The readings for Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011:
First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11
First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 149
Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
The Gospel readings from the last several weeks have shown us Jesus trying to prepare his disciples to take over his mission, once he's no longer physically there to lead them. Here we see him address issues of conflict management, and his advice seems to hold true, even centuries later: try to work out the conflict privately and go through increasingly public discourse.
The last verse is one of the more famous Gospel verses, the one that tells us that we only need two or three to gather in the name of Christ, and he'll be there. But what does this verse mean for the larger church? If Christ is with us when we gather in his name, even in very small groups, do we really need the larger Church?
The Church as Societal Institution suffers from many problems, and today's crop of atheist writers are happy to enumerate them. I'll be the first to say that child abusers who achieve a position of power are a problem that must be dealt with swiftly, and I'm as bothered by scientific illiteracy (as well as other types) as any atheist. But the church has other profound problems, and one of them is that we're supposed to be a group that gives people a compass and a meaning, yet we do a very poor job.
Alienation is one of the issues that the Church faces but often doesn't know how to solve. Especially in larger churches, it's too easy to come to church every Sunday, yet not make meaningful connections. Many people can't conceive of having time to go to church on Sunday, much less at any other time. How do we get busy people to commit to a church, especially when they feel little denominational loyalty? How do we help people get to know each other well enough so that they would feel comfortable bringing conflicts to the church for resolution? Can you imagine doing what Jesus suggests earlier in the Gospel, bringing disputes to your Church brothers and sisters? If not, why not?
Throughout the twentieth century especially, we've seen churches try to solve these problems by adding programs to the weekly schedule, so as to focus not just on worship. Many denominations meet throughout the week with Bible studies, covered dish dinners, musical rehearsals, and the like. Many churches offer not just fellowship, but also the opportunity to do some social justice work. Churches offer these opportunities for a variety of reasons, but one of them is to keep people feeling connected, both to the church and to each other. As churches get ever larger, individuals feel ever more isolated.
Some of the more interesting late-twentieth and twenty-first century church movements have focused on that last verse and decided that the largeness of the institutional Church is the problem. When churches acquire a building, they sacrifice many opportunities to serve the world, because the building has needs. When institutions have a payroll to meet, they choose not to give as much to the poor as they could, if they had no employees.
Some modern groups have decided to simplify, to emulate the early church, which was often small enough to meet in people's houses and to share a real meal, not a symbol of a meal. Some modern groups go even further and actually pool their resources, and some even go so far as to live together. There's an exciting stream of the Emergent church which finds inspiration in earlier monastic movements and other intentional Christian communities.
Of course, this life choice wouldn't work for everyone. But we are in a time of great Church reformation, and it will be interesting to see where it all leads. As we approach both the 10th anniversary of September 11 and later, Reformation Day, it’s a good time to think about how to shape our own individual churches to make them places where we could bring conflicts to be solved, where we feel the presence of Christ in our brothers and sisters gathered there. How can the Church be a force for peace in the modern, multicultural world?
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