When I was a boy, my father made me a treehouse in a pecan tree behind the house trailer where we lived.
One summer a blue jay built a nest in the tree and I would climb up and check on the status of the new tenants. I watched the new arrivals develop from eggs until they took wing.
I had no problems sharing the tree with the birds, but I was selfish about the treehouse when it came to sharing it with other people.
My father never gave me a deed to the place but when he wasn’t around I acted as though it belonged to me. Girls were not allowed, especially girls with doll paraphernalia and tea party stuff.
The floor of the treehouse was reserved for things my trucks, a sling shot, B.B. gun, and my G.I. Joe, (which is really just a man doll with army clothes, which I know is a blasphemous thing to say). With all that, you’d think I was defending my treehouse against the Nazis.
In my selfish eight-year-old mind that treehouse belonged to me and I guarded it closely.
Even though I didn’t know it at the time, at eight years of age I could identify with the ancient Hebrews, whom God chose to give The Promised Land, sometimes called the Holy Land, which is modern-day Israel.
Because God had given the land to them, they developed some exclusive feelings toward any other people that came into their space, and still do.
The Jewish faith is one of the greatest religions of the world and it has a storied history. Some would say that the people of Jewish lineage have a religious heritage unequaled by modern or ancient religions.
Since Abraham, the temptation has been to think the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a God of exclusiveness.
Yet even from the beginning, God, who made all people in His image, wanted a broad tent. He chose the Jewish people to make sure the tent was widely cast. Even though there was an initial campaign to get rid of the people in the Promised Land as they conquered it, there is also this command by God to Moses:
“’Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” Exodus 19:5
Many heard, “You will be my treasured possession.” Unfortunately, many of the Hebrews did not hear, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Remember, the role of a priest was to be a mediator between God and the people. Israel had a unique role to play, to be a holy nation and to introduce the world to a holy God.
But they heard the first part about being a treasured possession but they really didn’t hear the second part about their important role as priests.
Are any of you ever guilty of hearing what you want to hear and filtering out the rest? O.K., husbands, wives, parents, children, please don’t look at each other. I’m talking about your relationship with God at the moment, not with each other.
Israel heard the first part about being a treasured possession and that was a good thing so they became religious, but they did not hear the second part about their unique role so they became religiously exclusive and that’s a bad thing.
As we are in relationship with God, what do we hear?
My wife and I were visiting friends in another city last weekend. They invited one of their friends over to join us, a woman we had never met. As we enjoyed our meal, the conversation turned to church. Imagine that? It often happens when a minister is present.
However, this woman wasn’t trying to appease us. She was genuine. In fact, we were on another subject which lead to her church story.
We knew about how her church split many years ago and she was telling us of the pain that it had caused as it had actually split families. She said the church was finally recovering and they were consumed with building a multi-million-dollar facility. That’s one way Baptists recover from relationship issues; we build something.
She said some members of the church were calling every member to contribute and one man had phoned her 27 times. She said, “I saw him in the store the other day and he didn’t even speak. You’d think that someone who had called me 27 times to ask me for money would have at least recognized me in the store.”
Then she said, “They have asked all of us to call eight people to invite them to return to church. I was with a group of church ladies the other day and one of them asked me if I had phoned my eight and I said I had. One of them wanted to know who I had phoned. So I ran down my list.
When I gave her my final name she said, “Oh, no. We don’t want him. He’s not welcome at our church.”
And I asked, “what do you mean he’s not welcome? He grew up in this church and he is a personal friend of mine.”
She said, “I just mean that people like him are not welcome here. We don’t need him.”
And I asked her, “Well, are we going to put a set of scales at the front door to determine who gets in and who doesn’t?”
The Jews became a very religious people. They were known for their festivals where they honored and remembered what God had done for them.
A sacrificial system was established which required a priest to receive their sacrifices in order to forgive the people of their sins on behalf of God.
The greatest of all their festivals was the Passover, which commemorated their liberation as slaves from Egypt during the reign of the Pharaohs under the leadership of Moses.
While these ceremonies were an important part of their religion, it wasn’t religion God was looking for. God was looking for changed hearts. God was looking for right living. Proverbs 21:3 says, “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.”
By the time Israel had broken apart into two kingdoms, the prophet Amos said on behalf of God,
21 I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
23Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-23)
It’s not religion that God is looking for. It’s changed hearts. It’s right living. Now if right living turns into religious activity that helps us connect with God, then all the better.
However, if there is a disconnect between our religion and the way we are treating others, then we have a huge problem.
One way that problem typically shows up is that we become religiously exclusive.
Our faith becomes a club and only those that speak the club language or know someone in the club gets a special invitation to join. People can sense, they can feel, they know whether or not you genuinely want them to be a part of your church.
If I were to ask you if we are religiously exclusive, most would say “no.” “Everybody’s welcome here,” you say.
But there is a difference in not being opposed to someone coming in the front door and sitting down and worshiping with us and actually taking the initiative to find that person during the week, developing a relationship with that person so that he or she knows you care about them. Then they know you worship a whosoever God and they will think it’s likely that’s the kind of church you attend.
If we want to be a John 3:16 church and embrace “whosoever,” we have to be intentional about it.
Look, we should be as clear and plain as possible about Jesus’ call to discipleship. However, before people accept a call to follow Jesus, they must first feel accepted by us.
This does not mean that we have to condone or embrace someone’s belief system or lifestyle anymore than Jesus believed or embraced the choices made by the woman caught in adultery. Yet he loved her, accepted her and refused to condemn her while challenging her to live without sin. Every one of us has to remember that God once loved us before we gave our lives to him as well.
On the day of Pentecost, God’s love was poured out on Jewish people from many nations with the gift of His Holy Spirit and they heard one another speak in each other’s language.
In addition, the Gentiles who had become God-fearers, people that did not have any Jewish heritage, received the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but the women who were there received the Holy Spirit with no less equity than the men.
The Gift of God’s Spirit was radically inclusive and Peter, perhaps just from his memory, quoted the prophet Joel in an attempt to give some meaning to what was happening.
He said to the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
So Peter makes it clear who this gospel is for. This gospel is for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. This is not an exclusive club. This is the “Whosoever Club.”
By our actions which tree are we?
Are we more like my boyhood treehouse, exclusive, where we claim ownership to everything in the church and tradition, afraid that strangers are going to come in and rearrange our stuff and change things around?
Or by our actions would you say that we want to see the Spirit of God poured out on everyone that comes, realizing that we have no exclusive claim on God’s Spirit? The Spirit of God blows where it will.
Do we reach beyond our circles to find the lost, the hurting, the grieving, those that need a friend, and welcome them? Can they come to our fellowship and feel God’s Spirit among us? Can they come and feel as welcomed as an old friend?
A church that begins with “Whosoever” is happy when someone sits in the seat you usually sit in on Sunday. A church that begins with “Whosoever” is invites people to attend church with them. While we should celebrate tradition, a “whosoever” church is more concerned about people coming to know Jesus than about protecting the church’s tradition.
Before we can be a whosoever church, we have to be whosoever individuals. We have to lay prejudices aside. We have to believe that Jesus is more important than politics, race, ethnicity, sports, economics, and family.
I realize that our church is not a fit for every person. No church is. However, it is not our job to judge who fits here and who doesn’t. Our job is to be the church Jesus called us to be. If we do that, more people will fit here than we think.
I assure you, people get a feeling about the kind of people we are even before they pull up in the parking lot and most have made up their minds before I ever preach.
If they are in relationship with you they have already formed an opinion about the rest of us. They already know something about this church because of you. Most importantly, they should already know something about Jesus.
If the entire church were judged based on you and your presentation, would we be a “whosoever church”?
If the Christian faith were judged based on you, would it be inclusive, merciful, and kind?
For sure, the gospel of Jesus is a whoever gospel. I didn’t say that the gospel was a “whatever” gospel, that people can do and say and believe whatever and God is pleased. That should be obvious from just a casual reading of the Bible. We are a people called to obedience and discipleship.
But a part of our obedience and our discipleship is to reach out to the whosoevers of this world.
“For God so loved the world that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
Praise God, I am one of those redeemed whosoevers. How about you? If you need to be included in God’s family, as a representative of the gospel I invite you to come receive Jesus today. If you want to be a part of our church family, we will gladly receive you into our imperfect but loving family. Join us on our quest to not just be religious but to do what is right and just.