Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Church: Jesus' Community of Love, Faith, and Grace - Not an Insitution

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
April 24, 2016
5 Easter, Year C
Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35 
The Church:  Jesus' Community of Love, Faith, and Grace - Not an Institution

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." 

Hearing those words makes me love Jesus even more and want to follow him and trust in him.  His commandment that his disciples love one another is part of his farewell speech and prayer for his disciples before he is crucified.  Jesus knew he was going to die, and he knew he had a pretty good following.   He knew that if he chose to, he could have asked them to fight for him, and they would have done it.  They might have even kept him alive in their efforts.  Of course, some of them would have died in the process, and he loved them far too much for that, not to mention that he knew it was not God’s will. 

Rather than disobey God, rather than risk harm for those whom he loved, Jesus chose to be killed.  Not only that, but remember that Jesus had been working for years to reform people’s understanding of God, of their relationship to God, and of their relationship to each other.  He’d been working for years to show people that love, faith, and grace are at the heart of their way of life.   For the people of Israel, he didn’t abolish the law of their religion, he fulfilled it through love, faith, and grace.  For the gentiles, who were added to Jesus’ movement after his resurrection, he came to show them as well, that love for one another, faith in God, and grace given by God and accepted and re-given by us, is the way of life, the way of life abundant and life everlasting which he gives to us.

This movement of Jesus, this movement of love, faith, and grace which he had spent years working on, was just getting started as Jesus was about to be killed, and he chose to trust his movement to his fledgling disciples rather than risk their lives or take up the sword against another.  That is the Jesus whom we love, the Jesus whom we follow, the Jesus in whom we have faith, the Jesus who loves us and gives us grace that we might receive his grace and then offer it to others.

Love one another, Jesus said.  Have faith in me, and follow me even when you doubt.  Receive grace to forgive you of all your misdeeds, grace to heal you from the shame of the past, grace to offer to others just as I have offered it to you.  Such is the life and the community which Jesus gave to us.  When I think on that, on that community for which Jesus gave his life, I cannot help but love Jesus and want to continue on as his disciple.

That is what I see when I see the church, not an institution.  There is a paradigm shift in that when we can see the institution of the church as the church, but it is not.  The shift is to see us as that community of people whom Jesus loves. 
Last week, Kristin and I watched Spotlight, the best picture last year which told the story of the Boston Globe newspaper breaking the story of the immense systemic abuse of children in the Roman Catholic church.  As I was watching the movie and then thinking about what Jesus commanded his disciples, I kept thinking, "How did Jesus’ community of love, faith, and grace become an institution so powerful and corrupt that children around the world were being abused by priests for decades with almost total impunity?" 

The reasons and many and vast and would take looking at most of church history to fully understand.  Without going into centuries of church history, however, I will look at one culprit that allowed this to happen, and that is the near deification of clergy. 

Children often thought of the clergy as God, or at least as speaking for God.  Adults did about the same.  Clergy were put up on a pedestal throughout the institution of the church so much so that no one dared go against them.  The people ended up under the thumb and under the rule of the clergy, and it wasn't just the clergy's fault; the people also elevated them.  There was a partnership there in raising the clergy up so much so that the people were under the clergy's thumb, the clergy claiming the place of Jesus within the church, but in the total opposite way that Jesus led his church. 

While the clergy were elevated above who they actually were, Jesus descended.  That was Jesus' way.
Though he was in the form of God, [he] 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. (Philippians 2:6-8)
Over the centuries, the church began exalting their leaders so much so that when corruption and abuse became systemic, no one would stop it, because they couldn’t go against these exalted people. 

Now the abuse of children in the Roman church is one example of how far the church often can be from the community of love, faith, and grace which Jesus began.  It's a graphic example, but there are many ways that we can stray from the community of love, faith, and grace which Jesus began.  We also need to remember, lest we end up casting unfair aspersions, the Roman Catholic church is also a wonderful church which full of people and clergy of love, faith, and grace.  I brought up the abuse as a graphic example of  how divergent the church can become from the community which Jesus began.

Looking at this example, and how it happened, the exaltation of the clergy, we don't get to just point to Rome for that one either, lest we ignore the log in our eye for the sake of the speck in someone else’s; we often elevate clergy in the Episcopal Church too.  I’ve often heard that clergy are held to a higher standard of behavior than others, to which I continually counter that clergy are not held to a higher standard.  People may actually hold clergy accountable to standards of behavior to which they don’t hold themselves or others accountable, but there is not a different standard of behavior for clergy and for everyone else.  If there were, that would be an institutionalized system of ignoring the log in one’s own eye for the sake of the speck in someone else's.  Elevating the clergy, holding them to a higher standard, goes against what Jesus taught and is not the way of the community he founded. 

Jesus didn't set himself above everyone else; he descended.  He didn't set his apostles above everyone else; he said to become a servant.  Jesus’ church is not a place where we hold one another to various standards of living at all, in actuality.  Jesus' church is not a place of keeping score with one another, keeping track of sins. 

Jesus said on the cross, "It is finished."  This system of keeping track of  sins and trying to make right for our sins to God is finished.  No more sacrifices for sins.  No more tallies.  No more keeping score.  No more gospels of sin management. 

Gospel’s of sin management have often pervaded the church, people thinking that our prime purposes in the church is to do better, sin less, and get to Heaven when we die.  Even with Jesus’ help, such a Gospel basically puts Jesus in the role of a ticket puncher.  If you’ve believed in Jesus well enough and behaved well enough (even with his help), then Jesus punches your ticket and you get to go to Heaven when you die.  We'd like to add that it's not because of anything I do, it's purely because of the grace of Jesus, but then by how we talk about it, by how we live, these gospels of sin management basically make it so that you're earning your way to Heaven.  You're doing enough that Jesus will finally agree to punch your ticket.

Fortunately, that is not the gospel for which Jesus died.  That is not the gospel Jesus taught.  That is neither the faith nor the church which Jesus left his disciples.  “Love one another,” Jesus said, “that’s how they’ll know you are my disciples.”  Jesus’ command to us continues to show his love for us.  His disciples were a bunch of screw ups, if we’re being honest (if we're going to be counting sins, that is), and Jesus entrusted his church to them not in spite of their screw ups, not because they were screw ups, but completely regardless of their screw ups.  Jesus entrusted his church to his disciples because they were his beloved.  We continue as Jesus’ church simply because we are his beloved. 

We don’t raise ourselves or anyone else up in Jesus’ church.  We don't raise ourselves above anyone else.  We accept the fact that we are beloved, and that is often the hardest task in our life, to simply accept the fact that we are beloved.  We accept the fact that we are beloved of God, and we e receive the great love Jesus has for us, not because we are worthy, not because we have earned his love, but simply because we are beloved.  We believe in Jesus, accept his love, and follow him, even when we can hardly believe, desperately clinging to this hope of Jesus’ love for us.  Even when we give up that hope and faith in Jesus' love for us, Jesus' love that catches us even and especially when we fall, Jesus love catches us.  So Jesus asks us, commands us to accept his love.  Accept that we are his beloved and then live and give Jesus’ grace.  That is the community of the church.  That is what we see, or what Jesus would like us to see, when we see his church. 

Now, we often see the church as something else.  We see the church as a vast institution, like how people viewed the Roman Catholic Church, but the Roman Catholic Church is not an institution.  The Roman Catholic Church has an institution.  The Roman Catholic Church is a community of people who are beloved of Jesus.  Period.  Full stop.  Paradigm shift:  What is the Roman Catholic Church?  Not an institution, but a community of people who are beloved of Jesus.  Then, the Roman Catholic Church has an institution which at times serves it well and at times not so well. 

Our church too is not an institution, but our church has an institution.  We have a whole institutional structure in the Episcopal Church, but that institution is not the church.  That institution is what the church has created, what we have created over the centuries to serve us.  The institution is the tool we have constructed to help us order our lives.  The institution is a tool of the church, but not the church itself.  The church itself, the is the community of the beloved.  Jesus’ church is the gathered and often disperse community (those who no longer gather, those who no longer believe but are still caught in Jesus' love). 

The church is that community of people who know, and love, and accept, and forget, and mess up with Jesus’ love.  The church are those who believe in Jesus even amidst doubt, or stop believing in Jesus, and then fall into Jesus’ grace.  The church is not those who are climbing upward and striving to heaven.  The church is those who are falling, continually falling into Jesus' love and Jesus' grace.  What is who we are as the church.  We are Jesus’ beloved, not because of who we are, not because of what we do, but simply because we are Jesus beloved.  Amen.

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