On Demystifying the Church
The church is the only place God promises to lift us out of ourselves not in order to become more like God but so that we may finally be freed from our obsession with becoming little gods.
There’s a large part of my work given to trying to help people connect with and understand theology - specifically the traditions of the Reformation. It’s a pet peeve of mine that more people don’t understand Reformational theology simply because they haven’t been introduced to it. And so I like to think I pour a lot of energy into doing of this type of theology well, and perhaps just as importantly, hospitably.
I want people to understand those seemingly strange things to the typical American Evangelical – like the saving power of the Sacraments and terms like “Divine Service” – are not only not strange, they are entirely Biblical.
In other words, I tend to focus on figuring out how to communicate and demystify the “why” behind what I believe because I think it’s freeing for people to hear that justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ isn’t meant to be followed up with proving how good and holy we are on our own. I believe both the theology of the Reformation and Scripture itself support this idea but often need some unpacking for people who may have heard differently their entire lives.
However, when I used that word, “demystify” in an interview with Magnus Persson about his new book, Reclaiming the Reformation, last week, he reminded me that much of the ministry of the church - the reality of faith - isn’t something that can be demystified, and that that is a good thing.
Luke Kjolhaug also reminded us of this in his article, “Who Stole the Magic?” just earlier this week, where he explains the Sacraments for what they are - a concrete reality of God’s good and spiritual gifts - without explaining away the supernatural.
This interplay between reason and the divine is one I find at times confusing and at times frustrating to keep in the proper order. I think that may be true for many of us. We want to understand, and yet we also want to be awed. We don’t want to grope aimlessly in the dark, and yet we also don’t want to live life as if it were an excel spreadsheet with everything mapped out and color-coded. And perhaps even more primary, we tend to assume faith and reason are opposites automatically, and while maybe they can coexist, they must remain distinctly separate.
But I don’t think that’s true.
Reason isn’t an enemy to the divine. Philip Melanchthon would even go as far as to say that reason plays a part in faith - that it’s not faith itself, but that it is an aspect of it, along with the very necessary work of the Holy Spirit (See the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV). Nor does God only work in ways contrary to our ability to perceive or to know. But we often pit these two - faith and reason - against each other because we think that the purpose of both is to make us better, wiser, more fully divine beings. When our goal is to use faith or reason to elevate ourselves, we will ultimately make both the mysteries of God as well as his revelations about us. As typical of most things we make about ourselves, we turn gift into burdensome work or gift into a project in which we are the masters of knowing more, feeling deeper, or loving better. Whether intentionally or not, we will actually elevate our reason over true faith.
Church devoid of the mystery of faith looks like every other aspect of life where we hope our strivings will buoy our suffering, our failures, our guilt and shame.
This means we turn things like church into one more way in which we are attempting to get what we want out of life. Perhaps that means church becomes a pep talk for our week, a service project, or a way to work to “feel” how close we are to God. Whatever our goal is, however, church devoid of the mystery of faith looks like every other aspect of life where we hope our strivings will buoy our suffering, our failures, our guilt and shame.
My son is almost two, which means Sunday mornings are often part wrestling match, part continuous effort to find the correct order for snacks, books, and quiet toys to make it through the church service in one piece. In addition, our church doesn’t have a children’s program for toddlers during the Sunday school hour, so I often find myself wondering, “What is the point of all this?” But this past Sunday, as the choir sang above us in the balcony, I said, “Listen, Otto,” and watched as he directed his gaze upward for a slight moment and then flashed his gapped tooth smile at me. Perhaps simply a motion, but a motion that reminded me what the point of all of this is nonetheless.
God’s revelation and divine mystery aren’t at odds. Their purpose is always to turn us away from ourselves - whether that’s away from our toys or our thoughts - and outward to see him. It’s in church - through the Sacraments and his Word - that God’s transcendence is made imminent because it’s in church where the reality of his forgiveness given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes connected to the reality of our own lives, regardless of how we are feeling that day. The church stands as a beacon of this truth - of the divine made man to conquer death to save us all from sin - which is both a truth which can be discovered and known as well as necessarily a complete mystery which is given and believed in faith given through the Holy Spirit.
Despite all of its failings over the centuries, the point of the church is that it’s here where God promises to reveal his otherworldliness and his divine goodness by piercing through the mundane. The church is the only place God promises to lift us out of ourselves not in order to become more like God but so that we may finally be freed from our obsession with becoming little gods. Instead, it’s where we hear who exactly God is for us: he is our creator and our redeemer, he is author and perfector, he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who loves us and saves us. The church delivers the proclamation that our heavenly God is good and that he doesn’t just stand above us in the balcony; he comes to us directly. This is indeed a mystery and one to be cherished in a world so bent on conquering all mystery for the sake of our own glory.