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Church of the open robe

One doctor’s prescription for becoming a more authentic faith community

by Perry Engle

He seemed to appear out of nowhere. You could tell he was a professional man, around 50 and nicely dressed. Apparently he’d been eavesdropping on our conversation on the patio outside of the café. He handed us a slip of paper with his contact information. If we didn’t mind, he’d like to join us sometime for our discussion on Church and following Jesus.

He showed up the next time we met. The members of our group are all ministry leaders of some kind, and so I listened a little more attentively when he said he works as an emergency room physician. Twenty-some years in the same practice. His wife works as an ER doctor, as well. I imagined the stories they would exchange each evening after the kids had gone to bed.

“I have an image of the Church I’d like to share with you,” he said, diving in like an old friend. “Imagine a Church that is really a hospital. Every-one is in some stage of trauma, and you can see it on everyone’s face. No one can hide their injuries. All of them are shuffling around, sliding their IV poles beside them. And here’s the best part. Everyone has on those hospital robes with the slit down the back—the kind that flaps open when you walk. Everyone is open to everyone else, and there is no way to hide. And it’s really ok, because everyone is in the same situation, and everyone can see each other as they actually are.”

The visual was too much. We laughed. We made the requisite hilarious comments (pastors can be really funny outside of the church). And then we began to reflect and wonder aloud if such a Church was even possible.

Imagine a Church that is really a hospital. Everyone is in some stage of trauma . . . and it’s really ok.

A Church where Jesus is the attending physician. And the pews are filled with people attached to IV poles with the slow, steady drip of love, forgiveness, and mercy. And all the people who don’t think they’re sick, or who don’t want other people thinking they’re sick, or who are above wearing those embarrassing, flimsy gowns, go somewhere else and let Jesus attend to the people with the open robes.

People like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears with an open robe of shame. Or the tax collector who couldn’t even lift his eyes to Heaven offering his gift in the temple with an open robe of unworthiness. Or the disciple following his denial of Christ with an open robe of regret. The cohort of lepers with open robes of rejection. The father of a sick child with an open robe of despair.

Move slowly and deliberately through the corridors of Scripture, and in every room you’ll find the disease of sin taking its toll. Walk the halls of each of our lives, and you’ll find each of us a sinner.

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus said in Matthew 9:12, reclining in the home of a tax collector, surrounded by a room full of scoundrels. He’s talking about every single one of us, and He’s inviting us into this gathering of the broken, the needy, the corrupt, and the greedy—a gathering of people exposed to each other, and wide open to God.

“Gotta get to work,” said the doctor, as he pushed back from the table. We thanked him for joining us and prayed with him. And then he was gone—off to see all of those people with the open robes.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2013 issue of In Part magazine.
Perry Engle

Perry Engle believes if the Apostle Paul was the worst of sinners, then he’s a close second. He is also bishop of the Midwest and Pacific Regional Conferences, and lives with his wife, Marta, and their family in Ontario, Calif.

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