It is a really challenging time to be The Church
It is a really exciting time to be a Christian
a reflection for Easter on the death and resurrection of the Church
My Dear One,
On Holy Saturday, the day last weekend between Good Friday and Easter, I got word that my step-grandmother, Darlene, had died. This week I flew up to Missouri to preach at her funeral. It was a blessing and honor to do so. She was a kind and humble person, always quick to laugh and looking to the bright side of things, even in the midst of a nearly three decade battle with cancer that stole so much of her energy, her attention, and her body. In the end, it would appear that the cancer won. And yet, as I said in the eulogy, scripture shows us again and again that there is always hope in hardship and there is always life in death. Our victory is in the fact that the resurrection of Christ is not just a promise of the victory of life over death for Jesus … but for us all.
Which has me thinking again about some things I wrote last week about the death and resurrection of the Church. It is starting to become a tradition that around Easter you will find articles in newspapers, magazines, and online, about the continuing decline of the church and overall religiosity in America. My mom showed me one in our local newspaper pulled from the AP last week. These statistics are always sobering. It’s been a decades-long decline but this particular article said that since 1990 church attendance has dropped over 20%.
It’s a bit like sitting in a hospital room, staring at the monitors, and watching a loved one’s pulse slowly give way. Is there any hope here? It might not appear so. And yet the very heart of the message of our faith holds an assurance that evil and death will not get the final word. That place has already been claimed by goodness and life.
And so, on this week after Holy Week, as we remember that the body of Christ in Jesus suffered and perished and then became gloriously resurrected, I would like to offer some words of hope for the larger Body of Christ in the Church as it too is undergoing its own time of trial.
1. What we are calling “death” is actually a maturing and transforming
As we see the numbers in churches and the number of churches continue to decline, it is a small death to be sure. But I am absolutely convinced it is not a final death as some fear but rather a healthy and much welcomed maturation of the Body. The longer I serve in the Church, the more convinced I have become that the religion we call Christianity is still in its infantile stage. I say this not so much as a judgment against our faith, only as an observation and, in fact, I say it with incredible hope for the Christianity yet to come.
The Christianity that most people have encountered, whether it be through growing up with it in the Church or through knowing about it from the culture, has imagined itself to be the full banquet of life at God’s table when, as of yet, we were only eating baby food. As Paul put it in First Corinthians 3:
2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh.
Eating soft foods is a necessary thing to do when you are young. But I’ve tasted baby food. Besides for the plums, I don’t get why the little tikes enjoy it so much other than the fact it is still new to them. Having tasted even a morsel of beef brochette from the kitchen of a skilled French chef, a single bite of crisp apple from the tree of a Missouri orchard, a sip of wine from the fields of Bordeaux, or a mouthful of burger from the best greasy spoon in the American midwest, few people continue to go for the Gerber’s.
But surely it is time for us to stop confusing the pureed peaches for the whole cobbler (ok, enough with the food metaphors). No wonder so many reject it and go searching for something more filling elsewhere (last one, I promise).
In short, we substituted The Way of Jesus with “membership” in Christianity. This false step went hand in hand with the Christianization of the Roman Empire which found its full culmination in the middle ages and continues in a modified form even to this day. When we became affiliated with the power structures of the Roman Empire, and many other kingdoms and countries thereafter, we took on the form of worldly power. Christianity became about the building of monuments more to ourselves than to God (sometimes with forced labor and money taken from the poor), the conversion of the “pagans” (tragically at times by force or threat of death), the struggle over who has authority and power (taking a very secularly-minded top down power structure), and early Church councils that decided what versions of the Christian faith and Bible were “correct” (all of the early Councils were convened by the emperor for the purpose of forcing unanimity and exerting control).
Is it any wonder then that this led to the version of Christianity we have now? We are still largely consumed with the building of larger buildings (though now looking like big box sports venues rather than the beauty and majesty of a place such as Notre Dame), the percentage of people we can get in our pews, the amount of money we can raise for our internally-focused ministries, who has authority, and church meetings where we argue over power and control. The Church, on the whole, appears to have matured precious little since we became intertwined with empire nearly 1,700 years ago.
By one measure, it’s been a good ride. It led to the global spread of Christianity, becoming the largest religion in the world. But today it has become clear that the ride is about over. Fewer and fewer people have any interest in the institution we have created around the Christian faith.
But there is good news in knowing that Jesus didn’t come to create so much of what we presume is fundamental to the Church today (see Matthew 5:17). He did not invite (and in fact discouraged) people to build buildings in his honor. He commissioned Peter to be the rock on which his church would be built (Matthew 16:18). But he did not expect him to lay down and allow someone to build a physical church on top of him. The Church, as it were, was to be the community and Peter, a deeply flawed flesh and blood man who would deny Jesus three times, was hand picked by this same Jesus to be its foundation.
This is very good news. God chooses the imperfect over the perfect, the sinful and real over the selfish and righteous. We are called to let go of our simplistic notions of right and wrong, worthy and unworthy, powerful and powerless, and embrace the divine paradox of a God that chooses the last to be first. This is a maturing of the concept that only the “good little boys and girls” get to be loved by God. Again, a maturing, not a dying. We are dying only to our childish notions of the faith so that we can be resurrected into something greater than we ever imagined. This is cause for rejoicing, not gloom.
2. Jesus’ own resurrection show us The Way to this maturity
Jesus was inviting the creation of a community, a community of people who live in the same manner Jesus lived. He came as our model, to open our eyes and show us what life can actually be like when we reside within the kingdom of God, instead of the kingdoms of this world. And then we proceeded to build a Church in his name modeled after the kingdoms of this world. Perhaps we did so because it is much easier and asks less of us than the building of the Church within our own hearts.
But God will not allow us to avoid the proper building of God’s kingdom forever. And Jesus shows us The Way. He willingly enters Jerusalem knowing it likely meant his own death. As he kneels to wash their feet, he gives the disciples a new commandment “Love one another.” As he stands wrongly accused before the religious and political authorities of his day, he offers no violent defense of his cause. As he hangs on the cross, he resists the temptation of those who sneered, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Jesus is willing to die, even in the midst of pain and feeling forsaken by God, because he knows that when old things pass away, God always finds a way to bring about new life and resurrection.
Jesus Christ would rise again in a new and more glorious form. Notre Dame will rise again as one of the great marvels of the world. And the Church, the Body of Christ, will rise again newly transformed into a closer image of what was imagined by Jesus.
3. In this resurrection we will come to understand that we are called not simply to worship Jesus but even more to become Christ.
I want to make sure we don’t skim over that distinction. We decided to place Jesus on a pedestal - back up at a safe distance high above us where we believe God should be - when the whole purpose of his life was to come and live among us, to show that God lives among us, as Word made Flesh, unashamed to be born in a barn, laid in a feed trough, live among the outcasts, and die abandoned and naked on a cross.
His entire life was lived as one among us. We wanted to call him Son of God but this is not the title he chose for himself. Instead the title he used for himself (81 times in the four gospels!) was Son of Man. I AM with you. Emmanuel. I am one of you. I am a Son of Man, a human one. Jesus didn’t only come to show us who God is but also who we are. Or at least who we can be.
And this is what I find so incredibly exciting and hopeful! As we mature beyond our more childish form of Christianity, we have the opportunity to step into at least an adolescent form of the faith. And, as we all know, adolescences is a time for self-discovery, exploration, testing the bounds and finding our limits, and transitioning from childhood into adulthood. It must be said that many parts of the Church have already made this journey. The desert mothers and fathers sought a deeper form of the faith centuries ago. Franciscan, Jesuit, Benedictine, and other religious orders have sought to embody a more grounded form of following Jesus. The Catholic Worker movement and justice-oriented congregations have sought to ensure our faith is accompanied by works. And many, many individual Christians, saints known and unknown, both past and present, have led inspiring and exemplary lives modeled after the servanthood of Jesus Christ.
Though the Church as a whole, in its institutional structures, has yet to embrace full maturity, we may, at long last, be ready to start making this transformation.
Imagine, if you will, what a faith looks like that, in much more focused ways, is about serving and loving our neighbors and forming Christians with greater spiritual depth and commitment to do so. Where Jesus isn’t simply someone we believe certain things about but a Way of Life we pattern ourselves after. Where our goal is not membership in a club but member-ship in the Body of Christ.
We already have the buildings built. Can we remodel them into formation centers for servanthood and discipleship? As Notre Dame must now be re-built, the question remains what of the old should be preserved and what should be re-purposed and re-imagined. Perhaps that’s a suitable metaphor for the Church as a whole. It’s fallen into disrepair. It’s highly flammable and one spark could set the whole thing ablaze. But there are enough who will be moved by the sight of its burning to want to re-invest in its continuing story. Perhaps the crucifixion of Jesus likewise inspired his followers to make sure his message of Love did not die with him.
And perhaps, we too can be inspired by the “death of the Church as we know it” to work ever more faithfully with God on its resurrection, its maturation, into what it always could have been and yet may become.
following The Way,