Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hospital Church

It is a wonderful metaphor - the church as hospital.

Jesus used it, or a version of it, Himself when He responded to those who criticized Him for dining with tax collecters and other "sinners." He said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick."

This image is popular in today's church. We preach inclusiveness, welcome, open doors. One of my former churches invested a lot in the slogan "Come as you are." It is a critical message to get the word out that our churches are open to all folks and that nobody has to "clean up their act" before they can come into the sanctuary. Jesus stands with open arms, much as a waiting doctor.

There is a poem that is hot on YouTube and Facebook right now called "Jesus>Religion." Like many commentators I have seen, I like a lot of it and am put off by part of it, primarily by the use of the word "religion" as a synonym for false religion, hypocrisy, and abuse. Of course Jesus is against those things, and of course those things exist; but to assert or imply that all religion is false and abusive and/or that all churches are pharisaical and hypocritical is, despite the (well-meaning) stated intent of the poet, the height of judgmentalism. All religion is not the same, and all churches are not the same. Even churches with some of the problems isolated by the poet are largely good, doing great work, and trying hard to follow Jesus.

While I do not often quote many reformed theologians in this blog, Kevin DeYoung's analysis of the poem (which includes a link to the poem, in case you want to watch the video) is very well-taken, and I recommend it to you. You can find it here.

I want to focus on just one little part of what DeYoung says: the part about hospital church. The poet, Jefferson Bethke, has a line that says this: "Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean. It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken." Pastor DeYoung comments on this line: "[W]e have to remember that the purpose of a hospital is to help sick people get better. I’m sure Bethke would agree with that. But there is no indication in this poem that the grace that forgives is also the grace that transforms."

I think DeYoung is right on, and I think his point is one where many churches fall down. "Come as you are" is the invitation, but if it not coupled with "but don't leave the same way," then the church is not doing its job. Jesus explained the doctor metaphor by immediately shifting to more familiar church words: "I have not come to call the righeous, but sinners." He surely came to sinners not so they could continue the same but instead so they would "go their way and sin no more."

Grace accepts and forgives, but as DeYoung so astutely puts it, grace also transforms. Those who have truly been with Jesus are different, immediately.

Skeptical Thomas said that he would not believe that Christ had risen unless Jesus would agree to jump through some hoops, to allow Thomas to touch the nail holes and put his hand into the wounded side. When Thomas soon saw Jesus, Jesus even offered to let Thomas do that, but those silly rules and cynical requirements melted. The gospel says nothing about Thomas' actually touching Jesus; being in His presence was enough. He saw Jesus, and he responded with those words of the healed: "My Lord and My God."

Jacob became Israel and walked differently. Saul became Paul and lived differently. Grace came to them as they were but did not leave them that way.

Sandy Patty and Larnelle Harris sang, "I've just seen Jesus, and I'll never be the same again."

Church can and must be a hospital, a place where sick people get better. We are all sick, and we all need to get better, for we all fall short of the glory of God.

Let's welcome everyone. Let's open our doors as wide as possible. Let's buy some more billboards that say "Come as you are." But for God's sake, let's let Doctor Jesus work on those who take us up on the invitation. Let's be the nurses and the orderlies and the technicians. Let's help people change, get better, be healed, be transformed.

Let's expect the gospel to be true.

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