The Church I can’t Choose

The Church I can’t Choose February 26, 2014

This post is by Sean Palmer.

“You have to be $^$*%^*^* kidding me,” were the first words that came to mind.

Six years ago I went to a denominational gathering. When I left my house, I’d been serving my current church almost 10 years. Two days after I came home, I was fired. They called it something else, but I was fired.

Few things in my life hurt that badly.

There were plenty of reasons why it was time for me and the church I loved to part ways, but when it happened — and the way it happened — cut me more deeply than almost anything I’d ever experienced.

I was hurt and mad and I knew exactly who to be mad with. I suspected I knew precisely who was behind my dismissal and I wanted a measure of revenge, but I understood there are pushes and pulls in life (and ministry), so I moved on, taking my heartache with me.

I’m the kind of guy, however, who likes to beat the odds, prove others wrong, and make others regret their ill-treatment of me. And that’s exactly what I’d planned on doing as a I loaded my boxes and packed my bags.

I would best my opposers one day and exact my revenge. I’d come out on top and have the last laugh. That church would regret this.

My problem was that I owned a Bible. And that Bible talks a lot about “church.” Some might find it odd, though, that when the Bible talks about church, it doesn’t talk so much about hymnals, pews, and pulpits; the Apostle Paul’s favorite word when talking about what church is and does is “reconciliation.”

Paul says crazy things like “God reconciled us to himself, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” and  “He (Jesus) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

In those fumbling, early days of the church the biggest issue in the church was the church. How are these Jews and Gentiles, people who are so fundamentally different from one another, going to get along?

Paul’s answer to the existential problems of race, religion, politics, and classism? Church!

The church is envisioned as the place — perhaps the only place — where those otherwise at odds find communion, common cause, and mutual love. It’s church where disparate interests, purposes, politics, and ideologies celebrate one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, three years later, when I returned to worship one Sunday with the community that fired me, walked to the front to celebrate the Eucharist by Intinction, and was served by one of two church leaders I felt most responsible for my dismissal.

That’s when words that typically don’t come to mind did, “You have to be /.;kidding me.”

Much like rubbing alcohol to a wound, there was stinging and healing all at once. He smiled, stretched out his hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, “The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.”

The events of our past did not disappear, but my hurt and anger, perhaps even my arrogance and pride, receded. In that moment, healing began.

Reconciliation is what it means to be church; to go “to church.” It’s what Jesus intended our gatherings to be and to produce. I can’t be reconciled alone. I can worship alone, but I can’t do and be church alone.

And I can’t be reconciled with people who are already just like me. Church is more than a gathering of my friends. It’s the differences, the tensions, the partisanship, the space between that creates the opportunity for God to transform my heart from what it is not to what God created it to be.

If I believed church was a place were certain things happened, I suppose I could have church anywhere and everywhere or concern myself with whether or not those certain things fit my style, but I don’t believe that. I believe church is an intentionally inclusive community of people committed to joining God’s mission. That requires being together — one body.

All those “one another’s” in scripture, require one another.

It’s in church that I discover that being reconciled to God encompasses being reconciled with actual living, breathing people and to miss church is to miss God, to miss others, and miss how God is redeeming me through the ministry of reconciliation.


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