Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”
If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.”
The comedian Groucho Marx, in resigning from a club that he learned did not accept Jewish members, memorably stated: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” The line, despite its humor, has never lost its poignancy as it reflects a deep truth about our common human nature. The same truth is reflected, in a very horrific way, as we read of the extreme hazing rituals of many college fraternities, resulting too often and as recently as at Penn State, in the death of the pledge or initiate. In the case of Groucho, he is humorously reacting to and rejecting a human tendency of which the hazing is the most extreme example. We want to glorify ourselves by making admission to “our clubs” burdensome and exclusive. We want to deny our own ordinariness and our own weakness and make ourselves special by asserting the exclusivity and elitism of our associations.
As we continue to read in Acts of the seminal debate about the nature of the early Church, we are reminded that the Church is not an exclusive and identity-reinforcing club. It is rather the ecclesia, the gathering, of those who recognize that they are “saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus.” The key to admission is not a special gift or strength but recognition of one’s sinfulness. The invitation is not exclusive and privileged but universal. Its bonds lie in our realization that we are ordinary and that we are already one because the love of God for each of us is common to all.
My memories of my earliest experiences of “church,” and of the early catechesis I received in Sunday school, are of an emphasis on difference and exclusivity. For me, who came from parents of different religious traditions, this was always a dissonant experience. We were told stories about the others who were always described as somewhat ill-willed. There was at best about them a certain willful ignorance and at worst a hidden malevolence. Of course, this was a mistrust and suspicion that was mutual. Yet, I knew in the experience of my family that this was not the case. All the members of my family, the Catholics, the Protestants, and the unbelievers were persons I knew and loved, persons I at times depended on and appreciated and at other times resented and feared. Although unable to understand it at the time, in retrospect I can see that often we speak not of our faith traditions as paths to wisdom and God but rather as exclusive clubs to which, somehow and rather perversely, we see ourselves as worthy of admission.
Is perhaps this the reason that so often religious gatherings and the daily attitudes of religious people exude so little joy? If we see ourselves a having to be worthy of membership through a superior sense of morality, or wisdom, or even being chosen, then our membership in the club is inherently burdensome. If our belonging is based on a lie about our own specialness and superiority, then we bear the burden of keeping the lie alive. The only possible reason for excluding persons from the ecclesia has to be the fear that arises in us from seeing ourselves in them. If they, who are “public” sinners are allowed into the club, it will be apparent to the world that we are like them. At that point, all that is left to all of us is to rejoice in the truth that we are all, all of us together, sinners who are saved by the grace, the merciful love of God as given to us through Jesus.
Many years ago a very fine person, who happened to be a Roman Catholic priest, spoke to me of how heavy the liturgical vestments felt to him as he prepared to celebrate mass each morning. The weight of the vestments lay in the ideal and false way he felt perceived by the members of the congregation because he was a priest. He felt as a burden, knowing himself truly and humbly, that he would be placed not only “in front of” but “above” the other members of the congregation. Theology of the priesthood aside, there is deep life in this person’s experience. The very horrors of the clergy sexual abuse crisis occurred, in part, because mere mortals, ordinary and common human beings, allowed themselves to be given and began to believe the special status conferred upon them. Those we make gods or angels we shall finally make demons.
The first crisis of the Church was not merely one of demographics. It was profoundly existential. As Pope Francis writes, “Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone.” That proclamation, however, is not proselytization. it is a manifestation of the joy of being loved for no reason other than who we are, and it is an invitation to share all together that joy. There is a story told about St. John of God and how he was told by authorities to close his hospital because it was a refuge for the dross and the sinners of the city. His response was, “I know of no sinner in this hospital except myself.” The Church is not an exclusive club. It is not merely for those who are exceptional, but is rather the gathering of those who rejoice in the love of God they share in common as the ordinary persons they are.
Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #15