2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (ESV) – 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
This is a common cliché that dates to the mid 20th century meaning simply… Appearances are not always what they seem. It’s also a cliché we almost always ignore on some level. We judge the safety of a car based on the quality of the paint job. We judge the wealth of individuals by their dress and hygiene. We judge the intelligence of a person based on their vocabulary and accent. We are all prejudiced to some degree.
Unfortunately, this attitude infects the Church like no other. I have heard that the traditional Sunday morning worship hour is the most segregated time in America, and while I don’t have ready statistics to back this up, I know it is true. I serve in a congregation that is thought to be wealthy by the community, and so some are intimidated to come inside. I know of congregations that are made up of mostly young singles and professionals, so the elderly feel they probably won’t belong. The opposite is also true: “we want you and your kids to come to our church, but don’t let them be children when they come in…” That’s to talk nothing of racial divides that bar the doors of some churches or of cultural sins that keep people at a safe moral distance from the doors of others.
It is rare for a church to break down those barriers and reach beyond the cover of the book of a person who doesn’t seem to belong and read the story inside.
But that’s what this ministry of reconciliation is all about. In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians he is concerned about the ethnic and social divides facing the church, and so he writes in the above passage that we should regard no one according to the flesh (here meaning their outward appearance). He uses the example of Christ as a model, who had nothing in his appearance that made him an attractive leader. He had no upbringing of authority, no societal place, no real achievements, and yet he was the Son of God and the Savior of the world. This is the paradox of God. It’s ALWAYS the weak, the lowly, the poor, the rejected, the despised, the fringe folk, the dirty, the crazy, the outsider, who is elevated to the places of authority. If you know the Bible, you know the backstories of Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and Paul to name a few. The list of sins, failures, and weakness of these titans of faith would have all of them disqualified from ministry in most churches – they wouldn’t pass the background checks.
Yet, this is the very thing God calls us to do. To regard people not based on the way they appear, but to treat them as people made in the image of God for whom Jesus died. They are sinners, yes. And, yes, background checks are important, but do we give everyone a place at the table in our spheres of worship and influence the way Jesus did? He was called a friend to sinners, a glutton and drunk (not because of his own sin, but because of the company he kept). He let women and the ethnically prohibited have a place in his company, and while he rejected sin, he always loved the person.
And if we look at ourselves honestly, we know he did that for us too. Since, we have felt that level of undeserved acceptance, we are the perfect ones to be his ambassadors. Ambassadors representing Jesus’ interests of love and forgiveness to a world that is all about breaking down barriers, distinctions, and divisions.
Look at our culture and world. If there was ever a time for the Church to rise up and be the Church – the body of Christ – it’s now. As we are reconciled to God by Jesus, who didn’t judge us by the cover of our sin, so too should we reach out and do the same.