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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the communal life of congregations as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission.

2) Koinonia (Community)

Christianity is a way of living out one’s spirituality that is inherently communal. It is a corporate way of living that is countercultural in a culture where spirituality is mostly privatized and individualized.

Churches are communities where people care for one another. Baptism incorporates each person into the Body of Christ, in which there is a sense of mutual responsibility of all Christians for one another. That means that pastoral care is the work of the whole people of God, not just ordered ministry personnel. Its focus is not just on the health and happiness of people but also on their souls. We care by pointing people toward the God who cares for them, in whose life is our light(William WillimonPastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, chapter 4). Pastoral care for people includes paying attention to the intrusions of God in their lives; inviting them to let God move them more deeply into the new world of God’s grace; shaping their vision and their hopes by the presence of the resurrected Christ. Leaders will need skills and training and wisdom in navigating relationships where the Holy Spirit is at work, taking people in new and unexpected directions.

The organizational structures with which most congregations operate were created to serve congregations of the 1950’s and 1960’s. These congregations had enough people with the time and energy and motivation to sit on numerous committees. Those structures are under pressure as the number of people available and willing to fill positions and work on the committees decreases. In many situations, conventional committees are no longer considered the best way to get work done. These realities can be both a challenge and a blessing. They can push communities of faith to figure out how to be structured for relationships rather than around organizational needs. There is renewed attention to ‘spiritual gifts’ as a way of encouraging, equipping, and releasing people into ministries for which they feel called and excited.

Among other things, this means that participatory, collaborative styles of leadership need to be cultivated. Top-down leadership deprives the baptized of their true authority. However, leading in collaborative and non-hierarchical ways is not easy. Training for leadership will require attention to the ways in which relationships are best nurtured.

It will also require attention to the ways people use power in Christian communities. Power is “one of the gifts God gives for the formation of good communities and good people” (Stanley Hauerwas, “What only the whole church can do).

Churches tend to avoid addressing issues of power. Individuals are often reluctant to take on positions of power. More and more frequently it seems, they can be persuaded to do so only if the positions of power are shared. Part of this may stem from a reluctance to take on another commitment of time and energy in very busy lives; however, it may be that some of this is rooted in people being uneasy about exercising power in a community that is ambivalent about it. Leaders will need training in exercising creative authority, in persuasion and in encouraging new initiatives from the bottom up. (Andy Crouch‘s book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power provides helpful insights into the faithful use of power.)

One of the great gifts of our culture is the diversity of cultures that are now part of our landscape. Indeed, there are many examples of mainline churches who were declining until a group of immigrants became part of the community and brought new life and joyfulness in the faith with them. As churches become less dominated by people who are white and middle-class, congregations are giving fresh attention to the radical hospitality that Jesus offers and what that means in their life together. Leaders are discovering new ways of helping the community of faith reach across cultural barriers.

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Scripture: James 1: 17 -27

A number of years ago, when George Buttrick was the minister of Memorial Church, Harvard University, he addressed a group of ministers on the subject of “preaching to an alienated generation”. One of the things he told them was, “Whenever someone says to me, ‘That was such a spiritual sermon’, I know I have abysmally failed. I did not come within ten miles of his pocketbook.”

People who tell Christians that we should stick to things spiritual ought not to expect to get very far with us. Ours is a very practical, personal, down-to-earth kind of faith. “It is no good just listening to the word,” says James in his letter. “You’ve got to put it into practice.” Later on, he says, “Faith without works is dead.” He touches very close to home when he describes what he means: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” “Control your tongue or your religion is worthless.” “Take care of orphans and widows in their suffering.”

Elizabeth O’Connor, in her book Journey Inward, Journey Outward, told the story of a group of people who discovered how difficult it is to live this faith out in ordinary, everyday lives. (What follows is drawn from that book.)  These people were members of a mission group connected with the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. The group was called FLOC – For the Love of Children. “ They felt called to focus on “Junior Village”, the district’s institution for homeless children. It was overcrowded, understaffed and dirty. FLOC was committed to finding foster homes for those children who could not be returned to their own families. They worked with the families from which some of the children came so that the families could be in a position where they could be re-united. They worked for changes in legislation and social conditions.

The demands were great because the need was so great. They were committed to working not in the abstract but directly with families: helping them to find housing and jobs; intervening with the Welfare Department; helping them through crises. At one point, every family with which they were working was in crisis. They were getting overwhelmed. They invited a psychologist who was experienced in working with the poor to meet with them. They met for three nights. He challenged them at different levels and they learned some things that they needed to know in order to keep going. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 161 – 163)

The psychologist advised them to set limits on what they would do. They should decide ahead of time when they would say, “I quit.” They told him that they had become friends with these people. “You don’t decide ahead of time when you are going to quit on your friends.”

He warned them that the Welfare Department would give them cases with the greatest possibility of failure. They should keep only the most hopeful cases for themselves so that their record would look good. They told him, “We believe that God can use us and we believe the power of this God has no limits. We cannot decide ahead of time what can and cannot be accomplished.”

He asked them again and again, “Why are you here?” They got clarity in their answer: they were there because Christ had called them to serve the poor and especially the children of Junior Village. They did not expect magic intervention but they believed there was something unique about a group of people acting in the name of Christ. They did not believe that the job would be easier because Christ was there with them. They said, “No, the job will not be easier, but yes, it will be easier, When God calls a man, he equips him” (p. 163).

When the evenings with the psychologist were done, they had regained the vision that had originally sent them to Junior Village: “Christ is on mission to those families, and we are along with him.” They had also gained a new awareness of how difficult it is to respond to Christ’s call when spiritual truths bump against earthy realities.

They could have bought into the professional model of doing things by setting limits and doing only those things that would work and show visible results. They would be realistic if they did that, but they felt that would also betray Christ who had called them into committed friendship with these people.

They could begin to think that, because they were acting in the name of Jesus, their efforts would be rewarded with success. If they thought that way, when they did not experience success and when the problems continued, they would grow discouraged and doubt the call.

They realized that what had begun as a crusade in which they prayed, “Free these children immediately, Lord” had become a mission that might involve them for the rest of their lives. They were learning over and over again the challenge of not just listening to the Word but also putting it into practice. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 157)

We may have plans to change the world. God has plans to change the world by changing us. We want to, as one song says, “build the land that God has planned where love shines through”. God sets us in the midst of other people who are sometimes very difficult to get along with, much less love. They disappoint us. They hurt us deeply. They oppose us fiercely on matters we think are critical. Before very long we come face-to-face with some very real roadblocks within ourselves to building a land of love.

We are tempted to blame others. “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you are working with a bunch of turkeys,” we say. We are good at telling politicians the things that they should do to make this world a better place. We forget that the church always has its greatest political influence not when it tells others how to live but when it exhibits in its own life together peace, justice and reconciliation.

The hardest work is not ‘out there’. It is among us in our life together and within us in our wounded hearts and spirits. What makes other people hard to love are the fears that bind our own hearts, making us jealous and suspicious of what others are doing. What makes peace hard to find are the wounds that we protect behind walls of anger and resentment. What makes changing an institution or organization so slow are the confused emotions and tangles desires within our own hearts and souls that we do not understand. What hinders love is all that we have not yet brought to Christ for healing.

When the people who formed the mission group FLOC first got together, they wrestled with the question of how much time they would give to their inward journey. The task before them was so great; the needs were so urgent; the children they wanted to free were so desperate. Could they afford time and energy for common prayer and study and theological reflection and worship? Could they not move faster without those practices? When the debate was over, they decided to keep in balance the inward and the outward journeys. They knew that they could not move the mountain ahead of them in their own strength. They believed Christ had called them to the task; he would equip them as they rested in his Word. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 154)

As we seek to live out our faith, the real enemies are within. No matter how great the opposing forces outside us are, the real resistance is always found within ourselves. It is found in that part of ourselves that yearns for power and success rather than faithfulness to a suffering Saviour; in that part of ourselves that fears the cost of peace and love in the world and in our own hearts. If you are going to be on the journey outward, if you are going to have the strength you need to do Christ’s work in that part of the world to which he has called you, you are going to have to stay in close touch with the One who is already there.

In prayer, in contemplation, in our life together under Christ’s Word, Jesus offers to take down the protective walls of fear that we have built around our hearts. Again and again, as we offer ourselves into his hands, the Holy Spirit broods over us and we experience God’s creative, healing work in our hearts. God sets us free to participate in Christ’s healing, redeeming work in the suffering of our world. We become doers of the Word, not just hearers, and we will be blessed in our doing. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon by Christine Jerrett. The worship service in which was first preached is available at Reformed Worship week 5.

Scriptures: Genesis 2: 15 -25

In 1986, a woman named Alberta Billie stood up to address a meeting of the General Council of the United Church of Canada. She was the First Nations community of Cape Mudge in British Columbia. She began her address by saying, “We are the salmon people. . . . We recognize the way the salmon run inland from the sea and their return to the sea. We respect that cycle and we celebrate it in our lives, our ritual, our art, our festive occasions. . . We are the salmon people. (James A. Taylor in Currents)

What kind of people are you? What is the dominant story in your culture that tells you who you are?

Over one hundred and seventy-five years ago, the French philosopher Alex de Tocqueville visited the United States. Upon his return, he wrote Democracy in America. He noted, ‘Each citizen is engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely himself.” The story that dominates much of our culture is the story of the Self. Its main characters are My Wants, My Needs, My Feelings, My Desires, My Appetites, What I Deserve. They are placed at the centre of our lives and are not only celebrated, they are coaxed and coached and cultivated. They are coaxed and and coached and cultivated because our society depends upon us being pre-occupied with ourselves in order to keep going.

In order for our economic system to function, we need constantly to be dissatisfied. We need to define ourselves as not having enough, not being good enough, not being loved the way we are. There is always something more we need to get, to buy, to do, to achieve if we are going to be happy and satisfied an fulfilled.

The Self as defined by its needs, appetites and desires is a story that lives deep within us. It shapes our lives and our relationships in powerful ways that undermine human dignity. That story, dominated by the ‘not enough’ Self, makes human community impossible. Said Wendell Berry, “‘Every man for himself’ is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub; appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings . . . A society wishing to endure must speak the language of caretaking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighbourliness, and peace. That language is [a] precious resource and cannot be privatized.”

The story is told of a director of a charitable organization in a small town who noticed that the town’s wealthiest man had never once made a donation. The director decided he would visit the man. He said, “our research shows that your income is at least $500,000 a year, and yet, you never give to charity. Wouldn’t you like to give back to the community in some way?”

The man replied, “Did your research also show that my mother is dying after a long illness and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?”

The director was embarrassed. He mumbled, ‘No, I didn’t know that.”

The wealthy man continued, “Did your research tell you that my sister’s husband died in an accident, leaving her penniless with three children?”

Humiliated, the director said, “I am sorry. I did not realize.”

The wealthy man finished by saying, “So, if I don’t give any money to them, why should I give any to you?”

We may not have an annual income of over $500,000, but we do know what it is to be anxious that there will not be enough. That’s the story that inundates us from many different directions: not enough money, not enough health care, not enough social services, not enough to fill the empty places in our own hearts and souls.

Genesis 2 defines the Self in a radically different way. The main character in the story is not the Self. The main character is God. God has been doing all the talking. God has done all the acting. God has made the human, has breathed life into the human, has placed the human in the garden. So far, the human has not said or done anything. The main actor in our lives is God, not our Selves: God who creates and provides and gives life and pronounces blessing. We are the beloved children of this God. The first thing that defines our lives is that we are a people created by a good and holy Creator. We are formed by our relationship with God.

Whenever we try to live without that relationship, whenever we try to make the story all about us, our lives get small. They become less than God intends them to be. God wills something far greater than that for us.

This God places the human in the garden and gives us work to do there. We are to care for the earth: respect its particularities and its needs so it can remain fruitful for all people.

In the middle of the garden was the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said to the human, “You may eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The tree from which we are not to consume is placed in the middle of the garden. It is not tucked away in some corner where we might forget that it is there. It is in the middle of our garden, in the middle of our lives as a daily reminder that everything we want or desire is not going to get satisfied. There will always be a deep yearning in us that will not be filled no matter how much attention we lavish upon ourselves. No matter how much we think of our own needs, not matter how hard we work to make something of our lives, there will always be an empty space that we cannot fill. We were never meant to “have it all”. (Thanks to Craig Barnes for this insight in his book, Yearning)

That emptiness, that yearning, that ache in the deepest part of you is not something you are supposed to try to fix or fill up. It is not a problem that you need to solve. It is the place in your soul where the living God comes to meet you. The act and the yearning that cannot be stilled is trying to direct you toward leaving space in your life for God to show up. Said St. Augustine, ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

We are a people created for community. We are created for relationship with God first of all. We are also created for relationship with the world that God makes and values. We are not to exploit it, grabbing whatever we want. We are to tend it and to care for it. We are also made for relationship with each other. We cannot be who we are on our own. We are dependent on God. We are dependent on each other to become what God intends us to be.

Every time we baptize someone, we baptize them into the Body of Christ. We receive them into the community of people who have apprenticed themselves to Jesus Christ. We are those who have promised over and over again to live as a community that is learning to live beyond our pre-occupations with our Selves. We have promised to live, instead, trusting God who has met us in Jesus Christ and who sustains us with steadfast love and faithfulness. We are a people who are learning to receive life as a gift from a gracious God who has a good and holy purpose for all creation. We are a people who are learning to live our lives on God’s terms: not grasping to get all we can for ourselves; not anxiously trying to make our lives count; living, with wonder and awe because we live in the midst of mystery and miracle.

Being that kind of community is not easy. It requires commitment of time and energy. We cannot be a community in the abstract. It happens only as we sacrifice for the sake of a common purpose. It requires courage and risk. Being part of the community that follow Jesus Christ will challenge us beyond our comfort zones as our Lord takes us deeper and deeper into the mystery of God’s love.

Through such a community, God gives us and the world an alternative to the anxious grasping that is killing creation. Through such a community, God gives us a way to live in hope in a dark time. Such a community receives its life from God who is making all things new.

It takes our whole life to learn to live that way. It takes the whole community together. Who are we? We are the people of God who comes to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are the people of the Garden: gifted with a wonderful, diverse creation. We are not to exploit or abuse it. We are to live within it on God’s terms. We live honouring, respecting and cherishing this fragile treasure. So shall we live to the the glory of God.

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This is the seventh in a series of posts about the differences between a pastoral and a missional church.  The phrase ‘from pastoral to missional’ came from Harold Percy, who was one of the first people to articulate for me the shift I was experiencing in congregations.

I have come across a few different ways of describing the differences between the two models of church. Somewhere in the past, I picked up a chart in which Harold Percy compares the attitudes and expectations in the two models. These posts will work through that chart of comparisons and give some explanation of what I think the differences imply for the way a mainline congregation operates.

 

The sixth difference is described this way:

The pastoral church seeks to avoid conflict at any cost.
The missional church knows that conflict is the price of progress.

It is not an easy time to be the Church.  Radical shifts in the culture stress congregational life in multiple ways. That stress often gets played out in anxiety about finances, declining attendance at worship, and lower levels of participation in the governance structures and in programmes. It sometimes get played out in disagreements with other members and with the clergy. As congregations experience the stress and anxiety that change brings, conflict is going to happen. 

When it does happen, congregations have different ways of dealing with it. Pastoral churches often respond to conflict from an overriding desire to maintain a ‘cult of harmony’ (Tom BandyFragile Hopep. 28). In such congregations, a lot of energy is spent in avoiding painful realities and difficult discussions. Nobody wants to cause a disturbance by speaking up. Serious disagreements get shut down as quickly as possible. They get driven underground where they fester and turn ugly. When they do erupt, somebody inevitably says, “We are Christians. We are supposed to love one another”, as if loving and disagreeing are incompatible. 

Missional churches need to find faithful and healthy ways to deal with conflict because “the boundary-breaking work of the Holy Spirit . . . creates conflict, consternation and confusion” (Alan RoxburghMissional: Joining God in the Neighbourhood, chapter 8). “The patterns of Christian life that shaped and gave meaning to Christian life in North America for much of the twentieth century . . . are breaking apart . . . opening up to us a radically different way of being God’s people” (chapter 9).

Bandy suggests that congregations address conflict in the church through ‘adult spiritual growth, leadership creativity, and lay empowerment’ (p. 24). Congregations need to learn what words like ‘forgiveness’, ‘grace’, ‘letting go’ look like in the realities of actual relationships. 
Kayla McClurg suggests that adult spiritual growth needs to focus on developing people with humility  and an open mind: “It takes humility to hear each other, let alone work with each other, while seeing things differently . . . We hold in our hearts our sense of what is right, and we also hold those who oppose us” (“The Gift of Disagreement“).

Obviously, facing conflict openly will lead a congregation to deal with its relationships in deep, often painful, but also redemptive ways. Perhaps the first step is to create an environment where we do not run from conflict but face it truthfully, ready to learn important lessons from it, and looking for signs that the Holy Spirit is at work.

 

[Kathleen Smith has written a helpful book, Stilling the Storm, about leading congregations through difficult times of conflict related to changes in worship.
Jean Vanier‘s books The Broken Body and From Brokenness to Community are also helpful reflections.]

 

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada on July 28, 2013.

Scriptures: Colossians 2: 6-19

Christian life is always lived in community. When you are baptized, you are baptized into a community of faith. As you live out your faith, you live it out in a community with other Christians. Christianity is a way of life that affects your relationships with other Christians and with people outside the church.

The communal nature of Christianity is clear in the New Testament, although it is not always clear in English translations. In English, we have one word for both ‘you’ singular and ‘you’ plural. Most the ‘you’s in the New Testament are plural. If we were in the southern United States, we would read ‘y’all’ — ‘all of you’.

Over the 30 years that I have been studying the scriptures for the purpose of preaching sermons, I have noticed how the communities of faith in North America are looking more and more like the community of faith to which Paul wrote the letters that make up much of the New Testament.

These letters were often written to small congregations that were struggling to survive in the midst of the Roman Empire. They existed in a religious marketplace that was at least as divers and as pluralistic as our own. There were multiple claims to truth; there were multiple convictions about what it took to live a ‘good life’. The Christian churches were competing for people’s loyalty and commitment. In addition, the surrounding culture was often hostile toward Christianity. In short, there were enormous pressures working against people being followers of Jesus Christ. All that meant that many congregations were hanging on by their fingertips — not unlike many congregations today.

When churches experience such pressures, they sometimes go into ‘survival mode’. Churches that go into survival mode tend to develop certain characteristics. Often, they will turn in on themselves. They will feel that, in order to survive, they have to concentrate on taking care of themselves. They forget that the purpose of the church is to be on mission — to bless others. They become pre-occupied with internal issues, worried about maintaining the institution.

They not only turn in on themselves; they can also start to turn on each other. The usual gossip that is part of community life becomes filled with criticizing others, putting them down, quarreling and bickering and back-biting. As hard as it may be to believe, sometimes a favourite pastime becomes attacking the minister — blaming him or her for the church’s problems.

In a church struggling to survive, some people will look for a new programme that will ‘turn things around’. Alternatively, some people think, “If everyone would just work hard, this church would thrive.” Then, they set about to do just that, taking on more responsibilities and commitments than are good for them or for the community.

The apostle Paul addresses some of those issues in his letters. In Colossians, he writes, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.”

Elsewhere he writes, “Put away falsehood; let us speak truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up . . . so your words may give grace to those who hear . . . be kind to one another.”

Paul reminds the early church they are part of one body — the Body of Christ. If they attack one part of the body, the whole body suffers. They hurt themselves; they hurt the community.

Paul addresses some of the issues directly, but mostly what he does is talk about Jesus. He talks about what God is up to in Jesus Christ: “I want you woven into a tapestry of love, so . . . live your lives in Christ. Be deeply rooted in him; be carefully built up in him; be well-established in your trust in him.” (Colossians 2)

Read Paul and you realize that the church is not first of all something we create. It is not something we make work by our hard work or by our successful programmes. The church — this community of faith — is a gift from God. it is a gift from a creative, extravagant, gracious, living God.

Every time we forget that — every time we make the church about something we do, or something we achieve by our hard work, or about something someone else is doing or isn’t doing — every time we take God out of the centre, we lose touch with the source of our live, our strength, our energy and our purpose.

I was reminded of that several years ago when I read somewhere that, “Most ministers think that people come to worship to hear a good sermon. They don’t. They come to pray and to learn how to pray. They come to encounter God.” Sometimes, a good sermon will help them do that. Sometimes a ‘bad sermon’ will. There is a mystery at work here. There are times when I think I have a ‘good sermon’ but nobody else seems to think so. There are other times when I am not at all pleased with the sermon I have prepared for a Sunday morning; yet, it seems to touch people in deep and profound ways. The Holy Spirit is at work here in ways beyond our controlling.

It helps to keep that in mind. People don’t come to church because you and I are so wonderful. They don’t come because we have wonderful programmes. They come because the God who meets us in Jesus Christ is so wonderful and they are hoping to meet Christ here through us, through our relationships with each other, through the community that the Holy Spirit is crating among us.

In our relationships with each other, we carry a precious gift, a great treasure. In our relationships with each other, we carry the presence of Christ. The more deeply we have received that gift into our lives, the better able we shall be able to offer it to others.

We don’t need to run around looking for a better programme or a better minister or people who are more to our liking. Whatever the church is, it is first of all about God, about Jesus Christ, about the Holy Spirit gathering us and working in our lives, changing us, and flowing through us to others.

When you are reading Paul’s letters to the early church, pay attention to the way Paul is dazzled by Jesus Christ and by what God wants to do in and through us as we open our lives to him. “In Christ, the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily . . and you have come to that same fullness in him.” (Colossians 2). “God takes us to the high places of blessing in him . . . Saving is all God’s idea and God’s work. All we do is trust Christ enough to let him do it. It is God’s gift from start to finish — the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. “ (Ephesians  1 & 3).

I suspect that this notion that the church is a gift leads to a radically different way of being the church than most of us are used to. It means less focus on programmes and external solutions and more attention paid to becoming the kind of people who are capable of being open to receiving God’s gifts. It means becoming people who are open to God’s unexpected and often surprising presence among us; living with open hands and open arms. It means being people who are deeply rooted in prayer, including prayers in which we spend much time listening for God’s Word. It means letting Christ’s words sink deeply into our lives so that they become the lens through which we see the world. We would be willing to let God change us until we become more and more channels of Christ’s grace and love.

The most important thing happening in this congregation is whatever God is up to in Christ. The promise is that that work is full of glory and truth and beauty and love. May God grant us grace to open ourselves more and more to Jesus. May this community be a place through which Christ is present in the world. And to God be the glory. Amen.

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The lectionary has been taking us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Last week, in Galatians 2: 15-21, he juxtaposed the ‘works of the Law’ and being ‘justified by faith’. Somewhere I found two very helpful articles (“The Ego and the I, by Scot McKnight, Christian Century, September 7, 2004, p. 22 and “Galatians in Perspective” by Frank Matera, Interpretation, July 2000), that proposed that Paul wasn’t setting the Old Testament Law against New Testament ‘grace’.  Judaism is a covenant-based faith, not a religion focused on ‘works righteousness’, i.e. of keeping the Law as a way of earning merit with God.  The articles proposed that when Paul spoke about the ‘works of the Law’, he was referring to an ‘identity marker’ for the Jewish community. The Jewish community existed as a minority in Roman culture. In response to many pressures to assimilate to Roman culture, they held on to ‘keeping the law’ as a practice that helped them maintain their identity. This ‘badge of identity’, these practices that gave them their special identity, erected socio-ethnic-religious barriers between Jews and Gentiles.

Paul was working through the implications of the reality that the Holy Spirit was bringing Gentiles in to the covenant community. In Jesus Christ, God has adopted everyone into God’s covenant community. How, then, do groups of radically different people exist in community together? Does one group have to adopt the practices of the other? Paul’s response is an adamant, “NO!” The ‘identity marker’ for the Church is a life of radical trust in Jesus, a life of living in Jesus’ Way. This radical trust frees in God’s goodness and grace and countercultural power, frees us to give ourselves generously to others.

Verse 16 has usually been translated “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” However, that translation still leaves us in the driver’s seat of our lives — we get set right with God because we choose to believe in Jesus. The phrase can also be translated ‘through the faith of Jesus Christ.’. The identity marker of the Christian community is not something we do. Our identity is rooted in Jesus’ faith: his trust that God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s love are the strongest forces in the universe; trust that God’s promises are true, even when the evidence seems to point to the contrary; trust that, whatever happens, nothing can take a person outside the power of God’s love; trust that even our dead ends can be made new beginnings by God’s resurrecting power. Jesus’ faith goes further than that: it is faith that you and I are so precious, so deeply valued, so loved, that we are worth dying for; that God wants all of God’s children home and will not stop until they are there.

Put Jesus’ faith at the centre of your life, and watch your life change. Watch the transformations begin to happen. Watch a new community begin to take shape.

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Twice last week I was asked the question, “Why do we need the church?” The first time, the question came from someone who was trying to find something to say to her children who no longer participated in the life and mission of the church.

The second time, the question was phrased more starkly: “Do we need the church anymore?” It was asked as a few people struggled with the reasons for declining attendance at a study group about social issues for which they had leadership responsibilities. They had tried a number of things to attract new participants but had not been successful. Part of the discussion had revolved around the reality that people don’t need the church to educate themselves about social issues or to take action on them.

Now that Christendom is over, the answer to the question “Do we need the church anymore?” is often, “No.”

We don’t need the church to provide us with a commitment to social justice. Many people develop commitments about social issues without any recourse to the church’s opinion (which inevitably spans the breadth of stances on any particular issue). They don’t need the church to give expressions to those commitments. There are plenty of interest or focus groups where they can give their time and energy and money.

We don’t need the church to provide us with moral values. For the most part, people no longer look to the church to inculcate moral values in their children. Even those who send (or bring) their young children to Sunday School for that purpose, decide  that the church hasn’t much to offer their children past the age of 8 or 9. When their children are bored to death with the simple crafts and moralizing stories, they decide that organized sports provides better training in moral values and character building. Even simply staying home with the family on a Sunday morning seems a more useful alternative.

On top of that, the endless parade of news stories about the sexual scandals involving clergy and priests leaves a lot of people with a pretty jaded view of what moral values the church can instil. Even if they can overlook those embarrassments, they make note of the bad behaviour of people who are active in the church and decide that the church really doesn’t have much to offer in the way of moral guidance.

Most people don’t need the church as a social group either. This was an important function of the church in Christendom. This is where young people went to meet their future spouses. Many older members of the church will tell you how the people they have met in church are the people who have been with them through weddings, births, illnesses and deaths (and golf and vacations –sometimes both at the same time). Most people don’t need the church to provide them with a social club any more. We have a number of young families that have been finding their way back into the church community. I have been asking them what they’re looking for from the church. A social group is not among their replies. They have relationships already. They have people to have fun with. They have busy lives and are not looking to add another social event to that busyness.

Many people don’t need the church for spirituality either. They talk about feeling spiritual when watching a beautiful sunset or when hiking a mountain path. They look to get their ‘spiritual needs’ met in yoga, meditation, journalling, etc. Any number of options are available to them without the inconvenience of being part of a church community.

So, do we need the church anymore? My short answer is that, the life to which Jesus Christ calls me is so demanding that I cannot do it on my own. I need others who are also being discipled by this surprising, challenging Lord to help me along the way. If ‘spirituality’ is defined as something you feel or experience, then you may not need others. However, I cannot learn to love others the way that Christ commands without being in community with other people — some of whom are very difficult to love.  I need others to challenge my natural tendencies towards self-pity or narcissism or selfishness. I need the community of the Church, which includes the faithful throughout the ages, to pull me into a bigger, more holy purpose for my life. The church is the community which the Spirit gives us in order to grow into our baptism — into Christ-likeness.

I have begun think, however, that “Why do we need the church?” is not the most important question. The more important question is, “Why does God need the church?” “Does God need the church anymore?” The church, for all its flaws and faults and failings, seems to be the form which God chooses in order to “reconcile the world to Himself”. At the most basic level, I am not involved in the church because I  have decided to be in the church. Indeed, if it were up to me, I would have given up on the church long ago. I am in the church because God has met me in the risen Jesus and I live in response to that relationship with him which God offers through the Holy Spirit. That relationship is lived out with other people who have also been met by God in the risen Jesus. Together, we are the church. Its form is changing rapidly and profoundly as Christendom recedes further and further into the past. Nevertheless, God’s Spirit is ‘doing a new thing’ and that new thing still involves some form of the church. The challenge is to respond faithfully to those new initiatives of the Spirit and to be the church God needs us to be.

 

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