The Church must die

(This is in response to a request for a short reflection on the Gospel for this Sunday, 9 March 2008 to be posted on the Facebook group Notoriously Anglican. The post, being re-posted on my other blog which has a Creative Commons license, may be reproduced provided that my name is cited.)

Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” – Jn. 11:23

These were the first words that came to mind when I was reflecting on today’s Gospel. These words, a prelude to Jesus’ declaration that he is the resurrection and the life in verses 25-26, bring to mind a difficulty that I have with the Church. When I mean the Church, I am talking about everyone in it, not just those in “power,” which is a very bad distinction to make among Christians. The Church is imperfect, but makes a claim to perfection precisely because the Spirit is in it. But what if the Spirit is out of the picture? What if the Spirit no longer guides the Church? What if the ordained and non-ordained were more focused on fighting over the bottom line, and not on how it affects our missionary mandate? What if we were more concerned about protecting our (ultimately) ideological postures, especially when they are threatened by those who—for some reason—are right? What if we allow ourselves to be swayed by the “orthodoxies of the Enlightenment,” as Rowan Williams put it?

Then, I dare say, it is there that I can pronounce the Church dead. It is dead already. In my country, the Roman branch of it, not to mention several evangelical movements, has been killed by its willingness to consort with the principalities and powers that be. It props up a system that has been economical with the truth in order to preserve its power. At the same time, the Anglican branch of it has been murdered by ethnic exclusivism and an unwillingness to look beyond its colonial founders for ways to reshape its governance. And the Independent (IFI) branch of it, while admittedly growing, is being killed off by those who loudly advocate the activism of the most corrosive forms of Marxism, a system of thought that, our brethren forget, advocate the abolition of the transcendent.

In the wider Anglican fellowship, the Church is dying. Both sides in the liberal/conservative debate are concerned about either keeping their power or seizing it. And I mean both. Both sides have been ignoring both the wider tradition, which preaches a sense of moderation in all things (including sex) in favor of a kind of “activism” that ignores the possibility of being wrong. There is, I fear, a lack of humility on both sides of the divide.

We are killing the Church. “Lord, if you had not been here, my brother would not have died.”

I suspect that the reason this reading was chosen for the candidates for baptism was because faith in Jesus Christ meant faith in a resurrection meant for everyone. If that were so, the Church as a whole would benefit from a resurrection. We need to believe in Jesus Christ again, a Christ who transcends our visions and images of him. We have to admit that we have failed not only to follow Jesus, but to learn from him. We have to once again accept that Christ is truly the Anointed One, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.

If we learn from him, then we have to overcome what is corrosive in our surrounding cultures, that hinder us from realizing the Kingdom in this world until Christ can fulfill it in the end. I believe that the role of the Church is to transform culture after being transformed by it. And I believe that Jesus, a devout Jew defying the Sabbath, raising the dead, and speaking with a Samaritan, showed this most vividly over the past three weeks.

So as we enter what the old Sarum rite described as Passiontide, we find ourselves walking once again with Christ, on the way to Jerusalem, the way of the Cross. When we accept Christ as the only Master we follow, we must be able to die with him, as Thomas so eagerly acclaimed at the beginning of this chapter, and find that in so doing we may rise with him later. And so the Church can once again be the Body of Christ.

I invite you to pray, and reflect upon, this collect those of us in the US, Canada, the Philippines, and some other places will be praying next Sunday at the procession of the palms:
“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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