When inviting people to come to church, I sometimes hear: “I can’t go to church; I’m too big a sinner.” This is like saying, “I can’t go to the hospital; I’m too sick.” It’s not that people don’t want forgiveness as much as they dislike feeling out of place in church, the one place on earth everyone should feel at home. Or perhaps deep down they fear if they do go to church and feel welcome and accepted, they might feel compelled to conform, if not convert, to a new way of life.
To counter this, people naturally feel drawn to join groups or clubs of like-minded people who they hope will accept them just as they are. Pity this isn’t how they feel in many churches, for ideally, Christian faith should offer everyone an authentic identity as precious sons and daughters of God in a community of brothers and sisters.
In the Gospels, we see Jesus doing just that: going to the margins of society, to the sinner and outcast, the sick and the poor, and accepting people where they are, without preconditions, and making them family. “For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:50). So when did we become such strangers to one another—and to God?
The first thing God asks humans in the Bible is, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). It’s not as if God doesn’t already know where we are. Rather, this question highlights the truth that because of guilt, we feel far from God, who is always looking for us, even when we, like Adam, try to hide because of our sin. Even after expelling them from Eden, God continues to seek his exiled children. Over and over again, the Bible recounts tales of God seeking out wayward humans, and humans repeatedly rejecting God.
Biblical accounts of banishment, exile, wandering and exodus underscore the basic human condition of alienation. We don’t feel like we belong—anywhere. Like strangers in a strange land, we yearn for some paradise lost long before we were born. But are we ever really lost? Or is that sense of being far from God (who is everywhere) just the illusion of alienation caused by sin?
Over the centuries humans have come up with more and more elaborate rituals to try to restore the relationship with the God who never went away. Sin blinds us to the truth that there is absolutely nothing we can do to make God stop loving us.
The Incarnation is the coming forth of God to be with us in our self-imposed exile. While the Crucifixion is humanity’s ultimate “No!” to God, the Resurrection is God’s eternal “Yes!” to us. Salvation is the blessed realization that we belong to God and to one another. Our sense of alienation evaporates when we accept that God really loves us.
Featured Image: The Bible reminds us that even when we feel lost and alone, God never leaves us. (S. Sprague/Guatemala)