Sometimes it feels like I’ve spent most of my life apologizing for being a Christian. For so many people in our culture, when they think about Christians, all kinds of negative images come to mind and I find myself apologizing for the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Crusades and any number of other atrocities that have been committed against humanity in the name of Jesus. Most recently, I’m apologizing to those who have been hurt by the homophobic stance of my denomination.
As a parish pastor, I often encounter people who want nothing to do with the church because they’ve had negative experiences with a particular congregation. They tell me stories of back-biting and petty disagreements, ill-placed priorities and blatant hypocrisy. I’ve been around the church long enough that I don't doubt the truthfulness of their stories. I could tell a few of my own. Churches are filled with messed up folks who fall far short of the vision God has for his people.
Usually, when I get into a conversation with a disillusioned Christian who has left the church, I’ll try to point out how perhaps that person has expected too much. After all, the church is made up of very imperfect people, so it’s not fair to expect perfection. In other words, “Maybe if you lower your expectations you’ll find the church to be more acceptable.” Don’t expect so much.
Now I'm thinking that I’ve been wrong about that. Lowering our expectations isn't the solution. A prayer to the church in Ephesus has challenged me to see this in a new way. “I pray that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (3:16-19)
What we need to do is raise our expectations, not lower them. Yeah, it makes perfect sense not to expect a whole lot because the church is still filled with sinners like you and me. But there’s more to the story of who we are than that. We belong to Christ. And because we're in Christ, we can dare to expect great things to happen through his Church.
It’s always amazed me that Christ chose to have the Church act on his behalf, as his Body in the world. The question, “What were you thinking?” has often been on my mind and on my lips as I’ve watched the ways we’ve all but obliterated the gospel message by our actions. And yet, I know that God has a habit of choosing the least likely candidates to do his work. Stammering Moses, lying snake-in-the-grass Jacob, adulterous/murdering David, a handful of dim-witted fishermen, a self-righteous persecutor of God’s people. Apparently, God enjoys a challenge! And the thing is, when God chooses people who seem all wrong for the job, something powerful has a way of happening, and there can be no doubt where the power comes from. Clearly, it’s God’s doing. Without God in the mix, we have every reason not to expect a whole lot. But as people of faith, we know that God IS in the mix.
We’re all waiting to see what will happen in a few weeks when our ELCA meets in Churchwide Assembly. Will we vote for change or maintain the status quo? Clearly, a change will be a move toward removing walls that the Church has erected over the years, walls that have been used to separate people within the Body of Christ. These walls are not God’s walls; they are human walls. (see Ephesians 2)
People ask me what I think is going to happen at our Churchwide Assembly. Of course, I don’t know. I do know that we’re dealing with a very human institution. By nature, institutions make decisions that are for the sake of preserving the institution and not for the sake of the gospel. So, considering what we’re working with, my expectations should be low. And without God in the mix, I would say, “No way in hell our ELCA is ever going to change.” But, God IS in the mix. God has chosen to work through us, his Church, flawed as we are. In the past, our church has acted boldly in ways that have surprised me. I know that was God’s doing and not our own. And God continues to be a God of surprises. So my expectations of our Churchwide Assembly are anything but low. I have great expectations.
The conclusion of the prayer to the Ephesians says it all: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (3:20-21)