John talks about a church where anyone is welcome, regardless of situation or circumstance.
The story of the woman caught in adultery, described in John 8:1, intrigues me where it demonstrates the incredible mercy of Jesus. Here was a woman caught in a sexual act and then literally paraded before Jesus, the Pharisees and a small crowd of onlookers. It is not difficult to imagine the scene. She was hurried, bustled, dishevelled and half naked as she was dragged along to Jesus.
The Pharisees that bought her had been ‘witnesses’ so as to bring a cast-iron case before Jesus. In the scramble she had perhaps grabbed a blanket and was clutching it to her front, as depicted in paintings of this scene, whilst her sexual partner was allowed to slip away. So it looks like the whole thing was a set up. It is not hard to imagine the leering, lustful look in the eye of the teachers, the Pharisees, nor their smugness and bleak cruelty as they dragged this woman before the curiosity of the gawping crowd who were secretly rather enjoying it, to the utter humiliation of the woman.
It is one thing to be caught in the act of fornicating, but surely another to immediately come face to face with Jesus. He doesn’t argue with her accusers, rather they slowly evaporate, until he is left with the woman on her own. “Where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” he asks. But her accusers have gone, and in that place of her vulnerability says, “Then neither do I condemn you.” This is the punch line, full of the breathtaking confidence and authority of Jesus.
This story reminds us that “God did not come into the world to condemn the world” (John 3), rather, he came on a rescuing mission. What Jesus is saying is ‘Come as you are.’ Caught in the act of adultery? Well come as you are. Half naked? Come as you are. However, Jesus does not leave it at that, and tells the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Jesus is saying very articulately in this story, in his words, in his whole attitude, and in this whole scenario: come as you are, but don’t stay as you are.
St Paul would describe it as a church where we “Accept one another” (Rom 15. 7). What he means here is very similar to when a child falls over (splat!), emits a scream and is picked up and cuddled by mummy. The meaning of the Greek word here is to take to one’s self in the same manner as the mum with her child. And what he is saying is that Christ at some point in your life found you sprawled, probably screaming, and picked you up and took you to himself. Jesus welcomes you, accepts, reaches out and embraces you. So we as the church welcome, reach out, and embrace you. I want to be a part of a church like that: accepting, welcoming and friendly, no matter what you’ve done.
This is what I am saying: it is OK to have sinned. By that I mean all of us fail, all of us break God’s commands, all of us stumble, all of us fall. We gossip, steal, cheat, lie, break the speed limit, we’re jealous, materialistic, and on and on. It is OK to have sinned, in that God loves us and accepts us. Naturally, it is wise to repent. However, it is not OK to be hypocritical or judgmental and to look around at other people who join the church with a sort of disdain as though they were a Second Class Christian. There’s no such thing, and by the way, there are no First Class Christians either.
This embracing of people is what I love about the church, but it goes broader than just dealing with peoples’ past sins. It is everything about you that Cod says is OK. We Christians sometimes have a difficulty realising that. Belonging to Jesus and belonging to the church, and really the two are interchangeable, means that it is all right to be you.
It is OK to smoke, and it is OK to not smoke. “Hang on! What on earth do you mean by that?” Whilst it is perfectly true that you might not be able to smoke in your church building because of lease regulations and the like, it is perfectly OK to smoke. You might say that Christians aren’t supposed to smoke. But tell me where it says in the Bible “Benson and Hedges are sinful!” If the Lord tells you not to smoke, then don’t smoke. If you smoke and the Lord hasn’t told you not to smoke, then smoke. So, in that sense, it is OK to smoke. We Christians get hung up over little things, and in doing so put a huge placard up to people that says, ‘DON’T COME IN HERE-WE’RE CHRISTIANS! In the same way, you are welcome if you are single, married, divorced, a single mother or an unmarried mother.
So often we compare ourselves to other people and say, “I’m not that,” or, “I’m not this.” Yet, Jesus says that you are accepted. It is OK if you are English, if you are Scots, if you drink beer, if you don’t, if you have an accent and if you don’t. It is OK if you have a BMW or a rusty old Ford Escort. My thinking is that if God gives you a BMW, enjoy it. Likewise, if God gives you a rusty old Ford Escort, God bless you. I think it becomes a problem if the owner of the BMW then begins to disparage the owner of the rusty old Ford as it pulls into the church carpark, or if the owner of the escort is jealous of the owner of the R-reg BMW.
Now, on the subject of healing, I want you to know that it is OK to be sick, it is OK to be healed, and it is OK not to be healed. First, it is OK to be sick. By that I mean you are welcome here if you are on long-term prescription drugs, or if you’re having chemotherapy for a tumour, or you’ve had a series of miscarriages. If you’re bronchitic, or if you’ re childless, or if other parts of you aren’t functioning in the way they are meant to: nevertheless you are welcome.
Secondly, it’s OK to be healed. Whilst some Christians say that God doesn’t heal, I have seen lots of people healed. And I also want to underline that it is totally OK if you are not healed. Some people can be quite anxious that they should be healed if prayed for in the Vineyard. If God heals you that is wonderful and we love you, but, if God does not heal you, we still love you.
Last summer, I personally ran into a brick wall emotionally and in terms of energy. I had had a difficult year for a number of reasons, and in the early summer I did my back in and was on my mattress in a lot of pain. Come early July I just had no energy. I love pastoring a church, but I couldn’t preach to save my life, I had no energy for the church, and, to be honest, it really frightened me because that has never happened to me before. Eleanor and I took a couple of months off over the summer, just to recover and hear from the Lord again. During the course of that time off I went to my GP who diagnosed me as having a mild clinical depression. It is OK to be taking anti-depressants regardless of any stigma our culture may put on mental illness.
I’ve been to a bereavement counsellor, I’ve had Valium, I’ve had anti-depressants, I’ve had prayer and I’ve read the Psalms. I recommend all five of them – all in their own way extremely helpful. At the end of the day, all these things come from God. In the same way, a Victorian invented the sewage system that we all benefit from, but it was God’s idea, and God who decided to reveal it to the Victorian, regardless of whether that Victorian was a Christian, a pagan, or a Buddhist.
It might be that some of us are never healed of our emotional, physical, psychological or spiritual problems, and that too is OK. Personally speaking, as a product of a boarding school education, I am somewhat damaged in the area of emotional expression unlike my wife, Eleanor. I am still getting mended on this one, having come as I am, but not staying as I am. I may go to heaven only partially healed, but that is OK. Some of you will go with your illnesses to heaven, perhaps only partially healed. In the same way, if you have got children who have given you a lot of hassle, it might be that you go to heaven with that pain. Some of you have got dreadful marriages and there is the possibility that you will go to heaven with a dreadful marriage. Yet, all these things are OK as the grace of God is sufficient.
What I am trying to do here is expose the stigma that sometimes we carry around in the church. We allow these assumptions to so often make our acceptance of people, not exactly conditional, but reserved. What I am talking about is letting the grace of God penetrate every aspect of your life, and with it people will feel welcome to come in.