Eschapocalyptic - the church must die, only so resurrection can occur...
While it must continue to be said that “the church must die,” and though it is certain that such statements will meet resistance, it surprises me that no one asks me why it is that Christendom must come to an end. Admittedly, it does not surprise me that folks who read or hear such judgment passed on what has perhaps been the only stable and unchanging element in their lives feel frustrated or even angry. One of my understandings of why such ecclesial end-times proclamations are necessary is exactly due to the nature of congregational and denominational life today. For, a people who celebrate death and resurrection every year; who baptize and are baptized so as to die to self and rise again in new life with Christ; it must be mentioned that we are also a people who resist changes to our churches and our understandings of the divine with the tenacity witnessed only when one dines with American football’s Harbaugh family.
The church must die. Yet, for those who claim Christ, we should only experience joy in the promise that such a statement brings. For it is part of the Christian story that when religious people stagnate spiritually our religious body becomes corrupted. Because of Christian apocalyptic hope, we can move ahead through the internal and external struggles and emerge renewed; newly whole, and wholly new with Christ and our Wonderful Counselor. Folks, whether we are Brethren, Quaker, or Mennonite, whether we are mainstream Protestants, or whether we practice Catholicism, we cannot read the Bible without recognizing the importance of God’s sanctifying work through time. There are seasons to life, and seasons to our spiritual life. The church as a corporate body is not exempted from such seasons. Just such a season is upon us. The church must die.
We will rise again with Christ – and, we will constantly being re-baptized by the Spirit. In fact, while our baptism with water may indicate we are bound to one another in Christian fellowship, it is not the end of our spiritual season. Sanctification looms ahead like a straight path, clearly marked, yet paved with the sharpest stones which gnaw away at our finest boots. Sooner or later, we keep walking until our feet can no longer bear the gnashing of the stones that are crying out to us – “Go neither to the right nor the left, but Brethren and Friend, sit and make new shoes.” The new shoes are necessary, but present some painful realities.
We are not shoemakers, we only know the basics of how they function and how we might fashion a pair out of the resources at hand. Sewing parts together is difficult, and pieces will not fit together the way we want them to. They will resist being bound together. Then, when we bind them, the new pieces will meet resistance from our very feet. There will be pain, even blisters. Perhaps the blisters will bleed, making us cry out like the Hebrew slaves at the Sea of Reeds, as though their exposure to the gnawing teeth of the straight path, which made you cry out in the first place, was preferable to this pain that will, as we all know, pass in quick time. Soon, these newly fashioned shoes will fit just as snugly, and our gait will be just as assured, as we once experienced with old shoes that fit so well during their own season.
The church must die, because we are a people of end-times and apocalyptic change. The church must die because, if we are a people of the Book, we will recognize that we have, in many cases, become the Pharisees. In some instances, we have become the Sadducees. In some cases we have become the heretics, and in other instances, we are looking for wood so that we might burn our brethren at the stake. The church must die, because this is the only way that we can continue to be a faithful church. The church must die so that, in its rebirth, and reaffirmation as the Body of Christ, the Old Age may be vindicated in the New. The church must die. Long live the Bride of Christ.
The church must die because this time of cataclysmic violence and hatred marks out a time in history where the absurdity of the cross, the love of neighbor and enemy, and the unity of all who are baptized in Christ must be reaffirmed as our only birthright. Sin has crept upon us in disguised as righteousness, evil is crouching at our footstool. We must recognize that democracy, and technology, and wealth, and leisure, have become idols in our lives; that government and elections are now legitimized as representative of the right hand of God. At this time when the world seems to be unraveling, the church is breaking apart over who might be given or taken in marriage, and how wealth might be maintained for goats at the expense of the Lamb. We invest more as a people in living without surprises and legislating morality than we do in the commandments of Christ – to love God, and love one another, we must realize that the end-times of the Bible, or, eschatology for those like me who prefer such intellectually stimulating categorization of realities, has absolutely nothing with the end of the world. It has everything to do with the end of an age, and the church in America has been called to reveal righteousness in new ways for some time. We have failed. While the march of time has provided plenty of opportunity to reveal new ways of responding to the plethora of new ways that sin has been exposed to us, the church has been satisfied to identify and label sin without ever really offering alternatives to our recent tendency to continue living comfortably alongside of sin.
We challenge sin, but we rarely sacrifice to embody what spiritually healthy communities of gospel order might truly live like. We know that one must repent to escape bondage to sin, yet our failure is that we have not been a consistent witness to the nature of repentance. We have whittled down the spectrum of sin until we can live comfortably on the margins of those definitions. As such, we continue to point out the speck of evil in others without noticing the log in our own eyes which blinds us, not only to our complicity in the suffering of others, but the very fact that they are suffering even more than they are “sinning.”
Eschatology reveals the sin and suffering, apocalypse reveals how the church is to challenge the injustices that result from sin and suffering and embody alternatives in the name of Christ.
The church loves to identify sin, but never confesses its own. The church wants to judge and punish sin, but never reveals the kind of eschatological salvation that is more Biblical than our current escalator to Heaven model. The church finds ways to accommodate sin that makes our lives more comfortable, more easily lived, and more predictable despite the apocalypse that surrounds us everywhere, Apocalypse is revelation, not pulling back a veil on the sin of the world, but instead is the church pulling back the veil on new and faithful ways of challenging sin with love. Apocalypse arrives with the end-times, and apocalypse ushers in the new beginning. The world does not end. Apocalypse is Rebirth and Resurrection. Apocalypse is the church recognizing that elections, wars, racism, poverty, sexism, divorce, abortion, teen suicide, terrorism, drone warfare, and royal weddings will continue on throughout history. Apocalypse is the church recognizing that, after years of being comfortable in our old shoes, the very flesh of our feet are being gnawed to the bone, the soles and our souls eaten away and leaving us exposed. Yet, our biggest fear is how uncomfortable a new pair of boots will be.
I offer one example, and leave the rest to you all for consideration. The church is busily identifying sin related to marriage. Many will rail against same-sex marriage as the worst of all sins, sure to bring God’s judgment upon the nation. Others will rail about the church’s lack of justice, lack of love, and exclusion of the “other.” Somehow, marriage is at the center of a battle both spiritually and politically that threatens to split denominations and ruin relationships, despite the biblical reality that marriage is hardly a New Testament concern. Divorce is a New Testament concern, but not getting hitched.
Paul is reticent about marriage. Jesus and the disciples appear to have been reticent about marriage (we know Peter was married, and most likely hardly ever home). In the gospels and authentic Pauline letters, there is simply no concern for marriage relationships outside of divorce. Why? Because, the church recognized that Jesus, his ministry, his voluntary self-sacrifice, and his vindicating resurrection indicated that the church was called to witness to a new way of responding to evil in the world. The church, the disciples and apostles, new members – none were concerned with marriage because they were concerned with inaugurating the Kingdom of God. There were more important things to do, and through Jesus, God revealed how they were to be done.
The early church recognized the end of an age where empire claimed divine status, and religion controlled social status. The early church recognized that empire and religion marginalized the people that God loved as much as anyone, and that evil had crept into religion. Instead of marrying folks, the church recognized that all hands were needed, not to be given away in marriage, but to build the kingdom in a manner that meant spiritual risk-taking and walking the straight path into the unknown were the acts of faith through which God would rescue “the least of these.” The church must die, because we are now focused with controlling outcomes instead of faithfully risking outcomes that we cannot predict. However, the end of an age is here, and the church must recognize that the time has come for the end of the world as we know it.
And as Christians, we feel fine. We need not redefine marriage in a world where our own marriages have been failing for decades. We need not redefine marriage because our call is now to teach people how to love again. Our call now is to teach people how to love and forgive and show mercy. Our apocalyptic call is to reveal that the world has led us all down a path that allows us to walk comfortably despite the fact that this path leads not to wholeness, or the realization of God’s kingdom, but rather it leads to nowhere. As for justice – we as a church decided long ago that the nation can sanction marriage. The church simply provides ceremony. Apocalypse does away with ceremony, asking us to live the sacraments rather that participate passively.
The crooked path of the world is crooked because it winds around the truth. It is a comfortable path elevated above the suffering of the world, so that we can see but not experience it. We condemn the violence and sin but refusing to internalize it, instead getting angry and blaming some while patronizing others. We resent those that suffer. All of “those people” and all their pain makes us uncomfortable and interferes with the future we want for ourselves, while we avoid dealing with our own deeply buried pain. Folks, the end is here.
It is the end of the easy path. It is the end of our once comfortable pair of boots. It is the end of our time of privilege. But we will not recognize this if we refuse to recognize that Christ has come, and come again, and this time, we are refusing to acknowledge his royal presence because it convicts us. But indeed, it is the end of an era, the end of a time, and the church, if it is to be faithful, must die.
Only, of course, to be raised again in Christ. The church must die so we may rise and be the church. A new age dawns where we take seriously our call to serve the world; bereft of our privilege, and bereft of power save that power of the gospel that works only through the weakest and most absurd assumptions. God’s power is revealed, the veil is lifted, when the status quo is turned upside down, and the power of sin left in uncomprehending darkness.
The gospel - the absurdity of self-sacrifice, voluntary suffering, and the hope of resurrection as a response to evil - can only be revealed through the weakness of non-violent and self-emptying servanthood. Sacrifice of privilege, of extraordinary wealth, and of political power are consistent with the here and now salvation that is biblical and satisfying; just short of Heaven. Through weakness, we might reveal what the kingdom of God has to say about marriage by being the bride of Christ in the way that gives such relationships real meaning. If we our honest, the age of marriage and the time of giving and taking one another has ended. New things must be revealed by the church, like the very basic notions of how to love one another. The end has come, only that the church may reveal how to love again.