Inclusivity: is religion an exclusive club?

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Do you like biscuits? I love a nice, chewy cookie filled with nuts and chocolate. Oh, and it has to be gluten free. My husband prefers shortbreads, crispy and buttery and filled with gluten. Our girls have their own preferences. I recall when my eldest was about five she went through an Arnott’s Tic Toc biscuit phase and nothing else would satisfy.

I am certain if we were to do a survey at my local church to discover the best biscuit I would receive a diverse range of responses. Now imagine if I was to suggest that this poll would be used to identify a winning biscuit. This star of a sweet treat would be separated from the competition and elevated above all other biscuits. “One biscuit to rule them all.” We would make this winner the only biscuit allowed to be brought to church lunches and gatherings.

There would be outrage. How dare we make this one biscuit the exclusive sweet treat. What about all the other morsels of deliciousness? Is there no place for them on the table at church lunch? Do they no longer belong?

Let’s face it, I am being a little silly, but I wanted to talk about belonging and one of the by-products that sometimes attaches itself to belonging: exclusivity.

Have you ever considered that in our desire to belong, to be accepted, we can set up some rather exclusive barriers? The more criteria that cement our place, our identity in this group, the taller the walls of exclusivity can become. Consider for a moment membership into any club. There are usually a set of conditions you need to agree upon before joining up. This can create a strong sense of belonging, of comradeship. However, if you deviate from these conditions, you will most likely be kicked out. This is what can make clubs exclusive.

Religion has been referred to as an exclusive club.

As you consider the people you gather with each Sabbath, do you agree that your place of worship (your religion) is exclusive?

Let’s take it a step further. Do you believe God is exclusive?

The way you answer that question will not only define how you view God, but most importantly how you treat those who are not quite like you. 

Let’s take a brief glimpse at someone who “couldn’t” belong to God’s people. Someone who had experienced religious exclusion according to a law found in Deuteronomy 23:1. The NIV states, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” The CEV words it even more clearly: “If a man’s private parts have been crushed or cut off, he cannot fully belong to the Lord’s people.”

Let’s identify the type of person excluded in Deuteronomy 23:1. This is referring to a eunuch right? So according to Scripture, a eunuch can’t fully belong. He is excluded from God’s people. Yet, in Acts chapter 8:26-40 we discover a rather interesting story. A story about a eunuch who has been visiting Jerusalem.

In his home this eunuch is a court official in charge of the entire treasury of Queen Candace. The eunuch is a “someone” in his country. Something we can’t escape in this passage is that he is a eunuch and his name is never revealed. Instead, he is just referred to as the eunuch five times. Now in case I haven’t made it clear enough, this eunuch who has no name, who can’t belong to the people of God according to Deuteronomy 23:1, has come to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 8:27).

Do you see the tension in this story? The original hearers would have felt it. What is he (the eunuch) doing there? He is not one of us, he is different. His customs, his culture, his clothes, his masculinity, all different and “our law” states that he (as a eunuch) is not welcome amongst our people. 

But what about God? We must ask the question: does He exclude the eunuch? Does He feel the same way about who can and can’t belong?

We have often looked upon the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as a beautiful conversion and baptism narrative. I would invite you today however, to view this story through a different lens. Look and you will see a picture of God. His love on display as He (God) pursues this eunuch and welcomes him into His family, giving him a place to belong.

Do you see how God sends Philip to the place where he will be able to cross paths with the eunuch (Acts 8:26)?

Then look closely as God instructs Philip to join the chariot. Philip starts running. I don’t know how fast, but he chases the chariot and catches up (Acts 8:29).

This eunuch is reading the scroll of Isaiah. Maybe he is searching to understand, who is God? We don’t know what questions were going through the eunuch’s heart, only that he was seeking to understand the Scriptures. God’s response is to send Philip. As Philip shares the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:35), the eunuch asks an important question that connects to joining God’s family, a place to belong.

 “What is to prevent me from being baptised?” Pause here and consider, do you see any obstacle that prevents baptism? Does God? Acts 8:35 provides us with an answer. The chariot is stopped and the eunuch received adoption into God’s family.

This beautiful passage is more than a nice story about baptism, it’s a picture of God’s heart of love for every person. No matter who they are He pursues, and He invites even those who may on the surface appear too different to really belong.

God invites all to come. He loves everyone, the whole world John 3:16 says, and He chose to die for every person, yes even those who are not like me. 

The eunuch was not accepted by the Jewish religious system. But he came searching anyway.

And this challenges me today. If someone different walked in where my local church gathers each week, what would they find? Would they discover a group of people who say, “Are you looking for Jesus? Come take a seat, you are in the right place. Tell me your story. . .”

Recently I read this quote by Bob Goff: “We shouldn’t say everyone’s invited if we’re going to act like they’re not welcome when they come.” 

It’s a wake-up call statement—did you feel its impact? We encourage people to invite their friends on Sabbath, however if when they arrive we ignore and exclude them because we don’t have anything in common, or they are just too different, this is a problem. The truth is interacting with new people can be difficult. We need to work harder and our comfort zone is pushed just out of reach. It is so much easier to just talk and interact with people I know and who are like me. But is that what we are called to do? 

We need to honestly ask ourselves who might we be excluding that Jesus died for? Further, we should ask ourselves if we have the right to do so. 

In Matthew 7:7,8 we read how for those who ask, seek and knock they will be given, receive and the door will be opened. Earnest seekers will not be turned away from God because this is who God is. He is a God of love, who pursues all people. He has extended an invitation to all and awaits our response. 

Our God is not exclusive, He breaks down barriers and gives us a family, a place to belong.

Maybe we need to see that God’s family was never meant to be just shortbread cookies. It includes choc chip, double fudge, macadamia, gluten free, vegan and spotty dotty (it’s a thing). Maybe rather than building barriers that exclude the different, we need to set out bigger tables for all those biscuits to make a wonderful platter of deliciousness.

Pastor Sylvia Mendez is Women’s and Family Ministries director at the Australian Union Conference and pastor at Bayles and Berwick churches, Victoria.

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