One of the highlights of my summer was a week in France with my son, Ed. On the way back to London we stopped for 24 hours in Paris where we decided to go to a service at Notre Dame. We arrived just in time for evening Mass – a new experience for both of us.
We squeezed through the crowds into the church and made our way towards the front, only to be confronted by a rope that divided the congregants from the throng of tourists. We hesitated, wondering whether we were permitted to enter. It seemed like the hundreds of people already sitting, waiting for the service to begin, knew something we didn’t about how you were meant to get in! On another occasion we may have given up and slipped away but – maybe emboldened by a refreshing holiday – we dipped under the rope and quickly found some spare seats.
Of course, it is not only world famous churches like Notre Dame that can be guilty of making it hard for interested outsiders to experience the spiritual life of their community. Many different churches do it, normally unaware of the subliminal messages they are sending out. I am quite sure that ChristChurch London is no exception!
We would do well to take a leaf out of Jesus’ book. He did not operate with an ‘only certain people can come closer’ approach. Rather his circles were open to anyone who wanted to access them.
One of the most famous examples of this is Matthew’s party (Matthew 9:9-13). Matthew would have been deeply unpopular. He was a tax collector; someone who worked for the occupying forces and had become wealthy on the back of his fellow countryman’s hardship. And yet he was also someone Jesus invited to become part of his inner circle.
The first thing that Matthew did was throw a party to which he invited all his friends. The rest of Jesus’ disciples were surprised that Jesus was so relaxed with this crowd. The guests, like their host, were the wrong sort of people: most of them had a thoroughly questionable status in the public eye. Many of them were banned from worship in the temple. Not the sort of people you would expect to be interested in Jesus.
Jesus response was to welcome everyone. It seems that involvement in Jesus’ circle was not based so much about mental assent to creeds or formulas but a desire to get to know Him. If someone wanted to pursue a relationship with him, they were welcome. There was no rope across the door, only allowing access for the informed. Access was open for everyone.
I think we would do well to remember Matthew’s Party as we develop a community of faith in the heart of London.
This focus on relationship is healthy because it reminds us that faith is, in the end, a matter of the heart. If someone wants to explore the Christian faith or follow God they should always be welcome. Nobody should hesitate or wonder whether they are allowed to be part of the community.
Taking this approach means we can all grow together in our spiritual journey, whether we have been Christians for many years or whether we are just beginning to explore spiritual matters. Despite our differences, we all share one common challenge: to identify the next step for us as individuals in our spiritual journey and to work out what to do about it. It is this common goal that enables us to form a community that reflects the open and inclusive nature of the people that Jesus gathered around himself.
This does not neglect the fact that all of us are at different places. In reality Jesus’ followers formed a variety of concentric circles around him. Some were very small and others included crowds of thousands of interested enquirers. Few of these circles seemed fixed though, and there was a fluid movement of people into different circles as time went on.
The closer people came to Jesus, the more he asked of them. He challenged people to be honest about their questions and the hurdles they faced, and where necessary he encouraged them to ask others for help. There were watershed moments along the way. Jesus did not side step these challenges, but he created a context that helped people make the right choices: an accepting community with a common goal of exploring faith together.
Creating this sort of community requires some understanding from those who have been around for a while. We should be careful not to make assumptions about where others are at on the journey. Some will be spiritual explorers; sceptics and seekers who are not settled in terms of their convictions. To welcome people like this is to respect their opinions and their stories and to not assume that they see the world in the same way as others. As we do this we will enjoy journeying together, allowing the Holy Spirit to change each of our lives as we grow in faith.
After the service at Notre Dame, Ed and I made our way over the bridge onto the Left Bank and found somewhere to eat. We enjoyed food and wine prepared as only Parisians seem able to do. We laughed and reflected on the last week. We were reminded of the great feast to come when people from every background will gather to worship, and we talked about how we can build communities that do not use ropes to keep people out but rather make it as easy as possible for people to taste the goodness of the Kingdom that Jesus came to create.