‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
-Jesus, quoting Isaiah, describing what he was here for
One of the earliest Christian symbols for the church is a boat; the early church was fond of comparing the church to the ark on which Noah and his family were saved from the great flood. In some ways, this is the perfect symbol for the church, because the institutional church is a lot like the ark: if it wasn’t for the storm outside, you’d never be able to stand the smell inside.
One doesn’t have to look too far into either the history books or the daily news to see places where the church has fallen spectacularly short of its identity as the Body of Christ in the world. Yesterday a friend posted a link to a news story about a megachurch pastor in North Carolina building a 16,000 square foot home, who was quoted as saying that “all this comes from God” while living and serving in a state where 17% of his neighbors live in poverty. This is just the latest in a long line of bad news about the church: declining congregations and declining budgets; abusive (and abused) clergy and denominational leaders who enable, cover up or even perpetrate the abuse; nasty fights within congregations and within denominations over everything from the Sunday School Christmas program (yes, really) to human sexuality; complicity with the oppression of women, the Holocaust, the slavery system; brutal and bloody crusades, forced conversions and inquisitions; the list goes on and on and on. Small wonder, then, that when a young person I love dearly told me she was thinking of going to seminary, I warned her that the church was almost sure to break her heart.
And yet…the Body still lives. The Body of Christ still lives on in spite of all of that. Maybe it doesn’t make the newspapers, maybe it doesn’t even show in the life of denominational structures, but it lives. It lives in the 84-years-young saint who sat with me one night, registering guests in church fellowship hall-turned-homeless shelter. It lives in the grandmother who convinced her church to quit worrying about cigarette butts in the parking lot and renew the lease for the AA and NA groups that met there by saying that if the butts were that big a problem she would sweep them up herself. It lives in the couple who give tirelessly of their time to promote better stewardship of the Creation that God declared “very good”. It lives in the former bartender turned pastor I know in Texas who ministers to those victimized by human traffickers, taking “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” as his personal mission in life and leading others to do the same. It lives in the Hollywood housewife turned nun who dedicated her life to bringing the love of Christ into one of the toughest prisons in Mexico. It lives in millions of ordinary saints, whose names never make the papers, but who welcome the prostitutes and the junkies, the scuzzballs and the sinners to the table, not out of pity but out of love, because they are in love with a Savior who has loved them in their own scuzziness and sinnerliness first.
If the failings of the institutional church don’t break your heart with their ugliness, the true Body of Christ will break your heart with its beauty.