A character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is asked how he became bankrupt. He answers, “Two ways…. Gradually and then suddenly.” This pandemic has revealed all kinds of fault lines and inequities that have gradually and stealthily shaped our culture. Now, with the coronavirus, we suddenly see hard truths about our common life. The church has faced its own gradual and sudden plunge. We’ve faced a gradual decline, and now the pandemic suddenly forces issues about how to be the church in this place and at this time that have cried out for attention for decades. All of which means denominations, their elected leaders, lay ministers, congregations, and pew-sitters face a time of massive and urgent change. There is no normal to go back to. There’s only the future that the Holy Spirit is leading us into without the pillars of cloud and fire we’d like.
In a time of change, two things become the focus for us in the church. The first, of course, is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified. As Paul says in Romans (1:16), it’s “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” It’s the one thing that constitutes the church and its mission. It’s the thing that everything else points to, the reason for every worship service, program, project, and decision. When we keep our eyes on the center, change is possible.
The other focus makes things more difficult. Around the center lie all the gateways through which we’ve come to a life of faith and that we associate with the gospel: Sunday school, worship music, Bible camps, good coffee, or having every pew filled for worship. Those beloved things are so strong in our emotions that sometimes we confuse them with the central reason for our life together.
It’s the thing that everything else points to, the reason for every worship service, program, project, and decision. When we keep our eyes on the center, change is possible.
When things change, the familiar entry-points shift, and new avenues for bringing people into the center are called for. Being free enough to risk the new is a hard, hard task. In “The Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther reminds us it’s God’s word that frees us. It’s individual Christians, congregations, and even denominations who endure change that must hold firm to Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
All of the gateways surrounding the center lie in the realm of the law, and we need them for our common safety, security, and order. But they don’t hold the possibility of changing hearts or bringing people to saving faith. Whether it’s Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul speaking to the Athenians on the Areopagus, Argula von Grumbach and her letters supporting the Reformation in sixteenth-century Bavaria, John Lewis speaking faithful truth to power, or the pastor who will bring a final word at your grave, it’s proclamation that God uses to create new structures by forgiving sin and raising the dead. That’s what allows for change, both in our hearts and in the ways we live and work together.
I don’t know what my own congregation or denomination will look like six years from now, much less what the state of wider Christianity will be. Yet I do know that I won’t give up as a preacher and provider of pastoral care. I will continue to cling to the only hope I’ve ever truly had: that Jesus is my Lord and yours. You and I will, no doubt, fail miserably on occasion and, I hope, also prayerfully achieve some success, but the center holds nonetheless. Christ always has. He always will. Amen.
I will continue to cling to the only hope I’ve ever truly had: that Jesus is my Lord and yours.