The Once and Future Church
I love the church. It formed some of my earliest memories, all of them happy. But the church is dying and only the obstinate deny it. It's not dying because the world has rejected its message. It's dying because it stopped seeing God in the world, judging as unredeemed everything and everyone not caught in its beam. But might its death make way for something new to rise up and take its place?
It's doubtful that Jesus ever intended to found a new religion called Christianity, let alone something called "the church." We've done that ourselves. He came to his own community, the Jews, to awaken their faith. But his followers created a new community, crowding out the original Jewish believers with the new Gentile converts who wanted in.
A sense of God's presence in their midst gave the early Christians boldness, and power, and a compelling message about the love of God. It's easy to understand why they thought they were supplanting the old order, replacing the Old Testament with the New. But for all their talk of love, their efforts bore the arrogance of all new believers, that they possessed the truth others were looking for. They became known as The Way, as in, "My way or the highway."
Revisionist church historians could dig through the early documents for evidence that we weren't really like that, that we really believed God's grace to be universal. But the truth is, we came to assume we were the sole custodians of that grace, dispensing it as a sacred trust to those who professed faith in God's Son. Our only consolation to others, to those outside the faith, was to join us, or be damned.
If there is a new dispensation of God's Spirit, to replace the dying one, surely it will reverse the tendency to judge others and save ourselves. Surely it will see God in all the world--the natural world, the world of humankind, even the imaginal world with all the possibilities we can dream up for a universe that is far more wondrous than we ever allowed.
In other words, the new church will be inclusive rather than exclusive. It will be marked less by the frantic need to contain its message and control its members, and more by a sense of gratitude for the diversity of human experience. It will be less an institution of believers and more a mystic fellowship of seekers.
There's no going back and rewriting our history. But there is going forward and discovering what faith looks like now. Until that too grows old, and we seek an even newer dispensation, on and on, into an unfolding future.
Next week: The Task of the Church