“I just can’t ‘do’ church,” he said. “Every church I’ve ever been to has been full of hypocrites.”
I’d heard this sentiment before; truth be told, I’ve even said it once or twice. I was sitting in a coffee shop with a couple of guys from my AA home group, none of whom were members of a church but all of whom spent more time in churches than a lot of pastors. I nodded at my friend Jeff. I certainly understood his point. Jeff, like a lot of people I know, had been beat up by the church, and I wasn’t at all surprised by his statement. Given that I was feeling a little less than in love with the institutional church myself at the moment, I certainly couldn’t argue with his assertion.
I was a little surprised, however, when my friend Joe spoke up. “Well, of course the church is full of hypocrites,” he said. “Where else are they supposed to go? We have meetings to go to; they have church. Where else are they gonna go to recover?”
I’m reminded of that conversation every time I hear someone say that the church is full of hypocrites. Because I tend to think in movie references, I’m also reminded of Claude Rains as Captain Renault in Casablanca. Hypocrites? In the church? I’m shocked! Shocked!
Yes, the church is full of hypocrites. Sinners, too. As Martin Luther is reported to have said, “the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” (Anybody know the source of this quote?) The times when we tend to get into trouble are not so much when we are sinful, but when we commit the sin of believing we’re ever anything BUT sinful. As Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has forcefully and eloquently reminded ELCA Lutherans of late, any community made up of human beings is eventually going to let you down. But that’s why we’re here. Because we have been let down, and because we routinely let ourselves and each other down. Because we need healing, not a pat on the back. Because we are bruised and bleeding, not only from the ways we’ve been beat up by the church and the world but also from the place where our own knuckles have delivered blows to others.
Pope Francis made this point very explicitly in his weekly general audience this morning. As reported in an article on the Catholic News Service website,
“You can tell me, ‘but the church is formed of sinners; we see it every day,’ and this is true,” Pope Francis said. The church is made up of “sinful men and women, sinful priests, sinful nuns, sinful bishops, sinful cardinals, a sinful pope — all of us are like this.”
He went on to say that God wants “a church that knows how to open its arms to welcome everyone. It is not the house of a few, but of everyone, a place where everyone can be renewed, transformed and made holy by his love.”
I confess, I have a theological man-crush on Pope Francis.
Francis nails the key point: holiness isn’t something we do, it’s something that happens to us. We don’t make ourselves holy, God makes us holy. Prayer, studying scripture, attending worship, serving others as Christ served us, these are all things we do to allow God to make us holy, not to make ourselves holy. This sense of theological humility, recognizing that we can’t do it ourselves and giving thanks to God when it happens for us and to us, is the kind of humility that Christ calls us to. “You did not choose me; I chose you,” he told his disciples in John 15:16. Too often Christians have embraced this chosen-ness as a source of pride, even arrogance, forgetting that Jesus also said to his disciples in John 6:70, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.”
In the Small Catechism, Luther teaches us that
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
It’s all gift. It’s all grace. To remember this is a step towards the kind of true humility God calls us to, the humility Christ himself displayed. To believe otherwise is to make ourselves hypocrites, which, by the way, is one of Jesus’ favorite terms for chastising the holier-than-thou.
The good news is, Jesus loved and died for the hypocrites, too. Otherwise, I’d have bled to death a long time ago.