This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The End of the Church, Part One

This is the current draft of the first section of a project I am working on analyzing the classic Presbyterian "Great Ends of the Church." Feedback is appreciated.

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

Christians have always placed proclaiming and hearing near the center of their faith. Presbyterians in particular have lifted up the proclamation of the Word as our preeminent activity. Paul’s words in Romans 10 instructed us: “Faith comes from what is heard” (v. 17a). We have always had the character of a preaching movement. I still meet people who refer to the whole worship service as the “sermon.” What used to pass for “liturgy” in Presbyterian churches was bunch of barely connected prayers and songs leading up to a sermon at the end. Many churches still use this order. The preaching served as the climax and culmination, the veritable point, of Presbyterian worship.

Traditional Presbyterian architecture would allow no distractions from the main purpose of worship, to hear the Word proclaimed. That’s why we don’t generally have pictures or statues. Many churches don’t have stained glass images, and banners once raised the eyebrows and opposition of traditionalists. In taking the Second Commandment (the one against “graven images”) seriously, we organized our worship spaces around speaking, singing, and especially hearing, to the detriment of the visual and tactile sides of experience. In some very old Puritan churches, the people don’t even necessarily face the preacher; they didn’t need to see him, just hear him.

Cogent and intelligible proclamation of the gospel remains the focus of education in Presbyterian seminaries. With the possible exception of the African American church, we have the most accomplished homileticians. We steadfastly require all ministers show proficiency (at least before they graduate) in the ancient biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. This provides a firm foundation for the main event of Presbyterianism, the biblically based sermon, where we fulfill the first Great End of the Church and proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

We have ample biblical warrants for these holy habits. People knew Jesus as a preacher and teacher. The apostle Paul also emphasized these skills and practices. The New Testament is peppered with passages indicating the importance of people hearing the proclaimed word.

How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Romans 10:14-15a)

But I wonder if, in our Protestant heritage, we haven’t emphasized the proclaiming and hearing so much, that we have often forgotten the doing. In Luke 11:28, Jesus says “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” As important as it is to hear, obeying is the point, as Jesus illustrates in this little parable:

What do you think?

A man had two sons;

he went to the first and said,

‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

He answered, ‘I will not’;

but later he changed his mind and went.

The father went to the second and said the same;

and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28-31a)

It is a rhetorical question. Obviously, the first son, the one who heard and obeyed is the one who did the father’s will. The second son only heard and did not obey. It is the obedience that matters. Jesus makes this point again near the end of the Sermon on the Mount. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The illustration with which he concludes his sermon hammers this point again. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matthew 7:24).

As a young adult, my faith came alive when I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer makes the point that faith and obedience are so inherently bound together that neither is authentic without the other. “Only the one who believes is obedient, only the one who is obedient believes,” he said. He sought to break the lethal dichotomy that had grown up in Protestantism, between faith and works.

The situation had deteriorated so profoundly that many Protestants did not think what they actually did mattered at all, as long as they, in some sense, “believed.” How many times have we heard Christians, especially evangelicals, recite these words of the Apostle Paul?

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (Romans 10:9-10)

From passages like this we Protestants emphasized the central, nearly exclusive importance of “believing.” But we somehow managed to reduce believing to giving passive intellectual assent to verbal propositions. In this case it had to do with affirming the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Believing became a matter of accepting that a historical event actually happened. This is a purely mental and verbal exercise.

In Bonhoeffer’s time, this perverse theology would result in the disgraceful spectacle of baptized Christians going to church and hearing the Word proclaimed on Sunday, and on Monday they would oversee trains bearing people to Auschwitz. When the gospel is reduced to faith and hearing in such a way that obedience and actual deeds are discounted, faith becomes utterly empty. It can even become an engine of evil. Bonhoeffer reminds us that without works faith isn’t real or true.

We must not lift up Bonhoeffer’s situation as if it does not apply to us. The Nazis were horrific and appalling; but they are not in a separate category, unrelated to our own decisions and policies. When we claim to “believe” in Jesus while still actively participating in systems that oppress, exploit, and do violence to the Earth and its people, we fall into the same hypocrisy as German Christians in Bonhoeffer’s time. His stern and uncompromising message hits us with the same force. If we really believe in Jesus we obey him. If we don’t do what he commands we cannot claim to believe or trust in him at all. If we don’t show his justice, non-violence, healing, and forgiveness in our own lives, our verbal affirmations of faith in him are at best meaningless, and at worst cynical, manipulative lies.

In the New Testament, however, believing meant far more than merely saying something or holding an opinion. It referred to a fundamental trust extending itself in particular actions. Two chapters after Romans 10, Paul tells his listeners to present their “bodies as a living sacrifice” (12:1). Then he tells them in some rigorous detail what kind of life they are to live in their bodies.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21)

Clearly, Paul understands believing to mean something that bears fruit in real relationships and actions. That portion of Romans 12 could have come from the mouth of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.

In the Twelve-Step healing program, Step 3 has to do with a “decision to turn our will and our lives over to God.” Sometimes participants, especially those influenced by the “grace alone/faith alone” theology of Protestantism, think that making this decision is the end of it. Like the old hymn, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” we tell ourselves that once we make the decision all the rest is an easy downhill ride. Everything else just falls naturally and effortlessly into place.

But it doesn’t work like this. There remain nine more steps. These steps embody, implement, and activate the decision of Step 3. Without them, Step 3 remains empty words. The personal moral inventories and the direct making of amends to people whom we have harmed, along with prayer and spreading the message, serve to fulfill and complete the decision made in Step 3.

In the same way our “decision for Christ” as a response to the proclamation of the gospel does not have any legs, it does not get us anywhere, unless we find ways to embody, enact, and activate it in our behavior. It is not enough just to proclaim the gospel. If it is just talk, just words, just disembodied ideas, our proclamation is insufficient. Clearly the gospel must also be done.

I remember a famous quote from Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Francis understood that proclaiming the gospel was more than a merely verbal exercise. Francis understood “proclamation” primarily as something revealed in the character of the friars’ actions and behavior. They kept the simple but rigorous Rule.

To lift up just the verbal proclamation of the gospel as the end of the church by which humankind is saved seems to say that we believe our way into acting in a new way. As if we believe first, then we act on our beliefs. But it is not this simple. Human nature is such that we often more readily act our way into believing. When we change our practices and our behavior, we can gradually begin to see differently and trust more in what God is doing in and through us.

Jesus himself clearly shows that the gospel has to be more than words. While Presbyterians might like to imagine Jesus as mainly a preacher and teacher, the gospel record doesn’t necessarily bear this out. As Stephen Davies points out in his book, Jesus the Healer, his own contemporaries most likely knew Jesus primarily as a healer and exorcist. What he did was at least as important as what he said. Indeed, what he said would not have gained much of a hearing were it not for what he was doing. Jesus’ actions, frankly culminating in his death and resurrection, far more than his words, demonstrate his identity as Messiah.

Jesus himself proclaims this at the outset of his ministry. In his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus quotes the book of the prophet Isaiah.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the broken-hearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners; 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2a)

Certainly Jesus understands himself called to do some proclaiming. At the same time this proclamation has an active side, indicating things Jesus intends to do. These proclamations are more than empty words. The rest of his ministry shows him carrying out in his actions these things he here knows himself called to proclaim. When he institutes the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, he does not say “proclaim this in remembrance of me;” he says “do this in remembrance of me.”

Presbyterians have finally begun to notice this. Our Brief Statement of Faith includes a detailed account of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:

preaching good news to the poor

and release to the captives,

teaching by word and deed

and blessing the children,

healing the sick

and binding up the brokenhearted,

eating with outcasts,

forgiving sinners,

and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.

Clearly, we affirm that Jesus does more than talk. He understands “proclamation” in active and bodily terms. The colon at the end of the first line indicates that proclamation includes preaching, teaching, blessing, healing, binding, eating, forgiving, and calling. Jesus does not just use his tongue in proclaiming the gospel. He uses his whole body and ministers to people’s whole bodies.

God calls us to do this as well. We have to communicate in this first Great End of the Church that proclaiming has to do with doing. People need to be told of the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus; but this good news also needs to be enacted, lived, and done. Merely talking to people does not liberate them. People don’t come to healing because of what they have simply heard. The church’s responsibility is not done when it has delivered verbal statements and made pronouncements. People have not encountered Jesus Christ when they listen to and even decide to agree with some words.

It is one thing to say that healing, justice, and peace are important. It is another to actually heal, really work for justice, and live non-violently. The implication in this first Great End of the Church is that we Presbyterians have this salvation and now are called to tell it to everyone else… but not to actually do it. We have effectively detached Jesus’ life and the values he gave to the apostles from our understanding of the gospel. To how many Presbyterians does it occur that this proclamation of the gospel for salvation has anything to do with healing, peace, or justice? To how many does it ever occur that maybe we are called to live as Jesus lived? Who ever considers that we might actually be called, in Sara Miles’ words, to, “you know, be Jesus”?

Living in this way will very often bring people into some kind of conflict with their society. This is probably true with any society, but it is particularly the case with a society such as ours in which we positively encourage and reward greed, violence, gluttony, lust, winning, and selfishness. Indeed, in our economy, politics, and entertainment, these values prevail more often than not. We have raised several generations on the affirmation that the meaning of life is consumption, getting rich, and acquiring material goods, by any means necessary. For some, these values even define the “freedom” at the heart of our national identity. We have turned all the traditional deadly sins into virtues, and lifted up as exemplary the sad description of a corrupted society at the end of the book of Judges: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

If the church is going to move forward in faithfulness to its Lord, it is going to have to get out of its head the idea that following Jesus is all about opinions and talking. To the extent that this Great End encourages this attitude, we need to lose it. If not, it will be our dismal end, as we whimper into extinction with Jesus’ name on our lips while all around us suffering and broken people go unhealed, the tentacles of injustice reach into every neighborhood, the creation spirals into imbalance, and we actively participate in practices of violence, judgment, retribution, preemption, and coercion.

We need to remember that our words, no matter how profound or lofty, no matter how spiritual or biblical, do not save humankind. God saves. And God saves in Jesus Christ by “emptying himself, taking on the form of a servant, and suffering death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2). In too many places in the gospels Jesus commands us, not just to talk about him, but to “go and do likewise” (Luke).

So: I submit that the first Great Purpose of the Church is to follow Jesus Christ by living together according to his life of healing, peace, and justice, and in our actions to proclaim the good news of God’s love for the whole world, using words only when necessary.


Beloved Spear said...

Do we have the most accomplished homoleticians? I'm amazed at just how formulaic Presbyterian preaching can sometimes be...and it's not the formula that's reflective of an effective rhetorician and teacher.

Instead, we often preach as if we're writing a paper for an upper level undergrad class. Our sermons include lengthy footnotes and block-quotes. That academic dryness might be leavened with a few canned anecdotes we got from a book somewhere.

The mix of scholarship and passion, of logos and pathos, well...we're just not as good at it as we need to be.

Paul Rack said...

I was being generous....