A post about “church” is definitely in order on a dreary overcast Sunday afternoon. If you haven’t been tracking with me, I’ve recently been working through some big ideas of Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. I’m calling this series – “Grab & Go.” Being one of my favorite spiritual writers, I am enjoying sharing with friends some of Buechner’s keen insights in bite-sized “Grab & Go” pieces. One example comes from his sermon, simply titled, “The Church.” Do you have time for a five-minute snack today?
In this sermon, Buechner recalls how the disciples often receive bad press because they never seem to have gotten Jesus’ points very well. Even when they did understand Jesus, they never seem to live out his teachings very well. Surely we can identify with the disciples’ struggles to understand and live out a life of faith, which is Buechner’s point. We are all, simply put, human beings.
We are all, simply put, human beings.
Let’s not move past this point too quickly: we are all human beings. Buechner reminds us that “Jesus made his church out of human beings with more or less the same mixture in them of cowardice and guts, or intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to find in any of us” (147). For better or worse, the original church, the historical church, and the church of today and tomorrow, is made out of the same substance: human beings. This is surely a point worth remembering. And, of course, we mustn’t forget that even after Jesus made his first church, the folks “seem to have gone right on being human beings…they kept on being as human as they’d always been with most of the same strengths and most of the same weaknesses” (147-148).
Something I need to keep remembering is that it was, after all, Jesus who started this whole idea of church – not the disciples. It was Jesus who called them out, one by one.
They didn’t come together the way like-minded people come together to make a club. They didn’t come together the way a group of men might come together to form a baseball team or the way a group of women might come together to lobby for higher teachers’ salaries. They came together because Jesus called them to come together (148).
Is this why we still gather together in buildings all around us today? Is Jesus still calling us? In all fairness, I have a lot of stuff to do. I find myself honestly deliberating at times whether or not if “church” is just one more obligation among many others. Yet, I am reminded that Jesus is forever calling people to see, taste, and feel the extraordinary within the ordinariness of everyday life. He called this “The Kingdom of God.” It is closer than we think, and it is not contained in a single building; it is, in fact, within us. Buechner explains:
Life even at its most monotonous and backbreaking and heart-numbing has the Kingdom buried in it the way a field has treasure buried in it…If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world (149).
So maybe there is room for church today. Maybe there is something different about “the church” that compels people of faith to come together regularly. Maybe there remains a possibility to experience human flourishing like Jesus described – to be truly alive to ourselves and to be truly loving to God and others.
Buechner strips away our outdated pretensions. Loving God is not about having all the right answers or being “biblical.” Instead, it “means watching for (God) in the beauty and sadness and gladness and mystery of your own life and life around you.”
Loving others is not about mere sentimentality either. Buechner suggests:
Loving each other doesn’t mean loving each other in some sentimental, unrealistic, greeting-card kind of way but the way families love each other and drive each other crazy, yet all the time know deep down in their hearts that they belong to each other and need each other and can’t imagine what life would be without each other (150).
As people of faith, we love God and others because Jesus has inaugurated his Kingdom within us. He still beckons us even today to love and to live. And, “if the church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be. If it is not doing things like that – no matter how many other good and useful things it may be doing instead – then it is not being what Jesus told it to be” (151).
Perhaps it is a bit crazy to believe that Jesus still calls us to be the church to one another. Honestly, for many of us, church has not always demonstrated the “hands, feet, and heart” of our Lord. Our experiences testify to the ugly underbelly of humanness. For many, when we think of church, we think of other more unsatisfying and unsavory things. Nevertheless, Buechner reminds us:
The church buildings and budgets came later. The forms of church government, the priests and pastors, Baptists and Protestants. The Sunday services with everybody in their best clothes, the Sunday schools and choirs all came later. So did the Bible study groups and the rummage sales (152).
In my experience, it seems like we often get this so backward. We are often too consumed with nickels and noses – with governance and programming – with worship styles and latest trends. Who is right and who is wrong; who is in and who is out? Who among us is truly “biblical” and who is not? To this end, Buechner advises:
Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash all that away – the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place…Heal the sick and be healed. Raise the dead and be raised. Everything that matters comes out of doing those things. Doing those things is what the church is, and when it doesn’t do those things, it doesn’t matter much what else it does (153).
“Grab and Go” This: Are you ready to reboot the way you think about and live within the church? I know I am.