Church is the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity. But church is difficult. Sooner or later, though, if we are serious about growing up in Christ, we have to deal with church. I say sooner.—Eugene Peterson
By Scott Black Johnston
A clergy friend of mine once said, "God sure chose a crazy, leaky vessel to help save save the world!" He was talking about the church.
Almost everyone, inside and outside the institution, can list aspects of church that are (or have been) messed up.
From a historical standpoint, we can point to shameful moments when elements of the church came down on the wrong side of an important issue. I once taught at a Presbyterian seminary in Texas where one of my predecessors on the faculty (over a hundred years earlier) had authored articles defending the practice of slavery.
On a personal level, we can point to churches and clergy who haven't lived up to our high expectations for the institution and its servants.
On a heartbreaking level, we can list churches that have hurt us (friends and family, too) by substituting abusive talk for the good news of Jesus Christ and his message of justice, grace and love.
On the just plain wacky level, we can point to fraudulent and downright clownish distortions of our tradition in the contemporary world—manifestations of church that make us cringe and wish we could revoke their right to use the adjective "Christian" to describe their activities.
I love this sometimes-awkward, clearly flawed collection of disciples, because I am convinced that my friend is right: God is using the church (warts and all) to save the world. I also believe that God is using the church to save us. Yes, we who show up to light the candles, sing the hymns, say the prayers and feed the homeless need saving, too.
Starting Sunday, and for the next four weeks, we are going to examine, in worship, "The Case for Church." We are going to talk about how the church nurtures and shapes us; how the church cultivates critical moral conversations for the wider society; and how the church fosters an ethic of justice and hope.
Does this sound like work? It is. As Eugene Peterson points out, church is difficult. It supposed to be. Church is difficult like working out is difficult. It is difficult like getting along with family is difficult. Jesus never intended for church to be a spa. It's a gym. It's a challenging conversation. It is a place where our own notions of God are often challenged; where our self-righteousness and narcissism are exposed; where deep hurts can be salved, and we can grow in hope.
Church is the crazy, leaky vessel where, sooner or later, we Christians must engage if we want our hearts to be shaped to do God's will and work in the world.
Scott Black Johnston is the senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. "The Case for Church" continues through Sunday, May 21. For details on each week of the series, see our worship calendar. And listen to each week's sermon here.
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