August 25, 2018
What does one do when institutional leadership misleads? When some of the “shepherds” are really wolves? Where does one find a trustworthy guide for life? Where does one find inspiration and hope for tomorrow? After so many ecclesiastical disappointments and ongoing revelations, many are turned off or disappointed. The questions abound.
To start, I suggest we need to focus on the church not primarily as a religious institution but a gathering of believers. One of the unfortunate mis-translations in the New Testament concerns the word ecclesia. It is usually translated “church.” In fact it should be more correctly translated as an “assembly” or a “convocation” of those called together under Christ: people of faith, brought together, inspired, and enlivened by the message and spirit of Jesus.
My reflection today is not a bunch of pious old rhetoric. It is a contemporary plea to take Jesus seriously.
Perhaps we need to dismantle and deconstruct some church structures before credibility can be restored.
The lifestyle and teaching of Jesus are indeed our anchor in restless times and our blueprint for personal, group, and institutional regeneration.
Re-reading the Gospels this week, these Jesus virtues challenged me:
HUMILITY: Jesus was a humble man from a humble town: Jesus of Nazareth. People joked about Nazareth. In the Johannine Gospel, we read: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Torah and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” (John 1:45-46)
In Luke 14 we read “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” When putting on a meal, Jesus said “Don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”
We can live humbly with each other. How does one live humbly in an institutional church well known for grandeur, fancy dress, and imperial pretense?
GENDER EQUALITY: Jesus was not an old boys club kind of guy. Among his disciples were men and women. The first disciples to discover and announce that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women. Luke’s Gospel gives us the account of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary. The whole point of the narration is that Mary can be a disciple just like the guys. The New Testament scriptures strongly attest to women disciples, women apostles, and women ministers.
If today we could have an abundance of women ordained ministers and bishops, we would witness a marvelous ecclesiastical transformation.
NOT A PATERNALISTIC PATRIARCH: Jesus was not an authoritarian leader. He did not exercise power OVER people. He empowered people. His virtues were compassion, forgiveness, and challenging people to do better.
In the community of faith we must discover ways to move ahead with honesty, clear judgment, respectful ministry, and dialogue.
FAITH IS MORE THAN RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE: Some of Jesus’ strongest words were criticisms of religious leaders. One finds them throughout the Gospels. Here I recall an account in Matthew 23: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.’”
STRUCTURES SPRING FROM FAITH: The historical Jesus was not an institutional organization man. He did not establish an institutional church, did not ordain anyone. He did not create bishops, dioceses, or a pope. Jesus left structural systems to his followers: to the community of faith.
The community of faith, the assemblies of believers, need to do some re-structuring today.
NOT A WHITE SUPREMACIST: Jesus wasn’t white. He was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jewish fellow. He was neither xenophobic nor racist. His social morality is clearly explained in the narrative about the Good Samaritan.
WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW: Looking at Jesus, there is much we do not know. Things he didn’t talk about. Was he single? Married? Gay? Straight? For the evangelists these were not important questions. Perhaps they are really not important for us either, although some get hung up on just these issues.
GOD WITH US: Jesus is the revelation of God for us. He is the “image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) He is also the revelation of authentic humanity. He is for us “the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
Now let us reform, rebuild, and restructure a church worthy of Jesus Christ.
[Photo: Recent research by Joan Taylor (professor at King’s College London) suggests Jesus may have been of average height, with short black hair, brown eyes and olive-brown skin. Credit: Painting by Cathy Fisher, showing shorter clothing and hair for Jesus, in accordance with Taylor’s research.]