The Boundaries of Inclusion

Seventy-five million passengers pass through London Heathrow every year!  Seventy-five thousand workers find their employment there!  Oh the humanity!

On my very first day of airport chaplaincy, nearly 20 years ago at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, doing a placement as the student of a theological college, I was left alone to be the host of the Meditation Centre.  Not ten minutes after my supervisor left me, a man in long white flowing robes and an impressive turban came striding confidently into the prayer space.  He looked around, did not find what he was looking for, so came to the adjoining office where I was sitting and asked in broken English for a plastic cup.  We had one, he took it, returned to a corner of the room, peed into the cup, said an incantation of some sort in a language indecipherable to my ears, promptly drank his urine and brought the cup back to me with a polite ‘thank you’.  Then he swept out of the room with as much pomp as he had entered, leaving me dumfounded and bewildered.  And with a plastic cup in my hand which I did not wish to hold for very long!

Talk about ‘all sorts’.  (I’ve learned since coming to the UK that this ‘all sorts’ term can be a useful and polite English way of referring to people who we in the Americas would simply call ‘weirdos’…)

The European refugee crisis, Brexit border controls, President Trump forcing the conundrum of ‘Dreamers’ upon the US Congress: the incessant movement of peoples across the globe can be disorientating, threatening, and turn us into willing conservatives.  Not the big “C” Conservatives, as in Tories – although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – but no, little “c” conservatives, the kind who are averse to change, who would simply be much happier if things stayed the same for awhile.  Why can’t ‘these people’ stay in their own countries?

The record of history is against us.  Human migration has never stood still.  The span of our own lives is so short, our individual experience so limited, that we take no account of the long history of our own people and land.  The Normans, Saxons, Danes, Romans, Celts; peoples on the move, peoples whose DNA is now our own.

(St. Paul, being a theologian, blames God for the problem: “From one man God made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Acts 17.26)

But we never tire of trying do we?  To stem the flow?  Border controls, immigration policies, Mr. Trump’s fabled Wall (“The Best Wall e-ver. Really.  Such a Good Wall. China; Hadrian; Pink Floyd.  I’m telling you, nothing like it.  Such a Great Wall.”).  History won’t stop, people will always move, but still we try.

Who is allowed in, and who must be kept out?  This was a burning question for the nascent Church as well.  The natural inclination was to fall back on the existing social categories that segregated men and women, Jew and non-Jew, clean and unclean, slave and free, and so on.

However, Jesus had done a new thing.  He set a pattern during his ministry, and backed it up with his teaching, that the Church was to be a different kind of society, one where the boundaries of inclusion were always being pushed outward.

Think of it.  Jesus chose to sit down to dinner with prostitutes, corrupt government officials, ‘wine-bibbers’ and other assorted sinners.  The scandal!  He was vilified by the religious leaders of his day.  (I think it is Anne Lamott who said something to the effect of: ‘Jesus was always threatening people; threatening to include them!’)

Not long after Jesus died, his follower Peter – a good, observant Jew – suddenly realized (with a bit of nudging from above) that he had the liberty to enter the home of a Gentile and declare to a Roman soldier, one of the occupiers of his homeland, that the same spiritual blessings that Peter himself enjoyed where also available to this man.

And Paul!  Paul was initially an even greater zealot for religious purity who, after his transformation on the Damascus road, became the Church’s champion of inclusion.  Paul it was who told the non-Jewish men not to bother being circumcised; who appointed women to public ministry in the Church, who elevated slaves to equal standing before God, who consorted with foreigners of all ethnicities and languages. He died in Rome, a place he had hoped to use as his base for further spreading the Good News among the peoples of the Western Mediterranean.  In his combined cover letter and CV to the people he hoped would be his financial backers – what we call the Letter to the Romans – he makes an extraordinary statement showing how far he has come from his days of ritualistic purity: ‘I am convinced, and I say this as in the presence of Christ himself, that nothing is intrinsically unholy’  (Romans 14.14).

The Church’s early debates come to a head in the Book of Acts, chapter 11, where we find both an account of Peter’s defence of his innovative inclusion of the Roman centurion, and a report of the first significant inroads of the Gospel among groups of non-Jews, in Antioch.  It is instructive to note (v.26) that it was at Antioch that this group of disciples were first called Christians.

“Christians”, followers of Christ; not “Jesus-ites” or the like.  This new group, this new society, are people who find their identity not bound to the work of God in a particular place and culture (Jesus himself said he was a prophet to the people of Israel), but rather their identity is anchored to the concept of ‘the Christ’, to the cosmic hope representing the incarnational interface between the divine and the human, wherever and whenever that takes place.  Jesus is no longer with us in body; God in Christ is.  You don’t have to live like a first century itinerant Jewish prophet to participate in the message he brought.

This can’t end well, can it?  This ever expanding umbrella?  These tent pegs that one by one are pulled out of the ground and banged in again a bit further out?  It’s getting a bit rough and breezy around the edges, don’t you think?

The scriptures of the New Testament themselves tell us of the early push-back, of the ones who feared the Church had gone too far, had opened its doors a bit too wide.

But if Jesus’ own allegories are of any use to us here, it actually does end well.  Let’s switch to the metaphor of the wedding feast: It doesn’t end how the invited guests were expecting it to, no; but a wedding feast of all the ‘worst’ people, collected from the highways and the byways, having a jolly good time bathing in the fountains of grace, well, that is a happy ending.

Part of the challenge of the so-called white man’s privilege, in so far as it exists in our parishes today, is that we have managed to construct a world were we no longer have to be uncomfortable if we don’t want to be.  We’re always in control of the situation and of the conversation. That’s not an option for people of colour; or for the poorly educated and underemployed; or for our LGBTQ members; or for people who have the wrong accent.  They can never truly relax among us, never truly feel at home, because at some point we well-educated, well-resourced, properly-connected straight folk who call all the shots and never spit on the pavement are eventually going to say or do something that makes it clear that, well, when it comes right down to it, you’re not really one of us.  We just tolerate you.  (When we feel like it.)

In the beginning God created Adam and Eve, right?  Well, yes, but no.  In the second of our Creation myths, the Genesis chapter 2 version, God first only created Adam.  There was a time when it was only Adam; no Eve.  And Adam without Eve is socially uncategorical: Adam is just human, nothing more; without another human with which to compare there is no duality, no gender, no race, no status.  There is just the human and the Creator. This is who we are, before any labels are applied to us, before any boundaries are erected.

Who is the uninvited guest for whom we must now find a chair at our table?  Does their category bother you?  Their social label?  Because, believe me gentle reader, their type doesn’t bother God any more or less than your type does!

It will likely never end, this holy discomfort, this Christian dis-ease, as over and over again we discover the wideness of God’s grace.  Thanks be to God!


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