What is the work of the church? Jesus’ words are probably a good place to start in answering that question, so let’s consider the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,* baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19).
I know that asterisk isn’t in the original, but somehow I’ve always imagined it there. Haven’t we all? The asterisk draws our attention to that biblical footnote exempting Episcopalians from the first part of this last commandment. I don’t mean that ths footnote exempts us from all the work—of course we do the baptizing part, and some teaching, too, at least around confirmation time. But that first part—the going out part—the asterisk has to apply there. Jesus gave that work to other churches, not ours. The work of the Episcopalians is more along the lines of keeping the congregation going, explaining the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and choir practices.
Nothing in seminary taught me otherwise, but—surprise—over the last few decades someone has been using reality to erase that imaginary footnote—I suspect it might be the Holy Spirit! The work we have been doing is no longer adequate to the task of keeping the church going due to the simple reality that people are no longer simply showing up to be part of our congregations. Driven by necessity, we’ve had to take another look at Jesus’ words, exploring the possibility that when Jesus said we were to go out and share his message, he might have meant it.
But if we are called to preach, what might we say? It’s easier to say first what our message is not. Our good news cannot be: “accept Jesus as your Lord and savior or you’re going to hell.” Really, if we seriously believed that, one hopes that our compassion for all those hell-bound souls would have inspired us to go out and save a few long ago.
What to say, then? A couple years ago I went back to the church of my childhood, only to hear the worst sermon I have ever heard in my life. It haunts me still. This homiletic disaster was rooted in the fact that the preacher was talking only to himself. In preparing this sermon, reviewing all the history, biblical interpretations and commentaries that so often make up the background of any sermon, the preacher had found good news for himself, and his good news was: I know this stuff, and so he decided to share all that stuff he knew. The good news of his knowledge built up his ego, but, of course, at the expense of the congregation who heard the not-such-good news of their own inferiority and ignorance. In fairness, this preacher’s ego needed some affirming. You see, this was the last Sunday that congregation would gather. Whatever work this preacher had done, it simply wasn’t enough, and the church was closing. No wonder the preacher felt the need to assert his own competence at something. Never mind the needs of that grieving, lost congregation, he needed his own good news!
Like that hapless congregation, many who hear Christians proclaiming the gospel simply hear believers proclaiming their own superiority: we know something you don’t —the meaning of your life, the explanation of your problems—we have it all, just agree with us! Superiority sounds like good news only to the superior. Oh, some, especially those with self-esteem issues, may admire us, even try to be just like us, but that sort of hero-worship-missionary success has problems of its own. But if our work is to proclaim the good news then it has to sound like something that people want to hear.
For us Episcopalians, this is one more reason to keep quiet. Isn’t there something else we can do? Maybe this is why Jesus was such a fan of the small gesture. A cup of cold water deserves a reward. The kingdom of God is best seen as a tiny seed or the invisible yeast that makes all the difference. Even the verdicts of the last judgment depend on small gestures of caring directed to “the least of these.” Such standards sound like good news to Episcopalians—maybe we don’t have to proclaim anything after all. Didn’t St. Francis say, “Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary”? That probably works if you’re St. Francis. Making friends with wolves, hugging lepers, stripping off all your clothes—these things no doubt carry a message. But our own gestures and motives are usually more mixed, and the message isn’t so obvious. We don’t actually have to use words to demonstrate our own sense of superiority. It even feels good to know that there are those less-competent souls who depend on us. On a less judgmental note, we can just get caught up in the good feelings of doing good deeds. Is it the gospel we’re proclaiming, or just ourselves as nice people?
It’s an important distinction because while Jesus praises the small gestures, it’s his good news he actually commands us to proclaim. Whether we use words or not, the point gets lost when we forget that the message isn’t really about us and what we know. Good news is about a God who wants us around—eternally. It’s about Jesus and all the details of how that message came to be. The gospel is an invitation into life in God’s midst, and that’s an invitation we can proclaim with and without words.
The work of the church is to offer that invitation. Serving and caring are part of it, but our work isn’t complete if we haven’t invited (again, with word or deed) those we serve to be part of this new reality of God’s love and our transformation. The invitation to relationship and community is what makes the church’s work different from Rotary. It’s also why all the work of sustaining the congregation is actually part of the work we have to do. Community is not optional.
What’s not clear is how we know if we’re doing it right. The most obvious measures of success have to do with numbers. If invitation is the foundation of the gospel, then success means counting up the positive RSVPs, right? These sorts of numbers matter to us, but are we sure they matter to God? After all, Jesus is the Lord of small gestures. What does that cup of cold water have to do with the work of the church?
Sometimes we may never know. In Jesus’ stories the seeds are scattered, but their growth is mysterious. In the church, invitations offered may take years to be accepted. People will not flock to join our church even if we get everything absolutely right. Faithful people, like those in the remnant of my home church, can and will fail, at least by the usual signs of success. That’s not what we want to hear, and maybe that’s the point. In commissioning his disciples, even the Episcopalian ones, to go preach his message, Jesus promises companionship, not success. Here is one last reminder of what it means to build a relationship on grace—Jesus is with us because we are his; not because we earned his attention by our high sales numbers. Particular communities will come and go, but the gospel remains constant: the good news that God wants us around eternally. What we do and say proclaims our trust in that message. Our work is all about faith.
Faced with the discouraging realities of church life today, we want a guarantee, not just entrusting our egos to grace alone. Like that terrible preacher, we want to prove our worth. Success would be better. But there is no other way. Some advice from St. Francis could be helpful here. To do the impossible, he said, you start by doing what is necessary. From there move to what is possible, and soon you find yourself doing the impossible.
Right now in the church we find ourselves frantically doing the necessary and possible, in large ways and small, scattering seeds in ways we never imagined we Episcopalians were called to do. Keep doing what must be done. Our hope is not in our abilities but in the grace of God, putting the impossible just around the corner. +
The Rev. Meg Decker, rector of Trinity, Escondido since 1995, has a passion for intergenerational ministries, faith formation in children, and for the place of creativity in any ministry.
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