On Membership and THE Question…

I’ve never been a fan of the term “member” in churches. I have no idea where this began or when it began and because I hate it so much, I’m not going to look it up. (You can look it up if you want. You can call me lazy, too.)

Rubens knew church today...

Rubens knew church today…

I hate this term because it denotes a way of relationships that is counter gospel. Members have many privileges, a few responsibilities and nametags. It’s not how Jesus referred to those following him around. The disciples, as far as I see it, had no nametags, many responsibilities and few privileges.

It occurs to me that however people are labeled, the tendency for a congregation (or any other group of people) to devolve into insider/outsider mentality is there. In Mark 10, we see James and John ask Jesus for an insider seat in heaven. If that’s not “membership,” I don’t know what is.

When I first came to my church, we had someone join at the end of the service. I did it wrong. I didn’t ask the official question. We didn’t sing THE SONG after it happened. It seemed everyone was weirded out by the experience. I learned afterward that the tradition was to sing Blest Be the Tie that Binds. It’s a sweet hymn, for those who know it. I cannot sing it, however. The only thing I hear with that tune is the camp song from my childhood, “Froggy him am a queer bird…” (The camp song itself is problematic, but I digress.)  The Elders of the church, the spiritual leaders of the congregation, and I discussed that official question, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and do you take him as your personal Lord and Savior.” I explained to them that I could not, in good conscious ask the Personal Lord and Savior part. It’s not because I do not see Jesus as my Savior, but because it reeks of modern theology that makes faith purely about the individual and lacks the communal expression of faith and commitment to the gospel. We may be baptized individually, but none of us live the life of faith in a vacuum.

As we discussed the protocol for people joining the church, I asked what would happen if someone wanted to join and couldn’t make a profession of faith. Some elders said that was a deal breaker, others were silent on the issue. I had to ask because even in a new version of the question (that last part is changed to ask “do you wish to serve God here?”), I wonder, how we can expect people to walk up at the end of a worship service and profess faith when the question they are asked is full of insider language

When my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was in formation on the American frontier, it was in retaliation to the requirements of creeds and sectarianism between and among denominations. As our denomination developed over time, we adopted this membership model and profession of faith test to become a member, though not to take communion. (see www.disciples.org/AboutTheDisciples/HistoryoftheDisciples)

I am in no way against public professions of faith. My question concerns our assumptions when we use the term member and ask this question. We no longer live in a time where the Christian faith and language is commonly understood. It may be commonly used, but to say it is commonly understood is coming close to willful ignorance of the world around us. (Some could say it is rarely understood too, but that is another question entirely.) How can we have a set profession of faith when people vary so greatly in how they come to experience God in worship? Can someone know God through Jesus and be a part of the community officially when “Son of the Living God” needs unpacking.

For many Christian communities, becoming an official part of the community comes after extensive study, anywhere from 6 months to a year. I deeply ache for this level of commitment within my free-church tradition. (Free church roughly translates to no bishops.) I also see it as a way that might slap the Holy Spirit in her face! God’s revelation and people’s commitment come in so many ways!

I am seeking the answer to two areas of questions. First, what do we call those who sojourn together in the setting of a congregation? Members? Would it not be more Biblical to call one another Followers of the Way or Disciples? If the Disciples of the New Testament had many responsibilities, how do we understand and proclaim our own? Second, is a designated public profession of faith the marker for belonging? Jesus rejected the legalism of the religious leadership of his day and pushed for the people to proclaim their relationship with God for themselves. How can we encourage people to proclaim their faith authentically and affirm the collective faith of the community?

What do you think?

August 19, 2012 Sermon

Title: Missing the Point, Part of the Series Bread of Life

Scripture: John 6:51-58 (59)

I often find myself being hard on the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day. The guys who were confronting him; asking questions incessantly. It’s easy to do this because we have such a strong knowledge of Jesus. It’s not always fair, though, being so tough on them. We make a caricature of those leaders. It reminds me of blond jokes. They start with an assumption that blonds can never “get it.” We start with an assumption that the leaders of the synagogues and temples could never “get it” because they didn’t “put down their fishing nets”  and follow Jesus. (You, know if they’d had fishing nets. I guess in this scenario, I should say scrolls.)

These leaders were dealing with a rabble-rouser. Someone who knew more than them at times. Someone who answered their questions with more questions. And, when he did give them an answer, it could be dumbfounding.

Jesus was teaching in the wrong places, not in the synagogue or temple.  Those were appropriate places to be asking religious questions. NO! He was out on the hillside, talking to people who had proven themselves to be less than holy.

Jesus could have been diagnosed with an oppositional defiant personality.

This may seem heretical to say, especially when we think about the common churchey presentations of who Jesus is. The two most common prints around the corner of many churches are these.

There is this one Heinrich Hofmann’s painting Christ In Gethsemane.

Christ in Gethsemane by Hofmann. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated three widely known paintings by Heinrich Hofmann to The Riverside Church in NYC.

It presents a passive Jesus in prayer, waiting for the revelation of God the Father to give him peace.

Then, there are the paintings of Jesus with children. I chose this one because it reminds me of the posters that came with the Sunday School lesson workbooks we had as children.

I’m not against remembering Jesus’ sweet moments of embracing children or praying, but we cannot let those be the only ones we pay attention to. Much like many of the images we see show us Jesus as a Westerner/European, we must acknowledge the many other ways they limit our vision of who Jesus really was.

Jesus was not only the one who embraced the children with loving-kindness. And, his moments of being over the top were not limited to that moment in the temple over turning tables. Our image of Jesus is often watered down simply because we do not understand the experiences of the leadership that were often confronting Jesus and vice versa.

It’s easy to be hard on them because they were so often trying to keep power, being the holders of truth and wisdom.

We lack the knowledge of their position. We can only know a bit of where they are coming from… No one was interviewing them after the “BIG DEBATE” to find out what they wish they’d said, or how they might have agreed with a tiny bit, but overall had trouble with what Jesus was saying.  We are used to sound bites and rebuttal speeches after a bid debate. Just because we have no record of it in the scripture doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

We often point the finger at them and say THEY MISSED THE POINT…

In doing so, we often miss the opportunity to understand them and understand Jesus better. If we do not know why it was difficult for them, beyond losing power, we may not truly know what Jesus was saying.

This scripture is easily conflated with the Last Supper. In John, we do not have the words of institution and official last supper. We have Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

Many see this as the moment in John where Jesus is establishing Communion, The Last Supper, the Eucharist. Perhaps. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock say “The whole discourse has eucharistic overtones, but John does not mean to reduce the meaning to participation in the Eucharist.” (From The People’s New Testament Commentary. pg 310)

I find it difficult to think of this moment as establishing the Last Supper simply because we find Jesus among those who are not followers, not disciples. These are the people who are at odds with him. See, Jesus created that moment of communion with those who were following him, the disciples, the people who were with him learning.

Jesus and the disciples were in a private place. Here, we see Jesus is on their turf!!! It is left out on the lectionary text, but it is important to pay attention to the last verse in this chapter. Jesus was in the SYNAGOGUE at Capernaum!!

Have you ever been offended in your holy place?

Has someone ever said something to you before worship so difficult that it ruined your ability to worship?!

Not me, although, that may be a possibility. I get paid to do that, right? 🙂

Jesus came into the synagogue and spoke something so offensive that it is surprising we do not hear about him being kicked out. Or, like a vaudeville act, taken by the arms and legs and tossed out.

What did Jesus say that was so offensive????!!!

Jesus talked about blood. About eating flesh and drinking blood. Sure, we can say, but he was being figurative…

Ok, but for the leaders in the synagogue, we can assume they had no grammar class that introduced them to the terms metaphor, simile, analogy, allusion.

They heard Jesus say-according the writer of John-

So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

6:54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;

6:55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

For Jews, those who follow the Levitical codes, this was tantamount to saying, follow Satan would be to us. I could go into some other examples, but I think you know what I’m saying.

In Leviticus 17: 10-14, we hear…

10 “‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. 11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.”

13 “‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, 14 because the life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, “You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.”

Kosher butchers today drain the blood from an animal. Blood is life, the very thing that keeps a creature alive. What does this mean for Jesus to say, “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” given this understanding of what blood is from Leviticus?

Jesus is presenting an image of himself that is more than about a symbol of bread and cup. Jesus is presenting himself as one who acknowledges a physical risk, both for himself and for the ones who follow him.

NT Wright, in his commentary on this text lifts up a story about David. He says,

One of the most moving and often forgotten stories about King David concerns the time when he was fighting the philistines who had occupied his native town of Bethlehem. Among David’s fiercely loyal fighting men he had three in particular who were renowned for their bravery and their readiness to do whatever the king might ask. When he and his mean were pinned down one day, David longed for a drink, and said out loud how much he would like to have water form the well at Bethlehem. Which was of course inaccessible due to the Philistines. But that didn’t stop his three heroes. Off they went, broke through the Philistine army, got water from the well and brought it back to David.

But David didn’t drink it. His sense of judgment was sharper than his thirst.

“God forbid, he said that I should drink the blood of these mean, who went at risk of their lives. He didn’t want to be seen to profit from their readiness to put their lives on the line for him. He poured the water on the ground.“

(John for Everyone Part One Tom Wright pg 85)

David was not always so sensitive about someone’s death for what he wanted. In that moment, however, he knew that even the hint of blood being shed for his basic thirst was unconscionable.

Even in terms of a symbol, blood’s power cannot be denied. Even if someone made the jump from literal to figurative in terms of Jesus’ words, it was still offensive and risked breaking relationship with God.

For these leaders in the synagogue, Jesus’ words are going against one of the deepest held rituals of keeping clean, staying away from blood. Jesus is ruining their place of worship. Filling it with words that speak in direct defiance of how God would have them live.

What do we do so that we no longer judge another as “missing the point” and thereby miss the point ourselves?

We have to understand how offensive these words are in order to know how powerful they are as well. Jesus was offering not just shock and awe scenario. This was not a Howard Stern moment for Jesus.

This was a moment where Jesus is proclaiming something entirely different about one of the most difficult things in life – for those 2,000 years ago and for us now – dealing with blood. For our ancestors, it was a way of keeping clean both literally and religiously. For us, we like sterile environments and reach for the latex gloves and purell.

Blood is our life-force. Each one of us. There are dangers in losing blood or sharing blood. We keep sterile and clean literally and figuratively.

Sharing blood is literally sharing life. Sharing those is dangerous, risky, and scary. We put on our latex gloves and pull out the purell for so many parts of our lives. Not just the blood part, but anything that can be dangerous, risky, and scary.

We choose not to share ourselves. We choose not to share our life.

It is in sharing ourselves with one another and with Jesus that we find mighty reward. The image of eternal life so prominent in chapter 6 of John is not limited to the length of life. Eternal life is what comes when we share life without sterile instruments. This is life that is fully embraced by God – in length, depth, width, matter, joy, sadness, death, heartache, fear, hurt, laughter, wonder, and on and on.

Sharing in the blood and flesh of Jesus makes us participants of LIFE with one another, with Jesus, with God, with the Holy Spirit.

All people can be tempted to follow the rules to point of individualism and isolation form real life. It’s not just the leaders of synagogue who were waiting for the right, holy people to come in the door. We are tempted to do the same. We look for the people to come to church who’ve got it all together. Look at any Christian bookstore and you can see the suggested books about a Holy Life. “Follow these rules to get into the Kingdom.”

Jesus turns that isolation on it’s head by proclaiming this image of bread and cup. If we share with one another through Jesus, we are called to enter into life together that exposes our hearts and souls to the greatest dangers and the greatest joys.

Jesus says: YOU SHOULD NOT LIVE ISOLATED LIVES… following me means a connection with one another that will shake everything you know. It’s messy, it’s scary, and it’s real. It’s life. It’s blood.