Letting Go of Our Illusions about the Church
This blog was originally posted on March 23, 2016.
Let me begin by saying that I would be the first person to celebrate the ways my congregation, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, faithfully participates in God’s mission in the world. Not only do we try to love one another, we also are committed to loving our neighbors, whether in Anderson, Appalachia or Honduras. There is nothing wrong with any church celebrating what God is doing through its ministry.
However, because we live in a market-driven culture, churches like any other institution get mesmerized with selling what they are to the consumer in ways that foster a culture of denial. We advertise our successes and minimize our failures. In his little book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes this denial this way. He describes how people new to the Christian faith often have a “wish dream” for what the church is. They have an “ideal” in mind that is far from reality. Fortunately, according to Bonhoeffer, the grace of God eventually shatters such a “wish dream” and creates a profound sense of disillusionment about the church within these new believers. It is then, and only then, that they begin to discover that the church is held together, not by the heroic virtue of the community, but by the grace of God.
I see this a lot in my ministry. Newcomers join because “at long last we have found the right church home.” They are excited to be part of a church that believes “God Loves You—No Exceptions”. They are excited to be part of a ministry that is trying to help God make the world what God intends it to be. But eventually every newcomer discovers that this church—like all churches before it—isn’t so ideal. Members of the church are petty. Members believe the church should include everyone—until “everyone” goes from being a concept to a flesh and blood person that irritates them. Members hurt each other; forget about each other; and judge each other. The clergy that were so fantastic in the beginning turn out to have feet of clay, and don’t live up to the members expectations. In their disillusionment, some decide to hit the road and continue their search for the “one true church.”
For others, this disillusionment is the beginning of discovering the wonder of the church. What is that wonder? It is the wonder of what we discover during Holy Week. During Holy Week we discover that the church has always been far from ideal; it is no different than that original bunch of disciples. The church is always made up of members who like Judas betray Jesus, like Peter deny him, and like all the rest of the disciples abandon him. And yet, it is precisely these sorts of folks that God has called to be the church, held together by God’s grace and forgiveness, not by their stellar performance. The “ideal” church is not what we expected; it is a group of very flawed people, whose life together is completely dependent on the mercy of God and endless opportunities to start over.
May we let go of our “wish dreams” this Holy Week and embrace the reality of who we really are—a flawed group of people held together by the love of God.