In the Church today, the instruction I keep hearing is simply to keep moving forward. Do not despise the day of small things. The day of small things is to visit someone in a hospital, to teach a Bible study, or to celebrate the Holy Eucharist — about which a dear friend used to say, it’s never a bad time tohave Communion with Christ. I’m not suggesting the church be like Candide, pretending that misfortune is beneficial or enjoyable. As Christians we have to walk by faith because there is no other alternative. In doing this, we have to draw on the old patterns of fidelity that will fill out the life of the Church in this new social and cultural context. To paraphrase Meyers and Meyers, if this seems revolutionary, it is because there is no turning back. While we don’t get to see what is around the next bend of the Church’s history, perhaps this is because it is not necessary information for us to do the work that is before us.
— Read on livingchurch.org/covenant/2019/03/14/post-exilic-prophets-and-the-church-today/
This article offers a very helpful biblical analysis of the current situation for mainline Christianity in North America.
This is now the umpteenth time I have tried to write this article and started over. It always ends up being too long, too abstract, or too complicated to communicate its message effectively. We’ll see if this one works, so here goes…
What I want to do here is set out, as plainly as possible, the convictions that led me to the point of being confirmed in The Episcopal Church. This is a risky career move for me. I have served as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for several years. Being confirmed by the bishop is regarded by the Presbyterian Book of Order as an “act of renunciation”, whereby my ordination in that denomination is rendered null and void. In other words, confirmation was a point of no return for me. If things didn’t work out, I could not simply turn around and seek another pastoral call in a Presbyterian congregation. Therefore, I had to be sure that this was the right move for me.
And I eventually came to the conclusion that it was.
My journey to The Episcopal Church began fifteen years ago, during my senior year at Appalachian State University. I had recently fallen out with the charismatic fellowship that I had attended through my undergrad years. I loved the immediate experience of the divine that the charismatic movement emphasizes, but became disillusioned with the theological narrowness and lack of scholarly depth I found there.
I knew I loved liturgical worship, based on my experience of the Jewish Siddur and semi-regular attendance at Roman Catholic Mass, but each of those traditions presented me with a theological gap I could not cross with integrity. Around that time, I picked up a copy of The Book of Common Prayer from a local religious bookstore and fell in love. I visited the local Episcopal parish and finally felt like I had found what I was looking for.
At this point, I had already set in motion my plans to attend an evangelical seminary in western Canada. While there, I would meet, fall in love with, and marry a woman who was preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Her little congregation welcomed me with open arms and quickly adopted me into the family. It wasn’t the church I had planned on joining, but I figured it was the best way to support my new wife in her ministry.
There’s a lot that I will skip over at this point, for the sake of brevity, but I eventually joined my wife in the Presbyterian ministry. I figured the Reformed tradition was “pretty close” to Anglicanism and intended to make the best of things as an unusually high church Presbyterian. The nineteenth century Mercersburg theologians, John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff, were most helpful to me in this endeavor. I considered Mercersburg theology my “Rosetta stone” for translating what I believe about the Gospel into terms that Reformed Protestants could understand. At the time, I thought the differences between Reformed and Anglican Christianity were mainly cosmetic and political in nature, but I eventually came to realize that those surface variations overlie two related-but-distinct theological structures in the hearts and minds of believers.
In academic terms, the primary difference between the Reformed and Anglican traditions is ecclesiological. Translation for those who speak plain English: Presbyterians and Episcopalians have very different ideas about the definition of the word Church.
To illustrate the difference, let’s look at a particular passage of Scripture that has great import for Reformed and Anglican Christians alike, but is interpreted in vastly different ways by each of the two traditions.
The passage in question is Matthew 16:13-20:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
Presbyterians and other Reformed Protestants come from a confessional tradition. Christians in the Reformed tradition believe that Simon Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the “rock” on which Christ builds his Church. The Church, according to Reformed theology, is the spiritual fellowship of all believers who make the same confession of faith in Jesus Christ and are thereby reborn to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Roman Catholic theologians, on the other hand, are adamant that the “rock” referred to in this passage is Peter himself, whose name translates literally as “rock”. They have gone so far as to carve the words of this passage into the dome above the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City: “TU ES PETRUS”. This passage forms the bedrock of Roman arguments for Apostolic Succession and Communion with the bishop of Rome as essential marks of the Catholic Church.
Anglicans, in true via media fashion, have declared that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Catechism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer describes the apostolic nature of the Church as consisting of “the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (p.854). We affirm the importance of Peter’s confession, but also acknowledge that person-to-person fellowship with the apostles themselves (through their successors, the bishops) forms a vital part of our communion with the Catholic Church.
Concerning Peter himself, Anglicans see him as a spokesperson and stand-in for the rest of the apostles. We stand with Eastern Orthodox Christians and early patristic testimony that the bishop of Rome deserves a certain honor as primus inter pares (“first among equals”) in the collegial fellowship of bishops, but does not exercise “universal jurisdiction” over other dioceses or bear the charism of personal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra.
For Anglicans, the importance of the episcopal office is firstly sacramental, not governmental. The bishop, as a successor to the apostles in college with other bishops, is a symbol of the unity of the Church across space and time. At confirmation, baptized believers make their public profession of faith in the presence of their bishop and receive the laying on of hands as a way of expressing the unity of the Catholic Church as God’s means for extending the kingdom of heaven on earth and transmitting the anointing of the Holy Spirit within the ecclesial community. For the same reason, bishops are further entrusted with the ministry of ordaining priests and deacons.
Anglicans, along with Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, insist that exercise of episcopal ministry within the Church must be personal because God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ is likewise personal. About this personal quality, and its importance to the Christian gospel, I will say more in the next article…
One of the blessings that Christian faith brings in a person’s life is a sense of purpose. God has created, chosen, and called each and every one of us. Some are called to do this as bishops, priests, and deacons. Some are called to serve ministries within the Church, such as the Vestry, the Choir, or the Sunday School. Some are called to serve the community outside the walls of our parish. All of us are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.
To fulfill this calling, we need the Church to raise us up “to the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13 NRSV). Through the Church, Christ baptizes and confirms us, reconciles us and heals us, enlightens us with the Word, feeds us in the Eucharist, and empowers us for ministry.
When new people come into the Church, they aren’t interested in simply being consumers of a product, nor are they interested in filling a pre-defined slot on a committee. They want to discover and realize that deep sense of purpose that God has placed in their hearts.
Christ understood this truth and used it to empower his apostles for ministry. He said to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 16:19). Do you remember getting the keys to your first car? Your home? Your office? With keys comes power. By giving away the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Christ is willingly stepping aside to make room for others. He shares his divine power so that others can participate in building God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 5:10). We, as members of Christ’s Body in the world today, must do the same.
This can seem like a scary thing for long-time parishioners. We wonder, “What if the person with whom I share power proves to be inept or irresponsible? What if their vision for the Church’s worship and ministry differs widely from my own? What if my own parish becomes unrecognizable to me?”
These are indeed frightening questions, but the alternative is even more terrifying. We might ask instead, “What if our parish ceases to be a dynamic force for good in our community? What if there are people in my neighborhood who do not yet know the love of Christ, or the deep sense of purpose that life in Christ can bring? What if one such soul were to visit us and find only a stagnant institution that is wedded to its own comfort, rather than invested in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Questions like these should chill us to the bone. To be sure, there are many parishes in the world today that fit this sobering description. I remember speaking once with an older parishioner (not at St. Thomas) who had a moment of clarity during a congregational crisis, when no new leaders could be recruited to continue the basic functioning of the parish. She was in her late 70s, speaking to a clergyman in his 30s. She observed, “When I was younger in the Church, I remember the older generation intentionally stepping aside to let us lead the Church in a new direction. It occurs to me now that my generation has not done the same thing for yours.”
To be clear, I don’t think the situation in our parish is nearly that dire. We are already making room for newer and younger people in leadership. The word “Youth” appears prominently on our signage, not because we have a large program for teenagers or young adults, but because we invite younger people to be present in all areas of parish life: Staff, Vestry, Altar Chapter, Choir, Sunday School, and Summer Breakfast Program can all point to persons under the age of 40 in their leadership. This is a great start. The next step is to learn from them, listen to them, and let their ideas and concerns challenge our status quo.
There is no competition here. We need each other. The solution is not for older or longtime members to go away or stop serving, but for those who currently have the power to share it willingly with those who do not. What we need from learned, experienced, and wise elders is mentorship.
Younger and newer members need the wisdom of their elders to guide them along the right path. Longtime parishioners need the dynamic energy of the young to drive them forward. If the Church was a car, the young would be the engine and the elders would be the steering wheel. Lose the steering and you have a dangerous wreck; lose the engine and you have a useless hunk of metal.
Christ taught his apostles saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:25-26).
Let us lead by becoming servants to one another in Christ. Let us make room for one another in the leadership of the Church. Let us share with one another “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” as Christ did with St. Peter. Let us set aside our power, our privilege, and our preferences and invite one another to fulfill the high calling that God has placed in our hearts.
I delivered this sermon this morning just after announcing to the congregation our session’s decision to leave our building and move our church’s ministry to a new physical location after almost a century at the corner of Burdick & Ransom. I don’t think it was a coincidence that today’s gospel reading in the lectionary is the story of Jesus predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Some weeks, the Holy Spirit makes more work for me…
If you knew that you only had a week, month, or year to live, how would you choose to spend that time? What do you want your life to stand for? When other people look back at your life, what would you want them to remember about you? These are the questions that a wise person asks in the face of mortality.
The truly wise among us realize that life cannot last forever, therefore the truly wise among us also realize that each life must be lived for something larger than itself. Every mortal life, it seems, is a means to an end.
Each of us has probably known, met, or heard about at least one person who made his or her mortal life meaningful by dedicating it to something larger than himself or herself. We tend to respect or admire such people when we meet them. Their examples might even inspire us to look more deeply at our own lives, face our mortality in new ways, and discover meaningful possibilities within us that we hadn’t noticed before. It’s a beautiful thing when that happens.
As it is with individuals, so it is with groups of people. These groups might last much longer than we do, but they too will one day fade from existence. Families are mortal. Surnames and lineages come to an end through a lack of offspring. Churches and other faith communities are mortal. There comes a point when dwindling membership and a lack of funds causes an institution to close its doors. Nations are mortal. The Roman Empire was once the dominant superpower in the world, unlike anything else that had come before it. Where is the great Roman Empire today? Buried under the rubble of history and preserved in ruins frequented by tourists in Bermuda shorts. Finally, even the planets and stars are mortal. One day, our very own sun will burn up all of its hydrogen fuel and explode into a violent supernova, momentarily becoming the brightest star in some distant sky.
If coming to grips with our own individual mortality is difficult, accepting the mortality of families, churches, species, and stars feels almost impossible. Yet, the same truth applies to these larger mortal beings that first applied to mortal human beings: it is in facing mortality that we find meaning.
Let’s look at this idea in relation to this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The story opens as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the great Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship in the first century CE. Jesus, as usual, is storming out in a huff after yet another fight with the established religious authorities.
It’s at this point that Jesus’ disciples, in their usual tactless and somewhat dimwitted manner, decide to stop and admire the lovely architecture of this religious icon and national monument of Judaism. They say of the temple, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”
Jesus is unimpressed. He says, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
He’s talking about mortality of the temple: this central symbol of religious and national identity for the Jewish people. They were under the impression that this sacred building would stand forever under divine protection. For them, the temple was immortal. It was an end in itself as a center of worship. The idea had never occurred to them that it might not be there one day.
As it turns out, Jesus’ prediction was spot-on. The Jerusalem temple, like any human being, was mortal. It was eventually burned to the ground by the Romans during an uprising in the year 70 CE. It was never rebuilt. The site where it once stood is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred places in Islamic religion.
The destruction of the temple was unthinkable to the average Jew, but to Jesus it was inevitable. The wisdom of Jesus did not stop with an awareness of his own individual mortality, but extended to embrace the mortal and finite nature of all things. Just as it was for individuals, so it is for temples, religions, countries, species, planets, and stars: to face mortality is to find meaning.
If our great struggle in life is limited to ensuring the continued existence of particular people, places, institutions, or things, then we have already doomed ourselves to failure. Nothing lasts forever. We need to accept that. What Jesus said about the Jerusalem temple, we could say about anything: “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” All things are mortal.
The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we can get on with the business of asking the really important questions about existence in reality. Concerning our individual selves, we can ask: “What am I living for? What will people remember about me when I’m gone? What will be my lasting contribution to the world around me or the universe as a whole? What is the meaning of my life?”
The day will come when we, along with our families, our church, and our country, will only exist as a chapter in a history book. Accepting the inevitability of this fact, we need to ask ourselves: “When that day comes, what will we want that chapter say?”
As a congregation, we’ve been asking ourselves some very hard questions this year. We’ve been participating together in the New Beginnings assessment and discernment process. Throughout this process, the biggest and most pressing question we’ve had to ask ourselves is: “What is the church?”
Is the church a building? Is it an institution?
Or is it a community of people on a mission? A community of people, called together by Jesus Christ, living together in Christ, and following Christ into the world to live that mission?
Our final answer has been that third option: the church is a community of people on a mission.
Because we believe this, we have been able to make a bold new decision this week. We have decided to leave the building where we have worshiped for almost a century in order to continue the ministry of our church in a new location. The session, the presbytery, and I are currently working together on the details, and we will call a congregational meeting in a few weeks to let you know what the plan is.
This new move is not a death, but a resurrection.
We are not doing this because the church is dying; we are doing this because Jesus is alive.
We are honoring the heritage of the ministry that has been passed down to us, not by preserving it, but by continuing it.
We are doing this because:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon [us], because the Lord has anointed [us]. He has sent [us] to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
We are doing this because Jesus said:
“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Our ancestors in the faith (and in this church) believed this, I believe it, and the session believes it. Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?
I’ve recently been invited to help my friend, Minister Pamela Robinson of Emerging HOPE Ministries, with her doctoral dissertation. It’s been a privilege to assist with this project because the work she’s doing is so important. The research she is doing is about helping churches raise their awareness of people who live with mental illness or developmental disabilities. Her very helpful term for these conditions is “invisible disabilities”. She calls these disabilities “invisible” because their presence in people is less obvious than a visual or mobility impairment.
There is a stigma around cognitive disabilities in this culture because, in the eyes of many people, mental illness doesn’t count as a “real” disease, like cancer or the flu. Many of us who live with mental illness are often told to “just snap out of it” or “have faith” (as if depression or anxiety could be controlled by flipping a switch). Believe me: if any of us could choose to stop having these symptoms, WE WOULD.
Under the weight of this social stigma, we who live with mental illness often become “invisible people” who suffer silently and alone from the effects of our conditions. We are treated as failures, ne’er-do-wells, and misfits in a society that measures the “worth” of a person based on his or her ability to produce and consume in a capitalist economy.
In this morning’s gospel, we encounter the story of a person, Bartimaeus, who was similarly “invisible” to the people of his own place and time.
There are several things it is important to note about Bartimaeus as a person. First of all, his name. In Aramaic, it literally means “son of Timaeus”, which is to say that he really doesn’t have a name or unique identity of his own. He is only identified in relation to other people. As a physically disabled (“blind”) non-worker in the economy (“beggar”), Bartimaeus doesn’t count as a “real person” in the eyes of his neighbors, so he has been pushed to the margins of society (“by the roadside”), where his presence and voice can be conveniently ignored (“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet”).
Yet, there is more to Bartimaeus than meets the eye on the surface. He might be visually impaired, but we the readers quickly learn that his spiritual insight goes deeper than that of his neighbors. He sees Jesus more clearly than anyone. As Jesus draws near, Bartimaeus begins to make quite a fuss, calling out to Jesus as the “Son of David”.
“Son of David” is a messianic title, referring to King David’s heir, God’s anointed, and the rightful king of Israel. Many have speculated about Jesus’ identity up to this point in Mark’s gospel, St. Peter has even realized the truth in private, but this is the first time in Mark that anyone, anywhere publicly identifies Jesus as the Messiah.
What Bartimaeus says to his Messiah next is “have mercy on me!” This sounds to us like a plea for forgiveness, but is actually more like a welcoming affirmation. Caesar used to enter the city of Rome in triumphant procession with the citizenry crying “Lord, have mercy!” around him on every side. It’s kind of like an ancient version of “Hail to the Chief” or “God Save the Queen”. Bartimaeus has something unique to teach his people: he knows who Jesus really is, but they don’t want to hear it, so they yell at him to sit back down and be quiet.
Sadly, this story is way too familiar for many of our brothers and sisters who live with disabilities, visible or invisible, in the church. As human institutions, churches often act like the crowd around Bartimaeus: ignoring and objectifying disabled people, pushing them to the edges of church life and telling them not to make too much of a fuss, so that business-as-usual can continue uninterrupted on Sunday morning. What these churches don’t realize is that every person is made uniquely in the image of God, therefore each individual has something to teach the rest of us about God that cannot be learned from anyone else on earth. Those who lose the most when disabled people are ignored are not the disabled people themselves, but those who ignore them. So it was with the crowd around Bartimaeus, and so it is in too many churches today.
But the good news is that Jesus is not content to simply walk by while this happens. Jesus listens to the voice of the voiceless and ensures that the lessons they teach will not go unheard. Looking closely at his interaction with Bartimaeus, we can get an idea of how Christ is working with disabled members in the church today, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
To begin with, the first important thing that Jesus does is nothing. He simply stops. The text says he “stood still”. What this tells us is that Jesus is willing to be interrupted by this person. Sure, Jesus is busy. Sure, he has other important things to do (go to Jerusalem and save the world, for instance). But business-as-usual gets put on the back burner for Jesus when it comes to having a relational encounter with this person. Imagine the church doing that! Imagine what Christianity in this world would look like if the leaders of the church were willing to put aside their overcrowded schedules and interrupt business-as-usual in order to listen to the pained cries of needy people.
The second thing Jesus does is say, “Call him here.” He re-arranges his ministry so that the marginalized person sits at the center of the action and concern. And he doesn’t do it alone, either. Jesus could have easily called Bartimaeus over himself, but he enlists the help of the whole community, instead. So then, it is the crowd that changes its tune and says to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Again, imagine the church doing this today: becoming a community that speaks forth Christ’s calling on the lives of the very people whom the world ignores!
The next thing Jesus does is give a voice back to the voiceless. Instead of presuming to know what is best for this other person, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” This is a very important detail because Jesus is relating to Bartimaeus as a real person, not just as an object or problem to be dealt with. And when the miracle is said and done, Jesus even gives the credit back to Bartimaeus himself: “your faith has made you well.”
Imagine a church focusing its ministry like this: interrupting business-as-usual to forge real, authentic relationships with people whose voices have not yet been heard in the mainstream of society. Imagine the church becoming a community where people are treated like people. Imagine a church that re-orients its entire ministry to put marginalized people at the center of its life and action. Imagine a church that doesn’t just welcome people who live with mental illness, but empowers them to fulfill their calling in Christ. Can you imagine a church like that?
I can imagine that kind of church because that is exactly the kind of ministry that North Presbyterian Church has been doing for the last 27 years. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is the kind of community the Holy Spirit has made us into.
So many of us, myself included, have tried to make our spiritual home in churches where we are tolerated at best, or rejected at worst. But the Holy Spirit has called us together in this little community where we can be a light to the world.
And our ministry is not going unnoticed. What we do here has been written about in college and seminary textbooks. Letters of support have poured in from all over the country. Denominational officials are telling us how we have inspired a movement, how we have shaped the national church, how we are pioneering a new model of ministry from which all churches can learn.
North Church may be a little church, but we are “the biggest little church in Kalamazoo.” Our significance doesn’t come from a huge budget or fancy programs, but from the fact that we are doing the kind of ministry that Jesus demonstrated with Bartimaeus: centered on building relationships with marginalized people who live with mental illness.
The power of the special work we do is rooted in the power of the gospel itself and grows out from it to form a community where all people can find a home.
The power of this church comes from that core truth we tell each other week after week:
“I love you. God loves you. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”
The Eucharist is Christianity’s first and ultimate church planting strategy. It’s not just a sentimental moment to recall our Lord’s sacrifice. The Holy Eucharist is the celebration and realization of God reconciling all things through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:19, Col 1:20). If this is true, then our participation in the sacraments also enlists us as midwives, assisting the birth of a fresh movement of God’s work and presence in our lives and our neighborhood.
I’m delighted to report that I have an article that’s just been published for Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice. The article is a theological piece I’ve been working on for the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Task Force on Drug Policy Reform.
Preventing drug abuse and treating addiction on a societal level means ‘building a Rat Park’ for humans. The solution to the drug problem is not more incarceration or military intervention, but the pursuit of shalom and the kingdom of God. As our communities begin to reflect the love of the Triune God, with resources invested in community development, social justice, substance abuse prevention, medical care, education, and treatment, we will be creating avenues toward healing human pain, rather than simply numbing it with addictive behavior or chemicals.
“8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” – Romans 1:8-12
These words from St. Paul reflect his pastoral heart. The apostle says to his parish, “I am longing to see you”.
At the center of the pastoral vocation is a deep longing. It is a longing to be in relationship: to bear witness to the presence and activity of Christ in the people with whom I do ministry.
When people ask to see me, they often say at the end of our meeting, “I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time.” I want to say back, “Are you kidding me?! This is the best part of my job! If I could just do this all day, I would.”
The pastor’s first job is to be in relationship with God’s people: not to be “professionally religious”, not to solve their problems, not to entertain them, not to teach theology or correct bad behavior, and certainly not to maintain buildings and manage institutions. All of the above are important and necessary parts of ordained ministry, but they are not the heart of the pastoral vocation. The heart is the relationship: the “longing to see you” that Paul wrote about.
To be sure, there is an exchange of something that happens in this relationship: Paul says that he wants to “share some spiritual gift” in order to “strengthen” his people. But he goes on to say that the exchange is a two-way street: “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Every relationship is a matter of simultaneous giving and taking. All of us are constantly being both filled and emptied by love in the relational network of the Trinity, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17).
As Christians, we believe that we are saved by a relationship. The Incarnation is a relationship in which God “takes on flesh” and “moves into the neighborhood”, as Eugene Peterson put it. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel: “God with us.” Each Sunday, we further celebrate the Real Presence of Christ in our celebration of the Eucharist. By faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our very selves.
If we, as Christians, truly want to bear witness to the saving activity of our Incarnate Deity, then our action must mirror God’s in its relational nature. We must follow that deep, inner longing to be with one another in the flesh, as God is with us. When our fellow human beings come to believe that they are loved, that they are not alone, then can we say that we have truly done our job as witnesses of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is the longing to be in relationship that brought God from heaven to earth in the person of Jesus Christ; it is that same longing that fuels the pastoral vocation. It is the longing to be in relationship that draws the Church together in covenant community; it is that same longing that sends us out into the world as witnesses of the Gospel.
“I saw the person before I saw his or her poverty. And I realized that the person who is hungry, abandoned or in need is first of all a heart who needs to find another heart; someone who will listen, understand and love. People who are poor and discouraged need to hear someone say to them, “I love you. I have confidence in you. You are beautiful. You can give life to others.” This helps them find confidence in themselves, new strength, new hope. The poor do not need to hear a lot of words, not even pious words. They may need people who will do things for them. Above all they need friendship: friends who love them and are willing to do things with them. This will help them grow and develop both humanly and spiritually.” – Jean Vanier
A few years ago, there was a big to-do about this book (and subsequent movie), The Da Vinci Code. I won’t get into the particulars of the plot, suffice to say that it provoked a lot of big, emotional reactions from people everywhere.
On the one hand, a lot of church-folks were offended by the ideas it presented, which didn’t exactly mesh with what we had learned as kids in Sunday School. On the other hand, a lot of folks from outside the church were really excited about the book because they thought it revealed a picture of Jesus that was bigger than the one presented by traditional Christianity.
I even had one friend who said, “I knew it! The Vatican has known about this stuff all along, they’ve just kept it hidden and locked up in some secret vault so that the rest of us won’t find out about it.”
Well, I don’t think I’d put much stock in that particular theory… or in the book’s ideas about the historical Jesus (The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction after all), but I do find the whole phenomenon extremely fascinating from a sociological point of view.
During the peak of the book’s popularity, Jesus Christ was once again on the cover of popular, secular magazines. Books were being written (and read) about him. For a brief cultural moment (and not for the first or the last time), everyone was talking about who Jesus is and what he means to the world. It was a really interesting thing to behold.
And here’s what stood out to me in that conversation:
People feel drawn to Jesus. They want to be connected to him somehow, even if they never darken the door of a church or call themselves Christians. Jesus means a lot to people. There are few, even in the non-religious world, who speak negatively about Jesus or the things he said and did. Most secular criticism is directed, not at Jesus himself, but at us Christians (and what we have done in his name).
In this morning’s gospel reading, we read about a group of people, the wise men, who also felt drawn to Jesus. Like the readers of The Da Vinci Code, these people came to encounter him from outside the bounds of conventional, orthodox, institutional religion.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
To begin with, these wise men were not Jewish. The text of Matthew’s gospel simply says they were “from the east”, which probably means they came from Persia (the part of the world we now know as Iraq and Iran). They wouldn’t have known anything about the Bible or Jewish customs. They had probably never been to a synagogue service in their life.
So then, how did they come to be aware of this miraculous birth?
“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
They were astrologers. They studied the stars and interpreted their movements as messages from heaven. We have astrologers today who do similar work, but most of it is for entertainment via 1-900 numbers. In the ancient world, astrology was generally accepted as a form of science. Kings and generals would have depended on the predictions of astrologers for guidance.
The message these particular astrologers were discerning from the stars was that something significant was happening in the Jewish homeland. A royal baby was being born. Matthew doesn’t say why, but something in these astrologers’ hearts was stirred enough that they felt compelled to go and pay their respects to the new baby.
So, they did what any reasonable person would do: bring gifts of congratulations to the royal palace in the capital city: Jerusalem. These wise men, Persian astrologers, felt drawn to Jesus, even though they had no idea where to go or what to do when they got there.
King Herod and the Jewish leaders, on the other hand, didn’t fare much better. Even though the astrologers had gotten a little turned around, at least they were aware that something important had happened. The astrologers’ arrival woke the Jewish leaders up to what they had forgotten or neglected in the midst of their own self-important agendas.
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”
The astrologers’ questions sent the theologians and seminary professors scrambling for answers. As it turned out, the answer they were looking for was in a tiny, little, forgotten village:
“They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
The arrival of these outsiders and their questions woke the Jewish religious scholars up to those parts of their own country and their own faith that they had neglected for too long. At this point, Herod and the religious leaders have an opportunity before them. Their eyes have been opened to the Messiah’s birth. They now have the chance to step outside their own selfish, little worlds and become part of what God is doing on earth. Is that what they do?
“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”
Instead, there is a reactionary pushback against this news of the Messiah’s birth. The powerful ones are secretly plotting and scheming, not so that they can be part of what God is doing in the world, but so that they can keep their power and maintain their privileged positions in Israel. Those who have power want to keep it, even if that means going against the very essence of what defines them as a people. They would do anything, even kill the Messiah, to maintain their illusion of power and control.
Herod is so delusional, so drunk with power, that he even starts ordering these foreign wise men around like they were his own subjects or property:
“Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.””
The irony here is that he is the one who is dependent on them. He would have no knowledge of this situation if it wasn’t for their pagan, foreign practice of astrology. Yet the wise men are the ones who respond with open hearts and minds. They came to pay their respects because they felt drawn by the heavens. All these secret, back-door deals combined with biblical hermeneutics and seminary professors probably seemed pretty strange to them. In the end, it seems like they (rightfully) disregarded everything Herod and the religious scholars had just taught them:
“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”
Does the text say that the wise men set out to follow the biblical scholars theologically correct directions? Or does it say that they went back to following what they already knew?
The answer is the latter, of course. The wise men basically took the Bible and theological training and threw it out the window. They didn’t know about all that Jewish stuff, nor did they want to. They knew about stars. So, when they set out again (probably more confused than when they arrived), they went back to working with what they knew.
One might think that such pagan backsliding would lead the wise men down the path of sin and deception. Surely, they would be lost forever in the desert, never to find the newborn king.
But that’s not what happened. The text tells us that the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” Get this: by following what they knew, they ended up exactly where they were supposed to be.
They set out on this journey in search of Jesus, and lo and behold: they found him (in spite of the so-called ‘advice’ given by powerful figures and religious leaders). And what was their reaction when they found him?
“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Their hearts were more open than the hearts of those who had spent their lives studying this stuff.
“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
Despite their unorthodox methods and status as religious outsiders, the wise men ended up exactly where they were supposed to be: with Jesus. Their faith did not look anything like conventional Jewish faith, but it proved to be more real and more authentic than the faith of those people who were supposed to have all the answers.
I wonder whether the same thing might be true in the world today?
It seems to me, based on what I saw during The Da Vinci Code’s popularity, that there are a lot of people in this world who feel drawn to Jesus, but want nothing to do with the church or institutional Christianity. To be honest, I can’t blame them. We Christians have a lot to repent for when it comes to representing Jesus to the world. We have often attached his name to our own projects and agendas, but rarely have we acted in a way that is consistent with his Spirit. I think that is what it really means to “Take the Lord’s name in vain”: When we talk about him, but don’t act like him.
Meanwhile, those wise souls who are diligently searching for truth and love in Jesus are driven to look elsewhere because the church has done such a poor job of pointing the way to him. In those circumstances, I am not at all surprised that God is willing to reach out take hold of people’s hearts using things like astrology, science, philosophy, or other religions. I have met atheists who have a closer relationship with God than some Christians (even though the atheists would never use that name: God).
The good news in this is that God is willing to reach out to us human beings using any means necessary. As my seminary roommate was fond of saying, “God will broadcast on any antenna you put up.” Only God knows those hearts that truly seek after God. And, as Jesus himself promised: “Those who seek will find”… he never says they have to seek God in a particular way.
The challenge given to us then is this:
Are we open to what God is doing in the world? Are we open to the fact that God might show up in the least expected way, or in the least expected place? When we encounter others who might be seeking God in ways that seem foreign or unorthodox to us, do we have the faith to trust that God is working in their lives (as well as ours) to bring us all to that place where we can worship Jesus together?
Just like the wise men, these outsiders have precious gifts to bring to the table. Will we work with them and help them to open their treasure chests so that these gifts can be offered to Jesus and shared with the world?
God is inviting us Christians to open our hearts, minds, arms, and doors to those outsiders to the faith who bring unconventional gifts to the table and seek God in unorthodox ways. The question that God sets before us is not “Do we approve of them (or their strange methods)?” or even “Do we welcome/accept/tolerate them in our midst?”
The question is: “Will we travel to Bethlehem with them?”
Will we seek Jesus together as companions in life’s journey? Someone else’s journey might not look exactly like yours and that’s okay. Will we be open to the gifts that others bring to the table? Will we let those gifts challenge our structures of privilege and power? Will we let them change the way we think about church and “the way it’s always been” or the way we think it should be done?
These outsiders come to us, not because we have something they need, but because God has led them to us and called all of us to seek Christ together.