Thursday 10 May 2018

If the church is dying, what does resurrection look like?

Well, I’ve been writing and talking a fair bit lately about what I believe. About how, whatever language you may frame it with, we’re all children of God (everyone), that religion is a human construct that we build around what we believe to help us (hopefully, but not always) understand it better, that there are many ways to God and that any way that’s true to love and grace and is life-giving is a way to God. My way is Jesus and Jesus, to me, is all about life, not death, inclusion, not exclusion, love, not hate, hope, not fear. I could go on, but I already have.

That seems like a fair recap, though I’ll always be talking and writing about these things because beliefs should be shared. And lived.

And how we live what we believe changes as we do, as the world does. Or it should. That doesn’t mean that change is always good, just because it’s change. It has to be authentic and true to what we believe, to what’s at the heart of our faith. So maybe we ask ourselves what’s at the heart of our faith and we build around it.

My church, nationally, is going through a fairly extensive restructuring right now. Some others are, too. Many are grappling with challenges that are financial, administrative, ethical or social. But everyone - I hope - is feeling challenged about the way forward. Where do we go from here?

I imagine that was a frequently asked question among the first followers of Jesus. I imagine it was a frequently asked question since the first creation asked “what next?” but I’ll stick with the followers of Jesus.

From the beginning with Jesus, it was “come and see.” An invitation to follow and learn by living with Jesus. And when Jesus knew his departure was imminent, it was “love one another as I showed you - live as I showed you to live with my own life.” And then Jesus is dead. And then alive and he promises that the Spirit will always be with them. And then he’s gone, ascended into heaven, the story says.

And then, according to the Book of Acts, the very first thing the disciples do, even before the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost, is pray. And call a meeting.

Yes, they called a meeting. In order to move forward, there needed to be 12 apostles (symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel), so Judas needed to be replaced. I have all sorts of questions about this, the process and other things, but suffice to say that Matthias is selected and the next story is Pentecost, the coming of the spirit that resulted in the spread of the gospel and the establishment of the church.

But what about Matthias? Not heard from again in the bible. So what’s the point of the story?

I think it’s that they had a meeting. They had a meeting and affirmed the importance of the 12 as the core from which the authentic, true and life-giving story of Jesus will be shared. It is soon affirmed by the Spirit, too, in the Pentecost story and moves out into the world through other disciples learning and sharing, loving and living. Through all this, the continuity of the Spirit’s presence.

There were no gospels yet, no written word except what they knew as Jews, no charter, no constitution, no manual, no set of policies and procedures, no existing network or structure, and no head office. What there was was a story and the spirit moving them to share it.

I’m not saying that they had nothing to work with. They were all good Jews who knew the structures and traditions of that faith. They also knew the oppression of an empire occupying their country. They also knew that Jesus had spent much of the time he had with them challenging those existing structures.

But they also had the profound experience of death and resurrection, a root metaphor going forward. Why isn’t it ours? We preach it every week, that we’re a resurrection people, we find hope and comfort in its promise and we call people to remember that we live in the hope of new life. And yet, among the many metaphors that we use to help us through change, the scripture passages that remind us of engaging a different perspective and the promise of a new covenant and the hope of a certain future, we are as afraid of the death of our institutions as we are our own death. The phrase “the church is dying” has been said for too many years to count. Instead of defending it, changing it and refreshing it, what if we embraced that idea for a minute and considered: if the church is dying, what does resurrection look like?

When I consider what returning to God might look like - and I believe we all return home to God - I don’t have a clear vision of it. I have a few ideas, though. One, that whatever it looks like, it won’t be describable in the images of this world. Two, that whatever it is, it will be, in the words of the 16th century poet Edmund Spenser, “endlesse perfectnesse.” And three - and most importantly - the spirit of love, hope and grace that I know in this world will be there.

Whatever else is ahead, I know that for the church to be true, it will need to have love, hope and grace at its heart. For the rest to be new life, I hope for more than change. I hope for a resurrection.