Oh my, but the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday resonate with me like fingernails down a chalkboard! Today’s Monday Muse for your worship preparation is less encouragement and more caution: beware the pitfalls of easy ecclesiology, of simple theology, of one-dimensional faith!
Acts 2:42-47, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”
In my mind, the Muppets are dancing in war costumes and singing, “Why can’t we be friends?” There’s a trending critique — not new, really, and certainly not unfounded — that Christians’ behavior turns off many people from participation in the Church and even from belief in Christ. Many of those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” do so in protest and reaction to painful encounters with Christians and congregations. Those in the pews and in the pulpits are not unaware of the injury and hypocrisy; within the church walls, we too can testify to unchristian behavior by Christians.
But then a passage like Acts 2:42-47 comes along and we’re tempted, if only for this one Sunday, to declare in worship that Church is easy — singing and preaching and praying, “Why can’t we be friends?” with an extra chorus of kumbaya. But if we’re honest, Acts 2:42-47 belongs in that category of stories about the good old days when folks didn’t argue, pews were packed, and budget woes were the stuff of mythology. Ahem.
Woe to the congregation (and to the preacher) who believes that Church should be easy, that Church was ever in its history easy, and/or that ease of a congregation’s life, habits & relationships is the goal and measure of Church!
Why can’t we be friends? Because fear. Why can’t we share? Because power. Why can’t we sit at the same table? Because -isms. A relevant vision of Church needs to give an accounting of these, challenge the engagement of these, and call the Church to move forward — not centuries backward to the “good old days” of the Early Church.
Psalm 23, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
I know, Psalm 23 is much-beloved, a picturesque poem of the life of faith. But let me tip the sacred cow and observe: the world is not exactly a green pasture and a few too many still pools have the putrid air of cesspools. No offense to the world.
Even if we maneuver Psalm 23 and our theology to affirm, “God the Shepherd leads us to spiritual green pastures and to metaphorical still waters,” in truth we Christians get a little grumpy when God doesn’t bestow actual green pastures upon us. We resent any path that takes us within sight of the valley of the shadow of death — whether personally or congregationally or globally. And if God did present us with an actual banquet table in the presence of (or with!) our enemies, not many volunteers would take a seat at that table.
We want a cup that overflows just for us, a green pasture to satisfy us right where we are. What if the overflowing cup and the green pasture are not blessings that come to us, but rather blessings/spaces to which we must journey … or more likely, be herded with great bleating and resistance?
1 Peter 2:19-25, “It is a credit to you if you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”
Do not admonish those suffering pain and injustice to endure their circumstances because Jesus suffered too. Just don’t. Not in sermons, not in hymns, not in prayers, not literally, not figuratively. Stop it stop it stop it. In doing so, you cause actual harm to your sisters and brothers.
In addition, the affirmation of suffering is a misreading of the text. Look again at the start of verse 21: “For to this you have been called…” (NRSV). It begs the question, “To what have we been called?” — assuming, of course, that we’re ignoring verse 18’s reference to slaves and hearing ourselves as the intended audience.
To what have we been called? Surprisingly, we are not called to Christ’s suffering; no, in verse 21 Christ suffered because of and for the thing to which we’re called … but that thing isn’t suffering. Suffering is an experience that has been and is endured (again, don’t preach that!), but the endurance of suffering itself is not our calling. Christ endured suffering so that we might live for righteousness, so that we might be healed (verse 24). Christ’s example (verse 21) was not suffering, but right living in fellowship with others and with God (verse 22). Living fully, without harm to others, is our call.
John 10:1-10, “Anyone who climbs in by another way is a thief.”
Here’s a nicely pre-packaged theology: “Jesus is the right way! Everything else is bad!” (Or, for that sheep effect, baaaaad.) All we have to do is know Jesus’ voice and watch out for fence-climbers. “Yay God! Boo strangers!” That will make our faith journeys easy, right?
If only life didn’t get in the way and complicate things.
Thankfully, scripture is complicated too, including John 10:1-10. Jesus is both the shepherd (verses 2 and 11) and the gate (verses 7 and 9). The shepherd enters through the gate (Jesus enters through himself?) with the admission of the gatekeeper (verse 3). The thieves and bandits enter by another way (verse 1) and/or before the shepherd arrives (verse 8); no mention of what to do about those who arrive after the shepherd. The thief’s actions are life-destroying (verse 10); the gate/shepherd/Jesus’ actions are life-giving (verse 10). The sheep’s primary actions are listening and following (verse 4)…except to the stranger (verses 5 and 8)…and we’ll go easy on the disciples who have trouble listening to and following Jesus (verse 6), because that would make Jesus a stranger. Yikes!
In that fun tangle of metaphors, it’s tempting to pick an end of the string, give a yank, and call the mess solved! It’s easy theologizing to pick one image of Jesus, pretend that everything else in scripture and in life agree, and declare “This is who Jesus is!”
But even if that were true, even if Christology could be so easily resolved … who are we in this mix of metaphors? Again: beware easy answers! Are we the sheep (and when we tell one another “Here’s the right voice! No, here! No, it’s over here!”, aren’t we playing the role of shepherd)? Are we the thief, always stealing and destroying life to gain security for ourselves? Are we the gatekeepers, welcoming — or discouraging — others from finding rest and life in the sheepfold? Are we the hired hands (skipping ahead to verse 13), easily scared and unwilling to tend to one another?
This Sunday in worship and preaching, are we willing to tell the more complicated stories of ourselves, of God, of faith?