Our Messy Church
August 11, 2019
John 20:19-23, Ephesians 2:11-22
Tom Yoder Neufeld, retired Bible teacher and scholar, and author of the Believers commentary on Ephesians, led a series of Bible studies at the Mennonite Church USA convention this year. In one of those sessions he led the group in a litany that used these words as the refrain. He would say, “The church is messy.” And the group would respond, “Thanks be to God!”
Is the church messy? When you get a whole group of people together, men and women, different ages with different ideas, different personalities, different ideologies…does it get messy? What if you add in different cultures, languages, countries? Do you think a gathering like that could get a little messy? Do you think there might be disagreements? Misunderstandings? Competing visions? Dueling traditions?
And is that a good thing? Can we see the messiness as a gift? Is diversity something to be embraced? Can differences help us grow? I’m so thankful for the ways in which the insights and wisdom of others over the years have helped me grow in my faith. Without opening myself to the perspectives of others, including those I at one time disagreed with, I would have such an immature faith and more limited understanding of God. I needed and need the messiness to help me grow.
So, the church is messy, thanks be to God! And we’re going to say this now too. I’m going to say the first part and then let’s all respond with the second. The church is messy! Thanks be to God!!
This is an affirmation worthy of our namesake. We call ourselves Christians. We say we follow Christ. Well what did Christ, did Jesus do? Jesus came striding on the scene, turning over tables, stomping on traditions, upending revered interpretations of the law, tearing down walls between the rich and poor, between men and women, between Jews and Gentiles and then he died on the cross in order to eliminate all these divisions that keep us from each other and keep us from God. He died so that we could live and live fully.
Instead, what do we so often do? This John text was one that Glen Guyton, the new executive director of MC USA, used at both convention and our Western District Conference assembly this year. What do the disciples do after Jesus dies to set us free? They do what any sensible person would do. They go and hide behind locked doors together out of fear. Guyton called this a holy huddle. They go and hide in their holy huddle, in that safe space where everyone is on the same page and thinks alike. They hide behind locked doors where the world can’t intrude, can’t get in. They go and huddle in order to hoard their grief to themselves and create a conducive environment for fear to keep growing. They bar the doors and close in on themselves. Does this sound at all familiar?
Jesus had already died to set them free. Were they free? No. He has to come to them again, clothed in the hope of resurrection. And he pries their fingers loose, their hands open. He pulls them from their holy huddle of fear and self-preservation and he says, “Peace. Peace be with you.” He says “I am sending you. The Father sent me and I’m sending you. Right out into that great big scary world, I am sending you.” He says, “Receive, open your hands, your hearts, your minds and receive the Holy Spirit I am breathing into you.” He says, “Forgive. If anyone has wronged you – a friend, an acquaintance, a stranger, if someone has hurt you, forgive them.”
Jesus comes to his friends, locked in their holy huddle and he says, “Peace to you, I am sending you out. Receive now my Spirit and forgive.” And at this point, as the book of John nears its final chapter, we want to say, “And they all lived happily ever after.” But that’s not quite how the Bible tells this story.
As the Bible tells it, the disciples do go. They muster up their courage, leave their comfort zones far, far behind and empowered by the Spirit, they get out there and begin turning over their own tables and breaking down walls. That is, until they get to a wall that just seems insurmountable. The wall is there to stay. And with that they begin to regroup in their holy huddles again. By now Paul is on the scene and fit to be tied with this human constructed wall going sky high that humans can’t seem to take back down. It’s ridiculous! The squabbling. The claiming of truth. The manipulating of law. The self-righteous judgments. The exclusion taking place in the name of God. Paul has a lot to say about all this. All over in his letters we find Paul speaking his mind as Paul always does. But in Ephesians he really lays things out clearly. The whole letter is devoted to explaining why there should be no division in the church between Jews and Gentiles and how important it is to live out that unity in concrete actions.
“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Ephesians 2:14-18
When I think of our Western District Conference, I think of the ways in which the Holy Spirit has broken our holy huddle down and helped us invite and welcome Hispanic brothers and sisters to the fold. And it’s been messy. There have been stumbles, hurt feelings, unintentional slights and a fair amount of grumbling over the years. It’s awkward to try and do worship in two languages. To sing familiar hymns in Spanish. To sing new Hispanic songs in Spanish. And I can only imagine how the challenges presented by language barriers and our denominational cultural trappings have been frustrating…to say the least…for our Hispanic brothers and sisters. Yet the grace of God has blessed us and each year you can feel the unity growing among us as these divisions, these walls keep getting broken down. And this year our conference grew by one member congregation as Camino de Santidad became a full-fledged member. Hallelujah!
The road has been a little rockier on a denominational level. In 2009, 7,500 people were in attendance at that year’s MC USA convention. This year there were less than 3,000. Many churches have severed ties with their local conference. Entire conferences have broken away from our denominational body. And its simplistic and I think inaccurate to say it’s all about differing opinions on sexuality. In fact, one attender at the convention this year said he didn’t know if their church would be back again because of their stance on both sexuality and women in leadership. The schism has far more to do with our inability to handle diversity of thought, and our instinctive tendency to retreat into our holy huddles. And there’s nothing new about any of this.
It seems to be an unfortunate human trait. That we convince ourselves that we stand on the truth and nothing but the truth and everyone else and their perspectives are beside the point. And the subject matter varies as much as the person. Sexual orientation. Women as pastors. Climate change. Abortion. Gun rights. Capital Punishment. Keeping the Sabbath. The priority of service. Divorce and remarriage. Bible studies vs. book studies. And the list goes on and covers the gamut, from weighty to trivial.
Do we want to know why our young people are leaving the church in droves? Why Christianity has developed such a bad name? It’s the ages old holy huddle syndrome. And it’s not pretty. Somehow we have got to learn how to disagree with each other in love. We have got to acknowledge the possibility that we don’t have all the answers and some of the answers we do have aren’t right. My goodness, the Bible makes that one clear all over the place. We have got to accept that those who think differently aren’t automatically wrong. We have got to learn how to take this unholy mess and transform it into the beautiful messiness that’s pleasing in God’s eyes.
And this is what Glen Guyton spoke to with the message he prepared for the gathered assembly in Kansas City and again a few weeks later in Newton. Glen did not grow up in the Mennonite Church. He served for four year as an officer in the Air Force and during those years he began attending a Mennonite church in the Virginia conference and ended up just transformed by the peace ministry he became a part of. And he said to the crowd at convention – I stand before you a former officer in the United States Air Force and now a pacifist and the executive director of Mennonite Church USA. I say to the Mennonite Church, don’t tell me your message of peace doesn’t work!
But here’s the point Glen really wanted to drive home for all of us. The Mennonite Church he came to know as a young adult was a church that accepted him just as he was. And that is exactly what the church is to be about. The church is to invite people to come as they are and sit at God’s table. And yes, it will be messy. It might even mean scooting over a little to make room, leaving your spot behind. Quoting Guyton now, “We have to send a clear message of welcome to come to the foot of the cross. Transformation needs to happen, but we’re not the ones to do that work of transformation. God is greater than you or me and it is the power of God that transforms us – our documents, our laws won’t save us, only the power of God and the Holy Spirit will transform us.” He continued, “Sometimes we need to let go of our doctrines, our degrees, our limited understandings and go reach the people who need God and invite them just as they are, bringing the peace with us…we need to let people know there’s a place at God’s table for them. They just need to come as they are and God will do the transformation part, for them and us. We need to humble ourselves and stop thinking we have all the answers.”
And this is exactly what God is at work doing. God is gathering us in, sinners and saints alike, from all corners of the earth. God is calling to us, welcoming us home, finding a place for us at the table. And here is what Jesus says to the church when he finds us locked into our holy huddles. Peace be with you. I’m sending you out. So receive my Spirit and go from here with forgiveness in your hearts. Go and bring people to my table. Let them come as they are. I can handle messy…. thanks be to God!