Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. – Matthew 27:50-51a
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:23-39
Few things are as threatening as freedom. While most of us, particularly here in the United States, treat freedom not just as a political right but a sacred right conferred upon us by God, real freedom frightens us no end. Most of us would far rather huddle with the familiar than expose ourselves to the unfamiliar; nothing is more terrifying than seeing the endless possibilities that lie before us and realizing it’s up to us what we do with them.
We in the Christian churches in particular are cowards when it comes to the reality of the freedom that is ours in and through Christ. Oh, we talk about it a whole lot. Usually, however, it’s a “freedom” to be jerks to other people. As St. Paul noted in Galatians, the best thing about Christian freedom is the opportunity to serve others. That paradox confuses so many outside the Church; on the one hand, we’re free – really free for freedom’s sake – while on the other hand we are to be servants to all. Most of the time this opportunity becomes a new Law, usually linked to those verses in Galatians that talk about sinful actions, lists of “Thou shalt not”‘s that replace the Ten Commandments. Rather than viewing the Christian life as an opportunity to live without enmity, to live without being slaves to physical pleasure, without being slaves to the envy of others we fall in to the very trap St. Paul about which St. Paul warns the Galatians.
Because freedom is terrifying.
In St. Matthews telling of the crucifixion, the moment Jesus dies the veil in the Temple – that which separated the Holy of Holies, the Throne of God, from the rest of the world – tears from top to bottom. God, like Elvis, has left the building. With the resurrection of Christ, the Holy of Holies now resides with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The old binaries, set out by St. Paul so clearly in his Epistle to the Galatians, no longer mean anything because, now living in and through the Risen Christ in the power of the Spirit we are free from that separation from God evidenced in all the sinful divisions that exist in our fallen but now healing world.
Far too many of us, however, are terrified of that torn curtain. We want the sacred to be something set apart. We would rather live with those binaries that separate “us” from “them”. Thus it is we talk about the saved and the reprobate. We call some people doctrinally pure while others are heretics. We believe it is up to us to separate the wheat from the chaff; we further believe that chaff is other people. Just that we live this way, act this way, teach and preach this way demonstrates we are terrified of the freedom we have in Christ Jesus – freedom for the sake of real freedom in service to others.
Holy ground? It’s all around us. God is even now redeeming the land and the sea and the sky. Our churches and pulpits are no more special to God than our living rooms, locker rooms, or the forest floor. All of it, in and through the crucified and risen Christ is being redeemed, transformed, made new.
So why do we continue with the sacred/profane binary? Why pretend that differences with which we invest so much meaning, so much emotional energy, even sacred worth, are in fact not at all sacred? In fact, what if insisting on binaries – good/evil, beautiful/ugly, sacred/profane – is just another sign we aren’t being faithful enough?
If we truly are saved by faith through grace, why do we make of opportunities for free living new commandments? Why do we condemn some for “sinful” living when we have not first checked our own eye for that beam that may be anger or envy or lust? Why so much energy spent on creating “others” against whom we can measure everything from our own virtue to our righteousness? The Christian life isn’t a zero-sum game, with good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. The Christian life is one of freedom. Not just freedom from slavery to sin and death, but freedom truly to live for others for no other reason than we love them because they are God’s children. For some reason, we Christians continue to believe only we have that restored image of God, rather than hearing in the words of St. Paul and St. Matthew reminders that all Creation if God’s beloved child. All Creation is being transformed. Our job as Christians is not to judge the world; that’s God’s job and was taken care of. Our job is to love all that is, to be the love of God for the world.
That’s why I think so much of our talk in our churches is so broken. We have taken the gift of Christian freedom and traded it for a mess of pottage. We would rather rest in some false sense of security rather than risk the freedom that is ours, showing the world what is possible in and through the Spirit because of the risen Son. We are free for the sake of true freedom, to live for and love others just because they are, because they are God’s creation, beloved just as they are. Rather than be so hung up on sin, how about we in the churches start being hung up on love and joy and peace?
Those are some of the fruits of the Spirit. Not all this Us-versus-Them crap.
Live free. I dare you.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angelfrom heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. – Galatians 1:6-10
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. – 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also, it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. – Revelation 13:1-8
As a student of Christian history, one thing that is clear to me is that even and especially in times and places the faith seemed ubiquitous, there was always a struggle going on around what that faith was. The New Testament is a history among other things of how the earliest churches persevered in the midst of inner conflict and outer persecution. The whole of the Revelation of St. John, a letter to seven churches across what is now Turkey, offered a colorful, poetic, and at times horrifying description both of the times through which they lived as well as the reassurance that perseverance in the faith would bring about the greatest of glories. It is a lesson those who compiled the Bible would understand would need to be held dear; that’s why it is in the canon. Not a foretelling of some future event, it rather offers an story from a particular time that has lessons of faith for the Church in all times.
Just as St. John felt the need to write to the seven churches in Asia Minor, St. Paul felt the need to write to the churches of Galatia and the city of Corinth, reminding them that their bickering and feuding was not about living the Christian faith. They were contending over things – whether that “different Gospel” mentioned in Galatians or who baptized whom in Corinth – that had nothing to do with the Gospel. From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount/Plain through the Revelation to St. John the Divine, ours is a story of two things: that Christians will live with dissension and oppression; that perseverance in the face of both, a perseverance that comes through the Holy Spirit, will see the faithful through to the greater glory that is the Kingdom of God.
Whether it’s Kim Davis carrying on about marriage certificates, lower worship and membership numbers that confront leaders with new challenges, or the rise of a more vocal and confident secularism that refuses to remain silent in the face of religious condescension and confusion, there is a whole lot of whining in North America about the Christian churches facing “persecution”. If only that were true! If we were being tossed in jail for proclaiming the faith; if Christians had their churches burned and looted (not because, like African-American churches, they are symbols and signs of black solidarity and strength in a white supremacist society); if Christians found themselves expelled from the United States or face execution; if our government decided it should appoint bishops and leaders of all our denominations; these would all be signs of a persecuted church. The law and society in the US is still overwhelmingly Christian and deferential to religious belief in ways no other country can boast. Millions still attend Wednesday evening events and Bible Studies, Saturday services and masses, Sunday morning worship. Christmas and Easter are national holidays while Ramadan, Yom Kippur, and Passover are not.
What the Christian churches face right now in the United States is the dawning realization that ours is not now nor has ever been “a Christian nation”. This was a comforting fiction we allowed ourselves because of various social, demographic and cultural realities through much of our earlier history. The fact that, legally, we are a secular nation and always have been, is difficult for some to understand or accept. That doesn’t make it untrue. Our churches have faced contention within because of slavery and temperance, the role of women and integration, whether we are to be a crucified church or a militant church. That we are a materialistic, secular, often superficial society is neither new nor interesting; that the matter of how best to worship is as old as Christian Church Catholic and Apostolic is also clear enough. Because all these arguments and whatnot are occurring in the United States means they are happening in a country that lacks historical consciousness. We know trends and fads; just last night my wife and I were talking about 80’s fashions being hip again, and that we’d have to wait until the 20’s for 90’s styles to come back. For most of us, that’s history.
The reality is that rarely in its history has the Christian faith existed within a more legally and culturally congenial environment. When churches get in to arguments over doctrine or practice, instead of excommunicating one another or burning people at the stake, we just divide and form new denominations, like amoebas. Through much of our history our disagreements have rarely led to much more than some folks leaving a church in a huff, people calling one another names like “heretic” and “apostate” that really don’t mean anything, and going off and worshiping somewhere else.
That our churches have to work harder to make the Gospel heard and understood; that we face demographic and cultural challenges that should excite us about new possibilities but rather leave us all feeling down and worried about the future; that folks who assumed the faith spoke against some human beings being of equal worth – women, racial minorities, sexual minorities – are hearing an inclusive gospel challenges their faith in ways that are uncomfortable – as the Gospel always should be; that people raised with no faith will no longer put up with being told they are bad people, that people cannot be moral agents without faith in God, that atheists are intrinsically a threat to our society – that’s is both new and, to me, welcome. All these social and cultural changes certainly pose challenges to the churches in the United States. They hardly mean we face challenges of unprecedented danger to the faith. They are, rather blessings. We have to learn how to be faithful and humble, to proclaim the Good News without talking down to others.
Christian churches face not so much new challenges from within or without; we are facing challenges with which we have always had to deal, in one form or another. Society around us does not remain static. The simplicity and clarity of the Gospel remains as it always has been. How we get that message to a world in need of Good News, however, is something we always struggle to do. Militancy, whether within or without, is not a healthy response. Simple, humble trust in the God who creates us, who saves us, who sustains us by making us holy offers the world a vision of the Kingdom that is at once beautiful and wonderful: a place in which all of us revel in our full humanity, the opportunity to be what we were created to be: the tender, loving caretakers of one another and God’s creation. The visions and words of Scripture offer us solace and hope. We should heed them and persevere in the faith because we hold fast to the promise of the faith offered in Jesus Christ: the blessings of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace, fellowship, and joy.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:3-13
The problem with claiming unity in Christ goes back to the matter of theological pluralism,as I have argued before. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t all confess these truths about Christ. – Dr. David Watson, “Unity In Christ?”, Musings and Whatnot, August 2, 2015
The incessant demand that we in The United Methodist Church all assent to doctrine before we truly become “United” is getting more than tiresome. It does, however, need to be addressed both in love and with clarity. Denying that we are united by the words we say or the things we think about Jesus, God, etc. is not to say that doctrine is unimportant. On the contrary, doctrine is the church’s continually evolving sense of what it believes, which defines who it is. Precisely because the time and place and collective language are always changing, however, we must always be aware that doctrine is always changing, because our collective sense of our own identity is always changing. None of this means that the Gospel has changed, or that the Spirit has left the Church, or that innovation is a mark of heresy. It is what it is: We in the Church are always reflecting on our sense of Scripture; allowing it to interpret our experience, as well as allowing our experience to enlighten our hearts when reading Scripture; we discover new things about our collective tradition that offer insights we might not have had before; reason graced by the Holy Spirit moves through this person or that person, offering new ways to think about God.
Even if there are those who would dismiss what I just wrote, we should always remember that confessing the faith in English is not confessing the faith in French is not confessing the faith in Hindi is not confessing the faith in Russian is not confessing the faith in koine Greek. These languages are all too human, all too historical constructs, each different. Speaking words in one have no exact equivalent in any of the others. To claim that our collective confession in either the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed provides unity pretends that language, at least language about God, has some essential quality that all other language does not have. Isn’t it more fruitful for faith to acknowledge our unity in the Spirit, and to hear in the words of the Creeds spoken in different tongues the possibilities of different insights, different ways of living the faith, ways that have never occurred to us?
Yet, as noted in the link above, there continues to be an ongoing insistence that it just isn’t enough to declare that we are the Church of Jesus Christ. Not only do we have to have the right words; we have to make sure when we speak them, we all have the same understanding of the words. Otherwise, we aren’t confessing the faith properly. Dr. Watson brings up our now-outdated statement on our theological task – yet again – declaring it “theological pluralism” without either defining the term or defending his claim (again). Perhaps he means a pluralistic approach to religious understanding, which is the affirmation that our sources and norms of God-talk are not restricted to the Christian Scriptures, but could incorporate non-Christian and even secular sources as authoritative. Whatever he might mean by “theological pluralism”, it’s a red herring, a non-issue because the General Conference in 1988 set new Doctrinal Standards and a theological task before us as a Church. Continuing to reference anything prior to that as having any relevance to us as a church is a bit like insisting we need to affirm the supremacy of the Papacy because the Christian churches used to do that before 1517. Just as our understanding of doctrine is ever-changing, so to are the reference points for beginning a discussion on doctrinal matters. We are in a different historical period as a denomination. We have firm guidelines, with our special Wesleyan emphases offered as tools to become a more fruitful Church.
Our unity in Christ, as St. Paul noted in many places in many letters, is rooted in our collective experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit revealing the grace of the Father in the Son. Ours is a unity rooted in the Persons of the Divine Trinity. Ours is a unity rooted in the Great Commission, to go make disciples of all nations, a commission itself rooted in the revelation of the risen crucified Christ. We are not united by our declarations of our current identity contained in our doctrinal statements, our creeds, our words, or how we define or understand those words. The insistence that is the case flies in the face of the Scriptural testimony and two thousand years of Christian practice. I cannot say it enough: Doctrine is our collective understanding of our identity. Our unity is rooted in the grace made real in us by the Holy Spirit in the Son for the glory of the Father. These reference events in our collective life – events that continue to shape our mission and ministry, our preaching and teaching, and, yes, our ongoing discovery of who we are as those claimed by the crucified and risen one.
I’ll just close with some more words from St. Paul:
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. – Galatians 1:11-12
The scriptures tell us that we have been set free from the laws of sin and death because there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Think about it: no condemnation.
Go, live as free people, free to love and offer light to others because that we what we want for ourselves. – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Bodily Constrictions And The Nature Of Freedom”, The Thoughtful Pastor, July 4, 2015
Pastors are expected , from the earliest days, to be exemplary Christians. A pastor’s exemplary moral life is an aspect of of the pastor’s service to the people of God. . . .
It is not that the pastor is expected to be a morally more exemplary Christian than other Christians, but rather that pastors are expected to behave in a way that befits their public and communal, that is, churchly, obligations. . . . Clearly pastors are to be role models for the church, without the troublesome modern separation between public and private, social and personal, behavior. – William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. – Galatians 5:1
Our family has fallen in love with the show Sons of Anarchy. If you don’t know about it, the Sons are a motorcycle club that runs the small northern California town of Charming. Filled with violence, sex, foul language, and offering us villains as heroes, it is drama in a direct line from A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley Kowalski was more than an anti-hero; he was a small-minded, greedy, lust-filled wife-beating low life who destroyed whatever he touched. In much the same way, the men in SOA are also greedy, lust-filled, gluttonous, violent low-lifes who destroy what they try to protect. Except, like Stanley, we come not just to understand, but like these big, burly, brutal bikers. During the first season, some ATF agents were trying to get information that could put the club members behind bars. My older daughter got all huffy. “Why are they doing that? Why can’t they leave the Sons alone?” My answer – “Because they’re murderous gun-runners who help international terrorists” – made her stop and say, “Yeah, OK.”
Fifteen years ago, the wife of the Congregational minister in the town Lisa was serving as UM pastor held an open community forum on the moral dangers represented by the Harry Potter books. Leaving aside everything such a sentence brings up in most people, it’s easy for me to say that I am – and by extension our family is – a very different kind of clergy spouse and family than this gentle lady. Not only do I like a television program that celebrates pretty much everything we Christians are supposed to reject, I declare that support in public.
When our girls were in elementary school, someone asked what I would do if one of them decided to become Goth, with the appearance change and dress. My answer was simple: I couldn’t care less. What if one of them became pregnant, I was asked. My wife and I would make sure she found a doctor, received the proper nutrition, and love her and the baby no matter what. The questions were an attempt to pigeon-hole me as someone who would raise a moral ruckus in the face of some act of adolescent defiance. Except, of course, I’m not that kind of person. No matter this person’s insistence that I would, say, insist my children ditch the black clothes and makeup and stop being Goth, I just couldn’t imagine doing such a thing.
Truth is, folks who live outside the margins of social acceptability are folks toward whom I try to gravitate. One reason I like SOA is that I like bikers. Not just the weekenders, but folks in clubs, outlaw and legit. Deadheads, too, are a group I think is awesome. Artists, bohemians, Marxists, folks in non-traditional relationships, hard-scrabble working class salt-of-the-earth folks – these, too, get my admiration. Rastas and others with their long dreds? Beautiful.
The inevitable question is: Do I approve of the lives they lead? Well, it’s because of the life they lead that I find them worthy of admiration. That doesn’t mean I approve of all the things they do. What I admire is the sense of shared commitment to a life that refuses to bow to the social and cultural pressure to conform to our rather boring and morally childish “American Mainstream”. These are people who, either through choice or the vicissitudes of our social and racial class system could be considered failures, society’s rejects. They don’t look clean and pressed. They aren’t ambitious, at least not in the traditional sense. They may barely scrape by week-to-week. They engage in what many consider self-destructive behaviors. They know the inside of the county jail.
Usually, it is that final list upon which people focus their attention. After all, being a Christian, aren’t I supposed to live according to a higher moral standard? As part of a clergy family, aren’t we supposed to model a particularly exemplary moral life together? With that moral life, shouldn’t it follow that I wouldn’t dare allow my daughter to watch a program like SOA? Shouldn’t I be denouncing both the show as well as those who enjoy it? How is it possible that I can claim to admire criminals, atheists, drug users and others who are precisely those whose moral life is so abysmal?
The answer to that question is simple: I can make that claim because these folks and others like them live without the pretense too many of us are forced to wear. Look, let’s be upfront. Who reading this has lived a crime-free life? Smoked a little weed, maybe each day or perhaps just when you were younger? You ever have sex before or outside marriage? You ever look around at our too-fast, success-demanding American life and think, “Wow, this is crap”? If so, then the folks to whom I ascribe admiration have, at the very least, the honesty not to pretend to be anything other than who they are. They don’t make excuses, apologies, or laud their lives over others.
We in the Church are supposed to be honest about one simple thing: That we are sinners. Not just individually, but together our lives are broken, separated from God, a constant struggle against all the things that would keep us from the One who creates us, loves us, redeems us, and one day will raise us. What unites us is our self-identity as those who are more than just failures at being Christians. We’re failures at the very things that people think Christians ought to be: moral exemplars for the rest of society. Rather than upholding an ever-changing set of restrictive moral behaviors as identifiers, shouldn’t we be those who uphold ourselves as failures, drunkards, sexually lax, greedy, gluttonous layabouts? The insistence that we should also be those who are trying to be better misses another important feature of being a Christian. It’s our constant insistence that it is we who are doing this trying that always lands us back in the hole from which we keep trying to crawl.
The Christian life isn’t about being morally upright. It’s about being disciples of the crucified and risen Christ. Ours should be a life of love and devotion and service, bringing the love God embodied in the life and ministry of that same Jesus of Nazareth – to the drunkards and prostitutes, the lepers and Samaritans, all those who were ignored and even despised by the good morally upright religious folks of ancient Judea. Jesus spent so much time with these folks that he was widely derided as a drunkard, a glutton, and a whore-monger. When was the last time anyone in the church received such a compliment?
Ours should be a life lived on those same margins where these misfits, outcasts, and criminals live. I would so much rather churches be places known for their sinners rather than their community leaders. For far too long, the Christian churches in America have allowed themselves to be captured by our social betters, leaving our mission little more than noblesse oblige, our sermons moral lessons for those who already know what those moral lessons are, and our members more worried about whether they’ve worn their proper suit and tie than inviting that homeless guy on the corner to join them for worship. To be a Christian for me is to live an alternative lifestyle, one that reflects our self-identity as those who believe themselves separated from God; those who live not to succeed but to serve; those who are more concerned with those who have no clothes than what are our proper Sunday clothes.
In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free . . . – Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I, Section 7
Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas? – Josef Stalin(?)*
For freedom Christ has set us free. – Galatians 5:1a
The other day, I published a post entitled “The Power of Ideas”. It concerned itself with the complexity of the real world (as opposed to the myriad ways various groups try to enforce some kind of conformity through particular narrative strictures) and how we in the old-time mainline Protestant Churches are not dealing well with the messiness of our current reality. Then, last night, I was privileged to attend the ordination service of the 176th Session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. I saw a former pastor of mine commissioned to become an Elder and one of my current pastors ordained an Elder. Ordination services are long. They can be too long, depending on the atmosphere. Or, as last night’s service proved, the time can fly because the Spirit, the music, the message, and the purpose of the service blend so well, time seems suspended and one is swept up in the God’s Holy Breath of Love rather than checking watches and cell phones.
Bishop Sally Dyck preached, using as her text the text from Exodus describing priestly consecration for Aaron and his sons. It was a typical sermon from her: It offered the opportunity to hear Scripture with our ears, to understand that anointing priests’s ears, thumbs, and big toes with ram’s blood is as important, meaningful, holy, and relevant today as it was when the practice was established. It called upon those whose call to ministry was to be affirmed and sealed to remember that ordained ministry is the work of the whole person. Most of all, the sermon offered a vision of the ministry of the whole church guided not from dictates from above. Rather, Bishop Dyck reiterated how ordained ministry in particular is servant ministry, and in the end is God’s work.
We in the mainline churches are hurting. We are scared. We are so unsure of ourselves in the face of so many troubles, so many voices telling us which way to go, which nostrums will cure that ails us, we are paralyzed. An ordination service, however, is a good way to remind all of us who we are and what it is we are supposed to be about. While those called and ordained are set aside by God for specific tasks, all of us in the Christian churches are called and baptized in to the ministry of the Church: Preaching the Good News; serving the poor, the orphaned, the lost; living together as communities called out from the world around us to be the Body of Christ in our world. Ordination is not only consecrating those called to specific tasks. It is also a reaffirmation of the ministry of all of us who bear the mark of the Cross on our hearts, trying to figure out what that means for all of us in our different places, times, languages, etc. It is a challenge we all must face with true faith: live it out as best we can, reflecting as we go, but never allowing our reflection to become the end of our lives as Christians.
There are so many of us, however, who would far prefer to set this challenge aside. Wouldn’t it be easier if we were told how to live our lives? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give to those who deserve it, as defined by people in charge? Wouldn’t it be better to set clear boundaries between ourselves and those around us so we know who we are? Wouldn’t it just make the whole church-thing easier if someone in charge set aside the messiness of actual life and the world around us, gave us clear instructions on what it is we believe, how we are to live, who deserves our love and care and who does not?
I was a junior in college when I first read Rousseau’s The Social Contract. It was for a class in political theory, the class that whetted my appetite for philosophy. When I came to the quotation above, I was horrified. Few things are more detestable than surrendering one’s whole life to the dictates of self-appointed leaders. It would be a living nightmare to live without the ability simply to think for oneself, to look at others around us and how they express themselves and say, “You are wrong.” As the questionable quote from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin makes clear, tyrants are more than aware of the danger posed by true freedom: the freedom to think for oneself.
This is true no less in churches than in the secular realm. We all need constant reminding that, while we submit to the Will of God, it is God’s Will that we be free, that we be the persons God created us to be, and that the only Rule or Law over us is that of Love. Love for God and love for one another. Not just those in our congregations, but love for all God’s creatures, for God’s creation, and all people, whether they are Christians or atheists or Muslims or Zoroastrians or Satanists or the old lady whose given her life to children in her community or the old man who’s in jail for molesting some of those same children. They are all children of God, deserving of love just because they are. Nothing is more difficult for us to understand. Nothing is more difficult for us to do. Nothing, however, is more or less than that to which all of us in the churches are called to do. How we do it, who does what, and how best to pay for it – because doing anything in our world requires money, as much as we would prefer it didn’t – is for local church, and connected churches through denominational and ecumenical structures to figure out for themselves each and every day.
Is it any wonder so many American churches are looking more and more like tiny little authoritarian fiefdoms? Few things are as intoxicating and arousing as power. The kind of power exercised in the the spiritual realm is of far greater potency than anything this world could offer. Quite literally, it is the business of life and death. Those who hold such power easily are to be feared above all others. They demand the kind of submission Rousseau insisted was the essence of true freedom, in direct contradiction to the Scriptural injunction that ours is freedom for the sake of freedom. When you hear or read someone insisting that, as Christians it is our duty to submit to this authority or that doctrine or the other person in charge, you should run the other way.
Nothing is as dangerous, as counter-cultural, as fully human as the idea of freedom. Many people run away from it precisely because it calls upon so much energy, so much time and effort. People who love power understand this, exploit it, and in the process destroy lives, the good name “Christian”, and leave so many of us more confused and uncertain than we already are. It takes the kind of service I attended last night to remind us that ours is a life of true freedom: Called to live our lives as God created those lives, to be fully who we can be, we travel this road together, never quite sure if it’s right, but knowing we can’t stop because it’s our job to be God’s hands and feet and words of love and lives of sacrifice. No one said it would be easy, which is why so many prefer to submit themselves to this or that rule or law or person who has all the answers for us. We need to be reminded that, just as those ordained are set aside for particular work, we, too, have work to do. No idea is more dangerous, more powerful, more threatening than the idea that we are free.
And no idea is more true.
*I have no idea if this is, in fact, a quote from Josef Stalin. Let’s just say it certainly sounds like something he would say. If it isn’t a quote, however, I will certainly make a correction.