A few years ago one of our priests delivered one of his strongest homilies ever using only a minimal number of words. After proclaiming the Gospel he walked down to the communion rail and demonstrably closed the bronze gates thus separating the sanctuary from the nave of the church. Standing in the sanctuary behind the closed gates he said. “This is who we used to be.” Then he opened the gates as wide as he possibly could and walked into the nave saying “This is who we are today.” Without another word he walked to the celebrant’s chair and sat down. In response, the congregation stood up and burst out in applause. Now, I am not a great lover of homiletic props but in this rare case it worked and I will never forget the message.
The profound desire for an inclusive church expressed in this homily and echoed by our community was once again affirmed this week by Pope Francis. During this Wednesday’s general audience at the Vatican he referenced his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” saying: “No closed doors! No closed doors! Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community.” And alluding to the Gospel of St. John, chapter 14 he continued: “The Church is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone.”
In her short story "Revelation" Flannery O’Conner went even a step further turning our pre-conceptions about church membership and salvation upside down. Mrs. Turpin, the main character has a frightful and disturbing vision of heaven. In it she sees the redeemed souls wind their way to heaven. To her dismay the souls who arrive first are those whom she has always considered unworthy. She is shocked to see herself and her “proper” Christian friends at the very rear of this colorful parade of souls. Though she does make it to heaven she clearly is not happy that those she always considered unworthy made it there too. Worse, they made it ahead of her.
Maybe salvation is not as clear cut as some of us desire it to be and participation in the church is not as exclusive as some of us believe it to be, for indeed we are a colorful bunch.
We are a poor, we are rich and everything in between;
We are over-educated, we are under-educated and everything in between;
We are conservative, we are liberal and everything in between;
We are young, we are old and everything in between;
We are differently able;
We are male, we are female, we are gay, we are straight;
We are single, we are couples, we are families;
We are native-born, we are immigrants;
We have black skin, we have white skin and everything in between;
We are strong in our faith, we are weak in our faith and everything in between.
We are an extremely diverse tapestry of humanity in search of salvation. We are the church on a shared pilgrimage in unity, not uniformity. We welcome one another. We dialogue with one another. We help one another forward on this Christian journey of ours. The doors are open. All are welcome and who knows who will be first in heaven. Like Mrs. Turpin, we might end up being surprised, very surprised indeed.