Monday, March 3, 2008

Jerusalem Our Mother - Lent IV

The New Jerusalem, and the Angel with the Key to the Pit by Albrecht Dürer
Image: http://biblia.com/heaven/heav-durer.htm

Today we celebrate the mid-point in Lent, which we call Refreshment Sunday. In England, it is commonly called Mothering Sunday, and that can be traced back to the Epistle reading for the day, wherein the apostle Paul speaks of Jerusalem as the mother of us all (Galatians iv.26). What does he mean by that?

The passage as a whole is a bit difficult because Paul changes his symbols or metaphors a few times. We can understand it, but we have to keep our thinking caps on as we read it. The first thing we have to do is remember what the rest of the epistle has been about. Paul is trying to help the Galatians Christians to understand that their faith is based upon God’s gracious saving act on our behalf in His Son, Jesus Christ, and is not dependent upon keeping the old Jewish laws which pertained to the covenant under Moses. That was an issue in that day because there were people who said that you could not be a good Christian without becoming outwardly Jewish by keeping these Jewish ceremonies.

In the course of his argument, he provides an allegory from the Old Testament. He refers to two mothers: Hagar and Sarah. You will recall that Hagar was one of Abraham and Sarah’s slaves and that Sarah thought that, since they were childless, perhaps they could solve that problem by using a custom of that time of having Abraham bear a child through someone else. The result was that Hagar had a son, Ishmael. While that arrangement was problematic enough, the main trouble was that God had given Abraham and Sarah a promise that they indeed would have a son, but in His own time. We always cause problems when we start trying to help God do what He has said He would do, do we not? Well, when God finally gave Sarah a son, Isaac, the result was that Abraham now had two sons, one a child of a slave and the other the child promised by God. Yet, the child of the slave was the firstborn, who would normally receive the inheritance. This was not what the Lord had planned. So, they had to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of the household, which was a very sad thing for them to have to do.

Now Paul sees this incident as symbolic of what he’s trying to get the Galatians to understand. I planned to go through all of this, but I finally realised it was just too tedious, so let me go directly to the matter that I want to deal with. Paul ends up likening the motherhood of Sarah to the motherhood of the Church, as symbolised by the heavenly Jerusalem. As Isaac was born miraculously in fulfillment of God’s promise, so, you and I, the people of God, have been miraculously born again through the ministry of the Church. How did we hear the promise? Through the Church in some way. The Church does not save us, but she is the body of people through which God makes our Saviour known to the world and through which He calls the world to believe in Him and give their lives to Him.

Sadly, there are lots and lots of people who have problems with talking about our dependence on the Church for our spiritual life, because they associate the Church with a kind of institutionalism. They complain of the Church being more concerned for the existence of its organizational structures and its buildings than for truth and people. They point to famous hypocrisies and errors and say they don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Their alternatives are various, but they are not unique. They have been seen over and over again ever since the 16th century. Those who simply quit going to church are in plain disobedience to Scripture. Others, who recognise this, come together with like-minded individuals and hold services, but do all they can to avoid what they think is associated with the traditional Church. Think of the many churches in our day that call themselves “non-denominational,” for example. Of course, as has been repeatedly proven, these people simply wind up with their own organization which becomes its own tradition and you are back to square one again.

The fact is that we cannot escape organization if we are going to have a church. For one thing, Christ himself has ordained certain things that must be in existence, that must be carried on, and that must be formed in order for his church to function. As soon as you start trying to be obedient to the New Testament picture of the Body of Christ, as she exists on earth, you start organizing with certain particular elements. They may look differently from one congregation to another, but they are there.

We also cannot escape some kind of organization simply because of the nature of the Church. She is both heavenly and earthly. As long as there is an earthly element – and there always will be – there is going to have to be some attempt at having some order and functioning according to that order. When a due order is not established and maintained, you have the kind of situation that the Church in Corinth had, with injustice and carnality abounding. It’s no wonder that the verse “let all things be done decently and in order” is found in Corinthians. They needed it. We all need it, for we are all finite beings and sinners.

By the way, it may be best at this point to suggest that perhaps, in our talking with people who complain about “organized religion”, that we use the word “order” instead of organization. The word organization is too easily associated today with corporate businesses. Indeed some have a picture of the Church in their mind that is based on their idea of a big business. It’s no wonder they think it unattractive. But the word “order” is, first of all, a biblical word, and secondly, it does not smack of business. It is something very human. It is easily recognisable as something necessary for the functioning of any human society. One must have order in the classroom if education is to take place. One must have order in the household if things are not to get lost or children are to understand their duties. So one must have order if the work of the Church as a body of people is to go forward. I think the use of the word order may help define the debate in such a way that will be helpful.

It is also only common sense that the abuse of something is not the proof that it is wrong. People complain about the abuses of the Church’s organization in the past or present, but that does not mean the Church should not be organized, that is, ordered. There are parents that abuse their children, but are we, as a result, to have no parents? Teachers may abuse their positions, but does that mean we should have no schools? You get the point. There have been abuses of the order of the Church, but they were abuses of the true. The true is to be respected and preserved.

Now, none of us like abuses. Sincere people never have. There have always been people in the Church who have wanted to purify this or that in the life of the Church. The iconoclastic controversy, for example, is quite ancient, yet its tendency is still with us today. There have often been times when people in the Church have tried to fix something that was wrong because they found some contradiction between a practice and the Bible. As more and more people have agreed on the contradiction, changes have been made. But lots of times, the reason for the criticism is not Biblical interpretation so much as an attitude of mind.

It is evident that much of what passes for biblical thinking in American Chuches today is really Enlightenment thinking. You will recall that the French Enlightenment was an attempt to make a full break with Europe’s past, with Christendom, and to reinvent society with a focus more on man than on God – to put it very simply. Most Americans are children of the Enlightenment. Anything smacking of the traditional is immediately considered false or bad. Instead of looking to the past to learn what we are to do in the present, we are to use our own wits and come up with something new, and all in the name of being biblical or getting back to the purity of the New Testament church. It is as if people think that no one else has ever wanted to be biblical; that no one else has ever searched the Scriptures to know how to order the Church, in her structure, or worship, or work. It’s quite an arrogant way of thinking, really.

The Enlightenment way of viewing our world and our place in it is not a Christian way of seeing. It leads to the proverbial re-inventing of the wheel and not only wastes energy and resources, but loses the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Has not the Holy Spirit been in the Church long before our time? Has he only made his mind known to us, today? Surely this is absurd.

No, let us recognise that the Church is Christ’s institution and is to be recognised as such and not demeaned but appreciated and cared for. She is our Mother (not Mary, by the way!). At the same time, we must recognise that many who complain about the organized Church do have a point. I refer back to the abuse issue and the fact that people are people. Just as the Galatians were tempted to get sidetracked away from the gospel, so are we. I find it happening in Anglican circles today. While many Anglicans are leaving The Episcopal Church and are finding a new liberty to “get on with preaching the gospel,” there are others who are, instead, more on a crusade to further their version of an orthodox Anglicanism. We have to be careful, here. The Anglican Church, historically viewed, is an expression of the gospel. In her ordinances and Prayer Book, we find the truth of the gospel. I love the Anglican Church for that, and so should we all. In fact, I think she is the best expression of the gospel in the visible Church. However, Anglicanism is not Christ. Biblical Anglicanism recognises this. A true Anglican is going to be more concerned with people knowing Christ than becoming Anglican, and this is the exhortation with which I would like to leave us.

As we are seeking to build our own parish of St. Andrew’s, which I pray God will use as the mother of many, let us guard against building her upon the foundation of a particular denomination of the Church. Let us build her foundations on the only foundation laid by God. To use the words of the apostle Paul, we “are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;” and also, “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Practically speaking, this means that our conversations with those we seek to bring to our church will be more of Christ than Anglicanism. Our passion will not be so much that people will want to join and become Anglican, but that people will know Christ. And especially, while we love the Anglican Church, we must seek to love Christ above all things. It is more important that the gospel be honoured and prosper in our land than that the particular expression of that gospel we call Anglicanism be honoured and prosper. Our mother is Jerusalem, not Canterbury. Let us not forget that. And if we do not forget it, then, by God’s grace, we will be better instruments in the Lord’s hands to lead people to Jerusalem and instead of people speaking ill of our Church, they will honour that which is worthy of honour.

Amen.

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