. Women, foreigners, slaves, children, sick people, poor people…or most recently, gay people. God only knows how many have been hurt, judged, excluded, and “cut-off” from the Body of Christ. Of course no one can withhold the Love of Christ from people, but that doesn’t mean people haven’t tried (I’m thinking of another recently deceased Fred: Fred Phelps, who had nothing else in common with the beloved Fred Craddock than a shared first name).
Going back to the earliest writings of those first Christians, we can hear their leaders wrestling with the timeless question of exclusivity. Consider Acts 8, a passage about the nature of exclusivity in the holy practice of baptism. In that context, baptism was not only an act of true repentance, but also an entry way into the Christian community. The first big story is about a street performer (1st century magician) who was himself amazed at the ‘magical’ acts of the Christian apostle Philip; but no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t discover the hidden tricks behind Philip’s power. And so, Simon the street performer believed in the God who couldn’t be explained away, and he was baptized. Not too long later, though, he tried to purchase the rights to perform Philip-like acts, probably hoping to regain his once held abilities to astonish others on the local street corners. So was Simon kicked out of the church? Was his baptism certificate revoked? NO and NO. But he is given a stern lecture by the early church leaders, who make it clear that things are different in the Kingdom of God than in the kingdom of mankind: you can never buy your way in! Simon the baptized street performer is held accountable, but he’s not kicked out of Christian fellowship.
The rest of Acts 8 is about the unforeseen baptism of a total outsider: an Ethiopian eunuch, who is about as different as someone could have been from a Middle Eastern Jew or Roman citizen. This outsider, different in every way in beliefs and backgrounds, is nonetheless captivated by the story of Christ and finally asks the apostle Philip, “Look, water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The early church’s answer, as given by Philip (again): NOTHING! So the eunuch is baptized and then goes on his way to Ethiopia, taking with him the radically inclusive movement known as early Christianity.
So who is in and who is out? And who decides? The early church leaders didn’t come to any decisions easily, that’s for sure, but when all was said and done, it was usually a more inclusive, more accepting church than not. And as a Christian living in America 2,000 years later, who looks nothing like those first disciples, I have to say Thanks be to God!
Now, what will I say to the outsiders today, to those who sometimes get it wrong? Even if I’m not cussing, am I still uttering any dirty words to a single child of God?
Along the Journey…