Subtitle: Christian Life & Ministry
Sub-subtitle: A honest and (I pray) fair judgment
John the Baptist proclaimed that the Messiah would come in judgment, separating the wheat from the chaff, the righteous from the wicked.(1) But, when Jesus came, he did not clear the threshing floor with his winnowing fork. He did not burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
John, imprisoned by King Herod Antipas for disturbing the peace, a prelude to his death, was so perplexed by Jesus’ lack of judgment that he sent his disciples to inquire of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or shall we wait for another.”
Jesus, channeling the prophet Isaiah, truly, fulfilling the Isaian prophecy (“The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”), replied, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Today, I hear echoes of John’s question in the cries of all who suffer. And should they, when they turn to the church, the community called to proclaim of Jesus’ message of hope and healing, what can and will the church say?
I am an ordained minister of over forty years’ service. I am devoted to the church. Nevertheless, when I consider and honestly critique the church as a whole,(2) seldom do I hear the ringing clarity of Jesus’ response to John. Many congregations, I think, exist rather than live and thrive; conventional and content with the status quo.
Hence, it is unsurprising that in some places church attendance and participation lag and that there is a burgeoning generation of “nones” who claim no religious affiliation and “dones” who once were active in the institutions of religion, but now no longer.
I perceive two key failures of the church. Each involves a substitution.
First, the substitution of Christianity for Christ; the practice of religion for the person of Jesus.
By “religion,” I mean the traditions and trappings of the church.(3) Religion alone reduces worship to less of an encounter with the living God and more a dialogue, say, in the Episcopal tradition, between the people and The Book of Common Prayer in which God is mentioned by name.
William Temple,(4) the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, who, as a practical theologian, articulated a vision for a revived and just post-war society, offered what I discern to be a timeless word:
“It is a mistake to assume that God is primarily or even very much interested in religion”
“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”
Secondly, the church has substituted membership for ministry.
Membership involves responsibilities of attendance at formal worship, participation in the activities of the congregation, and financial support. Ministry, yes, involves membership, yet, oriented toward the church as an organism and not as an institution, its focus is on the life, the hope of health of all God’s people, whether of the church or in the world.
Now, if there is any truth in my perception (for, in the estimations of wiser souls than I, there may be little or none) that the church has substituted Christianity for Christ and membership for ministry, then Advent (which, back in the day, was considered “a lesser Lent,” a season of penitence) summons the church to examine the faithfulness of its life and labor, individually and communally.
This sentiment, this spirit is captured in the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (5)
I submit that one expression, one manifestation of the Lord’s “power” and “bountiful grace and mercy” is Jesus’ continued performance of his miracles.
Speaking always and only for myself, I pray: O Jesus, my Messiah, daily and alway, cure my blindness, my deafness, my lameness, my deadness; that I anew may see those to whom you send me to serve, hear their cries of need, and move with Spirit-speed to bear unto them your good news of hope and help. Amen.
(1) Matthew 3.11-12
(2) As a whole, meaning that I have no particular denomination or congregation in mind.
(3) For example, doctrines (theological principles) and canons (laws and regulations), institutional polity and procedure, and liturgical forms and customs.
(4) William Temple (1881-1944), Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-44)
(5) The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, The Book of Common Prayer, page 212
Illustration: The Baptist in Prison, Giusto de’ Menabuoi (1320-1391)