When the Church is the Church of Jesus Christ there is no better place to be this side of heaven because when the Church is the Church it’s the most perfect expression of the kingdom of God we can experience here on earth.
When the Church isn’t the Church of Jesus Christ but it becomes the Church of Somebody Else then it’s more like hell on earth and people get hurt and terrible things are done and the innocent suffer.
I’ve been struggling a lot with this lately. Not that there is something going on at Zion right now that’s caused me to be more reflective about this. But I’ve had lots of conversations lately about this with people inside and outside the church. Even in my devotional life and in preparing the sermon series on Mark it seems to be a constant and pervasive theme.
What causes the Church to go off mission? Some of the reasons are obvious. Following people and their prejudices instead of Jesus and his teaching. Bad leadership. Emphasizing the wrong things. Majoring in minors. Fear of world. Fear of change. Fear of sinners. The one I’ve been focusing on lately is this: misunderstanding or misapplying the concept of grace.
Grace. Jesus died on the cross for us when we didn’t even know him and by his blood we are set free from sin, death and the devil. That’s grace. The “unearned love of God.” Another definition is “treating people better than they deserve.” You and I didn’t deserve to be saved but Jesus died for us anyway. We deserve hell, but because of Jesus, we get heaven. Wow. Grace.
We Lutherans understand ourselves theologically as being in the grace business. Jesus gives it and our job is to proclaim to the world forgiveness and life in his name. It’s an awesome calling. So, as a Lutheran pastor, I sort of think of myself as an agent of grace: that is, I’ve got this grace of God to give away for free. Who wants it?
So I went to a funeral last week. Someone close to me, but I guess not that close, because there was so much I didn’t know. Like this person hadn’t been in church for 22 years. Let’s call this person “Pat.” When Pat became sick and it looked like Pat might die, Pat didn’t even want to go to church on Christmas Eve. You know, Christmas Eve - that fun service with candles and familiar songs and everybody is happy...
What on earth could’ve happened to Pat to make Pat not even want to go back to church, any church, on the happiest and best service of the year? I mean scores of people who don’t regularly attend show up come to church on Christmas Eve (and sometimes Easter!).
I was told it had something to do with the fact that Pat was divorced and heard something from someone at church that made Pat feel a second class citizen. Knowing Pat like I do, I wonder if it had anything to do with Pat’s own feelings of failing God and the family that loved Pat and brought Pat up in the faith. I’m not sure about this, but it sounds plausible, knowing what I know about people.
So here I am at the graveside and at the party afterwards pondering this enormous frustration: I’m a pastor. I’ve got truckloads of God’s grace to give away and look here, I missed an opportunity to “make a sale.” The one thing Pat needed and I’ve got boxcars of it. I tear up just thinking about it.
Now I know that some of you are rushing to say, “Hey, Pat could have gone to a different church!” Sure Pat could have. But Pat, along with millions of others, don’t. In the church, unlike baseball, you usually only get one strike and you’re out.
Some of you are going to say, “Hey, Pastor, the church has to stand for something. God hates divorce, if people can’t handle it, tough!” OK, yes, that’s what the Bible says but the Bible also says we’re all sinners and Jesus came to seek and save sinners and the church is the continuation of his ministry. So, I counter, why can’t we deliver the truth of Scripture in a way that is full of grace and leaves people loving Jesus and clinging to him and his forgiveness (grace) instead of running away for 22 years?
Look at the ministry of Jesus: the sinners flocked to him. He accepted them as they were and they left changed by his love for them. “Go and sin no more.” The religious people are the ones who killed Jesus. They hated grace and hated his guts. They only wanted a God who loved the good people (or the people who looked good). Jesus said, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick” Isn’t it weird that so often we do the exact opposite of Jesus? We turn off the sinners and collect the saints...
When the Church messes up because of stupid human stuff, like the inability to live out or even to explain God’s grace, we ruin people’s lives by keeping them away from Jesus in this life and possibly the next.
Now, please hear this, I am not naive. (Naive = Evian spelled backwards for those of you who swear by bottled water!) I know I’m as much a sinner as the next guy and we’re never going to get this right 100% of the time. In fact, it’s really complicated, because sometimes to show grace and explain grace you have to have a relationship with people so you can also speak truth. And it’s hard to get that kind of depth in a relationship sometimes. There are lot’s of reasons we will continue to fail (see paragraph 4). But I feel what I feel and I feel the unimaginable weight of knowing that someone I knew and loved would find themselves at odds with God when I know a Savior who has the words that bring life and grace and peace and hope.
Yes, it weighs heavy on me. So does this: since I came to Zion in September 2005, by our records some 16 families have left the church. Oh, sure, there are a lot of reasons and those “other” reasons explain about seven of those departures. That leaves nine families who basically left the church because they didn’t like the Gospel I/we preach; didn’t like the vision I/we have; didn’t like me personally or whatever. No, it’s true you can’t please all the people all the time and we shouldn’t even try, we should please God only.
But... I know from doing a lot a lot of pastoral counseling on two continents that 75% of the counseling I did was because people misunderstood the teaching of a church or were hurt by what that church did or did not do to them. The summation: 75% of my life time counseling load was because either people weren’t taught about grace or were taught wrongly or because they failed to experience it in their church.
As a church everything we say and do is important because we represent Jesus. We are the sole proprietors on planet earth of his Gospel and therefore his grace. Sure we won’t achieve 100% results, but it’s a lofty goal worth trying for. Thanks for reading. More later in Blowing It: Part Deux.