Thursday, July 19, 2007

“Open Invitation”

Rev. 22:12-17, 20-21[1]

As many Bible readers will attest, there is a curious “tug-of-war” going on in the Bible. Several of them, actually! There is the one between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. There is the one between the more “institutional” approach to religion of the keepers of the Temple and the more “ethical” approach of prophets. There is also a “tug-of war” in the Bible between what one theologian calls “exclusion” and “embrace.”[2]

There are many passages of scripture that emphasize “God’s people” as unique, distinct, set apart from other peoples. And along with that go observances that reinforce the barriers, like food laws and observing a Sabbath day. It is the language of “exclusion.”

There are also many passages of scripture that emphasize that God’s ultimate purpose in choosing a people for himself is to bring all peoples into the embrace of God’s love and God’s life. Along with that point of view go visions of a far-reaching and all-inclusive mission to carry the good news of God’s love to all nations. It is the language of “embrace.”[3]

This “tug-of-war” is going on within the Book of Revelation, as we have seen several times in our Bible studies. The question is what do we do with it? Just about everyone who reads the Bible finds a way to resolve this “tug-of-war,” usually by defaulting to one side or the other.

Many theologians remind us, however, that the Biblical calls to “separate” oneself with an identity distinct from those around us in fact constitute commissions to serve as ambassadors for God’s love and mercy and justice among those who are “strangers.” The language of “exclusion” in the Bible is intended for the most part to be understood not as a privilege but as a call to service, to mission.[4]

The book of Revelation doesn’t easily resolve in that fashion. As I’ve mentioned before, it seems that there are some dynamics going on in the background of the book that get in the way of this biblical transformation of exclusion into embrace. It seems that the communities John was addressing were facing severe threats from those outside the Christian community. In the face of possible loss of livelihood, or family and social ties, or possibly even loss of limb and life, it seems that this message of commission to service hardened into the language of retreat and isolation, into the language of “outsiders” being banished and excluded.

I wonder if our situation is much different from theirs. Most of us don’t face the loss of limb or life over our Christian faith. But it seems nevertheless that we have retreated and isolated ourselves from those whom we judge “different.” It seems that we too have made the lines between ourselves and “outsiders” more rigid.[5] One of the great tasks facing the Christian family today is to overcome this dynamic that robs us of our impulse for mission. One way to overcome this ideology of “exclusion” is to recapture our identity with all peoples.[6]

The 1997 movie As Good as it Gets illustrates, I think, both our dilemma and the possibility of resolving it. The film is about three very unlikely people—Melvin, Carol, and Simon—who form a community in the midst of the isolation of a mean and uncaring New York City. Melvin is a misanthropic novelist—a person who hates people but makes a lot of money writing stories about people! He is obsessive-compulsive, and demanding, and mean. And he’s really just trying to protect himself from getting hurt. Simon, Melvin’s neighbor, is a gay man who is struggling to work as an artist. But Simon is haunted by the ghost of his parents, who have shunned him completely for his lifestyle. Carol, a single mother, works in a corner café and works to care for her son whose asthma is actually life-threatening—at least due to the incompetence of the “adolescent” doctors who work in the county hospital’s emergency ward.

As different as they may seem, this odd threesome are connected by their common humanity. Of course, that’s not readily apparent at first. Melvin eats breakfast every day at the diner where Carol works, and he only wants her to wait on him, which is good since the others have refused to do so! And Melvin regularly berates and attacks his neighbor Simon, mostly because he hates Simon’s dog!

But life has a way of playing just the right jokes on us: when Simon is brutally beaten, Melvin has to take care of the dog! But as ugly as the little thing truly is, he opens himself and begins to care a great deal for this creature. When Simon gets out of the hospital, Melvin agrees to drive him to New Jersey to ask his parents for help; but he asks Carol to come along for “moral support.” The trip is revealing—that Melvin is in love with Carol; and that Carol, despite herself, is actually falling for Melvin. She discovers that, under his intentionally offensive behavior is a very sensitive and caring human being. So sensitive and caring, in fact, that he actually moves Simon into his apartment to support him until he gets back on his feet!

It is a story filled with the surprises that are in store for us all if we will get out from behind the walls we have built to keep people away from us and to keep us safely away from them. As one reviewer puts it, the moral of the story is: “Don't judge people too quickly. Never write anyone off. Even the weirdest and most irritating people are full of surprises. Everyone is capable of love.”[7]

That’s the kind of perspective we need in order to overcome our rigid lines of exclusion we have drawn and embrace the people around us—all the people around us—as human beings whom God loves and longs to redeem.[8]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/20/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] M. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 22-31.

[3] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 224.

[4] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 224-25, 284-85, 289, 333-38; J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83-85.

[5] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 72-79

[6] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 69-71, 100, 118, 140-47.

[7] Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat, “Film Review: As Good As It Gets”; accessed at

[8] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 214.

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