I do sometimes wonder what Jesus thinks of his Church. I know he is Lord of it. I know in reality there is one church – spread out across the varying denominations which have a wide variety of perspectives on aspects of theology and ethics and liturgical practice. I know Jesus graciously serves his people and I expect to be surprised – even though I rely on his graciousness – by his grace. The errors which besiege us are our errors and Jesus guides and deals with us patiently and lovingly. But as I travelled in Malta and visited churches and shrines and thought about the Christian landscape in Brandon (the same applies to any location – after the service at Coventry last Sunday I attended the local service for Christian Unity if only to partially let the Christian community know that Good Shepherd wasn’t dead) with our various denominations, I did wonder whether the Christian church today is what Jesus wants.
As I look over Christian history – we are so short sighted to ignore it – I can imagine how things devel-oped. We live in time and space, geography and pos-sessions – and the followers of Jesus were following someone they couldn’t see, who wasn’t located in an office or the end of a phone but who was real to them by the power of the Holy Spirit through words, water, bread and wine. Yes, I can imagine how defining the words became so important. It was a mat-ter of truth; faithfulness to Jesus. And when it became legal in the world to be Christian, yes I can imagine it easier to set down ‘roots’, establishing places of worship – all initially to support words, water, bread and wine but which more and more developed importance of their own. The attending organisational structures, uniforms (vestments), art, architecture were not initially (I hope) against the Gospel but were seen as helpers to it but as with all the things we do or touch, there is the eventuality that our own image becomes visible; for ourselves to be at the centre.
So shrines, saints, pilgrimages, pomp and pageantry all have their human self interest side and I found myself in places last week thinking ‘you know, the Reformation had a point – Jesus can be hard to find’. And the Reformation was about Jesus becoming centre stage again – that’s what we said – one of the ‘alones’ was ‘Christ alone’. But now the catholic church wasn’t universal but localised in countries and across denominations. Orthodoxy is important; words must be clear and true but they also can be cleverly used to promote us and how right we are. Now our image was stamped not only on the church structures but also on our version of the words about Jesus and people who claimed Jesus as Lord could regard each other as enemies. That is scandalous.
But after nearly twenty centuries the Christian Church still exists. Each generation doesn’t create it. We receive the Faith and pass it on. We can’t ignore this history. There is no return to the ‘true church’ or the early church. There’s no heavenly memorandum for all followers of Jesus to meet in one place in Brandon. No matter what the Church might visibly look like, Jesus still comes to people through words, water, bread and wine. He leads and guides us to focus on him even as we struggle not to focus on us. And when we’re proud of our words – that they’re clear and true about him – we are challenged to live according to them – among others who also say ‘Jesus is Lord’ in a world that doesn’t and discover that all words about God are ultimately praise because daily they begin, ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner’. — GS