Across from the residence where I lived in college stood a mysterious building known as Scroll and Key. This great stone-clad mausoleum was the site of one of Yale University's renowned secret societies. To become a member of Scroll and Key—or Skull and Bones, or other circles like them—was an unusual distinction. Each society accepted only about 15 college seniors at a time, and they accepted only the cream of the university's leadership: the captains of the sports teams, the presidents of the major organizations, the most luminous artists, and intellectuals on campus.
Twice weekly, members of these societies would slip inside one of these mausoleums under cover of darkness. They would enter a lavishly furnished space of historic rooms and enjoy a range of rare dining, education, and relationship-building experiences. If you were a member, you would form friendships of deep intimacy and commitment. You'd take part in presentations and briefings that expanded your heart and enriched your mind. You would sit at table with a cadre of alumni that included U.S. Presidents, cabinet officers, and captains of industry across the planet. The mentoring you would receive during your time there, and the network and opportunities you'd enjoy ever afterwards, could be life-altering.
But being a member brought one more privilege—maybe the greatest of all. It was you who got to choose the next individuals to be tapped. You were among the ones who got to discern the persons to whom would be extended this extraordinary experience. You were the keyholder to someone else's future.
Late in my junior year at Yale, I was invited out to dinner by a prominent senior. I thought it a little strange because I didn't really know him well, and I was curious why he'd bothered to ask me. Stranger still, a string of others began to spontaneously stop by our table and then sit down to join our conversation. I recognized their faces. They were some of the leading students on campus. I felt the sweat breaking out as I realized this wasn't just a dinner. It was an interview. This was one of the top secret societies, considering me for their membership.
I wanted, in the worst way, to be chosen by them. I didn't want to be one of those others who stood on the outside of those stone temples, always wondering what it would be like to be within. I wanted to be an insider, and because of my record over the past few years, I felt I had a pretty good chance. The guys around the table were asking about that—about all the things I'd earned and done and accomplished along the way. And then the conversation shifted to the place of Christianity in my life.
I recall how tense the faces of the people around the table became. I remember the pit in my stomach as I realized that if I claimed Christ and his church as my highest allegiance—the place where I rooted my life, a relationship more important than any other—I might not be chosen by them. I might not get a key. But most of all, I remember how quickly the conversation ended and the circle melted away when I told them that it was in Christ I sought to root my identity, my security, my vision for life.
The supreme society
I still think wistfully about that night. Maybe I could have played that interchange differently, and they would have picked me. Maybe if I'd said things another way or worked harder or achieved more, I'd have been chosen.
Can you understand that feeling? Maybe there's some relationship or opportunity you still pine over. Perhaps there's some job you didn't get or some team you didn't make. Maybe there's some club or community you wish you weren't looking at from the outside. Perhaps you wonder, Why couldn't I be part of a family or a pool of possibilities like that one over there? Maybe I could have if I'd done something differently. A lot of us live our lives with a wistfulness like that.
But there's something I think about and encourage you to think about when feelings like that arise. This is the good news. In the most important arena of all, you and I were given the key to everything that truly and finally matters.
I know that is hard to take in. It's why Paul had to be so blunt when he wrote to the Ephesians, because they struggled to get it too. To appreciate how good the news is for you, says Paul, first you need to try to grasp the bad news.
What Paul is suggesting here is that most of us only ever dimly perceive the true condition we were actually in before Jesus did what he did. Most of us have very little appreciation for how far outside the big stone clubhouse we were before Jesus acted. We might have been good students or decent athletes or popular people on campus. But in terms of truly being God's kind of person—of being qualified on our own merits to be welcomed into his heavenly household—we weren't even on the list of candidates. There's not a single angel who ever said, "Oh, look how great and good she/he is. Our society will be so improved by having them. Let's tap them."
On the contrary, says Paul: "[A]t that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). In other words, there was this supreme society that did exist. There was a covenantal circle of communion with God and community with others for which the word "Israel" is a symbol. In the Bible, the word "Israel" or "kingdom" or "church" stands for this set of remarkable relationships, this amazing table of fellowship, where those who sit there find help in living into all of the promise of life on this earth and the hope of eternity beyond.
The bad news is: You and I didn't have the key to it. Our sin excluded us from it. Our ignorance of our condition and of God made you and me strangers and foreigners to that society. It might as well have been a locked mausoleum to us—only, ironically, it was the people like you and me on the outside who were actually dying or dead, and the beings in that society who were becoming fully alive.
"But"—the good news is—"because of his great love for us, God …" (Eph. 2:4). Notice who the important actor is here and the qualities of his character that account for his action.
Let me try to translate this. You and I were standing outside the supreme society. We had no chance of getting in on our own merits. There was no way for us to break in on our own strength. Some of us didn't even really want in, because we had no clue what we were missing. But out of his merciful, kind, and gracious love, Jesus opened the door, came down, and went outside the gate. He found you and me wherever we were in the darkness. He took us by his nail-pierced hands, offered us the forgiveness he alone earned on the Cross, and he escorted us up the steps and into the ultimate clubhouse.
He gave us a seat with him in the heavenly realms. He gave us permanent membership in this phenomenal circle of grace and truth where our hearts will be expanded and our minds enriched. He made us part of an elite global network of humble servants and a vast company of alumni in heaven, whose passion it is to bring God glory and enjoy his company forever and ever, amen.
"Consequently," says St. Paul (Eph. 2:19), are you ever going to worry again when some earthly someone or society finds you unworthy for their company? Are you going to waste your energy trying to prove how good or good-looking you are? No. Why? Because, like the ancient Gentiles to whom Paul offered assurance …
Every time we come through the doors of the church building, we are invited to remember this: that we are members of the supreme society, one aimed not at a greater grab-bag for ourselves but greater glory for our founder. With membership in this society come some very awesome privileges. You have an elite identity, an unimpeachable security, a trans-world family, and a sacred power and purpose to your life. But a bit like that secret society I used to admire back in college, there is one particularly exciting privilege it is easy to forget. As keyholders of the kingdom, you and I get to decide to whom the keys will be passed on.
You see, out there beyond our doors are many others who haven't yet been tapped for membership in this society. More than 60 percent of the people in the communities around us are functionally strangers and foreigners to Christ and his church. They pass by a building like ours and wonder what really goes on behind those walls. Is it a cult? Is it a club? Are there any people like me there? There are others who were exposed at some time to some church that really felt to them like a mausoleum or a museum, and they stopped going or never think of going back. Who is going to help them see what really goes on here?
Out there are children and teenagers, men and women, trying to do life without any reference or relationship to God. They're rooting their identity in their looks, their likes, or something equally superficial and passing. They're rooting their security in their health plans and 401(k)s, when the truth is they will die one day and stand before God. They're rooting their hope for the renewal of their marriage in a self-help book or the revival of our country in electing a better politician. Who is going to help them discover there's better ground in which to plant their lives? Who will usher them into a circle where they can find a love that will never fail them, a power that transforms their vision, their character, and their relationships for the good, and a life beyond the grave?
Let's remember that membership has its privileges, and one of the greatest of them, Jesus said, was to "[g]o into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15). Jesus gave you and me the key that can open the door to salvation, to the renewal of precious human life, to the revival of our nation. Could it be time to take it out of our pocket and use it for the sake of others?
Here are some ideas. This week, tell someone what Christ has done in your life and ask if you can pray about any needs in theirs. Invite somebody to come to church or your small group with you. Begin thinking about the role God might have you play in creating more seats for the people flocking to our services or volunteering in our ministries and outreach. Start praying about how you might help us establish new branches of this church in some communities around us.
Chances are you are here today and have enjoyed the spiritual blessings you have because someone thought enough of you to invite you into the supreme society. Here's my question: Who will be around the table in the future—or forever—because you knew what to do with your key?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.