Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
What is the Church of the 21st century called to be, do and look like? In my work for the United Church of Christ National Offices, I have the frequent opportunity to travel in order to ask this question. The resulting conversations are fascinating, fruitful, continuously complex, and inevitably lacking consensus (which is the beauty of the Church, in some ways).
Because the work I do focuses on church order and organization, the answers to the questions about what the Church is called to be & to do & look like tend to sound legalistic. So I’ll be part of a room full of deeply faithful folks who pray together and worship together and ask each other, “If we say that the Church is called to be a certain way, then don’t we need to change the Constitution & Bylaws on lines 6, 12 & 25, deleting Paragraph 3 of Article 2 and adding an addendum to Section B?”
Not surprisingly, the organization of Church life as it is described in Acts 2 holds much more appeal to us than Constitution & Bylaw debates about Church order.
They devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to praying. They held one another up in faith and in life – sharing their resources and their hearts. (Acts 2:42-47)
Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a Church! Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a Church where your name is known and your need is known, without shame for having need, where you are supported through seasons of crisis and lament, never lacking for signs of wonder to urge on your faith, never lacking for community who will struggle together for the sake of heaven.
Never lacking for bread, and it’s the rare Church that doesn’t eat well. Which is fabulous, because I like to eat, so the combination of food and God is always sound theological practice in my book.
How magnificent would it be if the 21st century Church broke bread with all people who were hungry! How beautiful would it be if the 21st century Church extended fellowship so that no one went through a crisis alone! How peaceful would it be if the 21st century Church called its own people to live with glad & generous hearts!
What is the 21st century Church called to be, called to do, called to look like?
Lest we pull our hair and gnash our teeth and groan with longing for the good old days when Church people prayed well and ate well and loved well, and never had to endure Constitution & Bylaw debates or spend an hour discussing the altar flower schedule…
Lest we believe too simply that the early Christians embodied Church better than the present-day Church…
The readings from John and 1 Peter this morning hint to us that the early Church shared some of our 21st century insecurities and imperfections.
Jesus’ admonitions and illustrations in John 10 suggest that his followers had a tendency to long for the kind of Good Shepherd who gathers the sheep into the fold, always in, always protected, always huddled together against fear, always wary of the stranger, always behind locked gates, always praying for the fence to be strong, for the wall to be high, for the green pastures to be a fortress, always suspicious of anyone who gets in by an unrecognized route, easily threatened by anyone who does not share their fears, quickly criminalizing anyone who dares to suggest that the still waters are abundant enough to share. Always in, never out. Sometimes the early Church found itself huddling in fear behind locked doors, praying for a Good Shepherd who would keep them safe, forgetting that Jesus in John 10 called himself the gate by which the Church was called not in but out.
Sometimes the 21st century Church resembles the early Church in its fears.
1 Peter encouraged the early Church to cast aside its fear and to set its eyes on salvation, to focus so exclusively on obtaining the resurrection that the experiences of earthly life almost don’t matter. “Be holy so that you can be saved. Do not hide in green pastures that will wither & fade anyway. Do not worry about the needs of the flesh, do not struggle against injustice or authority; even if you are beaten,” says 1 Peter, “let God have the glory.” The early Church of 1 Peter believed that the end of the world was quickly coming, too quickly to spend much time on worldly cares. Faithful behavior was expected of the early Church – hospitality, grace and love, support – as a way of passing the time well until the world ended. Any chaos and suffering were seen as inevitabilities of evil that should not be resisted since salvation was so near.
Like the early Church of 1 Peter, sometimes the 21st century Church has its eyes only set on heaven, not interested in embodying God’s kingdom on earth.
What is the 21st century Church called to be, called to do, called to look like?
If not a Church of fear that hides in green pastures, then who might we be? If not a Church of disengagement that only cares about heaven, then what might we look like?
And, of course, that ever-present question: Depending on how we are the Church, will it change our Constitution & Bylaws?
More accurately, will being the Church change our constitution? Will it change our being, our makeup? Are we – in our essence – any different because we are part of this body, because we are part of Christ’s body, because the work of Christ’s body in the world becomes our work, because the good news of Christ’s being is the good news at the heart of our beings?
I ask because the Church – and I mean the whole, global, ecumenical Body of Christ, with a capital C, which includes Christ Church but isn’t only Christ Church – the Church can be a Church of fear and still do the Acts 2 work of meeting one another’s needs. The Church of fear can say, “We’ll send meals when you’re sick, but we won’t advocate for your health insurance.” The Church of fear can be a Church that feeds people, but it will wring its hands over every penny and it will buy the cheap bread instead of the hearty artisan bread.
And the Church can be a disengaged kind of Church that sets its eyes so much on the prize of resurrection that it tells people just to endure and be good, and still the disengaged Church might know how to proclaim #BlackLivesMatter (although it will be an inconsistent ally at best). When a Black 15-year-old straight-A student athlete named Jordan Edwards is killed by a police officer, the disengaged Church knows how to lament. But when a Black 18-year-old boy on probation named Malik Carey is killed by a police officer, the disengaged Church only shakes its head and mourns that Malik didn’t behave better.
The 21st century Church can do well and still have a constitution of fear. The Church can love strongly and still hold its nose at the work of injustice. Who we are and will be as the Church is a matter of constitution – of being – of the faith that defines our core and becomes our every expression.
And so we strengthen and nurture our constitution with that familiar articulation of faith, the psalm that perhaps we whisper when all other words fail, and we let these images settle at our core and become our being:
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The LORD is my green pasture;
I shall not roam endlessly in search of something better.
The LORD is my oasis of still water;
I shall not be discontent.
The LORD is my portion at the table;
I shall not be selfish.
The LORD is my deepest sigh;
I shall not cry alone.
The LORD is my soul’s restoration;
I shall not be discouraged.
The LORD is my calling;
I am not my own.
We are not our own. We are part of the Body of Christ, and the being of Christ is the essence of us. So let us be constituted, let us be comprised of the knowledge that goodness is the character of God and mercy is the call of the Church. All day long, all the days of our lives, goodness and mercy are our confidence, our actions, and our being, as the Church together for the glory of God.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.