Lately in church we heard the familiar message that wherever two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, there he is. Next we learned he is not only in each person, but even in the decor of the sanctuary: the flowers, the banners, and the aura of the place—in the deacon too! Not a suggestion comes out that he’s in the silence that eclipses personalities and distractions; that most eloquently bespeaks his steadfast patience.
Once my friend Ev asked, Suppose Jesus walked in on a Sunday worship service of ours. What would he do? Lenny Bruce had an answer in one of his routines. Jesus and Moses show up at St. Patrick’s, Manhattan. Soon the place fills up with gimps and crips, and the commotion is terrible. The Archbishop gets on the hotline to Rome: “What are we gonna to do? We’re up to our ass in wheelchairs and crutches here!”
Karl Barth has his answer, which begins not with the absurdities and contradictions, but with Jesus Christ himself; not as an interloper, but as the foundation. The truth is, our beloved deacon, excellent man and fine preacher though he is, perhaps even a vessel of the Spirit, is not that foundation. The sum of all the congregants‚ throw in the banners and flowers if you like—is not the foundation. Christians are created by the Church, not vice versa. There is where we see it vividly demonstrated how much we all need mercy. For some reason God in His wisdom suffers it to continue.
This truth is not spoken among us. Instead we hear the announcements, invariably beginning with assurances that anyone visiting today is welcome; please join us for coffee right after the service. Anybody having a birthday? The closest thing to a congregation I have is the crew of six or eight of us volunteers who visit patients in hospital. There people are more ready to be frank about belief or unbelief. One learns from listening to them what a miserable job the churches have done at teaching. Usually people say they are spiritual, but not religious. I think this means they would be untrue to themselves if they joined a mainline church. Many of them probably were exposed to it as they grew up, so they know both the facile acceptance and the moralism to be found there. They are right to reject it.
Facile acceptance invites people to believe they have Got It merely by being in the building. As it is with a sleazy credit jeweler, “All are welcome!” My experiences of being born again, if you’ll allow the expression, occurred at age 39, after a lifetime of being assured of belonging to one church after another, and 14 years after graduating seminary.
The truth as it came to me then threw grave doubt on bonhomous acceptance. If there is any validity to my observations, there must be a vast, sad emergency going on right under our eaves. According to Karl Barth and the Gospel (Matthew 28:19), the church has one specific task: to make disciples of all nations; i.e., to proclaim the Kingdom of God to those who have not heard it. Many of those are in pews, and many more are out in the byways, thinking they have heard and know what there is to be known.