01 kwiecień 2014

Colossians 3, 1-17 | Isaiah 1, 1-4 | Matthew 7, 15-20

The service in the Reformed Church in Warsaw in 28 March 2014 with the General Secretary Rev. dr Setri Nyomi and the members of the Middle European Regional Council of the World Community of Reformed Churches

Probably most of you took a plane to get here. Perhaps you were sitting on the airport watching this huge thing, the passenger plane is, and thought of the weight it must be, and the weight of the passengers, and the weight of their luggage, and the weight of the fuel in the wings and thought: "How on earth does such thing get off the ground?" Yet it does and that is why you are here. I live nearby the F. Chopin airport and see everyday these machines going up and down and I wondered if the Boeing 747 or Cessna should be regarded as a modern symbol of the church. According to that, how does the church ever get off the ground, cumbered as it is with such a weight of traditional baggage and a great number of passengers. The church should be a flying machine but often it seems to be stuck on the runway.

It was said long time ago that whenever Christians organized themselves into denominations, they become political institutions. I would rather use the word "worldly" instead "political". But it is true – churches are human worldly institutions and as worldly institutions they use political power to secure their survival or their dominance, to protect their freedom or their privileges. They very often tend to behave in the same way and to use the same methods as other worldly institutions do.

But that is not the way we, preachers and church office bearers, talk about the church, that wonderful and sacred mystery, the body of Christ on earth, the pilgrim people of God. Our writer to the Colossians particularly likes calling the church "the body of Christ". There are many other images in the NT, but they all stress that the church is not just another piece of the world but is in the world as a body of Christ, colony of heaven.

How can we reconcile these two perceptions of the church? The church as a body of Christ here on earth and the church as a worldly institution – church as a divine gift and the church as a human organization?

We may not ignore the fact that the church is part of the world and uses politics and power to gain its ends. Sometimes this may be to the glory of God and the good of his children but we may not ignore the fact that often in human history its ends have not been those of love and truth and justice but power, wealth, position, privilege, oppression. And we may not ignore the appalling crimes and failures of the church throughout of the centuries.

Equally, we must not idealize the small congregation. The churches to which the letters of the NT were written were local churches – the larger organization did not exist. And the problem is there, in the local churches of the NT, because in these very churches Paul and the others found the worst problems of unchristian behavior and unchristian attitudes. Think of the church in Corinth.

In our experience, a large church gathering such as an assembly, may be at times inspiring, seeming to take off in the power of the Spirit and at other times depressing, seeming to express every feeling except those of faith, hope and love. In our, longer or shorter, experience a small congregation may at times be a warm foretaste of the Kingdom of God’s love and at other times a clique or club dominated more by prejudice and pride than by love and service. The tension between the church as it is and the church as it is meant to be, the church in flight and the church on the ground is to be found at every level of the church’s life.

So how to reconcile these two perceptions of the church?

It seems that the church must always be both a human institution and divine reality. As a human institution it has to work as other organizations do – and it has to be as efficient and businesslike in its operations as any other organization. The fact that we are Christians in no excuse for incompetence – here in Warsaw we paid high cost for lack of it. As a human institution we have to relate to other human institutions, especially to government and local authority and we have to do realistically – understanding the thin line between being influenced and influencing the others. As a human institution we need money and we need to handle our money in a responsible and businesslike way.

As a human institution too, we are liable to become bureaucratic in a bad sense, run by people more interested in the rules and regulations than in the realities. Like other human groups we can be hijacked by those who want power. What we have seen in political parties – attempt of one option to take over the other option – can happen in the church where a small determined group can scheme to get all the positions of power and influence. And like other human groups we can become so concerned with our internal struggles, or with our rules or with our balance-books that we forget the reason why we are in business in the first place. From the other hand, very often we justify our lack of activity by saying that we are in God’s Kingdom, it will be managed by Him. There is a funny story which proves latter statement – there is an evening meeting of a Church Council. Suddenly the light is off and there is a dark around. Instead of changing the broken bulb they called the Commission named "Coping with Darkness").

There is always the question, especially during the crisis, either cut the public expenses or meet the human needs. The church has to be businesslike, but at the same time, it always is more than the business – it has to be and behave like the people of God, the body of Christ here on earth, the agent of God’s love to his children.

Our biblical passage "Become what you are" shows us the things that are "above" are compassion, kindness, generosity, love while the things that are below are selfishness, lying, greed and lust. Getting the NT churches as well as contemporary ones off the ground was always not an easy matter. The old ways still had a very strong hold on the Christians, a force of gravity pulling them down.

So, how on earth the plane ever gets off the ground? Saying: "Well, we would be lighter if we reduced the number of passengers" (Can we afford it in a church of 2500 members?) Saying: "We would better cut the number of the crew and leave it to the passengers to pilot the plane" (Can we afford it having a number of 7 ministers and at least 3 students of theology ?) Saying: "We could throw out the baggage and jettison the fuel" (Away with theology and turn worship into a playgroup with mindless choruses, happy-clappy church?). All these things would make the plane lighter, trivialize it indeed, but less likely than ever to get off the ground. What gets the plane off the ground is a surge of a power – the power of love, love to God and to our fellows.

The glorious truth about the church is that ever and again this amount of power occurs and happens and the church is lifted off the ground by the power of hope, faith and love.

The sad truth about the church is that ever and again this fails to happen and the church gets bogged down in its rules and regulations, its quarrels and prejudices, fears an sectarianism, nationalism and hatred of those who are different.

And the sober truth about the church is that the church of Jesus Christ consists of sinful human beings living in a world of sinful human beings. The church is no angel and it cannot escape from its humanity. It is worldly organization. But yet through this worldly, sinful organization Christ does his work among men and women and we may not reject it.

There is still no plane being able to fly all the time – the most modern, the most lighter ones must sometimes land to tank the fuel. But if it stays too long on the ground it gets rusty and become out of order, time and interest.