Contemporary America seems intent on harboring a couple of die-hard assumptions about the church and what it means to be ‘Christian.’ And, I think, those assumptions are doing “us” and the coming of the Kingdom some serious damage: One assumption is that church people are always ’nice;’ and, the other, is that the Church functions only as a sanctuary meant to keep all of us “nice” people away from all of the frightening and dangerous things that are going on in the world today.
Now, you know and I know that the business about ‘always nice’ isn’t necessarily true. Certainly if ‘nice’ was the chief criteria to be a successful Christian, I would have either opted out or, more likely, been escorted out a very long time ago. But from time to time, even those of us who are very much a part of the church, might wonder, from time to time, if anybody really takes us seriously. Our culture -just like every other culture—sends out all kinds of mixed and contradictory messages about its religious beliefs; how we view “The Church” and what kind of difference, if any, the church makes in our lives.
Garrison Keillor’s wonderful, melancholy humor about the church in Lake Wobegon prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. It gives us a great opportunity to laugh at ourselves and to forgive ourselves and each other for all the funny and ridiculous things we sometimes do as when we come together as ‘church.’ But, here again, even we might occasionally secretly wonder if things haven’t been a little too quiet in our home town lately and that, perhaps, the Christmas pageant at what Keillor calls ” Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility ” in Lake Wobegon is the only game in town.
Doubts and contradictions also come in far less gentle ways. Not too many years ago, constitutional law scholar Stephen Carter gave us all a wake-up call with an unforgettable essay about our culture of disbelief that stunned many of us with its probable truth.
Carter puzzled that even though the numbers of Americans who say they believe in God has reached an all-time high, and, even though there resurgence of “talk” about religion in our national conversation, as a culture, we, nevertheless, seem to write off the church and the actual “doing” of religion as either: motivated by a hidden agenda to reshape American politics; or, as “something trivial…just another “hobby”, something like ” building model airplanes: something quiet, something private-” -not a fit activity for intelligent, world-savvy adults.
Nevertheless, as a nation, we crave a spiritual life. Even the polls of our own design tell us that those of us who believe in God tend to live longer, recover from illnesses more rapidly and even prosper financially more than non-believers. However, at the same time, these polls also tell us that the rugged individualism that has both blessed and cursed this country throughout its history, continues to prevail on the American religious scene. Increasing numbers of Americans see themselves as spiritual seekers but these seekers, especially the young, are not seeking God in the church.
If, even in a small way, this is a sample of how America experiences the potency—or, the lack of it—of the contemporary church and Christian behavior, then, how are those of us gathered here to believe today’s Gospel—especially this Gospel of Luke, as it represents Jesus’s first commission to those who would become the church?”
If we stop and listen to the text we just read,and, then, perhaps stop and read it again,it is obvious that there is nothing “quiet” or ’’nice” or “safe” about it. Jesus certainly realizes that there is nothing “nice” or “safe” about sending off this fresh batch of disciples to be as lambs in the midst of angry wolves; or to preach the urgency of salvation to those who have no sense of urgency at all; or to excite the poor, the outcasts and sinners with promises of justice and peace; to give the sick and the dying the hope of life, let alone, eternal life; or, certainly, to claim powers that by all measures of religious and political authority belonged only to God—and, not to any man -including Jesus of Nazareth.
In fact, this is an inflammatory, even, dangerous text. Countless Christian martyrs who ventured out into the world to proclaim the Good News, and who later were slain for their faith, could testify to that. How, then, do you and I cut through the centuries that distance us from the first breath of this Gospel text. How do we breath life back into it with every bit of power and immediacy, fear and discovery it had for the 70 disciples who Jesus sent out into the world to preach the Good News? If you and I allow our culture of disbelief to bury the Gospel in antiquity then, for sure, we will render the church trivial and obsolete. And then, we will live not in peace but we will live in quiet; a lethal kind of silence that allows others to suffer in the absence of any witness to the power of God that we might risk our lives to offer.
I do not believe for a second that any of us want to keep the church in the “nice” zone or to keep the church as a “safe” hiding place from a world that frightens us and threatens us. I don’t know about you but I am tired of taking the cultural rap that suggests that time, science and affluence has eroded not only the power of the church but the need for it; or that we are obsolete as Christians in the third millennium. And, I am enraged on behalf of our God whose glory has been obscured by a world disconnected from its own birth and, therefore, its Creator.
I believe we long for a church that is so full of the power of God that it causes the earth to tremble and the heavens to shout for joy. I believe that every one of us would be willing to risk Holy Terror in order to stand in the presence of God; and together to be a church that truly transforms the world. The truth is we want nothing “quiet”, nothing “safe.”
I believe this is the kind of church we want, but I question if we know how to get it.
How do we bring the Gospel back to life so intensely that the Word once again becomes flesh -the corporate body of Christ—and, “we” its members? We live in a highly sophisticated world that places great stock not only in our productivity but in our “performance.” We go to great lengths to prepare ourselves for participation in this professional world—to be sure we don’t make a mistake. Sometimes, I think, we become so cautious and so dependent on the thoroughness of this preparation that we forget how to take risks or to make room for God to give us all the strength, the courage, the wisdom we need to go out into the world.
There is no professional training program that will prepare us to “be” the church. The only way to learn the power and urgency of the Gospel, is to exercise the faith to live it—beginning right now. You and I are the Church—the Corporate Body of Christ—and the only way to keep Christ’s church alive is for us to be alive in the church.
So with nothing more than their singular faith, Jesus sent the seventy out into the world not only to ‘preach’ the Good News, but, ‘to live’ it. A very wonderful preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, who always can be counted on for her clarity, gives us the bottom line on this: ” Preaching the Kingdom without doing anything about it is just politics, and good works without’good news’ is no more than a temporary reprieve. But, to proclaim the kingdom while acting it out—that is powerful and that is what Jesus sent his friends out to do.’
Therefore, in order to keep this Gospel alive and full of God’s power, we do what those seventy disciples did—we simply begin. In all likelihood, none of us will feel entirely ready to begin when the time comes to start our work as disciples. There will always one more bible study, one more course to take, and one more spiritual advisor to consult. But, ‘one’ more of anything won’t do the trick. What we all need to do is to take a deep breath of faith, and….walk out the door. Just as did the seventy disciples—-no fanfare, no magic, no secret answers, no bag, no extra clothes or shoes. Just God.
And, we will discover—as did the seventy disciples—that God gives us all the power we need: to heal the sick, to soothe the dying, to feed the hungry, to shelter the poor, to proclaim the Good News. We will have power over all enemies and no one will hurt us. And, when are work is done, we, too, shall come home to the Lord with joy.
So, now: “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.”