It was heartening to learn that so many churches in Chicago last week passed the welcoming test that Jesus created.
That is, they opened their doors to welcome children.
“What’s so unusual about that?” you’re probably asking. Isn’t that what churches are supposed to be doing – what most churches are eager to do? Wouldn’t most churches do almost anything to get kids into their Sunday schools on Sunday morning?
Yes, that’s true.
But this wasn’t Sunday morning. It was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday last week.
And it wasn’t Sunday school the churches were welcoming the children to.
It was, instead, some quickly developed activities that would keep the children interested and occupied while they were kept out of their public schools because the city’s mayor, the city’s board of education and its executive staff, and the city’s teachers’ union could not agree on a contract.
That meant there was a teachers’ strike.
And that, of course, meant that the kids were not welcomed at the public schools.
The city failed Jesus’ welcoming test, but the churches passed it.
Jesus developed the test, according to the Gospel of Mark (see Mark 9:33-37, also Matthew 18:1-5 and Luke 9:46-48) after passing through Galilee and arriving in Capernaum.
Evidently, he had heard the disciples arguing among themselves but couldn’t quite catch what the dispute was about. So he asked them straight out.
But they wouldn’t answer. They were silent.
That’s because they were ashamed to admit that they were arguing about who was the greatest among them.
(Sort of sounds like the dispute between the mayor and the board of education on one side and the teachers’ union on the other.)
Jesus surmised as much, so he said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
And then the writer of Mark records that Jesus went over and picked up a little child who was nearby, and held the child in his arms right in the midst of the disciples, and he gave them all the test:
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
That’s the welcoming test.
It turns out, however, that it isn’t just children who are to be welcomed as the way of welcoming the God who sent Jesus.
The child that Jesus picked up and held in his arms was just the nearest example or model or symbol of who should be welcomed as the way of welcoming the God who sent Jesus.
If there had been a poor person, or a sick person, or a naked person, or a hungry or thirsty person, or an imprisoned person nearby, they would have served Jesus’ purpose just as well as the nearby child.
Anyone who was vulnerable, who was dependent, who was helpless – anyone who wasn’t in the ranks of the strong, the independent, the self-sufficient – would have qualified.
If that’s still the case, then there would be many churches today who would pass the welcoming test, but certainly not all.
The churches that, by policy or practice, exclude those who Jesus included would and will be found not welcoming the God who sent Jesus.
Their liturgy and order of service may be superb. The praise and preaching, first rate. Their theology and church order, beyond criticism.
As important as all those matters are, it wouldn’t and won’t allow them to pass the welcoming test – the test of whether the God who sent Jesus is present whenever they gather or wherever they scatter. Not present because not welcomed.
Of course Jesus didn’t create the test just for the church. He was, after all, proclaiming and demonstrating an inclusive community of love that was all-encompassing of humanity and of the creation itself.
So the welcoming test for Jesus applies across the board for everybody: to individuals and families, to institutions and organizations, to governments at every level.
It even applies to political parties and political candidates.
The test really is quite democratic. Not only is everybody included, but everyone is served, since Jesus told the disciples: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
That has to mean that even those who think they are in first place and end up in last – that is, those who don’t welcome those who are in last place – are still included in God’s community of love.
By the way, the kids are finally back in school now.
Let’s hope they, too, learn how to pass the welcoming test.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.