Let’s perform a thought experiment. It’s a Sunday morning a year from now. You arrive early and park in your regular spot at the church – a good distance from the entrance so as to leave the closer spaces for your older members and guests – and make your way across the parking lot to the doors. You step through the airlock into the lobby, shaking off the early morning chill, and immediately head for the coffee station. As you fill your cup, the steam rises and with it your anticipation of that first delicious sip. Behind you, the doors open and you turn expecting to see one of your fellow greeters arriving early, like you, to put a smile on Sunday morning.
But it’s not another volunteer. It’s a visitor. And he looks familiar. You instinctively move toward him and introduce yourself. He shakes your hand and says, “Hi. I’m Roy.” (Or Harvey. Or Kevin.)
Recognition washes over you like an ocean wave. A year ago, his face was in every news feed, newspaper and tabloid in the country. No wonder he looks familiar. This is THAT guy . . . and he’s standing in your church lobby.
He is nothing like what you expected. For one, he looks much older than he did in the photos that dominated your screen last year. For another, he seems smaller. Not in stature. In demeanor. His voice is soft. His gestures modest. His bearing almost sheepish.
A split second before it gets really awkward, you remember the coffee station and ask him if he’d like a cup. He would, thank you, and the two of you sit down in a corner of the lobby.
“I’ve been in a program,” he begins. “A recovery program. A Christ-centered recovery program. I found Jesus there. Or he found me. Anyway, they tell me that now I need to find a church. So here I am.”
The church folks are starting to arrive and even though you never break eye contact with your guest, you can sense a nervous tension twisting its way through the lobby. The members are asking the same questions you are – Is this for real? Can this guy be trusted? Is he . . . safe?
Sound far-fetched? It isn’t. A scenario like that actually played out in Acts 9. One of the church’s greatest enemies, Saul, became a Christian. He had been a ruthless persecutor of the church, dragging Christian men and women off and throwing them in jail. When an early disciple named Stephen was stoned to death, Saul was there consenting to his murder. Then, in one life-changing moment, he had a personal encounter with the risen Christ. Later, he was baptized in the name of Jesus.
But though the Lord had accepted Saul, the church was more reluctant. When he came to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples, they were afraid of him, not believing he had really changed. That’s when Barnabas stepped in.
Barnabas was a man with an open heart. He was willing to give someone who had failed a second chance. Willing to risk extending his heart and hand to someone who had been responsible for enormous damage. He took Saul to the apostles, stood up for him like a brother and gossiped about what God had done in Saul’s life.
Isn’t that the kind of place the church is supposed to be? We are the people of the prodigal child welcomed home. The sisterhood of the adulterous woman forgiven and restored. The brotherhood of the disciples who one day denied they even knew Jesus and on another, boldly preached his message. Ours is a religion of reclaimed souls. And brother, sister, there are a lot of souls out there right now that need to be reclaimed.
So a politician, a producer or an actor walk into your church. How does your story end?