A Place Where Sinners Would Gladly Gather


I told of my own bemusement in the early seventies when the redoubtable Moody Bible Institute, located just four blocks down the street from our church, was banning all beards, mustaches, and hair below the ears of male students-though each day students filed past a large oil painting of Dwight L. Moody, hirsute breaker of all three rules.

Everyone laughed. Everyone except Greg, that is, who fidgeted in his seat and smoldered. I could see his face flush red, then blanch with anger. Finally Greg raised his hand, and rage and indignation spilled out. He was almost stammering. "I feel like walking out of this place," he said, and all of a sudden the room hushed. "You criticize others for being Pharisees. I'll tell you who the real Pharisees are. They're you [he pointed at me] and the rest of you people in this class. You think you're so high and mighty and mature. I became a Christian because of Moody Church. You find a group to look down on, to feel more spiritual than, and you talk about them behind their backs. That's what a Pharisee does. You're all Pharisees."

All eyes in the class turned to me for a reply, but I had none to offer. Greg had caught us red-handed. In a twist of spiritual arrogance, we were now looking down on other people for being Pharisees. I glanced at the clock, hoping for a reprieve. No such luck: It showed fifteen minutes of class time remaining. I waited for a flash of inspiration, but none came. The silence grew louder. I felt embarrassed and trapped.

Then Bob raised his hand. Bob was new to the class, and until the day I die I will always be grateful to him for rescuing me. He began softly, disarmingly, "I'm glad you didn't walk out, Greg. We need you here. I'm glad you're here, and I'd like to tell you why I come to this church.

"Frankly, I identify with the Chicago prostitute Philip mentioned. I was addicted to drugs, and in a million years it wouldn't have occurred to me to approach a church for help. Every Tuesday, though, this church lets an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter meet in the basement room we're sitting in right now. I started attending that group, and after a while I decided a church that welcomes an AA group­cigarette butts, coffee spills, and all-can't be too bad, so I made a point to visit a service.

"I've got to tell you, the people upstairs were threatening to me at first. They seemed like they had it all together while I was barely hanging on. People here dress pretty casually, I guess, but the best clothes I owned were blue jeans and T-shirts. I managed to swallow my pride, though, and started coming on Sunday mornings as well as Tuesday nights. People didn't shun me. They reached out to me. It's here that I met Jesus."

As if someone had opened an air lock, all tension discharged from the room during Bob's speech of simple eloquence. Greg relaxed, I mumbled an apology for my own Pharisaism, and the class ended on a note of unity. Bob had brought us back to common ground, as sinners equally desperate in our need of God.

What would it take, I asked in closing, for church to become a place where prostitutes, tax collectors, and even guilt-tinged Pharisees would gladly gather?

Yancey. Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995, p. 148-149. Www.amazon.com

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