Why should anyone listen to the church? This question has haunted me since Monday of this week when our bishop made the following statement in a post on Facebook. He said:
Some days I feel the church has abdicated its role as a clear moral voice ik (sic) society, and as a community of reconciliation.
Now, first off, I disagree that the church has abdicated its role as a moral voice in society. That voice is oftentimes not clear. It is quite muddled by the many various denominations who oftentimes disagree on moral issues, but there are still voices that speak up about moral issues within our society. But why should anyone listen to those voices? Why should anyone stop acting in a certain fashion and begin living differently? What compelling reason can we, in the church, give to persuade others that ours is not only a voice to be listened to, but a voice to follow?
I struggled with this mightily. For in reality, I could think of no good reason that we in the church should be listened to. I mean, think about the reality of the Church. Think about the reality of most congregations. Think about how many Christians act and move within our society. What would give anyone the idea that they should listen to what we have to say?
As a global body, the Church is a divided group. We are separated into many denominations. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I mean, even St. Paul goes so far as to describe the Church as a body with many body parts. Each part has its own function and is needed for the whole to function correctly. The head of this body is, of course, Christ. Given this belief, we should recognize one another as fulfilling a particular function that is necessary for the body to work. Yet, do we do this? Do we treat one another as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, or do we spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about who is and who isn’t a part of the body–who is and who isn’t legitimately following Jesus?
Now, I’m just as ready as anyone to get into a doctrinal argument. I’m ready to argue that we as Lutheran Christians are closer to the truth than others, but what I am not ready to do is pronounce that no one else isn’t sincerely trying to follow Christ. I am not ready to make someone else cease and desist following Jesus as a Roman Catholic, Baptist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, ELCA Lutheran, Presbyterian, Amish, or what have you. As far as I am concerned, you are a brother or sister in Christ, and while I may argue with you very heatedly about a particular issue or stance of a particular denomination, I do not think my position grants me any particular place above another–anymore than my particular calling as a pastor places me above any one of you in the eyes of God. It doesn’t.
And yet, there is a tendency to think that because we have a particular stance, we are somehow better than another. I believe we need to re-evaluate such thoughts.
For, you see, the Gospel doesn’t allow us to do such a thing. Let me repeat that: the Gospel doesn’t allow us to do such a thing. For we must be reminded, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus and not through any works, deeds, actions, or beliefs of our own. It is God who does the saving, and not us. Why is this so crucial to remember?
If we attained salvation because of what we did or what we believed on our own, then we could get the idea we were indeed morally superior to someone else. We could get the idea that we were somehow more holy than another by practicing certain things–either a particular moral code–no drinking, cussing, smoking, dancing, acting out sexually, or what have you–or by rigorously following the commands of how we treat our faith–putting the proper amount in the offering plate, doing more to feed the hungry, seeking and practicing justice to the nth degree. We begin to see ourselves as doing a better job than others, and so we begin to head down what Timothy Keller calls the slippery slope of the heart.
We think we are morally superior, so we distance ourselves from those who we feel are not as good as we are. Suddenly, we have it right, and they are wrong. We don’t need to be with them or worship with them or hang out with them because of what they do or not do.
Then we begin to caricature them. We begin to paint others with broad brush strokes. Suddenly "they" become the 1%, the lazy leeches on society, the fundies, the liberals, the conservatives, and what have you. No longer do we take the time to get to know people on an individual level. Instead, we categorize them, label them, and make fun of them.
Finally, after the dehumanizing effects of caricaturing them, we begin to passively and then actively oppressing them. We work to keep them out of leadership positions. We bad-mouth them to our friends and family. If enough in society jump on the bandwagon, we begin working toward passing laws to restrict their behavior while enhancing our own positions.
These are the consequences of thinking that we can be and are morally superior to anyone else. Grace destroys the assumption. Grace says, you are morally superior to no one. Grace says, you can’t commit enough good to cover for your weakness and your sinfulness. Grace says, it’s not up to you. It’s up to God. It’s up to Jesus. It’s up to the cross and resurrection to save you and bring you into a relationship with God. It’s up to God to initiate belief within you–as I said a couple of weeks ago, some neurosurgeons are starting to believe we are hard wired for belief! God always initiates belief! You can’t even believe without Him!
And if we agree with what grace says, it changes the way we treat others. No longer do we see ourselves as morally superior. No longer do we think we are better off because of what we do or what we believe. We are humbled by the actions of Christ on our behalf to atone for our sins and bring us into a relationship that we could never have initiated in the first place. When confronted with the sinfulness of another, we say, "Man, that’s messed up, but down here, in the recesses of my heart, I know that I am just as messed up. I know that it’s just as dark down here. That person and I are alike more than we are not alike. That person and I both need God and His love to cleanse us from this darkness. Neither of us have reached this perfection. And because we are so alike, I cannot treat that person with hostility, but I must treat that person with the same kindness given to me by Jesus."
And so we now reach the reason Jesus gives us the new commandment, "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you should now love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Now, to return to the original question, why should anyone listen to us? They shouldn’t, unless we can practice what we preach. Unless we can somehow show others that our way of living with one another–our way of treating those we disagree with is somehow better than the way the world operates. If we can show the world a better way of living and moving and having our being, then, they will perhaps be willing to listen. And my brothers and sisters in Christ, it starts right here, in our relationships with each other. May we love one another as Christ loved us. Amen.