If the Church of the Nazarene would look into a mirror, would it see the face of Christ or the face of a Pharisee?
Labels. We all love labels. It is easy to have them, to apply them, and to use them. It is an easy form of identification in good ways or in bad ways. Our youngest son, Caleb had a favorite shirt that he used to wear in high school. It was a red t-shirt with three statements with three stick figures reading vertically. The three statements were: Satan is bad, Jesus is good, be like Jesus. Simple statements, strong message. Over time, many classmates coined him as a Jesus freak. Some used it as a derogatory label; others used it to refer to his character. “Be like Jesus”. Sound familiar? In the first century, Jesus’ disciples were called Christians or “little Christ” as a derogatory label. It soon became a reflection of their character. Today we wear that label with so much pride. Do others see it as a reflection of Christ’s character, or has it become more reflective of the Pharisees who plotted against Jesus? It is a question we need to ask of ourselves and of our church.
I love the Church of the Nazarene. She is in my blood, so to speak, she is a part of who I am. I am a fourth generation Nazarene on my maternal side, and was dedicated in the church after I was born. My parents were dedicated lay members who lived out a life of service to Christ, the church and modeled Christlike character. My love for Christ and the church began at home. Along with that came traditions, expectations, codes of conduct and the like. However, the love for God and people was always center. I began serving in the church in various ministries at a young age, but my call to vocational ministry came later in my life. During the process of becoming a leader, leaning deeper into the heart of God, on my knees scared to death of this call before me, the Spirit revealed my true reflection. I did not anticipate what I saw. I saw myself as one without prejudice or judgmental biases. I loved people. Yet my reflection resembled more that of a Pharisee than that of Christ. I had a religious arrogance that was disguised behind the mask of Christianity.
My heart and my intentions have always meant well. I did not desire to hurt or exclude individuals in my area of influence. I love the diversity of people, cultures, experiences, and stories that create the beauty of humanity. What the Holy Spirit revealed in me was my definition of “us and thems”, “saved and sinners”, the “insiders and the outsiders”. It was obvious that I did not have a problem with racial or cultural differences. I had an issue with “sinners”. It did not come in the form of the brow beating, finger pointing. It came in the form of “love the sinner but hate the sin” or “they must not be a Christian because they…” or “you are welcome, but you cannot become a member because…”. My heart broke when I saw my reflection. Then Jesus began a new work in me.
In 2008, we moved to Colorado Springs, CO. Todd and I enrolled in Nazarene Bible College. During our time there, the Spirit moved deeply in me. Jesus opened my eyes to see people the way he saw people. My heart fell in love with those who the church has marginalized. People that I did not see before through my church eyes. I began to see all the walls the church has built, the walls I have built. He taught me how to serve and to love the unlovable. To look deeply into the eyes of another and see the image of God in them. Rev. Zell Woodworth, my pastor in Colorado, said in a sermon, “People will either come to know Christ or will reject Christ because of you.” Those words have guided and haunted me ever since. My resolve was to provide a space for people to meet Jesus and to allow the work of the Holy Spirit to transform lives the way He saw fit. How would I do that? Be quiet, hear, look, listen, tear down or cut out anything that stands in the way of relationship. Respect, bring dignity and value to an individual, do not judge or condemn but love, love unconditionally.
The Pharisees loved their system more than they loved the individual. The rules that were meant for good, became cumbersome. It became a trap for judgement and condemnation. They desired for the Messiah’s return based on their expectations and interpretations of the law and the prophets. Many times, we see them as the bad guys. The reality is, they were trying to do what was right by the law. In their blindness, they missed seeing the Messiah and what the Messiah was trying to show them. I pray that we, the people of God, do not fall into the same trap. I believe that the Church of the Nazarene has great leaders, ordained by God, and have a heart for people. I strongly believe the Church of the Nazarene is made up of many great churches with pastors who lead with a heart of Christ. But we still need to ask ourselves, who do we see when we look in the mirror? Do we like what we see?
As a pastor I am to lead by example. We asked the question, “If our church would cease to exist, what hole would we leave in our community? Who would miss us?” God answered that question for us: the youth in our community, the ones that didn’t fit into the church molds. They were kids that had colorful language, smelled of marijuana, and wrestled with their sexual identity. These kids stretched our comfortable congregation, our church folk. We loved them. We became their church. They invited their friends. We became known as the church that was “not all about God,” a phrase coined by one of our teens. By this she meant that we did not “cram God down their throats” with condemnation. We loved and accepted them just as they were. They felt safe. They felt safe enough to ask the hard questions. Safe enough to break down in my office asking me if they were condemned to hell because they were attracted to the same sex. Safe enough to ask if homosexuality is a sin because they were gay. Safe enough for the same two girls to cry in my arms as we grieved the loss of one of our own to suicide and another to an overdose. They felt safe enough to be who they were, with no condemnation. Can we say that about our denomination? As the Church of the Nazarene? Have we provided a place for anyone and everyone to feel safe to be who they are? To feel safe enough to call us their church? To invite their friends?
We need to take time to look in the mirror and ask, what do we see? It begins with me. As a pastor, I am responsible for tending to the care of those entrusted to me. Do we see the face of Christ or of a Pharisee? What do others see in us? As a denomination, we need to do the same and ask, what do we see? Jesus is good. Be like Jesus.
Rev. Lisa Ponczoch is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene and co-pastors with her husband Todd. She is a long-time member of the Church of the Nazarene, attended Mid-America Nazarene University, earned an AA degree from North Carolina Community College and received her BA in Bible and Theology at Nazarene Bible College.