Narrow Gate Exchange interacts with a lot of different kinds of people. We have students that come from all over the world including a diverse array of countries in Africa, different island nations, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America. We have volunteers that come from all across the United States as well. Everyone that interact with the Exchange has their own background, their own culture, and their own opinions. So how do we navigate that difference? How does the church respond to the diversity that we see in our world? I think a good first step is to take a look at the throne room of God. Revelation 4 and 7 give us a decent idea of the throne room – there are thrones for God and Jesus, there are thrones for the twenty-four elders, there are some pretty crazy beasts roaming around, and then there is the church. The church is so large that the Bible doesn’t even want to start to number them and they come from every tribe, every nation, and every tongue. And everyone is worshiping God and the Lamb. I don’t know what that does to you, but for me, it gives me goose bumps. What a sight to see as we are all collectively, in unison, worshiping the God of the universe! But it also provides me some context that challenges me a bit. Again, perhaps you don’t do this, but when I picture the throne room with everyone worshiping God, they are all worshiping in the way that I worship, they are worshiping God in the way that I believe is the right way to worship, and if I am being completely honest, they all pretty much look the way that I do. Everyone looks basically like me, acts the same way, positions their hands the way that I do, and adopts the same posture that I would…for eternity.
But that’s not how the throne room works, nor is that how the church works. The throne room is diverse – more diverse than any city in the world. There is a road in Amsterdam where I have been told that there is a different nationality in each house for something like 100 houses in a row. And that pales in comparison to the diversity that we will see in Heaven. There will be people on their knees in silence, there will be people with their hands outstretched screaming at the top of their lungs, there will be people beating drums, and others waving flags and dancing. There will also be those that are still, contemplative, and silent. And the amazing thing is that no one will care that others are worshiping in a different way than they are. Somehow it will all mix into a beautiful harmony that brings praise to God. In Heaven, that will be easy. There is no prejudice to worry about, there is no jealousy, or hardened hearts hindering the expression of difference. There is no hierarchy established that says that one person’s method of worship is better than the other. But on this earth, at this time, it is harder. All of those aspects that won’t be in Heaven exist here on this earth. We have our opinions of how worship should look and we tend to think our particular brand is the best road to take. But I am starting to learn something about life – proximity breeds empathy. When we start surrounding ourselves with people that are different, regardless of if we like them, dislike them, or even knew they existed, we start hearing and experiencing their story. And their perspective begins to interact with our own. It is a problem we see on social media as we are so quick to blast someone’s post or declare our opinion with capital letters or exclamation points. I wonder if we would have as much energy, anger, potential hatred, or disgust if we were in each other’s presence. Would we say the same things to a person online if he or she was sitting across the coffee table? If we actually heard each other’s story and where we were coming from I bet we might gain a bit more of the picture that God intended for his throne room.
Because while proximity breeds empathy, so too does relationship breed love. And as God desires that His Kingdom, His throne room would not just be in Heaven, but also on this earth, right now, we quickly realize that the end goal is for every tribe, every nation, and every tongue to worship God in harmony within its vast diversity together right here, right now. I think it is why Jesus took His disciplines to and through Samaria a couple times. He purposefully went to a people group that were bitter enemies of the Jews. A people to which Jews saw as sub-human to a point where their lives did not hold value. Jesus’ disciples would have been brought up with the understanding that these people didn’t matter and in fact, they were the source of all problems, they were the butt of every joke, and they could be ignored. But as Jesus was talking with the woman at the well, He was also introducing His disciples to a people group that they knew about, but had never interacted with. He brought the proximity for the disciples directly to them so that they could encounter a people that were “different” than themselves. And then He asked them to think about their thoughts and opinions of who different people really were and how they lived.
It is why Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan – a typical Rabbinical process of storytelling. Where you have some people that didn’t do it right – in this case the Levite and Priest. And then the hero of the day, the Pharisee in most cases, would come and show the right way to live. But instead, Jesus puts a marginalized, oppressed character that held no value to the audience into the limelight. And we see the Samaritan as the hero for the story. But that is not Jesus’ primary point. What was the question that the scribe asked that prompted the parable? And who is my neighbor? And what is Jesus’ answer? Who is your neighbor – the very person that you despise and hate with every bone in your body and have been taught to avoid? That is your neighbor whom you should love. So, who is our neighbor? It is the person we hate, for sure. But it is also the person that isn’t like us, that didn’t have the same background as us, or whose culture is different than our own. Our neighbor is the person that we disagree with socially, politically, religiously, or personally. Our neighbor is the throne room of God.
We have to figure out where the Church works in all of this. Something else I am learning looks at our definition and model of Church in twenty-first century America. To me, it doesn’t look a lot like the first century church. A church is not a building, but as Acts puts it – the church is a collection of people. We are the church and four walls does not have the ability to contain the power, opportunity, or call that they church has in our world today. I don’t think that church is something we go to on Sundays, but instead, church is something we do six days a week and then we have our Sabbath, our day of rest. Church is in session with every interaction, with every individual that you might come across during your day. Church is to be Isaiah 58 and 61 – we are to be the relief to those in bondage, we are to be the light to those that are sick or in need, we are to be the resource for those needing clothes, food, and shelter. The building isn’t the church, the pastor isn’t the church, WE are the church. And Jesus is telling us that there are people in our path that need our help. There are people within our grasp that need physical, emotional, and spiritual comfort, and we are those instruments. That it is up to us to make the throne room of God a little more diverse, a little more crowded, and a lot more Christ-like. Narrow Gate Exchange interacts with a lot of different people – let’s join hands together, embrace the difference, and be the Church that God calls us to be.