We’re careful who we let into our homes. Yesterday, I heard a knock on the door, put down (I promise) the knife I was chopping tomatoes with, and opened to a couple who handed me a free cleaning product. The conversation was perfectly cordial, until they tried to step into my living room with their vacuum cleaner.
All of us have a screening process. If the knock is unexpected, we may not even open the door. If we open it and see a stranger, we start some quick filters: Is this person safe? Are they honest? Do they want to take advantage of me? Our houses are special, intimate spaces; who we let into them matters.
What about God’s house? Who does He let in? And who does He leave standing on the doorstep?
If you wanted to go from the open area of God’s House in first century Jerusalem to its inner courts, you were met with these words inscribed by the Jews of the time:
‘No man of another nation is to enter within the barrier and enclosure around the temple. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his death which follows’ (1)
Imagine Paul the apostle bringing Trophimus, a Greek from Ephesus, past this sign, and on into the inner courts of the temple. That’s what the temple authorities thought he’d done, and so when they caught sight of Paul again, they grabbed him and tried to beat him to death (Acts 21:29-32). Their knuckles did the speaking: don’t let the wrong people into the House of God.
When Paul wrote back to Trophimus’ own church in Ephesus, his own near-death from the temple incident must have been in the back of everyone’s minds (2). Paul writes:
But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. (Eph 2:13-14)
Trophimus knew it. The Messiah’s blood is dripping on the altar, and the priest’s voice is calling in the pagan streets ‘peace!’. Spattered in that royal red, you can skip past the signs – they’re outdated – and get as close to God as you like. And those already inside the house shouldn’t make you hover at the doorstep.
But there’s a double awkwardness on that threshold: if you’re not used to being in the presence of God, you must step boldly in. If you’re used to having that holy place all to yourself you must gladly usher in those who, in your own judgment, could desecrate the place.
In our multi-ethnic cities, could there be more people stepping into our churches if we the religious insiders weren’t screening people with obsolete filters?
In our small groups are we happy to have an alcoholic come into our home? Or a clinically depressed person? Or a homeless person? Or someone socially unaware enough that they don’t know when to leave?
If not, we may have left the most God-hungry 20% of society on the doorstep. (3)
If someone in our neighborhood can’t speak English then no matter what we put on our church signs in that language, it will probably read to them ‘No one of another nation is to enter within the enclosure’! If they do enter, and no one goes out of their way to mediate both the words and the church’s culture to them, they’ll assume they’re not wanted. (And are they wrong?)
Large church buildings allow Christians to look like they’re ready to host strange people, but relationally we leave them awkwardly shuffling in ‘the hallway’ until they realize it’s time they left. We assume they don’t return because they’re not interested in repenting and joining the household of God; they assume not to come back because the household of God doesn’t want them inside until they’ve managed to repent.
In fact most strangers won’t even knock on a door, unless they already know they’re welcome inside. Ever tried showing up to a party that you knew you hadn’t been invited to, at a stranger’s house? Awkward. That must be what it’s like for so many in our cities to approach Christian gatherings.
Let’s take down our hostile signs, and find new ways to beckon strange people in to worship Jesus with us. Even people we worry want our money or our emotional resources. People we haven’t got time for. People who want to bring their junk into our living room.
Who we let into God’s house matters to Him; His wide welcome is written in his own blood.
(1) Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2003:562)
(2) Craig Keener, article: Embracing God’s Passion for Diversity (Assemblies of God – Enrichment Journal, March 2007)