Location, Location, Location!
Rev. Dr. Paul Miller
Since the earliest days, Christians have claimed that Jesus is more than a religious teacher. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord, the Word made flesh, the one through whom all things are made.
By the fourth century, the church – or at least the dominant voices in the church – proclaimed that Jesus is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. This is what sets Christianity apart from the other monotheistic faiths – Judaism and Islam – with whom it has so much in common – this paradox that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
It’s always been a hard thing to grasp. The church calls it a “mystery.” Doubters and critics call it nonsense. And it’s not just non-believers who struggle with it. A lot of Christians – people who sit in church – heck, maybe some of you – you have a hard time believing that Jesus is divine. They can accept that he was a good man, a wise teacher, someone with special openness to the divine – maybe that he even had healing powers. But God in the flesh? Come on.
But what’s interesting – to me as an historian, at least -- is that the problems people have with Jesus being both fully human and fully divine, have changed over time. In the early years of Christianity, what people had a hard time believing was that Jesus was really human. A god who could take human form was no big deal. The world was teeming with all kinds of spiritual beings, and any self-respecting deity shouldn’t have any problem taking on human form.
But to bow down and worship a fully human Jesus? That was – well it was gross. Jews believed that the Lord God was one, before whom they were to have no other gods. According a mere human being the devotion due to God alone was blasphemy.
The Greeks believed that to be human is to have a body – a smelly, sweaty, defecating, decaying body – which is the total antithesis of the beauty of the spiritual. The idea of seeing the divine in a fully human Jesus was degrading and demeaning and preposterous.
One of the dissenting voices in early Christianity was called “Docetism.” Docetism comes from the Greek word dokeo which means “to appear, to seem.” Jesus appeared to be human. But he wasn’t really human. He appeared to suffer. But he didn’t really suffer. He appeared to die. But he didn’t really die. It was all an act.
So, it was in the face of this impulse, this pulling back from Jesus’ humanity, that the Gospel writers were really concerned to affirm that the risen Christ was the fully human Christ. He wasn’t play-acting at being human. He wasn’t pretending to be human. He didn’t take a temporary vacation from divinity to become human for a while. He really was human. “Touch me and see,” he said to his friends after he rose. “A ghost does not have flesh and bones as I do.”
“Look at my hands and feet,” he said. The holes from the nails that had torn his flesh were still visible. We’ve had 2000 years to get used to the idea, but if you think about it, that detail in the story is pretty striking. If you believe it, it’s profoundly moving. You’d think if Jesus rose victorious o’er the grave, that he would have been made perfect in the process. But here he is, risen from the dead, with the marks of his suffering – the marks of his condemnation and humiliation -- still visible. Those marks of his fully human identification with human suffering, sin and death aren’t an embarrassment to be forgotten or covered up. They are eternally essential to who Jesus really is. They are his glory
And just to drive that point home, we’re told that Jesus asks for something to eat. Even risen from the tomb, Jesus still does that most human of all activities. He ate. He broke bread. He shared food. Fully divine. But fully human.
Scholars have noted that, even though Luke’s and John’s Gospels differ in many ways, they are also strikingly similar. For example, both Luke and John say that Jesus greeted his friends with the words, “Peace be with you.”
And both Luke and John report that Jesus had breakfast with his friends after he rose.
They also tell us that Jesus shared with his followers the Holy Spirit -- his divine breath – the force and energy of his own life. After he died and rose, Jesus made the Holy Spirit available to us all. This means that his life can be our life; that, as St. Paul put it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
According to both Luke and John, Jesus remains alive and active in this world through those in whom his Spirit lives. Through the Spirit, our wills, minds and hearts become one with his, and he continues his work through us.
Jesus not only gives us the job of carrying on that work, he gives us the power to do so – through the Holy Spirit.
And that, friends, is the reason we have churches. We need to keep reminding ourselves of this fact. For some reason that we can’t really explain, the means Jesus chose to continue his work are these flawed, fallible, infuriating motley crews called churches. For all our warts and blemishes, our failings and foibles, the church is still Jesus’ go-to option for carrying out his mission in the world. Strange. But strangely true.
Many people reject the church because they are offended by its foolishness and corruption. But through this foolishness called the church, God’s wisdom is made known. How could a broken institution like the church do anything? And yet, through our brokenness, God brings wholeness and healing. That’s how we know God is powerful. If God can do these things through losers and misfits like us, God can do anything.
So, the church has always steadfastly insisted on Jesus’ humanness. The church has resisted all attempts to create a purely spiritual Jesus, to turn him into a superman, or a timeless ideal, or an otherworldly presence. Jesus was human, through and through. And Jesus does his work through humans like us.
One implication of this for the church is that the church is always localized. The church always exists in a place. The church doesn’t exist in our imaginations or ideals – what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “wish dreams.” The church exists in the here and now, bound by time and space to this particular place. Christ’s presence is not general, it is experienced and made known in this place, by these people, in these ways.
We kind of rebel against that. We hanker after an ideal church, we fantasize about a perfect church, we wish we could come up with a church not burdened by human-all-too-human shortcomings. But no such church exists. Only this church and that church, made up of these people and those people, broken by sin, but forgiven and called by Jesus to be his body.
Part of the problem today is that churches aren’t aware enough of their location. That might sound surprising because so many churches seem pathologically attached to their buildings. But they’re detached from the place where they are. One symptom of this is when churches run around trying to find a successful church somewhere and just copy it – import what they’re doing over there and hope to replicate its success.
For almost 40 years, Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago has been one of the largest congregations in the US. Willow Creek pioneered the “seeker-sensitive” movement. Their target back in the 80s and 90s were the hordes of baby-boomers who were grew up in the church but were experiencing spiritual emptiness as they became adults. They had left the churches of their parents behind, but they hadn’t found anything to replace it. They felt something was missing. There was an emptiness inside that money and success couldn’t fill.
They were seekers. But, the theory was, anything that looked too “churchy” would be a turn-off. So, Willow Creek set out to make Sunday morning look as much like the other days of their week as possible. You wanted to remove any dislocation or dissonance between what they were used to Monday to Saturday and what they experienced Sunday morning. So, you got rid of the hard church pews and replaced them with comfy theater seats. And you got rid of the pipe organ and replaced it with a soft rock band. And you got rid of the long biblical sermons and replaced them with inspiring life messages. And you got rid of the old-fashioned stained-glass windows and replaced them with soft lighting. And you didn’t do anything as vulgar as passing an offering plate. Seekers were coming to have their spiritual needs met, not to be shaken down.
I’m being more than a little unfair. Willow Creek has succeeded in reaching tens of thousands of people with the Gospel who would never have been reached by traditional churches. The point is that what worked in that location doesn’t necessarily work in every location. Generations of church leaders have made pilgrimages to Willow Creek and signed up for their leadership conferences in the hopes of finding the secret to turning their sad little churches around. There are a lot of frustrated churches who tried to cut and paste Willow Creek into their own locations and found it didn’t work.
I’m working with a newly amalgamated church now, in the town where I grew up. Two aging, declining congregations have joined forces in the hopes that they can stave off death for a little longer. They’ve got a bit of wind in their sails, a little bit of renewed hope and energy, which is great. But what they want to do with that energy is to tour around to churches they think of as “thriving” in the hopes that they’ll learn the secret, or that some of their success will be catching. “That church has a hundred kids of Sunday. Let’s go see how they did it.” “That church has three big youth groups. Let go see how they did it.” “That church is attracting lots of young families. Let’s go see how they did it.” They have ignored the fact that their own young families have been deserting them for forty years, and they are putting their hopes in finding a magic solution somewhere over the rainbow.
But you can’t simply transplant what’s happening at that church into this church and expect it will reproduce itself. In the words of theologian Richard John Neuhaus, there is an inescapable “thus-and-soness” to the church, as individual as fingerprints or DNA.
And part of our faith is to not only believe that Jesus was fully human, but that Jesus wants to make himself known in this particular place through this particular group of humans.
Lesslie Newbigin left England as a young man in the 1930s and went to India as a missionary. Newbigin was one of the leaders, not only of the church in India, but of the world-wide ecumenical movement.
In the 1980s, Newbigin and his wife moved back to England to retire. And what he found there astonished him. The England he left as a young man was a Christian country. The England he returned to as an older man was no longer a Christian country. England, a land that had been sending missionaries to the farthest corners of the earth for two hundred years, was now itself a mission field.
Newbigin spent the later part of his life asking this question: “What does it mean to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a culture that is no longer Christian?” With his missionary’s eyes, Newbigin recognized that it is a very different task from proclaiming the Gospel in a culture where everyone is already a Christian.
Newbigin reflected long and hard on what it means to be the church in this culture. And any church that is grappling with its identity and mission should really explore the writings of Lesslie Newbigin.
In one of his essays, Newbigin looks at the word the New Testament writers used for the church. Don’t forget, when the New Testament was being written, it was all new. They didn’t have words for things we take for granted. They had to find words. And what they often did was take words from everyday life and infuse them with new meaning.
So, for example, the word for “baptize” meant to wash or to bathe. It wasn’t a religious word at all. Originally – this is really interesting – the Greek word baptizo referred to the process of dipping vegetables in brine to make pickles. As the character of the vegetables is changed without them ceasing to be vegetables, so our character is changed by baptism even though we remain the people we are.
Newbigin noted that the main word for the church in the New Testament is ekklesia. It’s where we get words like “ecclesiastical.” Ekklesia. Again, it wasn’t a sacred or religious word at all. There were lots of words to describe religious societies or clubs, and these words were available to the Christians. But they didn’t choose them. They chose ekkleisa. An ekklesia was a town hall meeting. It was a gathering of citizens, called together by the ruler, in order to conduct the business of the place in which it is located.
What this means, Newbigin said, is that the church’s work is to be shaped by the needs of the place where it is located, not by the needs of the church. When he was a bishop, Newbigin visited a congregation on confirmation Sunday. By Indian standards, it was a large and growing church. After the service, he met with the elders. “What is the purpose of this church?” Newbigin asked. “To cater to the needs of its members,” the elders replied. “If that’s your purpose,” Bishop Newbigin snapped, “you should be shut down!”
The word ekklesia suggests that the mission and ministry of every congregation should be defined by the place where it is located –because that is the means through which Christ chooses to be embodied in this place.
I think this is a very challenging but exciting way of looking at the church today. As congregations have become more fixated on the happiness and comfort of an aging membership, they have lost their sense of mission and purpose. The way to recover that sense of mission is to look at where God has placed us and ask what work Christ wants to do here.
At UHill, you’re in a very unusual place. You are in the middle of a university campus. In what is perhaps the most post-Christian city in Canada, if not in North America.
So if this is your ekklesia – the gathering of people called together by Jesus – what business has the Lord assembled you for? Here, on the UBC campus?
You have the advantage of being a church that is willing to engage seriously with your theology. You form yourselves around the preaching of the Word and worship. You seem like a group of folks who would find the etymology of a word like “ekklesia” interesting. You have rich resources of spirituality and community.
Your question might be: What specifically does this mean in this context? Who are we in this place? Who is our neighbor whom we are called to love and serve? Who is God calling us to be? What is God calling us to do – in this place where God has set us?
If you can apply yourselves prayerfully and joyfully to that question, there will be exciting times ahead for University Hill.
May it be so. Amen. Thanks be to God.