The first Bible verse I learned by heart was John 3:16. You know that one: "For God so loved the church and people who look like me that God gave..." No, - that's not the way it goes. It's, "God so loved the world..." Why do we in the church need to keep learning this lesson? Why do we need to be forever reminded that we are not the exclusive recipients of God's love in Christ, that Christ came to save not only us but all, that the boundaries of God's kingdom do not end within the confines of our congregation?
In Jesus' first sermon in Luke 4, Jesus reminded the congregation of God's mercy toward outsiders in the past - like Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17) and Elisha's healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5). And I would remind you that the congregation hated him for it. To believe that God's love goes beyond the boundaries of the church, beyond the confines of my friends and myself, well, it's disarming.
In Luke 7 a powerful man asks Jesus for help. He's not a prominent person, he is a Roman, Gentile army officer, a centurion (in charge of at least a hundred soldiers): surely one of the most despised people in town. The Romans have their heel upon the neck of Judea. Though this man was prominent and powerful, he has also learned his powerlessness when it comes to the most important matters in life. His servant, for whom he cares deeply, is ill. Though the man is a master, he knows that he is no master over his beloved servant's illness. So he sends emissaries to Jesus asking for Jesus to help. It is interesting that the man doesn't come to Jesus himself. The man doesn't come because he feels that he is unworthy.
Amazing! This powerful man doesn't consider himself worthy to go to Jesus. Even when Jesus comes to him, the centurion sends out people to say, "Jesus, don't come to my house. I'm unworthy! Just say the word and heal my servant; that's all I ask." And Jesus turns to the crowd, those who were tagging along behind him, his closest friends, and says in amazement, "Even in Israel I haven't found faith like this." And the suffering servant was healed, without Jesus even saying the word, "Be healed!"
Throughout his ministry, Jesus has been calling forth faith wherever he went saying things like, "Believe that God's kingdom has come near to you" and "Trust that my way is the way of God." And after all of Jesus' teaching, healing, and preaching, Jesus says that he is amazed at having found more faith in the words of this Gentile, army officer, outsider than among his own followers.
Imagine how it must have felt that day to be a disciple, one of the inner circle of Jesus. How did it feel to have sacrificed much, to have left family and friends to hit the road with Jesus, to share in his trials and tribulations only to be told by amazed Jesus that this despicable Gentile overlord whose people have caused such suffering and oppression among your people knew more of what Jesus was about than you? It couldn't have felt good.
Sometimes the church gathers to celebrate itself and its salvation, focusing narrowly inward building a wall around itself so that no one else is able to gain entrance. We constantly need reminding that the church exists not for those on the inside but for those on the outside. The gracious Lord who has come to us, who gathers us here, refuses to rest content with us. And sometimes - let's be honest - It's rather painful to be reminded by the words and actions of Jesus, that Christ is not content to be Lord of the church, best friends with us and our friends. There are times when Jesus is not amazed so much by the perception and obedience of his disciples as he is by the faith of an outsider.
If we are open and humble enough, Jesus will give us the grace to see faith in the lives and words of outsiders greater than the faith of those of us on the inside. The outsider, in the hands of Jesus, becomes our teacher. We grow in our faith not by sitting around and talking only to those on the inside, but we are led to faith by those on the outside.
I confess that most of this article has been an insider talking to a bunch of insiders. Maybe it's time of those of us insiders to receive some godly revelation from an outsider. Let's find ways to get out there and engage folks different from us who may just be able to deliver a message of faith we need to hear. What a wonderful thing that can be! I think Jesus is telling us that we should eagerly welcome outsiders (though we often are content to simply judge them and shut them out). Jesus suggests that we need their questions, their different perspectives on things, even their faith about how God has worked in their lives. Welcoming them among us just might alert us to the good news that Jesus is still busy reclaiming the world.