Being Christian in the World We’re in: Session 6
Over the past five weeks we’ve discussed Christian faith in History, in the Hebrew and Jewish Scriptures, in the New Testament, in Theology, in the Church and Sacraments. Today let’s talk about being Christian in the World We’re in.
The circumstances we’re in
We are nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Two thousand years ago, Jesus was a young adult. The two thousandth anniversary of his crucifixion will be in ten or fifteen years.
In 1968, when I was confirmed, the Episcopal Church had about 3.5 million members. At the most recent report for 2017, that figure is 1.7 million members. That’s about half as many total members, but while that three and a half million in 1968 was around 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, the current percentage is about one-half of one percent. The Episcopal Church keeps better statistics than other churches, but this is not a problem that is in any way unique to the Episcopal Church. Church membership and church attendance overall have been declining for the past fifty years and the fastest growing group is “the Nones” who are those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Why? If you ask people, it usually comes down to some variety of not trusting the church, organized religion in general, or religious people. There are a number of aspects to this lack of trust. Sometimes the behavior of religious people and organization doesn’t match what they preach. Sometimes churches and their members aren’t acting according to their convictions. And, of course, some people question whether the church actually cares about them. In worst-case scenarios, some think the church is a scam that takes advantage of people.
I can’t say that I haven’t wondered all these things myself over the years.
These circumstances in the religious life of our country are intertwined with all the other aspects of the life of our national and world community. Right now, many of those are characterized by distrust, fear and anger. Rather than coming together, things are pulling apart.
The circumstances that we Christians find ourselves in today are a world characterized by lack of trust. That word Trust is an important theological term. It means the same as Faith. Faith is not a set of propositions, but trusting in God’s love, mercy, guidance and protection. As I mentioned last week, the sacraments bind people together to one another and to God, and the church is a sacrament to the world, binding people together in God’s love and mercy. In a world pulling apart, it is important to build trust, to build faith, to have faith.
How do we do that? The only way that trust is built is that people and their institutions are trustworthy. When Christians make outlandish promises about themselves and their churches that fly in the face of experienced reality, only fools trust them. It’s important to be what we promise and promise no more than what we are.
What we are is the Body of Christ and that means that we are who we are because of Jesus. We have to pay attention to him and not try to outsmart him. Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, healed the sick, cast out demons, fed the hungry. He embodies God’s compassion and mercy. Interestingly, those that he gathered to him were neither the good nor the great. Tax collectors and other sorts of sinners—the fearful, the panicked, the self-important and the outcasts comprised that group that illustrated the Kingdom of God. They weren’t gathered because of their sinfulness—they were gathered to show God’s mercy. As Christ’s body we show God’s mercy. We are not trustworthy when we pretend to be different from that crew around Jesus, or the people we encounter daily. We are trustworthy when we receive that mercy and rejoice in who we are: forgiven, healed, restored.
The story of Jesus is not about somehow being magically shielded from what happens in this world, and Jesus’ followers remain that same problematic crew: blessed, sanctified, redeemed—a divine gathering through God’s blessing—but by no means ideal. Those who don’t trust the church expect it to fulfill its ideals and its PR; that’s why it is so important for the church to be forthright about who Jesus gathers as his Body. Building trust is not an overnight affair and neither is becoming trustworthy.
Jesus lived in reality, and the human reality of this world chose to kill him in a grisly way. It’s a mistake to look to individual bad actions or malice for the cause of his death. The cause of Jesus’ death was what I call demonic—that corporate denial of compassion, built of fear, anger, selfishness and all manner of other things that we cover up and don’t admit to ourselves—the demonic erupts in unexpected ways. It is the opposite of trust: it tears apart and violently blames someone else. Jesus, courageously, compassionately faced that demonic rage. So we say that he took all the sin of the world upon himself. And on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. Life, trust, hope is what is real—the demonic is our fearful denial of life—but on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. We trust God, not because bad things don’t happen or that people will stop doing them, but because the God of compassion restores life and restores us to life in God’s mercy.
Being Christians in the world we live in today challenges us to trust God and to build trust in our community.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Think about a person who you trust. What about her or him contributed to your coming to trust them?
- What story about Jesus best sums up your image of him?
- Think of a person who is not a church member, perhaps not a Christian who has done things that help bring people together. What have you learned from them?
- What could you do to increase faith and trust at Calvary Church?