2 Peter 1: 16-21
This past weekend I attended the “Next Church” conference in Indianapolis. I always feel l have to explain that this isn’t the “Next Church” as in, “What’s the next church I’m going to be pastor of?” I’m not going anywhere. No, it’s “Next Church” as in, “What is the next church we, as a denomination, are becoming?” The conference brought pastors, elders, and seminarians together to discuss the future of the PCUSA. It was exciting but also sobering. I’ll start with why we are asking the question in the first place.
The PCUSA and denominational Christianity in general, appear to be at a crossroads. Our authority is no longer taken for granted. Indeed, the authority of the Christian message seems to be universally questioned. Both the church’s message and the forms we use to convey that message seem quaint and outdated, or worse, oppressive and exclusive. We seem both unwilling and unable to change with the times. Are we a dinosaur? Jurassic Church, hopelessly outdated and unable to survive the speeding, earth-shattering impact of the comet of change that’s transforming the world around us?
We need a miracle—but we’re rationalists, we don’t believe in miracles. So it’s up to us. The Jurassic church will save itself! It will self-evolve to adapt to the
changing world. We’ll restructure and update our message so that it’s palatable for a New Age. Since we can’t count on God to perform the miracle needed to save the church, we’ll perform the miracle ourselves. Jurassic church the dinosaur will self-evolve into Cenozoic Church the mammal! From big, awkward and brain the size of a walnut to cute, furry, and cuddly! Then everyone will love us again and come running back to church!
Good luck with that.
This isn’t the first time the comet has come blazing into our uncomplicated dinosaur paradise threatening the church’s apocalypse. The very same thing happened to the church in 90 AD or so, the time of the writing of the Second Letter of Peter. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple had forced Christianity out from Judea and into the cosmopolitan, eclectic polyglot Greco-Roman world with its lose morals and cafeteria-style approach to religion. It was a world where any religion that promoted responsibility, humility and self-sacrifice was pronounced dead on arrival. Any religion that claimed that its god was the exclusive, one-and-only God would be laughed out of the room. It was a materialistic, high-speed, “this-worldly” world. Religion needed to know its place, and its place was clearly to serve human desires, not– perish forbid!–to suggest that humans serve God’s desires.
Right away leaders emerged telling the church it had to adapt or die. Then, as now, the temptation was strong to self-evolve from a clunky Jurassic dinosaur religion to a sleek, streamlined Cenozoic mammal religion that could survive in its new environment because it didn’t present a threat.
The time seemed perfect for the change. By 90 AD, all the old leadership was dead; Second Peter itself is written to be “last will and testament” of the Apostle Peter on his deathbed. Once he’s dead, that’s it. The bleary-eyed old generation was gone and the visionary new generation could step up with their new ideas and clean out the Jurassic parts of the faith. After all, anybody could tell you that ideas like the death and resurrection, the Lordship of Jesus, the Godhood of Christ, servant leadership and the Second Coming would never be able to survive in the modern, fast-paced world of the Second century!
But Peter goes to his deathbed not bleary-eyed at all. “We did not pass on to you cleverly devised myths,” he tells his troubled fellow dinosaurs. “We were eyewitnesses to His majesty.” “We ourselves heard the voice come from heaven,” “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
On the mountain of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw their friend Jesus transfigured into the Ruler of the World, the Judge of humanity, the Redeemer of Creation and all its Creatures. It was Jesus not as a great man, like other great men; not as a visionary leader like other visionary leaders; not as the founder of a movement like other founders of movements; it was Jesus as the glorified Son of God, the ruler of the Universe, the Lord of Life. It was a lifting of the veil between this world and the real world.
Once Peter had seen the Transfigured Lord of Life, the present reality of the world as it is could never satisfy him. This world wasn’t the be-all and end-all. All the riches and blessings of this world, all of its definitions of success and failure, all of its pretensions of constant progress toward some kind of perfection–all of that was, as the Apostle Paul would have said, “rubbish compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.”
Once the veil had been lifted, Peter believed in miracles. Miracles of both a personal and a more cosmic nature. Once, before he’d seen Jesus transfigured, Peter had asked exactly how many times must I forgive my brother—seven times? And Jesus had replied, No seventy times seven, meaning you must ALWAYS forgive your brother. And Peter had thought that was crazy, nobody could do that.
But now he’d looked beyond the veil and seen an impossible world, an impossible world that had invaded THIS world, a miracle made flesh in his friend and mentor Jesus—and so he didn’t believe forgiving his brother was impossible. It would be a miracle if Peter could forgive his brother—but after the Transfiguration, Peter believed in miracles.
It’d be a miracle if any human being could learn how to love his enemies—but Peter believed in miracles. It’d be a miracle if any part of human society could be constructed on the notion that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last”— but Peter believed in miracles.
And it would be a miracle if the church could survive the apocalyptic reality of sudden, cataclysmic change—but Peter believed in miracles.
Do we believe in miracles? Because that’s what’s needed to save the church in this new age. A miracle.
But that’s nothing new. It’s ALWAYS been a miracle that the church has survived, and occasionally even thrived, in a world so contrary to the reality we profess. Oh, sure, we’ve committed sins the process. Sometimes we’ve attempted to ensure our survival by compromising our beliefs, our core values, by consciously attempting to self-evolve from dinosaur to mammal. It’s like a T-Rex putting on a rabbit fur coat and trying to deliver Easter eggs. It’s the ridiculous doing the absurd, it’s often grotesque or even horrific, and it doesn’t fool anybody.
Despite all this, the true church, those who hold fast to the Lordship of Christ, stillsurvives and the Kingdom of God still bears fruit. It’s not because the church did good strategic planning or laid out a good five-year plan. It’s because of the grace of God. It’s a miracle.
We are called to believe in a miracle. The glorified Jesus of the transfiguration is the King. He is the judge and redeemer of humanity and the cosmos. We need to reclaim our confidence in His Lordship.
I know I’m making some people uncomfortable saying that. We live in a pluralistic society and we all want to get along, to have respect for a diversity of views. And we should. Also, we have a lot of folks in this church who are struggling with important questions of faith, and the last thing I want to do is squelch that. That’s part of the character and uniqueness of St. Stephen.
But a refusal to assert the authority of the Gospel we preach is a HUGE contributor to the problem the Presbyterian Church is now facing. The traditional Presbyterian “style” has always been, “Let’s do good works and work for the betterment of the world, but let’s not say we’re doing it in the name of Jesus—that’s arrogant.” But that’s not bearing witness.
Many of us were moved at the conference this weekend when a young seminarian who looked like Allen Ginsberg in a Rasta get-up went to the microphone and said, “I don’t do social justice and work with the homeless and do outreach to the poor because I’m a good person or a good citizen. I do social justice and outreach because I love and serve Jesus Christ as my Lord.”
That’s witnessing. And that’s what it means to claim that Jesus is Lord. Jesus’ standards are love, compassion, bold outreach to the least of these, generosity, the last shall be first, giving of yourself for the sake of others, forgiveness and reconciliation, loving your enemies. Jesus stands for the Tikkun Olam, God’s active, compassionate healing of our broken world.
To assert that Jesus is Lord is to say YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD STANDS FOR THOSE THINGS. That mercy, compassion, justice and forgiveness bear the authority of God as TRUTH and power of God TO CHANGE THE WORLD.
I am not ashamed to proclaim that Gospel. I am not ashamed to say that such a God is my God, and that the Lord who stands for those things is my Lord.
The irony is that if the Jurassic Church weren’t so busy saving itself from the impending crisis, it’d realize that the world longs to believe that mercy, compassion, justice and forgiveness bear the authority of God as TRUTH and power of God TO CHANGE THE WORLD. They’d come running to church if that’s what we showed them in our life as a community. Running!
But they don’t hear it or see it, because we’ve stopped believing in it ourselves.
It would have been impossible, of course, for dinosaurs to self-evolve into mammals. And our attempts to save the church are likewise grounded in impossibility. The “Next Church” is more like a child that we bring to baptism. In the Presbyterian Church, we bring a child to baptism and commit that child into God’s hands. We assert that God’s grace to her precedes her ability to respond to it. We promise to raise her in the faith. We commit to serve as God’s family to shape her life as a disciple of Christ.
But we don’t map out her future. We don’t lay out a schedule for who she’s going to be when she grows up into an adult. We can’t predict or control that. That’s between her and God. What we do is provide the environment and the opportunity for God to shape her into who she is going to become.
As First John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: When Jesus is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3: 2). We don’t know what we are becoming, but we know what we are: we are children of God. And so we know we can trust God with what we are becoming.
That is the faith God calls us to—ultimately the faith we’re supposed to always have—the faith that everything is in God’s hands. Us, the world, the church— everything.
If, like Peter, we keep the vision of the transfigured Christ, the King of Glory, before us, especially in the darkest times, then we’ll know the future is never in doubt.