So, I was thinking that the Church is taking a beating these days. There seems to be a movement that proclaims “I love Jesus and hate the church!” You can find books and websites with that phrase. Newsweek ran an article by Andrew Sullivan recently that placed this phrase on the cover. Perhaps there is no better summation of this movement than the viral video that circulated recently called “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.” There have certainly been responses to this notion: Some very reactive and unhelpful; some really thoughtful – like one from Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor who has a blog called “The Sarcastic Lutheran.”
So, I was thinking that I might leave this whole conversation to others who are smarter than I. But, then I was thinking that seemed a cop out. So, I invite you to ponder this movement in spirituality; this current in attitude about religion; this notion of a “church-less” Jesus with me. I do want to hear what you think! So, comment!
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged (following Pastor Nadia’s lead) is that the millions of people who find “Love Jesus, but hate the Church” a meaningful creed have legitimate complaints. One does not need to point to distant historical sins of the Church – the horrors of the Inquisitions; the violence of the Crusades; the persecution of the Jews, the Thirty Years War – to find ways in which the Church has failed miserably to be the Body of Christ. When the news is full of stories about clergy sexually abusing children; “church” people picketing at the graves of fallen soldiers; TV evangelists selling snake oil, and then literally caught with their pants down or beating their daughter, you don’t even have to belong to a church to conclude that the Church is often its own worst enemy; that our creeds and deeds are out of sync.
When people spend time in pretty much any local congregation and see the fights over trivial matters – like flavored coffee, carpet color; when they show up and feel unwelcomed, unnoticed, or worse, “unfit” to be part of the community; when people find the people in the church to be less human than the ones outside, the Church has to admit that we deserve pretty much every bit of the bad rap we get. We are, all too often, NOT the body of Christ; NOT the Temple of the Holy Spirit; NOT the witnesses to the good news of God in Christ (all biblical definitions of the Church).
And yet, the Church has also, if we are fair, not only wreaked havoc on the planet. Here in the Des Moines area all the major hospitals and health systems are rooted in the Christian witness of the Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions of healing. Missionaries around the world don’t just bring Bibles. They bring education, medical care, agricultural guidance, and much more. I believe that for every person who has felt abandoned or unwelcomed by the Church, there are two stories of people with the opposite experience.
Martin Luther taught that as followers of Jesus we are, simultaneously, saints and sinners. We manifest, simultaneously, the blessing of the good news and the brokenness of humanity. We are, simultaneously, Christ’s hands and feet and the nails driven in each. That is who we are – as individuals, and as the Church. Luther said that the Church could be known as “magna peccatrix” – the greatest of sinners. It is not just the communion of saints, but the collection of sinners. The Church’s witness is not that “we are right, and you are wrong.” It is not that the Church is some infallible moral community with some claim to holy superiority. Instead, our witness is to the redemption of Christ in a host of sinful, broken people. Christ came to reconcile and redeem a broken people, broken communities, and a whole broken creation by accepting us as broken.
Is the Church is full of hypocrites? Absolutely. Is the Church often judgmental, hypercritical, holier than thou, and just plain wrong? You bet. Why? Because it is made up of the hypocritical, hypercritical, judgmental, holier than thou, just plain wrong people Jesus loves to death. The sinners and saints who make up the communion of sinners and saints that is the Church do the right things for the wrong reasons; the wrong things for the right reasons; we mess up individually and as a community. For us to hate the Church because it is broken is to hate ourselves – because we ARE broken, every last one of us. For us to hate the Church because her creeds do not match her deeds is to deny that the same is true of me as an individual.
The beauty and overwhelming good news of grace is that God in Christ loves you apart from your works and good deeds; apart from your denial that you are really OK; apart from anything about you. God in Christ loves the Church in the same way. That is the miracle of grace – for each of us, and for all of us. The Church is a broken bunch of people who gather to celebrate our redemption, even when we have fallen far short of the glory of God.
To hate the Church for its failures and brokenness is to either deny our own sin. The miracle of grace is that God in Christ loves you in spite of you. God in Christ loves the Church, in spite of itself. To love Jesus surely has something to do with loving what Jesus loves – and Jesus loves all that is broken and that includes even a really messed up thing called the Church. What do you think?
Next: No Church, No Jesus. Know Jesus, Know Church