Saturday, April 17, 2010

Out of the ruins…

Is there proof of the resurrection? Why can we not glance at what is going on in the church and, staggered by spectacular grace, believe? The problem can be stated bluntly: The church is all too human. We scarcely see some mystical vision of the “invisible” church marching through time and space “like a mighty army.” No, to us the church is a human organization that lives in peculiar, mortgaged buildings, several of which are to be found in any American village competing like Wendy’s and McDonald’s for the American religious consumer.

The church wears a human face; it breaks store-bought bread, preaches into microphones, sings remarkably trite poetry in hymns, and puts up signs to attract customers like liquor stores or gas stations. Was it not C.S. Lewis who had the devil remark that the best way to disillusion Christian people was to keep their minds flitting back and forth between high-sounding phrases, such as “the body of Christ,” and the actual human faces of people in church pews?

Church affairs are seldom soul-sized; they tend to be tedious. Although we strain to jazz up church services with storytelling sermons and so-called creative worship, trivial is still trivial. Perhaps in South Africa or in regions of South America martyrs may blaze, but here in America we seem to be stuck with what Søren Kierkegaard described as “the caricature of Christianity.” The church we see is all too human…

When church is reduced to church management and the soul is scaled down to psychological promptings, who can speak of resurrection or spot surprising signs of redemptive power among us? No burned martyrs light our skies; ministers burn out instead. No Christians are persecuted; they merely perish from boredom. Where there is no significant cross, how can resurrection have meaning?…

In preaching the reality of resurrection today, we must begin by being scandalously honest about the church. It is not merely a matter of not being smart, prominent or wealthy--we may have all of these types in our congregations. But certainly we stumble along at the brink of apostasy and would sell out Jesus Christ for a good deal less than thirty pieces of silver any day. We may make biblical noises, but are usually bored silly by biblical study. We praise the Lord but, increasingly, long for leisurely Sunday bathrobed brunches with coffee, fruit and the ponderous Times… We must begin with an open-eyed acknowledgment of our corrupted Christian communities.

Then, just maybe, we can be surprised by the life of Christ living in the midst of our common lives. Look, we continue to break bread--women and men, labor and management, black and white—at the table of the Lord. We preach, and oddly enough the good news seems to be heard through our inept testimonies. And once in awhile, backed up against the wall, we are forced to speak for peace or justice. To be honest, we know everything is happening in spite of our natural inclinations. We can begin to name grace in the midst of our brokenness, and sense, even today, that the risen Christ continues ministry among us.

David Buttrick is professor emeritus at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University. This essay is excerpted from his book, The Mystery and the Passion, with thanks to inward/outward.

It occurs to me that we would do well, here in England, to read this carefully. We are concerned, and rightly so, with threats to our freedom to exercise our religious conscience, preach the Gospel, witness to our faith, pray for people, and so on. But perhaps out of this atmosphere of suspicion, the abuse of law, and political correctness gone malignant, new energy, and a new sense of Christian identity, may emerge. God has a disturbing way of bringing the best out of the worst, as Paul describes in Romans 8.28ff, and as the Resurrection supremely demonstrates. Perhaps it would be right to pray that out of the ruins of a demoralised and marginalised church a new and glorious thing may arise, fuelled by the very forces that had hoped to finish it off once for all?

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