Justice, The Church and Repentance

My dad tells the story of an occasion when he went to preach at another church. He rode out on his motorbike and arrived at the front door in his leathers with his helmet under his arm. A lady greeted him at the door with the immortal line:

“I don’t think we want your sort here.”

When he explained that he was the visiting preacher, she became extremely flustered.

There is an apocryphal story doing the rounds of a pastor who started at a new church. The first Sunday, he disguised himself as a tramp and sat outside.  Congregation members avoided eye contact as they scuttled past. He then went into the church building and removed his disguise before going up to the pulpit and quoting these famous words:

“But when the Son of Man[d] comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations[e] will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,[f] you were doing it to me!’

41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.[g] 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

46 “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.” [1]

My grandma was the member of a local Methodist church for many years. She had moved to Bradford after her husband retired from the forces.  She said that she never truly felt accepted or that she belonged because she wasn’t part of the clique that had grown up locally gone to school together and worked in the same mill.[2] But she didn’t give up and rather made it her responsibility to look out for the newcomers and those on the fringe.  She formed a deep and lasting relationship with a couple of Jamaican ladies and was horrified to hear them referred to by others as “those darkies.”

I’ve heard sad and terrible stories of immigrants coming from the Caribbean to settle and work the UK taking on low paid jobs, struggling to find accommodation and finding notices in the windows of guest houses saying “No blacks” then turning up at church and being treated as little more than servants.

That some of them stuck it out and persevered is a great credit to their faith. That others ended up in their own Black Majority congregations is I believe to our shame. To be sure, there were challenges such as cultural differences towards time keeping, music, preaching styles etc but could we really not overcome them.  Is it just possible that we have hid behind that excuse for too long.

Did we miss the opportunity to share the Gospel effectively with Pakistani immigrants and so allowed Islam to gain a foothold in this country because we imbibed the mood of suspicion and fear from the prevailing culture?

I believe that recent immigration has given us another chance to do things differently. God has been gracious and it is encouraging to see churches seeking to cross cultures and be multi-cultural. However, I also believe that there is a place for repenting and saying “We got it badly wrong.”

[1] Matthew 25:31-46.

[2] Evidence that working class people are not always the victims of exclusion but sometimes the perpetrators.