His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him...
Last year, a friend new to Christian faith had a devastating week, with some difficult things happening. They told me that they didn't feel worthy to come to church that weekend. Today I'm thinking about that comment and our attitudes about "worthiness."
My first thought was theological. Many people have heard stories of God that convince them that at their core, they are not worthy of God's love. We sing songs like this, right?
I'm so unworthy, but still you love me...
Yes, it's absolutely true that grace is unmerited favor. And it's also true that while we still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
But the good news is that in Jesus, people who have been treated without love, respect, and dignity are indeed full of worth in God's eyes. Therefore, they are worthy of care. Of relationship. Of rescuing. That even includes ones who have done wrong! We might feel unworthy, but if we are indeed unworthy, then God would not have found it fitting to send Christ for a worthless world. We see it in Jesus. Jesus, who died for the unrighteous. Jesus, who died to break cycles of sin and violence and destruction (even death). And Jesus, who was killed for proclaiming that he had come to bring the Lord's favor to the poor and broken spirited. He died because he proclaimed that we were all worthy of God's love and goodness and grace, since God was the one distributing it (rather than the powerful religious people). That's radical enough to get a guy crucified.
So, simply saying we're unworthy of God's love doesn't hold up to the full story of Good News. God has declared worth over our feelings of unworth. So we live as beloved children, full of gratitude, and trusting in the value God has shown us we have.
But a few days after that conversation, I realized that my friend wasn't really aware of all of that. Not much Bible knowledge (or baggage!) yet, very little Christian background. So why did they feel unworthy to go to church?
Oh, Lord. What if this wasn't a theological issue? What if it's an ecclesiological one? (google it)
It struck me that maybe their hesitance wasn't nearly as much about God as it was about the people of God. What if our church was the source of those insecure feelings?
I keep thinking that it should be easier to get a handle on this. But then I'm reminded that authenticity is a process that takes a lifetime to learn. It's so easy for church to look like a collection of people with neat and tidy lives. It's almost effortless to give off a smile that, though well-meaning, communicates to others that they are the only ones in the crowd really struggling. And when we do that, before we know it, people start feeling like they aren't worthy enough to come to church.
It's one of the reasons that we started incorporating lament into our common prayers every week. It's because the Church needs to learn to be a community of heartbroken and hopeful. The Church needs to learn to express ourselves as both discouraged and joyous. The Church is an eclectic collection of lives, sometimes getting it right, often getting it wrong, learning to throw ourselves on the grace of God and grow in the character of Jesus, week after week. In honesty.
It's a community where none of us feel like we are worthy, and yet we all are. Because we are all looking to Jesus to walk us toward healing and reconciliation in messy and sometimes painful lives.
Can we be people who never make another feel unworthy? Can we be people so joyfully aware of our own redemption in God and so lovingly aware of others' immeasurable value, that it becomes completely unnecessary for anyone to feel unworthy of love and community? Can we get our theology right so that we can get our ecclesiology right?
Yes, we can. And when we are, we are the beautiful and broken body of Christ. We are the unworthy-feeling-yet-made-worthy-by-love family of God. That's a vision that would bring to me to church any day.
Jesus, keep me aware of my own worth and the worth of my neighbor. Help me create places of grace-filled welcome today.
(*also we don't go to church-- we are church, but that's a different TFG)