Would you go to the church on the corner knowing that the pastor is an ex-con? What about the congregation three streets over, where the pastor is prone to lying? You know which one. The pastor at the store-front church who’s always questioning the truth about what the Gospels say about Jesus? What about bad language? If the new pastor has a potty-mouth, would you still regularly attend church? What if he’s kind of a thug too? Who’d want to attend a church knowing the pastor’s temper might flare up at the smallest disturbance of the worship service?
What if you know the co-pastors at the church behind the strip mall are going through anger management counseling? Would you recommend to someone searching for a home church that they take their questions to those two? What if you learned later that they often prayed God would annihilate people who wouldn’t invite them in for dinner? What would you say to family and friends then?
Then there’s the church planters who moved into town less than a year ago. Before he became a Christian, the senior pastor used his position as an IRS auditor to extort money from people. The assistant pastor, also a convert, funneled money to a MiddleEastern terrorist group before going to seminary. Both were bad men. They lived immoral lives, and hung out with really bad people. But, again, that was before they converted.
Would you attend any of these churches, knowing what you do about the personal histories of these pastors? What if you learned they were hand-picked by Jesus? What if they had names like Peter, James, John, Matthew and Simon?
God, in his faithful, loving, kindness takes all our presuppositions about what makes a “good Christian”, piles them up in a heap, and smashes them into a million little pieces with the cross of Christ. Jesus exchanges our halos for a crown of thorns. And when we complain about “pastoral qualifications,” like holiness, righteousness, and obedience to God’s commands, he shows us his nails pierced hands. When we say, “I’d never go to that church,” he reminds us, “From my pierced side the water and the blood flowed, which make the Church.”
You can’t leash God’s faithful, loving, kindness. He loves the unlovable. He forgives the unforgivable. He overwhelms the unsympathetic with a flood of kindness. God pursues horrible sinners into their messes and leads them out the other side, declared righteous and holy in Christ alone through faith. The kind of people we’d rather weed out than allow into our churches, let alone stand in a pulpit. The same disciples, rough edges and all, whom Jesus calls and sends out in His Spirit to preach the life-giving Gospel promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation to all people who cling to Christ.
God’s grace in Christ isn’t tidy. It doesn’t clean up well. It’s not well-behaved. It doesn’t conform to our expectations. Worst of all, for those who’d prefer the Ten Commandments be used to determine pastoral qualifications, the men Jesus calls to announce the good news of the kingdom are always unqualified. They’re not chosen for their faithfulness or good behavior.
The people Christ sends into churches are chosen because there’s nothing about them that draws peoples’ attention away from Jesus. They’re cowards, scum, jerks, deadbeats, murderers, all sorts of riffraff. They’re chosen for their lack of good graces. From their stuttering, stumbling speaking, God’s grace will ring loud and true to all people: “This is who you are, unforgivable, unlovable sinner. But, now, you don’t have to be afraid anymore. Be at peace. Behold, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Your faithful, loving, and kind Savior who restores you all to a right relationship with God, your loving Father today and forever.”
Then again, why would you want to attend a church like that?
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.