Part 3: Reaching for the “Unclean”
When you find yourself paralyzed or plagued by the shame of your past, or the pain you have caused, the Gospel is there to remind you that there is a deeper work that has been done. When the enemy reminds and accuses us by saying “Look at what you have done” Jesus shouts in return a resounding “Look at what I have done!” You may never get over the guilt and shame, the wounds and hurts you have either caused or experienced but Jesus provided everything you need to move on in your story and send the enemy packing! “It is Finished” means It is finished. Your sins are remembered no more!
Wether you are well known or nobody knows anything about you. Many people, when they have been “found out,” begin to live isolated and ashamed inside the consequences of their self-inflicted wounds.
The greatest gift the church can give to former ministers is to treat them, not as those who once preached in front of a congregation, but as those who stand with them now at the foot of the cross. The preachers become those preached to—by the very ones to whom they ministered. Sheep become shepherds to the former shepherd. This is admittedly a challenge, but a challenge that rests at the heart of the Gospel itself. For the Gospel knows no gradations of sin, no categories of clergy and lay, no scales of fat and skinny wrongs. All the Gospel knows is Jesus crucified and risen for everyone. As in the parable that Jesus told, everyone gets paid the same, whether they worked in the vineyard all day long or only an hour, whether they harvested two grapes or two thousand, whether they led a work crew or took a smoke break every half hour. The owner of the vineyard, out of his mercy, writes everyone the same paycheck, signed with the blood of Jesus. It’s the paycheck of unearned, undeserved love for all in the vineyard, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. In that way, grace is karma’s worst nightmare: we get the very opposite of what we deserve.
If the church truly wants to stand apart from the world, it will stand alongside those who have been disgraced. It will risk being falsely attacked as “soft on sin” because it knows how hard life is when guilt and shame are one’s only companions. Rather than shooting its wounded, it will pick them up and carry them to safety, to rehab, to repentance, to whatever it takes to make them whole again. While the world drinks itself drunk on outrage of every kind, the church will exercise outrageous grace and scandalous mercy that doggedly refuses to give up on those ensnared by evil. In other words, the church will be exactly the kind of church Jesus established. Not a gym for spiritual muscle flexing but a triage for the wounded, where moral insurance isn’t checked at the door, but all are welcome and treated, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.
When a leper approached Jesus to ask for healing, our Lord did an astonishing thing: before he spoke, before he healed, before anything else, “he stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matthew 8:3). He touched the untouchable. Solidarity with the unclean preceded anything else. That’s the church’s calling. Before we preach, before we teach, before we do anything else, we stretch out our hands and touch the sinner. Embrace the outcast. Put skin in the game of mercy. By doing that, we open up incredible opportunities for healing. Healing not only for the one wounded, but also for the community as a whole. A church that is built on the reality of grace and forgiveness for everyone (even the most disgraced Christian), is also a community that experiences its own healing when it embraces rather than ostracizes fallen leaders. The medicine of mercy works both ways, for the giver and the receiver. It heals individuals and community. The church, in forgiving others, experiences the power of that forgiveness in its own life. It sees in the face of the one who is disgraced the image of itself. A fellow member of the same body of Christ who is gasping for the rare mercy of unconditional love. And when that love is expressed, rather than leaving the community with less grace, it fills the church with more.