“We’ve never done it that way before.” Any church leader or board who has this as their mantra is on a one way road to death. I know that’s a harsh statement, but sometimes we need eye-opening statements to shake us from our denial about how things are really going. Jesus did not just change people’s lives; he changed the systems that kept people in bondage. If we have no substantive spiritual growth, and no real evangelism occurring, our church system is giving us what it is set up to do.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem and took a whip to the existing system of buying and selling and money-changing, needy people came and filled-in the space where the vendors were. Praise to Jesus by the children could now be heard. Jesus, as he has done so many times before, healed the blind and the lame. The Jewish religious establishment of Jesus’ time forbade anyone who was lame, blind, deaf, or mute from offering a sacrifice at the temple. The picture here is one of needy people streaming to Jesus to be healed so that they can worship God along with everyone else. By engaging in his healing ministry, Jesus was attacking the establishment by making the way clear for all to come to God, which was God’s design for all nations and peoples to do in the first place. Jesus will not tolerate a system that practices profiling based on anything, whether it is age or disability, when it comes to worship. He wants no obstacles to anyone who wants to come to God.
Any time any existing system is challenged, there will be those who push back because they benefit from the way things are. It is a myth to think that when a church changes something, whether it is a new program, cutting an existing one, or introducing different ways of doing worship or ministry that there ought to be 100% acceptance. When the American Revolution began only about 25% of the people believed that a revolution ought to take place. Most were either loyal to Britain or thought fighting wasn’t the way to go. After the revolution, you would be hard pressed to find an American who didn’t rejoice over it. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were incensed and angered by the systemic change Jesus brought. They especially didn’t like the accolades that Jesus received for cleaning house. At its core, the real reason the religious leaders didn’t like it is because it challenged their authority, and they were jealous and envious of the praise Jesus received. They tried to dress up their indignation and hide their intense anger with a question that was designed to point toward the fact that Jesus ought not to be receiving such praise. But Jesus sloughed it off, identifying himself as the promised Messiah.
Jealousy and envy stand in direct opposition to the values of God’s kingdom, which prizes humility and mercy toward others. Proverbs tells us that envy rots the bones (14:30), and the Apostle James tells us that envy and selfish ambition is unspiritual and of the devil and accompanies every evil practice (3:14-16). The real culprit behind the religious establishment’s system, as well as our own conflicts and disagreements is sin. But in order to try and appear better than we are, people often confront another with something that is not the real issue.
Back in the Old Testament, Numbers 12:1 says, “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife.” Miriam and Aaron were the siblings of Moses, and they had a problem with a black woman (Cushites were Africans) being a part of the assembly and of the family and worshiping along with the Israelites. But the very next verse tells what they said to Moses. Instead of coming clean about what their real problem was, they attacked Moses with a different issue which wasn’t the real issue for them: “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” Even the issue they raised was really one of jealousy and envy. They were acting like the chief priests and teachers of the law in Christ’s day, and Moses was a Christ-figure, exhibiting humility and trust through the situation. God acted by making Miriam a leper, a person who would be excluded from the assembly, and left her to ponder how it feels to be treated as Moses’ wife was.
Jesus was all about alleviating any and all obstacles for all people to the worship of God. He cared about it enough to attack a system that fed on obscuring what real sacrifice was, and taking on the establishment that prevented certain persons from coming to God in prayer.
The way for us has been made clear through the death of Jesus. He has removed the old system and replaced it with the new. Hebrews 8:13 says that “By calling this covenant ‘new’, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” What is more, Christ’s death has made us clean, and as white as snow, having purified us from all unrighteousness.
It is not our job to put limits on people on how they might serve or worship God according to race, ethnicity, class, disability, age, or gender. The New Covenant demands it be so. Jesus insists on it. And, so, we ought to be a beacon of hope for all who are coming to God and desire to offer their sacrifice of service or praise to him by eliminating any system or rule or practice which conflicts with Jesus’ ministry.
It is an act of grace to be the voice of the voiceless, to work for change that brings people closer to God. It is the grace of humility that helps us to keep questioning what we do, and don’t do, so that others will be blessed through our church. We must keep exploring the frontiers of church ministry because we do not exist for ourselves. Ego and hunger for power can get left at the door.
May we be like Jesus, and be active and proactive in making the way clear for others to come to God by first having God clean out our own hearts. May the seven deadly words of the church be replaced with a new set of seven life-giving words: “We are always changing to reach people.”