The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord; she is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died. – “The Church’s One Foundation”
“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -Pope John Paul II
Something broke inside me during the 2012 General Conference. I watched the proceedings via live stream and followed the conversation on social media. I read the reports and stories. I lamented and pulled out what little hair I had left. But my Rubicon was not legislative in nature, despite the horror of watching the Judicial Council’s determination to guarantee gridlock. Oddly enough, what affected me so strongly (and from so far away) happened at the Lord’s Table.
A group of people, in protest, seized the Communion table and held a kind of mock Eucharist. The reasons do not matter, for it would have been as problematic to me no matter the motivation. This was, to me, a signal that something was deeply wrong. The means of grace that is our most cherished gift from Christ was abused. We tried to use God rather than enjoy Him, to employ an Augustinian formula. It was an embarrassment, a low point during a gathering that would become famous for doing nothing. The blog post I wrote in response was the first really significant piece of writing I ever published about denominational matters. I wasn’t ordained yet. I was concerned that speaking out might cost me. But I couldn’t be quiet any longer. Much of my writing, my subsequent motivation for in the Via Media Methodists project and WesleyCast podcast began with that schismatic Eucharist. Whether you enjoy my work or despise it (or something in between), you can blame that malformed psuedo-sacrament as the genesis for what has come after.
Several years and many shenanigans later, I remain committed to the denomination that sometimes vexes me. At the wonderful church I serve here in North Carolina, we sang the lyrics above last Sunday before I preached on 1 John 4:12b: “If we love another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (NRSV) With Christ as our sole foundation, the church is called to a mutuality of love, in imitation of the love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As a denomination, such mutual love can be hard to spot. In the midst of Annual Conference season, temperatures are running hot as delegations are being elected and legislation being recommended to General Conference, taking place in 2016 in Portland. Depending on who you think should “win” in 2016, some of the delegations look promising, and some look horrifying. I don’t think it’s about winning, though I confess to a degree of dread about what is ahead. But I do not believe the Spirit permits me to distance myself from the ugliness.
I recently told a friend of mine, who finds it difficult to stay in his own ecclesial home and wondered about the pathologies of my denominational family, that this is the church in which I have been led to Christ, nurtured in faith, and called to ministry. This church, our embattled UMC, is who has supported me despite my failures, and given me opportunities to serve that have been deeply humbling and formative. I cannot abandon her simply because the road ahead is fraught with difficulty. As we say in the South, “You gotta dance with the girl who brought you.” R.R. Reno puts slightly more eloquently:
“However chaotic and dysfunctional the institutional and doctrinal life of the church, we must endure that which the Lord has given us.” (14)
All of us have our own ideas of what the church should look like, how it should function, and what she should teach and exhort. There is no sense in pretending otherwise. We have competing visions. That is okay, so long as those competing visions don’t become anvils on which we hammer the Body of Christ. That’s how a vision becomes an idol:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Bonhoeffer, 36)
Those competing images, though they are usually genuine in nature, make it tempting to either 1) retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, or 2) withdraw from the fray altogether. But to avoid the dissension in favor of echo-chambers and indifference is to do exactly what Christ has asked us not to do: to distance ourselves from his body.
“We need to draw ever nearer to the reality of Christian faith and witness in our time, however burdensome, however heavy with failure, limitation, and disappointment. The reason is simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in the flesh. We can draw near to him only in his body, the church. Loyalty to him requires us to dwell within the ruins of the church.” (Reno, 14)
Distance is tempting. But, to paraphrase Peter, to whom would we go? Methodists have always known that we cannot hope to grow nearer to God absent companions on the journey. That is why the church, the community of faithful, is a gift from God. We neglect this too often. Thus, Bonhoeffer reminds us:
“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.” (30)
If he is right, our neighbors who are sometimes exasperating are yet a means of grace. The fellow United Methodists whom I sometimes long to throttle are beloved children of God, with whom I am called to be in community. That community is not based on our shared vision for the future of the church, on mutual agreement on this or that question, but solely on Jesus Christ. Again, Bonhoeffer notes,
“Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us….we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.” (34)
As the Confessing Church leader hints at, the church will endure, and we shall be graced with one other forever, not based on anything other than the fact that Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has been pro nobis. I do not need to agree with someone to recognize that Christ is for them just as Christ has been for me.
My hope for Portland in 2016 is not based on this-or-that plan, or in the “right” delegates being elected. My hope for Portland is in Jesus.
“Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up: ‘How long?’
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”
Brokenness and discord are perishing. They have no future in God’s Kingdom. One way or another, God’s church will endure. Her foundation is upon Christ, and though the winds blow and the rains beat down, the Christian family is not going anywhere. Despite all our efforts to tear asunder the Body of Christ, we will feast at his heavenly banquet together one day.
I suggest, if you’ll permit a bit of realized eschatology, that perhaps we should go ahead and learn some table manners now.
This beautiful rendition of “The Church’s One Foundation” comes from the choir of Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together & Prayerbook of the Bible: Works Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005).
R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).