Jesus went to extraordinary lengths to show his love and care for every kind of person. He regularly shocked the respectable people around him by the way in which he gave time to prostitutes, tax-collectors, children and lepers. He wasn't merely friendly to them but actually spent time in their homes and chose to eat and drink with them. No wonder he got such a bad reputation with the respectable people!
The Church of Jesus Christ has the clear and straightforward responsibility of walking in Jesus' footsteps. Our task is to help people to meet Jesus and we will do that as we reflect his life and love. So the most crucial question of all is this – Are our churches truly welcoming every kind of person? This is so fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus that we need to take the question with intense seriousness, and to spend time in our leaders' meeting and church meetings reflecting on it.
First of all we need to acknowledge that this is a hard path. It is in every respect easier to spend time with people who are like us, than to reach out to people who are completely different from us. It is a simple truth that birds of a feather flock together. But this is not the language of Jesus' Good News which seeks to embrace all, whatever their background or circumstances.
It is always healthy for a church to receive the honest reflections of visitors. And I do mean honest! We can easily be so polite to one another that we never hear the truth. But the fact is that many of our churches are very friendly communities for those who are a part of them ... but as cold as icebergs for those who haven't learnt the language or understood our ways. The smug satisfaction of some churches could be easily swept away by the loving (hopefully) comments of an outsider.
Steve Chalke's recent article "A Matter of Integrity" has highlighted the importance of churches welcoming homosexual people. This is a Gospel issue and it is important to have this conversation. However the range of views about homosexuality, even amongst Evangelicals, is so wide that this is not an easy conversation to have. However, my prime concern is that we make it consistently clear that as churches that follow in the path of Jesus we will always be extending love and care to everyone, whatever their sexual orientation.
It is undoubtedly the case that churches have generally been perceived to be homophobic. Homosexual people have not felt welcome. I am absolutely sure that that is not what Jesus would want, and it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to make sure that that is not the case. The Good News of Jesus is either Good News for everyone – or it is not Good News.
Jesus' welcome never implied that he was endorsing the views or life-style of those he met. Indeed everyone without exception was invited to go on a journey. For some it meant a clean break with their old life as in the case of Zacchaeus and Matthew. For others it meant facing up to searching questions about their life style as we see with the Rich Young Ruler. For everyone there was a journey of discipleship ahead.
Amidst the heat of debate about these issues I pray that we will not lose sight of our two crucial responsibilities – to welcome everyone, and to invite them all to journey with us in the footsteps of Jesus.