• Steven Marsh

Thriving As a church in a Globalized World – An Institution of Respect: a Reflection on Isaiah

“If you were doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, would you choose the life you are living now? The question is interesting enough, but I’ve always thought the point of asking it is really the unspoken, potentially devastating follow-up question. That is, if the answer is no, then why are you living the life you are living now? Stop making excuses, and do something about it.”[1]

Jesus does not invite humanity to join a new religion, but life.[2] Phyllis Tickle, who passed away a few months ago, was a lay Eucharistic minister in the Episcopal Church and a senior fellow of Cathedral College at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. She was engaged in social analysis on the church and its relationship to, in, and with society. Tickle concluded that the cultural and religious changes we face today are rapid, pervasive and significant. She argues that the church has not faced changes like this since the Reformation.[3] A most significant observation is there are those who love God, but are suspect of the institutional church.

We adopt mindsets of disrespect as opposed to respect as persons and institutions. Miroslav Volf calls on adherents within the world religions and political institutions to distinguish “…between constitutive moral principles or values and operative modes or means. Freedom of conscience and equality of respect are moral principles; separation of religion and state and impartiality of the state toward all religions and a-religious are the operative modes.”[4] To be a thriving church in a globalized world, we must embrace freedom of religion, equal respect of all citizens, separation of religion and rule, and impartiality of the state.[5]

What we are witnessing in our culture is the collapse of confidence in institutions that have sustained and shaped our communal life. That includes the church. Human is suspicious of institutions.[6] Jesus says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” The Gospel reading in Luke clearly indicates that the person and purpose of Jesus was divisive. Jesus’ values, ethics, and spirituality were unsettling. He challenged the status quo and called for a relationship with God that was personal, not ritualistic. Children against their parents or parents against their children are divisions engendered by Christ’s work.[7]

What is God’s purpose in division? The Psalmist declares, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”[8] Real hope is crying out to God in order to be rescued from hard times and real enemies.[9] Like the writer of Isaiah, the Christian community must seek justice and righteousness as the end result in situations which are divisive.[10] The writer of Hebrews reminds us that relationship is what gives final meaning to life. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”[11] Christians have a responsibility to embrace the great divides that exist in our society and work for restoration.

A recent Pew Forum notes that 32 percent of today’s young adults (aged 18-29) report no affiliation with a church. These folk are affectionately known as religious “nones.” “Nones” do not affirm traditional views on marriage, parenting, and sexual mores. “Nones” are not opposed to the essential teachings of the Gospel, but find the Church irrelevant. This is the challenge facing mainline denominations. Can we emphasize the Gospel that is to love God and others and deemphasize religious dogmatism in order to reach “nones” and all people with the good news of Jesus Christ?

In spite of the Church’s reluctant embrace of God’s inclusive message of redemption, God continues to raise up a spirit of humility and love and a spirit of welcome and service in the Church. Some congregations, like Geneva, have begun to embrace the core values of humility, love, welcome, and service. Patricia J. Lull, Dean of Students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota writes,

A congregation that lives out Christian practices of inclusive welcome and hospitality will have an easier time listening to Jesus’ words…Where issues of family life including divorce, generational conflict, and the hard work of reconciliation are often topics for open discussion, it will be far easier to talk about the divided households of Luke 12 than in those parish settings where the challenges of domestic life are simply never addressed…Who is welcome within this gathered community, and how is that word of welcome conveyed in deeds as well as words? …Building the capacity to listen to one another on highly charged themes takes time and skill; once established, it is a rare and precious gift.[12]

Let’s adopt a mindset of respect as individuals and a church. In Jesus, there is real hope for real life. Restoration is possible when division is authentically and honestly embraced. Relationships matter: with God and others.

[1]William Alexander, The $64 Tomato (Algonquin Books, 2007), 245.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison (London: Fontana Books, 1959).

[3]Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008).

[4]Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion In A Globalized World (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015), 134.

[5]Ideas gleaned from Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion In A Globalized World (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015), 134-135.

[6]Adapted from Tom Are’s sermon What is NEXT Church?, which was preached on April 28, 2013 at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas.

[7]Idea gleaned from Audrey West in David Barrett and Barbara Browne Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 360, 362.

[8]Psalm 80:19

[9]Idea gleaned from J. Mary Luti in David Barrett and Barbara Browne Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 3, 350.

[10]Isaiah 5:7

[11]Hebrews 12:1-2

[12]Patricia J. Lull in David Barrett and Barbara Browne Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, 360.

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