By James Touchton
College ministry is a hard and holy investment into the future of the Church universal. And I love it.
What I particularly enjoy in my context is that-contrary to most churches and college ministries-my flock is simply the Ithaca College Protestant Community. As in, if you say you’re a Christian-whatever that means to you-we’ll claim you. While I believe this to be a beautiful gift, it certainly can get messy at times.
One of my favorite things to do with my student leadership is to lead them through an exercise entitled simply, “What is the Gospel?” While this has an organizational purpose to help us articulate what it is exactly that unites us, it also has the personal benefit of helping students to wrestle with what lies at the heart of their faith and how to best communicate that when asked. I simply invite them to answer that question in as few or many words as necessary with two caveats: try to avoid “Christianese” and don’t just cite scripture at me. I then read through the responses, compile some observations about what I saw…and perhaps most significantly what I didn’t see…and we walk through those together at our next meeting. As one might imagine, it can be a particularly powerful growing experience. One of my students, upon submitting her response, reflected “One thing that bothered me a bit was that in Paul and Peter’s Gospel presentations, the resurrection of Jesus was integral, whereas in mine, it seems unnecessary. That does not seem right…”
This exercise is not just for college students. I think it is generally a helpful endeavor for all of us, from time to time, to take part in. When forced to wrestle with this, we discover the myriad of ways we all tend to either reduce the Gospel somehow to something less than its gloriously cosmic proportions or unnecessarily add to it in ways that construct fences in the midst of an otherwise beautifully diverse landscape. But what I have found particularly meaningful over the years as I have both engaged in and read my students’ responses is that it gives me hope for the Church.
We have a tendency to talk about efforts of unity and fellowship as if it’s something we must construct or accomplish. But this is not how scripture speaks of it. In his classic piece on Christian community Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer states, “Christian brotherhood [sic] is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” It’s as if God has presented us with this gift of Christian unity and we’ve tried to trade it in for something of our own making, something more easily managed or defined.
Christian community is hard. It is often messy and full of unresolved tensions. But perhaps that is precisely where the Christ of creation and new creation wants to meet us and invite us to follow him in ever new and risky ways. Do we really believe that our unity in Christ is enough? Sure, we may have different ways of talking about it and different nuances and emphases but do we really believe that the reconciling work of Christ on the cross was enough to encompass even this disagreement or this conflict?
When this reality of our journeying together gets hard, as it inevitably will, the truth of the matter is that we will all find ourselves in need of God’s grace. It is God’s grace that will carry us through the valleys. But that grace is found in the gift. It’s ours for the taking. We may need to wrestle with how to talk about that gift and the promises therein, but we dare not try to exchange it for something of our own making. The gift of Christian unity, in all its messiness and mystery, is the reality to which we’ve been invited. May its scars be signs to a hurting world of the coming kingdom of God. Amen.
James Touchton serves as the Protestant Chaplain for Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.