Rewriting Belonging

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The hymn “All Are Welcome in This Place” warms the hearts of parishioners on many a Sunday. Yet we must ask if it truly reflects the reality of our local church or if God is calling us to break out of old wineskins to allow the Spirit to rewrite what “belonging” means in our midst.

Biblical and extra-biblical accounts portray historical communities of Jesus-followers as ones in which people of all ethnicities, social classes, and cultures shared the table, encouraged and cared for one another, reordered their economies, and gained the favor of their neighbors (Acts 2:42-47).

These things did not come easily, of course. Some leaders demanded that newcomers submit to Jewish traditions and religious practices. Some operated within the ruling patronage paradigm, buying favor and the best seats at the table.

Yet many Christians resisted imposing such cultural filters, and some faithful followers gave sacrificially toward a communal economy in which no one’s needs went unmet.

Those church leaders, who saw the need to open the doors wider than they might naturally do, were reading themselves into a story far larger than themselves, a story that spans from creation to re-creation.

For starters, many of them had witnessed Jesus’ outrageous embrace of outsiders—touching lepers, affirming women, healing the son of the Roman enemy, walking through despised Samaria.

Or perhaps they remembered that embarrassing day toward the end of Jesus’ ministry when he tossed the tables of the temple merchants. The issue was not business itself, but two interconnected problems: the how and the where.

First, business was most likely not being conducted ethically. Sellers were overcharging the poor pilgrims who had come from afar and were forced to pay jacked-up prices for their temple offerings. Second, and just as importantly, by allowing trade to take place in the temple’s outer court—the area designed to welcome foreigners into God’s temple—the leaders deprived Gentiles of access to worship and belonging. Jesus’ anger was directed specifically at the pious religious leaders who should have been guaranteeing that business be fair and the temple be open to all nations. Instead, they were benefiting from the unjust arrangements.

When Jesus declared, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Mark 11:17), he was citing Hebrew scripture familiar to his listeners:

Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord
    to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants, ...
these I will bring to my holy mountain
    and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
    a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:6-7).

Jesus was harkening back to the law that made provision for the welcome and livelihood of foreigners, widows, and orphans as special recipients of God’s favor. In so doing, he embedded himself and his followers in a story that had begun far before their time.

In his teaching and his actions, Jesus’ first followers heard echoes of the ancient Hebrew law, which included ethical demands in relation to people outside their inner circle. Jesus’ way demanded guaranteeing the care of the people rendered vulnerable by the society of the day (Lev. 23:22). It demanded setting aside discrimination and offering a wholehearted welcome to diverse people (Lev. 19:33). It demanded conducting honest business and enacting just economic practices (Lev. 19:35). Following Jesus’ way demanded ensuring equal rights and responsibilities in the new community to all people, regardless of one’s place of birth or one’s socioeconomic, ethnic, or political status (Lev. 24:22).

Jesus’ first followers were writing themselves into the story of God’s good creation. God had opened up space and filled it with colorful, joyous, beautiful, and diverse forms of life. Through the Law, God made provisions to guarantee the dignity and livelihood of people made vulnerable through loss, deprivation, and human-constructed borders. When the people strayed, faithful prophets told the truth, denouncing false readings of reality and calling Israel back to its mission of living out God’s good purposes for the entire creation. Through his life and teaching, Jesus highlighted the purpose of his time on earth in relation to God’s law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).

When elites of Rome or of the temple valued people according to their ethnicity, social status, or taxable income, Jesus stepped in, boldly and counterculturally, with an alternative story. Within this story, he could not help but clean out the temple! And this is part of the calling Jesus entrusted to his disciples when he was getting ready to hand his ministry over to them:

“‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21).

Same calling, same Spirit—the Spirit of wide embrace, God’s Spirit, who hovered over the waters breathing creation into being. God’s Spirit, who inspired and empowered the prophets of old to tear off religious facades and call God’s people back to their true calling to be a blessing to those outside their borders. God’s Spirit, who anointed Jesus to tell and live the truth of God’s love all the way to the cross, touching the untouchable, uplifting the marginalized, affirming the dignity of those society undervalued. That same Spirit is still in all of Jesus’ followers, yearning to write us into a story of belonging in God’s story of love.

Will we allow the Spirit to break down our prejudices and barriers, be they racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, or ideological? Or do we, as the pagans, worship the gods of success, security, privilege, and entitlement—the ever-hungry gods that dismember our families and communities?

As Reformed Christians, we at least pay lip service to the priesthood of all believers. But might traditions, orders, academic requirements, or prejudices related to gender or ethnicity be depriving members of the body of Christ from living out their callings?

Will we respond to the promptings of the Spirit that urge us to question structures and strictures that keep some people in and some people out, or some as first and others as second class? Will we step out to denounce economic systems that deprive people of the full life God intends? Will we instead become communities of living examples of Christ’s good news through reordered economics and ecological care?

What new modes of being are required so that we, the communities and members and friends of the Christian Reformed Church, may step into this story of God’s expansive and reordering embrace? Into which story are we writing ourselves?

About the Author

Ruth Padilla-DeBorst is a theologian, missiologist, educator, and storyteller, a wife of one and a mother of many. She serves with Resonate Global Mission, leading the Comunidad de Estudios Teológicos Interdisciplinarios.

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