Is religion an exclusive club?
Do you like cookies? I love a nice soft cookie filled with nuts and chocolate. Oh, and it has to be gluten-free. My husband prefers shortbread, crispy and buttered and filled with gluten. Our girls have their own preferences. I remember when my eldest was about five years old, she went through a phase of only one type of cookie and nothing else could satisfy her.
I’m sure if we were to do a survey in my local church to find the best cookie, I would get a wide range of responses. Now imagine if I suggested that this poll would be used to identify a winning cookie. This star of a sweet treat would be separated from the competition and elevated above all other cookies. “One cookie to rule them all.” We would make this winner the only cookie allowed to be brought to church luncheons and gatherings.
There would be outrage. How dare we make this cookie an exclusive sweet treat? What about all the other bits of delight? Is there no place for them on the church lunch table? Don’t they belong anymore?
Let’s face it, I’m a bit dumb, but I wanted to talk about belonging and one of the by-products that sometimes attaches to belonging: exclusivity.
Have you ever thought that in our desire to belong, to be accepted, we can put up some rather exclusive barriers? The more criteria that cement our place and our identity in this group, the higher the walls of exclusivity can rise. Consider for a moment membership in any club. There is usually a set of terms that you need to agree on before signing up. It can create a strong sense of belonging, camaraderie. However, if you deviate from these conditions, you will most likely be expelled. This is what can make clubs exclusive.
The Religion Club
Religion has been called an exclusive club. Considering the people you gather each Sabbath, do you agree that your place of worship (your religion) is exclusive?
Go further. Do you believe that God is exclusive?
How you answer this question will define not only your view of God, but more importantly how you treat those who are not quite like you.
Let’s take a brief look at someone who could not belong to God’s people, someone who had experienced religious exclusion under a law found in Deuteronomy 23:1. The NIV states, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting can enter into the assembly of the Lord. The CEV says it even more clearly: “If a man’s private parts have been crushed or cut off, he cannot fully belong to the people of the Eternal.
Let’s identify the type of excluded person in Deuteronomy 23:1. It refers to a eunuch, right? So, according to the scriptures, a eunuch cannot fully belong. He is excluded from the people of God. However, in Acts 8:26-40 we find a rather interesting story about a eunuch who visited Jerusalem.
In his home country, this eunuch is a legal officer in charge of all of Queen Candace’s treasury. The eunuch is a “someone” in his country. One thing we cannot escape in this passage is that he is a eunuch, although his name is never revealed. Instead, he is simply called the eunuch five times. Now, in case I was not clear enough, this eunuch who has no name, who cannot belong to the people of God according to Deuteronomy 23:1, came to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 8:27 ).
Do you see the tension in this story? The original listeners would have felt it. What is he (the eunuch) doing there? He’s not one of us; he is different. His customs, culture, dress, masculinity are all different, and “our law” states that he (as a eunuch) is not welcome among our people.
But what about God? We must ask ourselves the question: does God exclude the eunuch? Does he feel the same about who can and cannot belong?
We have often seen the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as a beautiful account of conversion and baptism. I invite you today to see this story from a different angle. Look and you will see an image of God. His love is on display as he pursues this eunuch and welcomes him into his family, giving him a place to belong.
Do you see how God sends Philip to the place where he can cross paths with the eunuch (Acts 8:26)? Then watch carefully as God commands Philip to join the chariot. He starts running. I don’t know how fast he can go, but he chases the chariot and overtakes it (Acts 8:29).
This eunuch is reading the scroll of Isaiah. Perhaps he seeks to understand and discover, Who is God? We do not know what questions went through the eunuch’s heart, only that he sought to understand the scriptures. God’s answer is to send Philip. As Philip shares the good news of Jesus (Acts 8:35), the eunuch asks an important question about membership in God’s family, a place of belonging.
“What prevents me from being baptized? ” He asked. Pause here and consider: Do you see an obstacle that prevents baptism? Does God? Acts 8:35 gives us an answer. The chariot is stopped and the eunuch is adopted into the family of God.
This beautiful passage is more than a beautiful story of baptism. It is a picture of God’s heart of love for every person. No matter who they are, He pursues and invites even those who may, at first glance, seem too different to really belong.
God invites everyone to come. He loves everyone, the whole world, says John 3:16, and Jesus chose to die for every person, yes, even those who are not like me.
The eunuch was not accepted by the Jewish religious system. But he came looking for it anyway.
And that concerns me today. If someone else entered where my local church meets weekly, what would they find? Would they find a group of people saying, “Are you looking for Jesus?” Come sit down, you’ve come to the right place. Tell me your story.
Recently I read this quote from Bob Goff: “We shouldn’t say everyone is invited if we’re going to act like they’re not welcome when they come.”
This is a wake up call statement. Have you felt its impact? We encourage people to invite their friends over on Saturday (Sabbath), but if when they arrive we ignore them and exclude them because we have nothing in common or they are just too different, that’s a problem. The truth is, interacting with new people can be difficult. We have to work harder and our comfort zone is just out of reach. It’s so much easier to talk and interact with people I know who are like me. But is this what we are called to?
We must honestly ask ourselves for whom we could exclude the death of Jesus. Moreover, we should ask ourselves if we have the right to do so.
In Matthew 7:7, 8 we read how those who ask, seek, and knock will receive, find, and the door will be opened. Serious seekers will not be rejected by God, because that is what God is. He is a God of love, who pursues all men. He has launched an invitation to all and awaits our response.
Our God is not exclusive. It breaks down barriers and gives us a family, a place to belong.
Maybe we need to see that God’s family was never meant to be just shortbread cookies. It includes chocolate chip, double fudge, macadamia, gluten-free, vegan, and dotted (that’s one thing). Perhaps, rather than building barriers that exclude dissent, we need to set bigger tables for all those cookies to create a wonderful platter of deliciousness.
the original version of this comment was posted by Adventist Registry. Sylvia Mendez is Director of Women’s and Family Ministries at the Australian Union Conference and pastor of Bayles and Berwick Adventist Churches in Victoria.