There’s a popular story in the Gospel of Mark where a paralytic man (whom I’m going to call ‘Jim’) is carried by four people to meet Christ. Jesus was quite a popular preacher, which isn’t really that surprising. He was so popular that the house He was preaching in was completely packed, and the crowd couldn’t, or wouldn’t, let Jim and his friends get through. So Jim’s friends take him up to the roof, where they proceeded to tear the roof off. Or at least, enough to lower Jim down to Christ. Jesus sees the faith of Jim’s friends and forgives his sins and heals him of his paralysis. It’s a powerful story found in Mark 2:1-12.
This story is often preached exhorting the faith of friends and family who tirelessly carry people to Jesus. And that point is true. Many people have come to a relationship with Christ because of the tireless efforts of friends and family. I have, and will again, preach that point.
But I can’t help but wonder if there’s something else the church needs to hear out of this passage:
Sometimes the church stops people from meeting Christ
Jim was paralyzed, and we’re not sure why. But we do know that there was a prevalent [enough] thought that misfortune was some form of God’s judgement. Either Jim had made the mistake, or his parents had. In either case, if Jim wasn’t going to make the effort to be on time, he didn’t deserve a front row seat.
Now, no church in America would willfully prevent someone in a wheelchair from attending. But I think some churches can keep people out with sideways glances and uncomfortable seat shifting. Most times I think it’s unintentional, but sometimes it’s on purpose.
If you change Jim’s paralysis for alcoholism, for example, you can suddenly see where the tension changes. We can write him off saying ‘he’s too drunk to remember the sermon from church’, and not want him there. We worry they may make a scene, like cussing, vomiting, or any other disruptive behavior. Churches can, intentionally or not, keep people out with our ‘stained glass walls’.
Here’s what I mean by ‘stained glass wall’. Every church wants to have a ‘sacred atmosphere’; they want to be respectful of God’s presence. So some wear slacks and ties or dresses, out of respect for God. People are on better behavior at church than they might have been last night, out of respect for God. And those aren’t necessarily bad things. But then some churches begin to expect others to wear the same clothing, and behave like they do. And anyone who threatens those behaviors threatens the sacred atmosphere isn’t necessarily welcome.
Jim was a challenge to that atmosphere. His “obvious” sinfulness meant that he would disrupt this otherwise sacred moment. So Jim wasn’t welcomed into the presence of Christ, because of those same ‘stained glass walls’.
So Jim’s friends tore a hole in the stained glass.
I think churches can benefit from this lesson. No, I’m not saying you need to remove your pews and stained glass windows. But we shouldn’t let that ‘sacred atmosphere’ trump people coming to Christ. Churches need to break down those sacred barriers between the community and God.
My church is a well established social institution in the town I live in. There’s a long history there. That history can be a great thing. It can also be a bad thing. Many people don’t feel welcome. Most times it’s over misunderstandings. Occasionally I hear legitimate criticisms. In either case, the result is that people are barred from coming to Christ.
What would it look like if the church would tear down the barriers that separate church from the community? What would it look like to have Bible studies in the local bar to show people that the church isn’t ignoring them? What would it look like for the church to partner with the local library to offer life skill classes like budgeting and healthy nutrition?
What if, two by two, people from the church went out to build relationships with the community, tearing down those barriers that have built up over time?
Slowly but surely, the church could be the ones to carry Jim to the foot of Christ.
Remember, I love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.