If someone were to describe me to you, they would most certainly include, if they were being truthful, the fact that I am overweight. I’m about 60 pounds overweight. I know that I need to correct this now if I’m to have a good quality of life in my retirement years so I am working hard to lose that weight. I know I can’t do it alone. I’m going to need lots of encouragement and help. I’m going to have to change the way I think and do things. However the one thing I won’t do is join a gym. Why?!!!! Because I would feel like I was being judged by the skinny, fit people there. I’d suspect the sincerity of anyone who said an encouraging word and I’d feel embarrassed asking for help with the equipment. Most of all, I’d see judgement and disgust in the eyes of the fit people around me as I struggle with learning to be a healthier, skinnier me. Now I know that most of these things are a projection of my own thoughts and feelings onto the strangers around me. But there are fit people out there who hate me or at least my inactive lifestyle and feel I deserve their scorn and I’d most certainly run into more than one of them at the gym in the time it takes me to lose enough to camouflage myself as one of them.
That’s the way non-church people see church people. They feel judged from the moment they walk in the door. They suspect the sincerity of anyone who greeted them and would feel embarrassed to ask anyone to explain the churchy concepts they are unfamiliar with. They know we know they don’t belong and feel targeted by stares of curiosity or disgust at their “unchristian-like” (read “unchurchy”) fashion style and mannerisms. Now like my gym argument, most of that is a projection of their own thoughts and feelings on “church people.” And like my gym argument, there are plenty of church people who hate non-church people’s lifestyles, choices, and general unchurchiness, even while they are self-righteously “loving the sinner.” In the U.S. that’s what non-church people understand the Church to be. Even if they stuck it out and learned to use the churchy terms and eventually blended in, they still wouldn’t feel like they belong. How and when did the Church start being perceive as this elitist club?
Yesterday was Pentecost—the birthday of the Church. Over two thousand years ago, a small group of Jews shared their experience of Jesus with others. Wanting what they had, those others from all over the world joined them. Sometimes, I think that the Church of the first century was less like the Church of today and more like Alcoholic Anonymous. Rarely will you meet a more welcoming, supportive group anywhere—they know how to disciple. What is discipling but helping someone with less experience learn and grow. In AA, people lean on each other and support each other. A person on his first day of sobriety is just as loved and accepted without prejudice as one on his two hundredth day. And a person on his two hundredth day is seen just as vulnerable to temptation as someone on his first day because they are all acutely aware that no matter how many days sobriety they have, every one of them are alcoholics and it only takes one drink to undo it all. And it doesn’t matter to the group if it’s your first Day 1 of sobriety or your 5th Day 1 of sobriety—they welcome and support you as you work towards Day 2.
The original disciples weren’t theologians. They weren’t any different than the common people who came to worship in the Temple that day except that they had an encounter with Jesus. And with the Holy Spirit, they had the courage and ability to share that experience. Then those 3000 from around the world, who were baptized and who received the Holy Spirit that day went out to share their experience with their friends and family. That’s what discipling is. Sharing your experience of Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit and passing on what God has taught you in your faith journey with those around you.