churches die… the Church does not
Disclaimer of sorts: this is a sermon I preached for the Presbytery of Boise on Saturday, February 9th, 2013. I don’t normally write out sermons (so I don’t normally post them either but here I am doing it back to back) and I do not preach them from the script even if I do write them out so this is longer than the actual sermon was but having no audio version of it I’m posting the whole written version even though I can remember some of the sections I skipped in actual delivery.
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. 3But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us— 5we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. 6And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) —those leaders contributed nothing to me. 7On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised 8(for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), 9and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
A couple of years ago I went to a conference that ran simultaneously to a conference for New Church Development. I had been in the midst of several years of effort to change the culture in the church I was serving, to move us in a new direction from how we had been hardwired to understand the work of the church. So I said to one of these NCD pastors at lunch, “It must be nice to do new church development where you are creating a new culture and not dealing with an old culture. It must be exciting to share and craft a vision with a group of new people about your life together.
It’s amazing sometimes how well we demonstrate our own ignorance and naiveté.
His response to me was to laugh and point out that no-one really creates anything out of nothing. There is no such thing as a blank slate. In New Church Development there may not be a corporate culture of what it means to be THIS PARTICULAR church, but it’s just more subtle and more confused than that. Everyone still brings their own baggage, their own traditions, and their own sense of what should be.
It isn’t creation out of nothing.
This has made me realize that this is always true. There is no such thing as a blank slate. John’s creation story aside (where we have “nothing that came into being except through him”) even the Genesis creation story understands a primordial existence: tohu vabohu. The world is formless and void but there is something, there is Heavenly court, and there is a “we” who engages in the activity of creation. It is not creation ex nihilo – creation out of nothing. There is no blank slate.
And this was true as well for the New Testament Church which didn’t emerge out of nothing. The church in Galatia, the Jerusalem Counsel, the disciples becoming apostles, for Antioch, and all the rest… they didn’t create out of nothing either. They had a church culture to figure out.
In the case of the Jerusalem council, James and Cephas and John and the others, they are Jews. And that means a long tradition of what it means to worship and gather and educate and how to be in relationship to God and the world. And they are doing that now in the light of Jesus Christ. They aren’t creating a new identity of church they are wrestling with how this world changing reality of Jesus Christ alters something they have grown up with, known, and loved. These two realities are consistent with each other and yet at the same time there is tension between them, they rub at each other. And the James and the rest of them are struggling with what it means to be church when it no longer means what it used to mean… but it isn’t entirely different either.
And Paul is doing the same kind of work. Paul is dealing with a new church development of sorts, he has gathered some Jews, and some God-fearers, those who sat in the back of the Synagogue and watched the goings on with some interest who are a bit Jewish but not Jews, and then some full gentiles those who have no idea what Judaism is but are yet interested in this ever-widening movement of following in the way of Jesus Christ. He is bringing them together in these communities, ecclesia… church. He is bringing them together in new ways but they are all still bringing their own baggage of what that ought to look like.
It is naïve to imagine that either new church development or church revitalization is about creating something out of nothing, and is also like walking with eyes held shut to not see that it requires creating something new at the same time, responding to the new things God is always doing in our midst – new creation. And that is part of the struggle that Paul is having with the James and Peter and all the rest, because Paul wants to create something totally new, and they are a bit more on the side of honoring the traditions of what has been, is, and (to their mind) always will be.
And neither of them is completely right or completely wrong. Is Paul right for thinking we can just tread on thousands of years of faithful worship of God? I doubt any of us here really thinks it is good to just shed all ties to the past, to plow under the community and the way that formed us and got us to where we are today to start all new. This feels, this is, a certain lack of respect and honor for the steadfast faithfulness of the community that has always responded to God’s creative impulses.
And yet is Paul wrong to say that the new reality in Jesus Christ puts us into something new and different? Is Paul wrong to think that the laws and ways of being that were past are being made new and that means they cannot remain untouched and untouchable? Is Paul wrong to respond to God’s calling to see new growth springing up in ways we could not imagine in our older systems and ways?
So they aren’t wrong, but Paul isn’t wrong either. It’s not about right and wrong – it’s about this challenge, this notion that church as corporate identity is a dynamic idea, a creative moment that is constantly be spoken into reality in a myriad of ways… our corporate identity as church is as much on a journey of growth and change, of ups and downs, as we are in our individual journeys to follow in the way of Christ.
A few years ago I was re-reading a portion of Walter Brueggemann’s Old Testament Theology (a book you are always reading for the first time no matter how often you re-read it) and, in particular, a whole fascinating section on Derrida and post-modernism. Now I’ve heard that you can argue that post-modernism is dead, but also that we are clearly in a post modern world. But we Presbyterians still struggle with post-modernism. It’s one of those realities we are aware of but usually don’t like. We often look at it as a problem to solve, or like mold that is growing in the boiler room in the basement, it’s there but we aren’t excited about it and hope it doesn’t grow. Maybe we like the authority structures that fully belong to modernity, and some of us think the idea of Christ is threatened by a tradition that questions the nature of all truth claims, and others of us may like its ideas but because we can’t quite wrap our minds around it (because that is after all – what it endeavors to do, be elusive), because we can’t hold on to it we avoid it because it’s just easier to talk, to know and be known, in a modern world – to structure life in a modern world.
But here is the interesting rub to me. Because it dawned on me as I was reading – and I don’t quite remember whether I made this connection or Walter states it plainly, but when in doubt its almost always his brilliance not mine. But it dawned on me that post-modernity is, at its heart, a very reformed idea. We, of the reformed tradition are naturally – in theory at least – post-modernists. Reformed and always being reformed. That is post modern – there is no foundation that is always steady and sure except perhaps Christ and even Christ as incarnation of truth is always on the move. The reformed tradition is always trying to discern how God is inviting us to re-invent our ways and means of carrying good news into the world. And that is Paul’s point too – Paul makes a great reformed theologian, principally because you rarely have any idea what he is saying.
But here Paul is playing the part of the reformed theologian, the post-modern thinker, seeking to break down the foundations we have known to make room for God’s grace.
At his heart Paul is saying we want to hold on to Christ, the freedom we get in Christ but not the trappings of it. Its Christ that matters and either the trappings serve to proclaim Christ or they need to be set aside and left behind. At the heart of the reformed tradition is this idea that we constantly question and examine ourselves. How is good news received today, is my proclamation God’s news or my news? Is what I believe in service to God’s unfolding kingdom or am I holding on to my conception of what it had been for my own comfort’s sake?
We are a post modern tradition by our very life blood even when we rail against it. And we do rail against it. Whether it’s about fights like do we have an alter or a table, contemporary or traditional worship, whether it even makes sense to own a building anymore, whether it’s how we structure ourselves and package authority and who is capable of being a leader, or whether it’s about how we make good news felt in our politics, our schools, our work and our homes.
We are as resistant to change as James and John… sometimes we are as daring as Peter who is willing to go there as long as no one stops him or watches over his shoulder too closely. Very very few of us are as out there as Paul.
But the Community of God (God’s Kingdom) is a lot larger than a single way of being, a single set of laws, a single understanding of the church, a single way of packaging the good news of Jesus Christ. I’m sure that Abraham never imagined David, and David would probably have seen Daniel as failure. Could Naomi have predicted Mary? Today we see that James is having trouble imagining Paul. But we are all the Church, God’s Church, constantly imagining how God is inviting us to be the Body of Christ in Boise, Idaho, in Ontario, in Owyhee… and around the world.
And here is one more thing we can learn from Paul – one more thing that is required of a reformed theologian. We have to be a bit indecent and out of order as we imagine those answers. Because being out of order is a part of our order. Being Reformed and Always being reformed is our way in the world and that requires us having one foot in the world of “decency and order” but also one foot in the world of “indecent and out of order.” Let’s be honest.. Jesus was almost always a lot bit indecent and out of order, and it is his Church.
So let me wrap this up by stealing another thought from someone else, and my apologies again as I cannot recall where I heard it first. But I remember reading the line “churches die, but THE Church does not.” Individual churches die. Conceptions of what it means to be church die. But God’s Church always lives on. What a gift! What an amazing gift to remember that. Because it means that we are freed up to take big risks. We cannot kill God’s Church.
Let us all say that again: our missteps cannot kill God’s Church.
We cannot make the Kingdom fail. And that frees us up to be willing to die to find new life. In fact as we begin a season of Lent that will take us to cross we need to remember that we follow Jesus. Who was God, and who died! Jesus died and took away all that it had meant to be God, all that it had meant to be Savior and Messiah. And then, and ONLY THEN, rose again to bring it new meaning and new life.
If we are to be God’s visionary leadership, to be God’s Church in the world and truly wrestle together with what it means to be the church today, we cannot do it in ways that tame the freedom of Christ, that downsize the Kingdom, that limit God. We have to risk the death of what we know – in fact we have to experience the death of what we know – to imagine and live into the life God resurrects on the others side. Let us go there together. Thanks be to God, Amen.