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In her sermon last month, Pastor Kristen Livingston recounted a scene of kids at a pool party running toward some bubbles and watermelon that had just been set out on the table. The kids needed no welcome to exuberantly blow bubbles and devour the watermelon.
Those two items on the table were invitation enough.
During our Cohort Detroit visioning meeting this summer, Mama T’s 6-year-old grandson ate an entire 5×7 tupperware full of watermelon. He just kept coming back, and back, and back, all smiling and sticky.
A recent plunge into the book of Galatians makes me wonder if our churches should be more like an open-hearted picnic, complete with bubbles and watermelon. We tend to function instead like a fenced piece of private property.
I don’t mean we follow the “attractional” church-planting philosophy of early this century, filled with alluring welcome bags, taco trucks, and Starbucks cold brew on tap. Rather, we take seriously the message of Galatians 2: that all who God loves, belong.
Galatians 2 reminds us that this belonging does not rest most fundamentally on our works or even on our beliefs but rather on Christ’s loving embrace. And in a faith founded on God’s grace, why aren’t our churches more like bubbles and watermelon?
One of the most uncomfortable church realities is that we don’t want to invite our friends there, let alone the neighbors we hardly know. When taco-truck guests come back for the fourth time, they’re often met with the immediate request to believe in order to belong, and sooner rather than later.
But what if belonging was not preceded by belief? What if, as NT Wright persuasively argues in his new Galatians commentary, God’s faithfulness makes our belief a footnote?
A cover-to-cover reading of the gospel, emerging from God’s unconditional covenant-making with Abraham and elaborated in Paul’s Galatians confrontation with Peter over the exclusion of those who broke Jewish customs, makes us ponder: if belonging is based fundamentally on the work of Jesus Christ, then we are invited into a community which we do not own, we do not get to control, and we cannot fence.
We don’t—after all—even belong entirely to ourselves (Galatians 2:20).
I’ve heard the phrase “defend the gospel” and “stand up for the gospel” dozens of times this summer. These may be good-faith echoes gleaned from Philippians 1:16, 1 Peter 3:15, and Galatians 1, though these passages seem to wage their defense of the gospel against those who (respectively) have failed to love well, found no hope in suffering, or were actively excluding supposed law-breakers from their community.
If the gospel is fundamentally rooted in Christ’s welcome into belonging, does it need our defense?
God — our God who welcomed even Judas to the table — knows that denying belonging can exclude us more often than it excludes anyone else.
Cole Arthur Riley, author and leader of the Black Liturgies project, says it well:
“If you are the hands of exclusion for long enough, you learn acceptance only at the hands of someone else’s exile. You learn belonging as competition, not restoration. It is also a kind of restlessness, for the energy you expend forbidding others to walk through the door of community is only matched by the energy you expend competing to stay inside yourself. This is maybe more dangerous; no one ever perceives the doorkeeper as needing an invitation themselves.”
The apostle Paul — as prickly as he could be– most often presented a gospel of watermelon and bubbles to those who were shamed outside of the church’s four walls. And if the “truth of the gospel” rooted in belonging sounds messy, then we say together: welcome to the Kingdom of God, where messiness may remind us of why our unity transcends our own beliefs and practices.
The truth of the gospel is not all watermelons and bubbles, of course. A friend in Detroit who leads a justice tour often notes that when he asks white people what their favorite scripture is, many, say “John 3:16.” When he — a Black Detroiter — reflects on the same question, the justice-restoring horsemen of the apocalypse come to mind. So, not exactly watermelon or bubbles. And, did Mama T’s grandson wake up with a big stomach ache the next day? Did the Old Testament prophets bring bubble blowers as they called for the demise of the corrupt?
And the Christians fighting for the truth of the gospel this summer don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to removing the bubble blowers from the table. We are all loudest about the thing we have just learned. For those who have discovered since George Floyd, since Donald Trump, since the last UN Climate report, that the gospel has so often been twisted, we are inclined toward spewing brimstone and fire if that will get the job done.
We enter into this complexity, asking questions about grace and belonging, restoration and wholeness. We belong, and perhaps our work of faith is figuring out just what that means. Over the next three weeks through these blog posts, I will be journeying through this beautiful conundrum of grace and belonging alongside you.