GOSPEL | JOHN 10:22-30

22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

“you do not believe, because you do not belong” (v.26)

Thanks again to my Systematic Theology class, for giving me food for thought and a pair of lenses through which I cannot help but read Jesus’ words. This semester for my internship I have been looking at and developing a curriculum for educating new church members. My Systematic Theology class has just started looking at baptism by reading Dr. Brownson’s book The Promise of Baptism. This quote came up in today’s lecture, as a way of getting at the truth that the church is not a voluntary organization:

One does not become part of Christ’s body by deciding to do so. Nor does one become part of Christ’s body by the approval of the existing parts of Christ’s body, any more than my two hands could decide that my body needed a third hand to help out with a difficult problem. We become part of Christ’s body because God joins us to Jesus Christ and makes us part of Christ’s body. Being part of Christ’s body is not a human option; it is a divine act.

~ James Brownson, The Promise of Baptism18.

This is an unpopular truth, one that we (Americans, specifically) rebel against. The emphasis is on God’s action, not ours. Here’s another quote that expresses much the same thing:

The Church is creatura verbi divini: the creature of the divine Word. The Church is constituted by God’s action and not by any human action. It is not an association of people who have a shared taste for religion or the creation of some kind of human community spirit. It is not a community devoted to a common cause or to the realization of a common aim, and in this the Church differs from other organizations. As the creature of the divine Word the Church is constituted by divine action.

~ Christoph Schwobel, from “The Creature of the Word: Recovering the Ecclesiology of the Reformers,”

in On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community, ed. Colin Gunton

How frustrating and inconvenient! Why can’t church be “an association of people who have a shared taste for religion”? But wait? Isn’t it? That’s certainly what it looks like: on the corner of Post-modern and Popular, we have the New Community of Hipsters, and across town, in the middle of Conservative Way stands the First Traditional Church. Don’t our churches line up according to people’s personal preferences about worship styles, preaching voices, church structures? How can this be a product of God’s action first and foremost?

How am I, as a pastor of this mixed bag of competing realities, supposed to hold forth and believe this truth that the church is called together by God, when it sure looks like we get to choose which church we like best, and choose to leave it as soon as we don’t like it best? I’ve had to come to harsh terms with this second reality in my work with the church’s way of doing its “membership class.” We aren’t educating “new” members, so much as we’re orienting existing church members (as in, baptized Christians who are part of the Body of Christ) to the way we do things differently (or, as it turns out, not-so-differently. Yes, I’m a little pessimistic. Sorry.

I am also deeply hopeful, because of the very powerful truth that God is indeed gathering, growing, and sustaining his Church for his glory and his mission for the sake of the world. It is a truth much more difficult to see at work, but that’s where the belief comes in. “I believe; help my unbelief.”