Saturday, January 28, 2023

Did we forget?

The Church has always had illusions of power.  After Rome's demise, it was Christendom that resurrected the imperial structure that had ruled the known world for centuries.  The Church did not waste time taking on a political identity, presuming that the hands that placed the crown were more powerful than the head that wore it.  While that left Christendom and its leadership preoccupied with worldly concerns, by the time of Luther it was clear that these concerns had almost consumed the once vaunted institutions of clergy, magisterium, and papacy.  But hidden in all of this triumphalism is the reality that God never promised the Church to be a majority, a power to dominate the civitas.  Instead, the more familiar pattern of a remnant in Israel's history is the norm for the Church.  Our Lord is pointed in Luke 12:32 (“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”).  Little flock?  We refuse His words and insist that is not what is meant.  We cling to images of power more defined by worldliness than spiritual humility.

I belong to a church body that keeps acting and insisting upon a reality that is not.  We are not the numbers we define in statistics.  We are a shadow of those once mighty numbers, at least on Sunday morning.  But we continue to act as if we were the size we were at our statistical peak and we continue to get in trouble because it is exhausting for us to keep up the impression that no longer is reflected in reality.  Once other Lutherans accused us of triumphalism.  Perhaps that was accurate and may still be among some but every Lutheran body, just like every Christian group, has a big ego.  We as Lutherans forgot that we were preserving not a jurisdiction with a headquarters but a living congregation connected to other living congregations gathered around the same doctrine confessed and the same Sacraments administered.  We rejected the Lord's talk of a little flock and insisted that we were nothing but big (at least in our own minds).

I will admit that I fell victim to the same false and empty dream.  For a long time I was as busy as some still are preserving the image of a large and powerful church.  Now I have come to think of membership statistics as a thorn in the flesh.  They tend to trouble us more than benefit us for they point out how many of our people are not regular or actively joined to the living voice of God's Word and the fellowship of His Table on Sunday morning and they give us the false impression that we are a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened.  In reality we are a small church.  That is all we ever were but it is even more true now.

That said, a small church in numbers is not without the mighty work of God's Spirit and the riches of His gifts in Word and Sacrament.  This is our greatness -- not in statistics or rosters but in the means of grace.  They have always been our greatness except when we have been tempted to believe our PR.  Missouri is a small body.  Missouri does not need to be a large body to do the Lord's bidding according to His will and purpose.  So it is time we stopped acting like we are something we are not and began realizing that our smallness does not prevent or preclude God doing His amazing work in us and through us. 

Rome is a shadow of its statistical self.  Look at the numbers who show up for the Mass.  Orthodoxy is as well.  Nearly every denomination that counts money or people is in the same boat.  At best, these are markers of our failings rather than our progress -- now more than ever.   Christians suffer the common malady of thinking we must be big to be God's own and to accomplish His own purpose.  The reality is that all we have to be is faithful.  God will figure out the rest.  If only we could divert all the energy it takes for us to keep up the illusion of earthly greatness to the pursuit of faithfulness!  Then we might learn not to take our pulse every couple of minutes or take a poll every time something big comes along or keeping up appearances.  I fear that we Christians have become the Hyacinth Bucket's of the day -- putting on airs that make us weary and force us to live the illusion of ourselves instead of the reality of God.  It makes for good comedy but a terrible burden which we must carry.

It is time that we said it.  We are a church body of some 900,000 people on a given Sunday morning.  Who they are may change from Sunday to Sunday but our overall size suffers from the rear view mirror syndrome -- objects in the mirror may appear larger than they are.  But you cannot go forward while looking in the rear view mirror.  Maybe it is time to shed some of our agencies and universities and the treasured parachurch organizations we set up when we wanted to look and act like the big players.  They were never the work of the kingdom.  People called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace always were and remain the work of the kingdom.  It is okay, Missouri.  We can let go of the image in order to focus on what is real.  Fortunately for us, that which is most real is that which endures forever -- the Word of the Lord!  To that all we need to add is this:  Thanks be to God!

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