The next section of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? looks at three kinds of Christians having an impact in our world: pilgrims, activists, and artists. Yancey devotes a chapter to each, and each deserves some consideration here over the next several posts.
Pilgrims. This is a particularly apropos this week – at least for those of us in the US. The painting of the first Thanksgiving shown to the right is not historically accurate (wrong clothing etc.) but the image of humans together is a powerful one.
A pilgrim is a fellow-traveler on a spiritual journey, not a professional guide.
We are God’s people on earth, and none of us are perfect. In fact we are a rather motley crew. But apparently this is the plan. The Gospels relate the marvelous story of Jesus’s ministry on earth, his miraculous healings and his control of nature, his appalling crucifixion and then the magnificent victory of resurrection. But the story ends with the disciples staring up into the sky and wondering what to do next.
“Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” were the disciples’ last words to Jesus, and it was left to the angels to provide an indirect answer: “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Get moving – you’re the main actors now.
We bumbling pilgrims are “the Jesus left behind” after the ascension, the heirs of God’s Spirit. Paul takes the concept further, calling us the body of Christ and God’s temple – meaning the actual presence of God in the world. We are the reason Jesus came, to set into motion a kingdom without borders that eventually would indeed reach Europe and China and Australia and the Americas. (p. 101)
The church is the body of Christ in the world. Now Yancey has no pie in the sky view of the church. The church is full of less than perfect people and less than perfect leaders. He notes “I’ve met my share of characters who seem more suitable for Worldwide Wrestling than spiritual leadership.” But God uses these people despite their “surplus of ego.” And realistically we should expect nothing different.
That pattern simply replicates what the Bible shows so clearly. God used Jacob with his slippery ethics, David with his moral lapses, Jeremiah with his morosity, Saul of Tarsus with his abusive past, Peter with his bodacious failures.
Thinking back over the Christian personalities I’ve known, as well as those featured in both the Old and New Testaments, I’ve come up with the following principle: God uses the talent pool available. None lived without sin and embarrassing failures. Yet somehow God used them to advance the cause of the kingdom. (p. 103)
Still, the church is the body of Christ in the world.
We live out our pilgrim faith not alone, but in community with others, and the New Testament describes a new community – the kingdom of God – that should attract, rather than repel, the world around us. What does a healthy community of pilgrims look like in our day? (p. 104-105)
To answer this question he visited every church in his community over the course of a year (24 total), and has visited many churches over a lifetime. The answer? Healthy congregations of pilgrims are ones that seem “to center on our charge to, in Peter’s words, “serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace, in its various forms.“” (p. 106, 1 Pt 4:10) Healthy congregations of pilgrims are diverse congregations. Churches should not be that comfortable place where we find ourselves surrounded by others just like us … similar in age, economic class, and outlook.
Yancey finishes this chapter with an insight he picked up from a pastor friend who did a series of sermons on the phrase “one another.” The New Testament list includes:
- Love one another
- Forgive one another
- Pray for one another
- Bear one another’s burdens
- Be devoted to one another
- Regard one another as more important than yourself
- Do not speak against one another
- Do not judge one another
- Show tolerance for one another
- Be kind to one another
- Speak truth to one another
- Build up one another
- Comfort one another
- Care for one another
- Stimulate one another to love and good deeds.
This is a powerful list – and one that has stuck with me all week as I read the chapter and was mulling it over preparing for this post.
Yancey concludes: “I wonder how different the church would look to a watching world, not to mention how different history would look, if Christians everywhere followed that model.” (p. 108)
There are no perfect churches. There are no perfect leaders. There are no perfect followers. There are no perfect Christians. We are all fellow pilgrims on a spiritual journey together.
When we use our gifts to serve others and faithfully administer God’s grace, others, even outsiders, want to join.
What does it mean to be fellow pilgrims?
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