Jesus called his disciples and a community formed around him. Jesus calls his disciples still and the community gathered is his church. In essence, it is still his school. We, like his disciples, are shaped by his example of life, love, prayer, and compassion. We are beloved by him. We are entrusted by him with sharing the love of God in the witness we give and in the service we render to all God’s children in all creation.
The church, through time, has been made up of individuals and human groupings. Its oneness contains a multitude of differences of culture, outlook, and ways of being. God makes all creatures to be a delight to God and to one another; no two being exactly the same, each one bearing a unique gift to, and being a unique gift for, all.
The church is gathered around Jesus and is shaped by his teachings. We all share in the lessons. We are all challenged by him. The church is a community of questioners that lives out its exploration of sacred truth in the faithful lives of Jesus’s disciples. The church is a spiritual gymnasium in which we build up the muscles of faith, the skills, and the experience so that we may practice the teachings of Christ in the world God so loves.
Over the years, much has been said about the nature of the church. Different traditions speak of it in different ways. Some emphasize different aspects of how we live the Christian life and/or how the church is organized. These are important questions; because they help us to think about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What is it that he says that has implications for how we should be when we are together in community? It is, unfortunately, over questions about the church that some of the most rancorous disputes have arisen. We have argued — and still argue — about who does what, who is the greatest, and whether or not this person or that person can be called one of Jesus’s own. The arguments do not bother me much, though. Long ago, while reading the Gospel of Mark, I noticed that this sort of squabbling was a part of our lives together even when Jesus was here in his earthly ministry. Even when we were in the physical sight and hearing of the Son of Man, we bickered with one another. It must have gotten on his nerves sometimes. I imagine it does still.
If we look at Jesus as a rabbi, as a teacher, it helps us to see our being together in a particular light that, I think, also helps us be compassionate with one another. Being a rabbi of the first century, it was part of his life with his disciples to challenge them with questions that were not easy to answer. The nature of the Jewish synagogue of the time was that it was a place of learning through questioning. We see this over and over as people come to Jesus and ask him a question. His reply could also contain a follow-up query to the one questioning him, so as to deepen the discourse. Jesus continues as our rabbi today. It makes sense, therefore, that his teaching method is still much as it was two-thousand years ago.
For some, it is painful to experience being called to question. There are some who want answers handed to them. But when they receive what they think they want, they sometimes find the answer is not satisfying (according to their expectations). In the story of the rich, young ruler (Matthew 19.16-26), for instance, Jesus does give a simple answer to his question. But it is not enough. Still wanting a simple answer handed to him — but one that will put his heart and mind more solidly at ease — he presses Jesus further. Jesus is moved by his restless seeking. So he offers the young man a place among his disciples; and, as a first lesson, he instructs him to give up all of his material wealth. It is a challenge tailor-made for the young man’s spiritual growth. In this case, the young man goes away disappointed. He has wanted assurance through something he can add to the life he already has. But Jesus calls him, instead, to set aside what he has and become something different in his company.
Discipleship with Jesus means we must be transformed. The rich, young ruler was, at first, given the answer that he was on the right track. Jesus speaks of the core commandments as the means by which one can attain to eternal life. The young man has done all of these things. And yet his heart yearns for more. When invited to be counted among Jesus’s disciples, however, the cost was too high for him.
Discipleship is costly. And part of the cost of discipleship is that the certainty of easy answers that do not place upon us a challenge to grow is not part of the Christian life. So often, people yearn to be given bits of knowledge that they can store up like coins to pay for their entrance into God’s favor. Part of this is understandable. They want to be loved and know that they are loved. But that was never truly in question. They, and all of us, are loved before ever we draw our first breath. We are loved eternally by God. Becoming a disciple of Jesus is not about earning God’s love. It is about learning to love as God loves and live as God lives. And that means that many of the comforts we may have collected for the lives we have may need to go in order to make room for the more abundant life that Christ Jesus teaches us to live.
As we are gathered together in the love of God in Christ Jesus, we should always be looking at how we are together as part of the lesson of discipleship. We will, I think, always be at least a bit like the disciples in Mark’s gospel. We will miss the point and argue about stupid things. As Christ calls new people from new generations, we will need to learn many of the same lessons as those first disciples. But, we have their example to instruct us, as well as Jesus’s own teaching. We can learn from the insights gleaned from their mistakes. We can learn that, in each other’s company, we are surrounded by fellow Christians who are learning along with us, struggling with the challenges and questions placed before us, and sometimes trying to bring order to the seeming chaos brought on by the questions.
In one of the classes I have sometimes taught in seminary, we learn about Christian discipleship over the centuries by studying the lives of persons from history. In selecting the people we will look at during the semester I am careful to select individuals whose lives have not been rubbed smooth of their rough spots by the historical sources and commentaries we have available to us. I choose the people we look at on the basis of how full a picture we can get.
One semester, I’d put onto the syllabus that we would be looking at the life of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the English social reformer who was largely responsible for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. One woman in the class eagerly asked to be assigned to report on him. She said he had been a hero of hers all throughout her life. I agreed to assign her to that particular biographical report. But there was a twinge of pain in my own heart because I sensed she was going to learn some unpleasant things about the man she wanted to study. When the day of the report came, the woman who had been so eager to report on Wilberforce glared at me with genuine anger. She had learned many things. She had learned how he had worked for years in a heroic struggle with parliament and the society of his day to bring an end to slavery. He had battled against one of the “givens” of history; there had always been slaves. Wilberforce is a saint with special significance to many of those Christians who want their faith to be best expressed in action. But, Wilberforce was also said to be brutal and unkind with women and servants. It was an ugliness in him that stood in contrast to his spirit of compassion and justice. How could these contradictions be present in his life? The woman in my class was furious with me — she said so — because I’d led her to find out for herself that the image of Wilberforce she had formed in her mind was not the whole picture. Her image of him was broken. And that made her experience tremendous loss. Her report was excellent in every respect. She did fine work in her research and in her historical analysis. Her commentary on Wilberforce’s personality and how it came together to do one of the great things of history was superb. And yet, she ached — and I felt a knot form in my throat.
The last class of the semester was dedicated to sharing with one another what had been the most important things learned together. The woman who’d reported on Wilberforce took her turn speaking. She glared at me again with such an intensity of anger that I have seldom seen from anyone. “I’m not sure I will ever forgive you,” she said to me. “You destroyed the hero I’ve admired all my life. You knew what I would find out about him.” I said yes, I knew. “But, she said, I learned something else — that great things are done by people who are deeply flawed. Wilberforce is a saint — but in some parts of his life he was also very imperfect — awful.” Yes, I said again. “And that means,” she continued, “that none of us gets off the hook. There are no excuses. We can be flawed to the core of our being and still change the world by devoting ourselves to doing God’s work.” Yes. A+.
The church has sometimes been referred to as the gathering of God’s saints. I would agree with that — tarnished saints.
Paul speaks of God’s power being revealed in Paul’s weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9) I very much see that in his life and in ours. As human beings struggling through our lessons in the company of our teacher, Jesus, we are bound to astound the world that people such as us can be employed by God to be witnesses to God’s love, compassion, and healing.
The questions of “what is the church?” and “how is the church to be constituted” and other similar queries are all very fine. But I am suspicious of the answers; and think we are all wise to question them again and again. Our faithfulness deepens the braver we are at searching the depths of the questions Jesus asks us — and that we ask together in his presence.