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Thursday, June 23, 2011

"The thing works!" On the church and history

The other week was Pentecost: the day that Christians remember as the start of the church as Christ's kingdom of emissaries in this temporal realm and age. It is the Sunday that many churches take to honor the coming of the Holy Spirit onto the followers of Jesus, as recorded in Acts, chapter 2.

I spent this year's Pentecost visiting with a friend, at a United Methodist congregation. It was also the final Sunday that the minister of this particular assembly would have with the people that he had served for many years. Per a tradition that hearkens back to the days of the circuit riders, United Methodist ministers will be at one church for a few years before being assigned to another, at which time the congregation will receive a new minister who will serve them until the next time that the conference gets to the task of re-assignment.

So it was that this wound up being the first and possibly last time that I listened to this good man of God. But as I told him when we left the worship service, he gave me a bunch to think about. One of which I was bursting to tell my friend when we got to the car...

"It really is one of the most amazing things about Christianity," I was feeling led to observe, "that the church has persisted for two thousand years... in spite of the most RIDICULOUS things that Christ's followers have done to themselves!"

Think about it. All the nonsense and stupidity and even grief that too many of us who bear the name "Christian" have done to ourselves, to the name of Christ, and unfortunately to those who we should be witnesses to as examples of Christ in this fallen world. We have condemned each other for trivial matters. We have tortured many and led a great number to their deaths, even... all in the name of Christ. We have split ways from each other over how one measly word might or might not be translated. We have even held others in slavery and bondage and claimed a biblical mandate for it.

Let's face it: Christianity has a reputation, and not at all entirely a good one. And that's not Christ's fault at all. It's like a bumper sticker that I once saw: "Lord, please protect me from your fan club."

And yet, despite it all: the church has endured, for darn nearly two millennia.

It has endured in defiance of everything that we who follow Christ have done. And I'm not talking about the historical stuff like the Inquisition, the sacking of Constantinople, the Salem witch trials and all that horrible crap.

No, I'm talking about the ubiquitous failings that all of us have... including and especially Yours Truly... as those who must live in this carnal plane. And we know from scripture that even those earliest Christians were not miraculously immune or imparted some special grace that kept them "perfect" in the ways of doctrine. Peter and Paul had severe disagreements with each other. Paul and Barnabas argued and went their separate ways. The church at Corinth had former prostitutes and idolators among its number... and not a few of them were being tempted to go back to their old ways. The seven churches of Asia Minor couldn't possibly be called models of Christian unity and non-division! The New Testament is rife with these examples and many, many more.

When one studies the historical record, it seems nothing short of a miracle that the church survived past the first century... let alone the twentieth!

Indeed. How could it be anything but a miracle?

Because man, for all his schemes and devices and cleverness, is still a fallen creature. And I can not believe that men left to themselves could have created such an enduring institution.

This good Methodist pastor emphasized something during his sermon, that I have also thought much about: that the work didn't begin or end with him. That the church was there before he came to serve it, and it will be there long after he would be gone. Because the man... and the woman too, no chauvinists we!... is not the finished work. The person is not and should never be the purpose and the focus of the one true great work. We, each of us, are only laborers for a time in the Kingdom of God. We do this not for our glory, but for His... and one of the neat incentives about working for Him is that He does honor us in His own wonderful way. But that isn't why we work. We do so because we love Him and because we love others as He has instructed.

And so it is, that the work has been done across the centuries, and across all the body of Christ. It matters not if we worship in a Methodist congregation, in a Baptist congregation, in a Catholic congregation, in a Pentecostal congregation, as a non-denominational Christian, or whatever. As I have written here before, there is NO such thing as "denomination". There are only different perspectives of Christ. Given that Christ is too magnificent and too wondrous for any one man or group of men to fully comprehend, that is only natural and only understandable that we see Him only with earthen eyes and mind. In the fullness of time we shall know Him as we are meant to. In the meantime we strive to gaze through a glass darkly...

...and even so, the church has endured.

How can this be, other than the work of the Holy Spirit which came to those first Christians at Pentecost? How has the church, as the complete body of all followers of Christ, persisted for all of this time against all the odds and against every screwy bit of craziness that His believers have done to others and even done to themselves?

I know of no other way to put it, than one another writer exclaimed after his own study of the Book of Acts...

"The thing works!"


Amy G. said...

An excellent writer, Forrest Church, in my tradition, had a very poignant way of explaining the proliferation of denominations: like a cathedral with many stained-glass windows. Each of us sees God through one, or more, of these; we may have different shades of meaning, but we are all looking on the same Divine. Food for thought indeed.