I really try not to engage in theological deconstructionism on this blog. That is, I try not to do things like “Ten Things the Church Needs to Stop Doing” or picking apart the theological positions or ministerial practices of others. For one thing, I just don’t find that kind of thing very interesting. For another thing, those kinds of posts always smack of a sort of snarky elitism, as though the author has it all figured out (despite the fact that the authors of such pieces rarely offer any constructive ideas in place of the things they deconstruct). I figure I’m just another bozo on the bus, figuring out this God thing along with everyone else, and I know I certainly don’t have all the answers.
There are days like today, though, when I just really can’t imagine what people are thinking. This morning I went to a gathering of denominational colleagues called a conference meeting. We get together once a month, share devotions together, hear a presentation on some topic of mutual interest, and get updates on the ministry of the broader church and ways that we can be engaged with that. This morning, I heard two things that just make me want to go all Charlie Brown:
The first was a passing comment in a conversation about Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. If you haven’t heard of her, she’s a leading voice in the emerging church movement. Her congregation, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, has done something most of our churches say they want to do: they have figured out how to reach Millenials (people born between 1986 and 2000) with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Pastor Bolz-Weber does not look like your typical Lutheran pastor. She has multiple, large, publicly visible tattoos. She also doesn’t sound like your typical Lutheran pastor. She’s been known to drop the occasional F-bomb and use other four-letter words. In other words, she looks and sounds a lot like the people she serves as pastor to. The comment this morning, though, was, “You know, when you get past the tattoos and the salty language and the outrageous things she says, she’s really orthodox.” This was followed by a comment about a pastor I serve near (whose congregation is really excited after hearing Pastor Bolz-Weber speak) “going out and getting some tattoos.”
This makes me crazy, on a number of levels. First, I think we have a tendency to get hung up on packaging and miss the message. The people who attend Pastor Bolz-Weber’s church don’t attend because of her visible tattoos, any more than people attend the congregations I serve because my tattoos are generally covered up. And having read Martin Luther, I can tell you that he was known to use some salty language himself. (For examples, check out the Luther Insult Generator. My favorite is “I can with good conscience consider you a fart-ass and an enemy of God.”) As for saying outrageous things, is anything more outrageous than “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) or “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)? Have we become so hung up on outward appearances that we can’t hear gospel when it is proclaimed among us if the proclaimer doesn’t fit our staid, uptight, safe, comfortable mold?
The other thing I heard was that apparently “some churches on the West Coast” are making baptism available to anyone who wants it, and this is apparently causing a raging theological debate. It was only with difficulty that I restrained myself from doing this:
Really? Debate about making baptism available to anyone who wants it? I’ve heard some debates in the past about how open to make the Eucharist, but never one about baptism. What is there to debate? Baptism is one of the things Jesus specifically commanded us to do! (Matthew 28:19) And he didn’t put any conditions on it! In fact, in Acts 8, we get a prime example of how freely available baptism is supposed to be. In the midst of the first great persecution of the church, Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch on the road. They talk about Jesus. The Ethiopian asks the key question: “Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” I’m sure Philip probably had a long list of things: the fact that he was an Ethiopian, the fact that he was a eunuch (an outsider under Jewish religious law of the day), the fact that Philip didn’t have permission from his bishop, the list goes on. But Philip’s answer was apparently that none of that stuff mattered, because Acts tells us they went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Just last Sunday, I baptized an infant; I didn’t quiz him on his Lutheran theology first, so why would I quiz an adult? Baptism is God’s act (we just facilitate that), and God seems to think there aren’t any strings attached to it, so who are we to attach strings?
While we’re on the subject of sacraments, I don’t think we can make much of a case for strings being attached to the Eucharist, either. Three groups tend to be most likely to be excluded from the table: the unbaptized, small children, and unrepentant sinners. We tend to assume that all of the disciples were baptized since they themselves baptized others, but we don’t know that for sure, and nowhere does scripture say you have to be baptized first. Jesus chewed out his disciples for standing in the way of young children coming to him. And as for unrepentant sinners, the guest list at the first Eucharist included Judas (who apparently stopped in on his way to sell Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver) and eleven other guys who high-tailed it for the hills as soon as the heat came down. Clearly, having your act together in terms of fidelity to Jesus is NOT a prerequisite. Furthermore, we claim that Jesus is truly present in this meal. Well, if that’s true and that’s really what we believe, why wouldn’t we make this meal available to all, especially to the unbaptized, young children and unrepentant sinners?
Here’s the thing: the gospel of Jesus Christ and the sacraments are gifts for all, NOT treasure to be hoarded. It’s not our job to attach strings of personal appearance or theological knowledge to who can speak the Word of the Lord to us or who can share the sacraments with us. God save us from rejecting the gifts based on the packaging, and from ever daring to presume to deny anyone access to those gifts.