I have frequently seen church signs, advertisements or bumper stickers that say something to the effect of, ‘we accept everyone here.’ Some of the declarations are still more explicit, ‘regardless of race, gender, immigration status, or sexual orientation.’
I wholeheartedly agree that everyone should be welcome to come to Church. However, there is something important missing from these signs.
Christ reached out to shepherds, tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, the sick, the Samaritan woman, beggars, and thieves – all who were to some degree outcast or second-class citizens in Israel. The very purpose of the Incarnation, of God becoming man in Jesus Christ, is to reach men precisely where we are, in our sinfulness and brokenness. In her autobiography, Redeemed, Heather King writes:
I love a good statue of Jesus with a hole ripped in his chest and his sacred heart hemorrhaging blood... A guy who hung out with lepers, paralytics, the possessed: this is someone I can trust. We don’t have to go up to him, he comes down to us. We want a doctor, a hospital, meds; he give us himself. We want to stop the suffering; he says, ‘I’ll suffer with you’’ [p. 1].
To know that Jesus meets us in our messy reality is profoundly consoling. Didn’t Christ say that he came not to judge, but to save? [cf. Jn 3:16]. As such, we become less ashamed, less afraid to approach him.
However, the phrase to ‘welcome everyone as they are’ is an incomplete sentence – not grammatically, but theologically. To paraphrase Bishop Fulton Sheen: Everyone should come to Christ as he or she is; no one should leave the same.
The very name ‘Jesus’ means savior. It begs the question; from what are we being saved? Jesus came to save us from sin. Since we are all sinners, we all need forgiveness and conversion. After protecting the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death, he did not simply bid her, ‘Farewell and take care.’ He said, ‘Go, and from now on, do not sin any more’ [Jn 8:11].
If people are not open to change, ultimately to conversion, then they run the risk of missing the beautiful gift that drawing closer to Christ entails. He is the pearl of great value for which we sell everything else [cf. Mt 13:46]. At the heart of conversion is experiencing the love of God for you, which then draws you out of yourself. You want to love him in return.
This love of God is not something we can earn. That is why St. Paul could write, ‘But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Rm 5:8]. We cannot be good on our own. Rather, when we accept his love his grace enables us to be good. For love of Jesus, we want to be better. The Ten Commandments are simply concrete expressions of how we respond to God’s love, by loving God and neighbor, i.e. not killing, not lying, not stealing, etc. However, God’s grace always comes first.
True love goes far beyond a superficial, ‘do whatever you want.’ God wants more for us, much more. Jesus invites and challenges us to be holy, as the heavenly Father is holy [cf. Mt 5:48]. He knows we need his help, but if we allow his grace to grow in us, we will someday behold Jesus and his heavenly Father face to face.
All are invited to the heavenly feast, if we accept the invitation.
Fr. John Bullock, LC