“Love each other as I have loved you…”
– John 13:34b –
I happened to have two young teenage friends with me in Walmart the other day. While I moved around freely between the aisles, one of my young friends in particular seemed very inhibited. She was nervous and wary of our other friend straying too far away from us.
As I scanned shelves of fabric looking for a potential rainbow costume for a children’s song about God’s creation, my anxious young friend piped up again. I don’t think I was looking at her at the moment, but I can only imagine the wide-eyed, sidelong glances she may have been giving our fellow shoppers.
“People at Walmart keep getting stranger and stranger. Have you noticed that?” she asked us.
I held my tongue, but internally, I mulled over her reaction to people in the “outside world” — that is, those beyond her church and homeschool circles.
My sweet young friend suffers from a condition that many Christians seem to have, especially those who identify as conservative. In reality, I’m sure that this condition still lingers in me as well, although more extreme circumstances than a shopping trip might be required to draw it out of me.
This condition is “otherness.”
As a result of sin, humans instinctively withdraw from others who are different from us. Historically, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of dividing lines: ideology, religion, language, education, skin color, social status, clothing choices, geographic boundaries, gender, intelligence, or political view, to name a few.
All of these differences reinforce to us the “otherness” of those around us. They are so different, so very strange. We stay back because…well, why would we move toward them? Why would we want to? Estranged by their cultural leanings, the way they dress, or the number of tattoos marking their arms–these “others” move past us and we often watch them go by with fear, disdain, or even anger.
I don’t know who first coined that small phrase, but it is so true. The distance we erect between us and “them” makes others grow strange and monstrous. The farther away you get, the worse your perception of people will be. Distance demonizes. Estrangement is a dangerous sort of myopia, eroding your relational perception until all you can see is the faint shadow or outline of a person.
This is not the way of Jesus.
Sometimes we can get confused about what being salt and light means. Salt has to be on the food in order for it to make a difference in the taste or preserve the food beyond its natural shelf life. Light has to be uncovered and obvious in order for it to pierce the darkness.
“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on top of a hill cannot be hidden, and no one would light a lamp and put it under a clay pot. A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house. Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, CEV).
How did Jesus deal with people who were different from Him? The Bible contains many examples if we really want to know: Samaritans, people with contagious diseases, the wealthy, the impoverished, the thieves, the notorious sinners (John 4:1-42; Matthew 8:1-4; Matthew 10:17-27; Luke 21:1-4; Luke 19:1-10; Luke 23:39-43; Matthew 2:13-17).
I recently discovered — and highly recommend — a beautifully-written book that clearly and practically lays out steps we can take to walk “with others in wisdom and love,” as the subtitle says. This book Side by Side, by Edward T. Welch, lays out the pattern for us to follow:
“As the King goes, so go his people. He moves toward people; we move toward people. He moves toward people who seek him and people who do not; we move toward those who want help and those who seem distant and marginalized. He moves toward friends and even enemies; we move out beyond our circle of friends to those far beyond that circle” (Chapter 8, p. 74).
As my pastor preached on Sunday, Jesus’ death and resurrection established a New Covenant that no longer keeps an ethnic people cordoned off from the rest of the world. Ephesians 2 says that He broke down the barriers of separation between us and made the two (Jews and Gentiles) into one. On a universal level, this means that no one is beneath our notice, no one is too lost to be redeemed, no cultural gap is too wide, and no hands are too dirty or too bloody to be clasped in welcome.
Why would we welcome?
Because, if we claim follow Jesus, there is no other real option.
Yes, God is the only one with enough love and courage to unswervingly enter into the mess of someone else…but this glorious God’s power fills us. The divine power that resurrected Jesus is the power that fuels us with the ability to move away from our prideful perspectives and, instead, move toward others (Romans 8:11).
And what we see–if we see rightly–is that at the foot of the cross we are no cleaner, no more acceptable, no more lovable, than anyone else in this broken world. It is our sin–yours and mine and theirs–that drove the bloody nails into our Savior.
But this crucified and risen Savior welcomes you and me and them, all of us equally, without playing favorites.
Christ’s love to sinners is radical, transformative, unconditional, and full of compassion.
Who are we to offer anything less to others?
And if we got close enough to look, we might see that the people we instinctively demonize are just…people. People who, like us, are desperate for a taste of grace.
I don’t know how much opportunity I’ll have to lead my shy young friend in the way of this grace, but I do know that her fear of “otherness” taught me something this week.
Jesus broke down all the barriers of “otherness,” and if we claim to be His, we cannot fail to do the same.
One broken, love-starved heart at a time.
“Then he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up and, according to his custom, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read the scriptures and the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book and found the place where these words are written—‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’.
Then he shut the book, handed it back to the attendant and resumed his seat. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him and he began to tell them, “This very day this scripture has been fulfilled, while you were listening to it!”
– Luke 4:16-22, Phillips –