This article is the first in a series “On being the church.” My focus here is from Acts, chapter 2, verses 1 to 21, and the title of this article is “Blessed by our differences.”
But before we can turn to that subject, we need to talk a bit about the importance of the church itself, because – if there was ever any doubt that American Christians don’t understand the significance of the church – it is clear now that many don’t.
A Gallup poll released at the end of March revealed that church membership in the United States fell below 50% for the first time in nearly a century. And things are set to disintegrate even more quickly as each generation ages. Of those who are still alive, 66% of the adults born before 1946 belong to a church, 58% of baby boomers attend, 50% of those in Generation X belong and only 36% of millennials are members of a church. Those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious now outnumber all mainline Protestants combined.
Now, if the church were just another institution, there is a good argument to be made that this doesn’t really matter. Institutions come and go. They attract a following or they don’t and when they don’t, they go away. Sort of like companies. They were once giants in American life but Borders Books, Pan American Airlines, Toys R Us, Blockbuster Video, and Tower Records no longer exist. Why should the church be any different?
Here is the problem with that line of reasoning: Properly understood, the church is not an institution. It is not a product. It is not entertainment. It is not a spectator sport.
It is the body of Christ. Nothing more, because there isn’t a higher calling, and nothing less because Jesus died for us. When you and I were baptized, we didn’t become a part of an organization. We are not consumers of a product. We are not here to satisfy our personal needs.
We became body parts of Christ, and as body parts of Christ, we were made part of a way of life that is intended to heal our relationship with God and with one another. And, we were healed so that we can come alongside Christ as his children in doing the work of God’s Kingdom.
To be a bit more specific: You and I were baptized to practice the teaching of the apostles, fellowship with one another, break bread at Communion, pray, resist evil, repent when we sin, proclaim the Gospel by word and example, seek and serve Christ in our neighbor, strive for justice and respect the dignity of our neighbors. (If you doubt that, take a look in your Prayerbook.) And the church is where that is meant to happen and where we become more Christ-like in the process.
There is nothing, not one thing in the baptismal vows, that suggests that we are free to worship when it is convenient; free to fellowship once a month or twice a year; free to pass on the sacraments; free to ignore or abuse our neighbors; or free to accommodate evil. Nor is there anything to suggest that in order to attract the devotion of its members that a church should do everything it can, to make it easy as it can, so that we can do as little as we can.
Now, I know that there are those who will argue that the church has been a disappointment to them, and that is why they stand on the sidelines, or they leave the church altogether. I know that because I am a priest. On two different occasions I considered leaving the church. It doesn’t matter why, though I’m happy to explain. Let me simply say that I had really good reasons.
But I never did for another reason: Because I could not read the New Testament without concluding that the church is both the instrument of God’s salvation and the place where that salvation is worked out. Let me put that another way: I couldn’t leave because walking away from the church meant walking away from Jesus.
You see, I don’t go to church because I am a priest. The reason that I go to church is because participation in the body of Christ is God’s will for us. This is where we are healed. This is where our relationship with God is restored. This is where we learn what it means to be made in the image of God and to love as God loves and there is no other place in the world where that can be learned or absorbed. It happens at this altar, it happens when we receive Communion, it happens when we confess our sins, it happens when we learn to forgive one another, it happens when we band together as a community to serve the world in Christ’s name.
That can’t be done alone. It can’t be done in the hundred and one great organizations out there. It can’t be done by paying your taxes, by joining a political party, by marching in the streets or by telling your neighbor how to vote or how to live. Check the New Testament. After a life’s ministry, a violent death, and the Resurrection, Jesus commands his disciples to go into the world preaching the Gospel and baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And – candidly – anyone who hasn’t grasped that fact hasn’t yet grasped what it means to be a Christian.
Sure, we can screw it up. (To use a technical term.) The church can confess its faith and be a hundred times worse than someone who has never darkened a church door. We can disappoint one another.
But that doesn’t prove that Jesus had another desire for us or that he died to heal us by some other means. When we live like that, it simply means that we have failed God, and we have failed our brothers and sisters. The church remains God’s instrument of salvation, just as surely as husbands and wives are meant to care for one another, or mothers and fathers are meant to love and care for their children.
When it comes to the new statistics, then, my concern is not about the survival of an institution. I am not concerned about my job. I could have walked away and gladly found something else to do, if I had concluded that this was not God’s instrument of salvation. I am not even concerned that the body of Christ will have been diminished by the disappearance of mainline Protestantism in the United States. God will raise up a church where people are prepared to respond, and God is doing that – in Africa.
What I am concerned about is the spiritual well-being of people in our churches here who think that we can do God’s work and neglect Christ’s church, or who insist that the church should meet our needs, rather than ask how we can be more available to the work of Christ in the world. Think what we might, the church is God’s way of healing us.
But what about the nature of the church? That is the subject that will keep us occupied over the coming weeks. This week our focus is Acts chapter two and, as I said, the conviction that the church is blessed by our differences.
Not too long ago, to insist that the church is a place that is blessed by differences would have been a positive thing to say about our life together. But interpreters habitually read Acts 2 and other passages in the New Testament as evidence that the church is all about erasing difference. Marxist readings of Acts 2 argue that the church was all about creating a society of equal outcomes. Identitarian readings of Paul’s language about there being neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female suggests that the New Testament is all about erasing differences.
But far from erasing differences or controlling outcomes, what both the Book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Galatians affirms is that the differences between us should not be the basis on which we evaluate our worth in God’s eyes. Our differences remain, but they do not diminish or amplify God’s love for us. Nor does God override our differences, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, nurtures our different gifts in a fashion that accomplishes the work that Christ has given his body, which is the church.
This fact is on display throughout the story that Luke tells in the Book of Acts. The Spirit falls on “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” And they all hear the proclamation of the Gospel “in their native tongues.” The gifts that the church receives vary by gender, race, age and social status. But all are saved because they call on the name of the Lord.
Underlying this story is a very different logic than the one that people seek to impose upon it when they use this story and other passages to construct a political philosophy and without reference to the healing work of God. Those who do invariably create a nightmare for the people they rule: Lenin, Stalin, Mao and now Xi have executed between 65 and 100 million people, making Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Idi Amin look like amateurs.
The God of the Old and New Testaments is not a God of coercion. To be sure, God is clear that trying to be our own gods and to reject the will of God is to court disaster. God’s prophets are consequentialists, and they are as clear about the dangers of ignoring the creator’s handbook on creation, as the Toro lawnmower company is clear about the dangers of using one of their machines for trimming hedges. By contrast, God invites us to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit. God does not impose legislation to enforce his will. Nor does he create gulags and re-education camps for those who refuse to respond.
Nor is the God of either Testament interested in creating a political order. It is clear from the Book of Judges, First and Second Kings, the teaching of Jesus, the letters of Paul, and John’s Apocalypse that governments are, at best, a place holder that might make room for the spread of the Gospel and at their worst the instrument of Satan. But even at their best, governments are neither the instrument of God’s salvation, nor did Jesus reveal any interest in reforming Rome. “Give to Caesar, what belongs to Caesar, give everything else to God,” Jesus tells his interrogators.
Instead, what the Book of Acts sketches is the fulfillment of God’s vision for his people. Drowned in the Spirit, blessed with visions, dreams and prophecies, the church responds to the call of God. And like an ensemble of jazz musicians with different instruments, different influences, different personalities and histories, they contribute to a melody that is God’s alone, but is filled with riffs, solos, improvisation and harmonies that give that music a layered richness that no bureaucrat could ever imagine, never mind construct. And that melody, weaving together ragtime, the blues, and spirituals makes the church what it is. People freed to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit: building churches, schools and hospitals; wading into war zones, taking relief to the impoverished and imperiled, singing songs of praise, offering prayers to God, preaching liberation to the enslaved, and healing to all within its hearing.
And that, my friends, is what happens when differences are baptized celebrated and welcomed into the Body of Christ. We are blessed and in being blessed, we are set free to bless others.