My church, having just sold its building in response to a call from God to “walk out to walk on” is in the middle of a conversation about how to be Church in a radically new way. We want to bring the kingdom of God to bear on the society in which we find ourselves, but to do it in a way that, while retaining the things God has built into us over the years, does not seek to hold on to any of the external trappings of what we have created, of the church we have built perhaps in our own image rather than looking like the Body of Christ. That conversation is ongoing, and we are still at the place of having buried the seed of the past without knowing exactly what the harvest will look like which springs up in its place.
Jesus had a few specifics in mind when He dreamed of what His church would be. The details, He left to us to fill in, with cultural variations and allowances for differences of temperament. But there were a few non-negotiables.
One was that it would be a body of people with the power to bind or to loose certain things in heaven and on earth. (Matthew 18. 18) This can be interpreted in different ways, and certainly it refers to our authority in a spiritual realm. But I think it also has much to do with our interactions with each other, coming, as it does, in the middle of a passage where Jesus sets out how we are to forgive and reconcile our differences.
In particular, I wonder do we loose, or release, the disabled members of our churches? Do we set them free to be everything God has called them to be? Do we give them permission to be our teachers, our pastors, our soul-deep friends? Or do we bind and restrict them? Do we hold them back, keep them in their place and expect too little of them? Could it be that in placing restrictions on people here on earth in our churches we are binding them in some heavenly sense, hindering them from developing spiritually into all that God intended when He created them?
Secondly, Jesus made it clear that reaching out to disabled people and drawing them in to be part of the church was an essential element of the Great Commission which He left as a mandate for the church to fulfil. In Luke 14. 16-24 He gave an analogy of the Church as a banquet to which all are invited, but not all are willing to come. The invitation is rejected by the landed gentry, the respected businessmen, the young and attractive, but accepted by those who cannot see or walk, in order, said Jesus “that my house may be full”. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization estimates that between 90% and 95% of disabled people die without ever getting to hear the Gospel; and yet Jesus says that without them His house is not full. Surely, whatever church looks like, it has to be intentional about inviting disabled people to play their full part.
But perhaps the most radical thing we could do in shaping the church is to take note of Jesus’ words in Luke 9.48. I travel to quite a few churches these days, speaking about disability. The churches who invite us are great churches, keen to be more pro-active in fully integrating disabled people into all aspects of church life. But there’s something I’ve noticed about most of the churches I encounter (actually most of the churches I’ve ever had anything to do with, including the one I’m a part of and the ones I grew up in).
There’s a kind of unspoken understanding that the people who matter in church are the bishop/priest/minister/pastor or whatever the person exercising oversight is called in any given denomination. Then come the lay members who are really committed, the eldership or diaconate, those who volunteer to run the church’s activities or take on lay pastoral roles such as visiting ill or elderly members. Next in importance are the busy people, those with families, who don’t contribute so much because of other commitments, but nevertheless are loyal and turn up most weeks on Sunday. And the ones who are given least weight are the ones who are seen as contributing nothing – maybe homeless people who wander in looking for warmth on a wintry Sunday morning, addicts or those whose lives are chaotic, refugees who haven’t yet learned the language, and people with profound learning disabilities.
But in Luke 9.48 Jesus says these words: “It is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” I wonder how church would look if we really took that seriously? If the ones who are relegated to having the least say in church life were put at the centre, with their needs, gifts, vision and ideas seen as the crucial focus around which we design how we do church?
We see Jesus do this again and again – He abandons a busy schedule to touch a leper whom no one else will touch. He breaks off in mid-stride to come over and speak to a blind beggar whom everyone else is shushing. He sees his disciples squabbling and selects a small child as the example of the kind of spirit they should display (in a culture where no one pays any attention at all to the opinions or actions of children). He strikes up a conversation with a woman who is alone because no one else will associate with her, and confides in her the information that He is the Messiah, before He has made this revelation to anyone else. He interrupts a ministry trip with his disciples to extend compassion to a widowed mother whose only son has died, at a time when widows are the lowest in the social pecking order.
The pattern is so striking and so often repeated that it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Jesus really meant what he said in a very literal sense – that those who are considered to be the least among us are, for Him, the greatest ones in the Kingdom, the ones who become central to all that God wants to bring about in the world. I wonder how our churches would look if we used that as our model?