Last Sunday I preached about God inviting in outcasts in Isaiah 56. It is a profoundly hopeful, but also profoundly disturbing chapter in the Bible. The hopeful part is clear. God says very, very, directly in Isaiah 56 that he wants everyone, no exceptions, to be incorporated into his worshipping congregation. He then backs it up by doing something that can feel very disturbing. He loosens portions of his own purity law from Deuteronomy 23.
Two groups who in Deuteronomy 23 have been totally fenced out of God’s people - foreigners and eunuchs - are invited in. At the end of it all God says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56 v. 7).
This is not a free-for-all. Isaiah’s 56’s welcome is balanced with a repeated assumption that those who come into God’s house of prayer are not only worshipping and believing like God’s people but also living like God’s people. “Everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it and holds fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy Mountain [the Temple]” (v. 6-7).
At the same time, these verses raise questions for us as a church that I think are good to name. Mainly, who is welcome to be part of “us” should they want to be part of us? This is how I think about that considering Isaiah 56. Simply and clearly, anyone who wants to worship at Epiphany on Sunday morning or be part of other gatherings of our church is welcome to do so. As a church, we should not focus on what people look like, what we think about what going on in their lives, or what sub-culture they signal membership in (within the bounds of safety for everyone else in the congregation, and never even appearing to bless sins of one person against another). Second, when it comes to questions about whether someone is living like part of God’s people, my own commitment is to extend the same charitable assumption to others I hope they extend to me. That is on any given Sunday at Epiphany all of us at church are trying to the best of our ability to live like we are part of God’s people, or at the very least, “trying to try.” My job and our church’s job is to consistently and faithfully give people a picture of what that life looks like from the Bible. But when any one of us fails to meet that image, or when we have more growing to do, it need not be fatal for our faith, but simply another stage in our journey that has Jesus’ own sacrifice for all our sins at the end.
So, how do we maintain discipline and doctrinal purity alongside that sort of open-ended welcome and charitable assumption? This is the path we follow at Epiphany. All are welcome to worship and engagement - to be part of “us” - if they want to be. To be a leader, or a teacher, or a priest or deacon requires more. Priest and deacons make several vows when we are ordained. One goes like this “Will you be diligent to frame and fashion your own life and the life of your family according to the doctrine of Christ…” Do we ordained folk keep this and our other vows perfectly? Speaking for myself, no, I do not (you may have caught me not keeping this vow perfectly before – there can sadly be a lot of daylight between me and Jesus' way at times). But I made this vow, and I do my best to keep it. I also know that I have a diocese and bishop whose responsibility is to hold me to this and the other vows I have made.
While it is not quite so direct, all those who run for vestry at Epiphany also make commitments not only to believe in a general sense, but also to “uphold and affirm the authority of Holy Scripture as “summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, taught by the Fathers, and defined in the General Counsels of the Church.” In fact, they must sign their name to it and take an oath to do so in front of the congregation. Finally, everyone who is formally baptized, confirmed or received into Epiphany vows or has sponsors vow on their behalf to follow Jesus.
Is this way of balancing welcome and the biblical vision of the Christian life always successful? Well, no, but my experience is that no way is - the church is and always has been made up of people who desperately need Jesus - but we knew that. What I love about our way at Epiphany is that it captures a bit of the spirit of God’s words in Isaiah 56 and what we see of Jesus’ own practice in the Gospel. That works for me, and I hope it works for you as well.
"The Lord God who gathers the outcast so Israel, declares, 'I will gather yet others to him [to my people] besides those already gathered'" (Isaiah 56.8).