Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Church, the Body, the Cross, the Christ

Isaiah 38:15-20
Ephesians 2:1-10
Matthew 16:13-27

Pope Francis is an anomaly to the traditional standards of the Church.  Unlike John Paul II or even Benedict who were very clear about what they opposed, Francis does not often seem to go in that direction.  In a sense, then, I see a lot of Francis’ conflicts in the same light of Jesus’ conflicts with the religious authorities of His day. 

There is, however, a particular thing Francis has been extremely vocal about.  “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest that protects our mediocrity.”  Pope Francis

I’ve heard it said more than once that “if your church had this or would do that, we would attend.”  To which we can only answer, “If you would attend, we could have this or be able to do that.”

But that’s not really the answer.  Attending church services is not quite the same as being the church; and it is certainly not about coming with an expectation of being entertained.  Worship in its fullness is an expression coming from deep within, but that worshipful expression must also be so powerful and so all-consuming that it cannot help but to reach beyond the walls and the doors of the church and well beyond the single hour we devote to worship each week.

Reaching back to the 16th-century days of the “Father of the Reformation” who is credited with (or blamed for!) the “works-righteousness” dilemma, Martin Luther still maintained that “Anyone who is to find Christ must first find the Church”.  But he was surely speaking of much more that simply “going to church”.  His observation holds all professing believers – active or not - accountable to the true meaning of “church” as something worth being “found”.  So if seekers do “find the Church”, the question is will they also find Christ?  Because this would be the only church worth being “found”.

Seekers will much more likely find Christ through the Church’s faithfulness long before they will find Christ on their own because Christ is the foundation, heart, and spirit of the Church’s very existence.  Without Christ and The Covenant, the Church simply does not exist.  So within the Church, within that Covenant seekers must find a body of believers wholly devoted to something beyond themselves, something beyond their own comfort, something far beyond their own self-appointed “clubhouse rules”.  Within the Church itself, seekers must find – and be enabled to find – not only the Cross of Christ but our own crosses as well; for from these Crosses do we find Christ and the fullness of Divine Love.

So within that context of the Cross and all it represents, what is it we are supposed to do?  What are we equipped to do?  What are we prepared to do?  Compelling questions, all, because on an individual basis the reasons for attending worship would be as diverse as the individual; but if none of those reasons are about being connected to the worship community in a life-changing way, there is really no reason to merely attend “church”.  Because when “going to church” becomes no more important us than attending a civic club, town council, or Boy Scout meeting, we are off the holy grid and something has been lost; something which must be reclaimed.

This is why I think at least as important as “saving souls” is being about “preserving souls” rather than “retaining members” because every honest person knows how easily one can fall.  And we should also know how impossible it is to please everyone’s individual whims.  I think of the well-meaning churches that reach out, go door-to-door, etc., with the assumption they have whatever it is people outside of their own little churches lack. 

I don’t mean to sound so narrow but judging by some observations, what is largely considered a success by many of these groups is how many persons they can get to make a verbal commitment to Christ.  I have heard of “hundreds” who came for hot dogs and fun games and found Jesus in the mix, but the math does not match the photos of half-empty sanctuaries during worship.

A verbal commitment is not a bad start, of course, and the Holy Spirit can do wondrous things with genuinely open hearts; but how fruitful can we consider ourselves to be if our commitment to these new souls ends on a “check list”?  What sort of impact can we be said to have made for the Kingdom of Heaven if we convince ourselves we have “saved souls” but have not made new friends or devoted disciples equipped and prepared for a life beyond their own?  Remember we are not talking about preserving an “institution” by going on an annual recruiting drive; we are (or should be) talking about the strength and the purpose of the “ekklesia” (the whole assembly) to change lives.

We seem to be in an era of insurmountable challenges.  It actually seems culturally “trendy” to be an atheist.  Not long ago I tried to summarize a coherent list derived from all the self-designated “experts” of how the Church overall has failed so many.  It is not hard to find articles written by observers who are pretty sure of what turns themselves off to the Church, but who then pretend to be the voice of many.  After all, how many of us have said to ourselves, “Well, if it bothers me, it must surely bother others.  It is therefore no good.”  By the same token we are just as likely to say, “Well, if it’s good enough for me and I’m happy with the way things are, that’s all that matters.”

It wasn’t long before this list was so redundant and lacking any sense of hope that I began to wonder how any human institution can deal with such a list!  Summarizing these many lists to a manageable and comprehensible level was daunting, but a pattern soon began to emerge.  For me it came down to one word: credibility.  The “ekklesia” is not trustworthy.  Our collective faith as a community, as an assembly, is not believable.  Of course we can blame the Conference, the bishop, the liberals, or the conservatives; but locally, where the spiritual rubber meets the road, the problem is much deeper – because we’re not calling on people to trust an institution; we’re asking people to trust “us” to tell them the Truth that is Christ.

So where is our collective credibility lacking?   Is it that the preacher and the sermons are not funny enough, or the preacher is not saying the right things?  Is it that the choir and the music selections are not hip-hop enough?  Is it that the ushers are not friendly enough?  Is it that the members themselves out and about in the community are not pious enough? 

These components of the “ekklesia” may get a nod and a mention here and there, but there is more.  As often as it is said that a problem can rarely be traced to just one thing, we cannot say the personality and credibility of the “ekklesia” can be reduced to just one person.  If a thing is truly bad, it is bad from the surface to the core; and no one with any connection to the Body can be absolved of responsibility. 

Church can’t pay its bills?  Does this mean the budget is too big?  Or does it mean everyone connected to that budget is not giving enough?  Or is not giving at all?  The Church does not “do this” or cannot “have that”.  Is it because there aren’t enough people to “do this” or “have that”?  Or is it because the people we do have refuse to participate?

Essentially it boils down to whether or not an “ekklesia” is actively engaged in the life of Christ.  Jesus Himself states clearly, “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).  The level of faith required to be able to do this thing, to stop “looking out for #1” for fear that no one else will, is that faith upon which Jesus said His “ekklesia” would be built (Mt 16:18); a faith so abiding, so much a part of our being, and so stout that the very “gates of Hades will not prevail against it”

We need only to pick up a newspaper to see the “gates of Hades” seem to be coming loose at the hinges, but Jesus insists these “gates”, battered and threatening and imposing though they may sometimes seem, will not prevail against the collective faith of the “ekklesia”!  Do we really believe that, looking at the state of the world and society as it currently is?

So it cannot be about whether we can “do this” or “have that” as long as enough people show up and sign up; it is entirely about whether we will do all we are called and commissioned to do regardless of how many show up.  It is this fundamental Truth in which the declaration of faith is made: “We are the Church, we are the Body, we are the Cross, we are the Christ – we are the Word made flesh in the world today. 

But before seekers will believe it, we must first believe it ourselves.  Amen.

No comments: