Sunday, February 26, 2023

What kind of barque?

In the congregation that I serve, the Church is portrayed as a ship in one of the clerestory windows.  It is not a novelty.  Ships have been featured in Christian art since the very beginning, appearing first in the catacombs. It was a favorite image of the Church Fathers, who saw the ship as a symbol of the Church.  The ship (bark or barque, barchetta) of the Church is tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution sailing toward the safe harbor of eternity with its cargo of human souls. Part of the imagery comes from the ark saving Noah's family during the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21).  In the 4th century document known as the Apostolic Constitutions, we read:

When you call an assembly of the Church as one that is the commander of a great ship, appoint the assemblies to be made with all possible skill, charging the deacons as mariners to prepare places for the brethren as for passengers, with all due care and decency. And first, let the building be long, with its head to the east, with its vestries on both sides at the east end, and so it will be like a ship. In the middle let the bishop’s throne be placed, and on each side of him let the presbytery sit down; and let the deacons stand near at hand, in close and small girt garments, for they are like the mariners and managers of the ship.

Indeed, the part of every church where the people sit is called a nave. This word comes from the Latin navis, or ship, and symbolized the Church as a ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world.

But what kind of ship?  Is the Church a pleasure craft for our amusement or to distract us, a cruise ship to entertain her passengers, a battleship carrying warriors to the battlefield, a submarine to hide from danger, a cargo ship carrying people like those that cart our stuff from one port to another, or is it a hospital ship sent by God to bring healing to the wounded and comfort to the dying?  That seems to be the sticking point.  We are rather disagreed on this.  American Protestantism seems to liken the Church to an individual craft on its own journey with its own truth blowing wind into its sails.  Evangelicalism seems to see the Church as a cruise ship to entertain people and make their journey fun and even inspirational.  Fundamentalism seems to like the warrior imagery and the Church as a ship of war against evil.  Sometimes it seems that Rome sees the Church as a cargo ship carrying people as God's shipping agent toward their eternal destination.  Perhaps the social gospel folks see the Church as a hospital ship doing good in the world more than directed to the world to come.  Given the way the world is, the image of a submarine hiding from the danger is appealing to many Christians of all stripes.

Perhaps there are elements of most of these images that fit with the whole.  I see the Church more as a hospital ship but the good we are doing is less oriented toward simply band-aids and respite than it is the full healing agents of God's Word and Sacraments.  This healing is both present and powerful in the rescue of the sinner, the comfort of the tormented soul, the presence of God to encourage, the mercy of God to forgive, and the power of God not merely to stave off death but overcome it and bestow a new flesh that will not suffer or die anymore.  We are sort of like the MASH units of God's purpose placed in the midst of things bringing the healing of forgiveness for now and preparing them for the fulfillment to come in the perfect healing of the resurrection.  We are not simply doing good in the hopes of making progress against the ills of the world but manifesting the steadfast love of the Lord now and directing the heart of the wounded to what that love has prepared for them.  We are not simply an urgent care clinic but the place where the mind finds its transformation and the heart its rebirth by the grace of God so that God's people may endure and those not yet of the Kingdom may be given the new birth of water and the Word.  

We do not chart the rescues as statistics for pride but simply mark everything we do with faithfulness knowing that God is at work in and through us and that the only work that endures is the work He is doing in us and through us.  It is not like God has handed off the mission to us but that He chooses to do His work through us, both a comfort when faced with all we think impossible and a solemn responsibility when we would rather manage than serve.

In some respects that is especially true of the parish I serve.  We are in a highly mobile community and more often the people of this congregation are here for a short term and then move away.  We do our best to serve them with God's Word and Sacraments so that they leave stronger and better prepared for their lives here and eternally but we know that many of them, perhaps most of them, will not end their journey as Christ's own here, in this congregation.  That is even more true of the last few years as I find myself burying more and more of those who were here when I came and looking out on Sunday morning at more and more faces of those who came after I did.  It is an encouragement to me but also a struggle.  My hope and my time here are fulfilled not in personal accomplishment but in the gift and promise of the Word that does what it says and the Sacraments that bestow what they sign.  In this respect, the Church is also efficacious -- not because her boundaries are marked by her own design but because she ministers not with the tools of the world but the means of grace of the Kingdom of God.  Her work may not be fully seen or appreciated but we have the promise of God that nothing sent forth by Him through us shall return to Him empty but will accomplish all that He purposes.  That is the wind in my sails and the power that moves the Church as God's ship doing His bidding.  And it is enough.

1 comment:

Janis Williams said...

Is it possible our Lord chose fishermen, who came with ships also because the Church is to draw nets into the ship filled with “fish?”