I had a friend, now deceased, who told the story of leaving the church as a young adult over the race issue. He and his wife, while working with the youth, used Methodist literature showing blacks and whites together in friendship. The parents of the youth and the leaders in the church made it clear that this was unacceptable. The pastor was silent. My friend didn’t just leave the church; “I threw out Christ with the Christians,” he said, and for years he stayed away from both.
Sadly, this is not an unusual story. Many people have thrown out Christ with us Christians. As much as I hate to admit it, our righteousness, even on the other side of baptism and church membership, doesn’t always rise to the level of the scribes and Pharisees, much less to the greater level described by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.
Many of us, in the name of the Merciful One who said “blessed are the peacemakers” bless any and every war, openly promote state executions and celebrate various acts of vengeance.
Far from bearing witness to a new humanity in Christ that breaks down the barriers between us, many of us continue to maintain racial, class, gender and national identities at odds with “…no longer Jew or Greek, …slave or free, …male or female…” If we’re honest, many of us not only maintain these identities, but also use them to build walls to separate us from and to demonize those we see as “other.”
Of course, like James and John (and I suspect the other 10) aren’t most of us also guilty of tagging along with the servant Jesus while secretly holding aspirations of “glory” – upward mobility, status, wealth and honored places at the table?
Finally, there is also the daily pettiness of our lives in community: envy, mistrust, competition, gossip, judgment. Pettiness and selfishness among us, the Body of Christ?? Well…yes.
I wish it wasn’t so, but it is. I especially wish it wasn’t true of me and of those close to me with whom I walk this journey of faith, but in those too truthful moments when I’m awakened in the dark of night, I see clearly the poverty of my own faith and faithfulness. I cry, and cry out for a new heart, a new day, new habits and, yes…a new community.
My friend returned to Christ, and to the church. He lived his last years very consciously as a member of Christ’s Body in the world. He said that he had faced his own demons and experienced a forgiveness that was real – a saving grace that was for him, the world and, yes, even the church! But his journey with the Body of Christ in this world continued to be hard. He mourned our corporate poverty of faith and yearned for a community that was both graceful and just in a world crying out for both.
I share my deceased friend’s mourning and yearning. I wish I had an easy answer. We are, after all, called to be the “New Creation” and, as individual members of this New Creation, “new creatures.” At the same time, whenever two or more of us gather, the old creation and the old creatures simply insist on coming along, too often blocking the way to God’s Beloved Community.
I’ve heard it rumored this was true even for the early Christian community right on the heals of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 6 or 15, I Corinthians 1:10 ff.).
Called to be signs of the new. Bringing with us the marks of the old. In the midst of such a paradox, the words of Thomas Merton seem appropriate as both a call to worship and a prayer of confession:
*My Lord God, we have no idea where we are going .We do not see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think we are following your will does not mean that we are actually doing so. But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And we hope we have that desire in all that we are doing. We hope that we will never do anything apart from that desire. And we know that if we do this you will lead us by the right road, though we may know nothing about it. Therefore we will trust you always though we may seem to be lost and in the Shadow of death. We will not fear, for you are ever with us, and you will never leave us to face our perils alone. Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
So…yes, the creation waits in eager longing for the Children of God to grow up and act like it (Romans 8, my paraphrase). But Merton’s prayer reminds us that if we are to become this New Creation, offering light and hope to this deeply wounded world, we’ll surely need a fair dose of humility and more than our share of Divine help.
* I couldn’t check with Father Merton. Hopefully he wouldn’t have objected to changing the pronouns to the plural in this quote.