The Trouble with the Church

John 15:9-17

Acts 10:44-48

Dr. Mark Achtemeier

Covenant Presbyterian Church

Madison, Wisconsin

May 13, 2012

It’s easy to get caught up in a romantic vision of how wonderful it would have been to be one of Jesus’ disciples, hearing his teaching and witnessing his miracles firsthand. But a careful look at the New Testament makes it pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t exactly the easiest person to have around.

A stark illustration of this comes from chapter 7 in Luke’s Gospel. I know we often make the Pharisees out to be the self-righteous bad guys of the New Testament, but in this particular instance I think what you’ve got is a respectable, well-meaning religious person doing just what we would do: he invites Jesus to a dinner party in his home.

So Jesus is there along with the other guests, and they have all taken their places around the table–as good Romans they recline on little couches in order to eat. Dinner is getting started, they’re getting to know this respected religious teacher, when all at once the front door bursts open, and in wanders a woman of the streets—a prostitute.

You can imagine the host’s shock and embarrassment at such a development. But before anyone has a chance to react, the woman comes into the room where they’re having dinner, and apparently she knows Jesus because when she spots him she bursts into tears. And as if that weren’t enough disruption, she parks herself there at the end of Jesus’ couch, pulls out a jar of overpowering perfume, and proceeds to slather it all over his feet. So much for enjoying the aroma of the roast lamb, right? And the scene just continues to get worse, with this crazy woman sobbing over Jesus’ feet and kissing them and wiping them clean with her long hair. I wonder how Emily Post or Martha Stewart would handle that kind of scene at a dinner party?

The trouble with inviting Jesus into your home is you don’t just get Jesus, you get the friends who show up with him. Jesus scandalizes people over and over again by the kind of friends he hangs around with: the lame and blind beggars and the demon-possessed… the thugs and the shakedown artists (our Bible translations delicately call them tax-collectors)… the prostitutes and adulterers… the scabrous, contagious, unclean lepers… the list goes on and on.

After Jesus finally ascends into heaven, it’s easy to imagine Jesus’ disciples breathing a little sigh of relief: “The operation is in our hands now, and so maybe we can start to think a little bit more about public relations and take a few modest steps to keep Jesus’ more questionable ‘friends’ from turning life into such a circus day after day!”

There’s a saying I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I’ve gotten older. It says: “When I make a plan, God laughs.” And you know, any plans the disciples have for dealing with Jesus’ problem friends get completely blown out of the water, because… guess what? Jesus is still active among them through the work of the Holy Spirit! This risen, active Jesus shows up in their midst and does exactly the same thing he was always doing in his earthly ministry: he brings a group of highly questionable friends along with him!

That’s what this morning’s reading from the Book of Acts is all about. Jesus is at work following his ascension in and through the actions of the Holy Spirit. And the friends he brings with him this time are a group that no respectable religious person would ever dream of associating with:

“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”[1]

It’s hard for us to appreciate just how outrageous this was. The Gentiles were pagans, the Gentiles were unclean. The Gentiles did not follow Biblical Law, they did not keep God’s commandments. The Gentiles were the people we’re all glad we’re not. They were so despised and so ungodly that a respectable religious person couldn’t even eat a meal with them without coming away contaminated.

And yet here is Jesus, working through the Holy Spirit to invite these scandalous, questionable friends of his into the community of his followers. For the disciples it must have been “déjà vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra would say.

And let us not think for one moment that this is a scandal that is confined to biblical times. Christ is risen! That means Jesus continues alive and active today, challenging his poor followers to deal with his friends.

The church seems like such a good idea on paper, doesn’t it? Christ sends the Holy Spirit from the Father to sow the gift of faith in peoples’ hearts. The Spirit gathers together the community of Christ’s followers and knits them together in a fellowship of compassion and love and thanksgiving.

This abstract ideal of the church sounds so wonderful to us. But the trouble with the church is that this idyllic picture we cook up in our imaginations gets completely spoiled by the people who actually show up on Sunday. Jesus continues to be present in the church, and he continues to cause trouble by bringing along his questionable friends!

Given this troublesome habit Jesus has, it always strikes me as a bit far-fetched when I hear people saying that Jesus couldn’t possibly be working through the Holy Spirit to invite gay people into full inclusion in the life of the church. Jesus would never reach out to groups that respectable religious folk have reservations about. Nothing like that ever happens in the Bible, after all.

“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

But lest those of us on the progressive end of the spectrum start feeling a little bit smug over all this, we should perhaps reflect on our own convictions that Jesus would never, ever want his church to include the kind of people who this week voted to ban all gay marriages and civil unions in the state of North Carolina.

The trouble with the church is that when Jesus shows up, he brings his friends along. That creates challenges for all of us. And you don’t have to be talking about national politics for it to be an issue.

Now I know that here at Covenant you are blessed with congregation members who are all one hundred percent reasonable. But in other churches, well there are always some high-maintenance folks hanging around.

Being a downtown church in Dubuque means we sometimes get odd characters wandering in off the street. A case in point is a fellow I’ll call Kendall. Kendall is a developmentally disabled person. Physically he is a large, hulking middle aged man, but he has the emotional maturity of your average nine year old. He’s awkward and a little too loud at times. He loves the children, but he doesn’t know how to relate to them very well. He is apt to get a little rough with the boys and to frighten the girls at times. A few of us have the job on Sundays when Kendall shows up of quietly keeping an eye on him during coffee hour, just to head off any trouble before it starts. And of course people fret over what kind of impression Kendall is going to make on other newcomers and visitors to the congregation.

We all carry it around in our heads, don’t we? Our private ecclesiastical hit-list, that roster of toxic temperaments and troublesome personalities we think the church would be better off without.

Followers of Jesus have long dreamed of having a purified church, one that would enjoy the benefits of a little bit of…sorting. It make sense, doesn’t it? Any self-respecting bar has a bouncer on hand to keep problem patrons from making life complicated. Why not the church?

Bouncers aren’t exactly our style, but at the upcoming General Assembly we do have a proposal on the table for non-geographic Presbyteries, which means that congregations could do some sorting among themselves, so they wouldn’t have to associate at the Presbytery level with other Christians whose views they find distressing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian of the last century, spoke about these longings for a purified church. He calls them ‘wish-dreams.’ “Every human wish dream that is injected into the human community…” he writes,

…is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. [The person] who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.[2]

God mercifully shatters our dreams of an ideal church, says Bonhoeffer, in order to teach us that the church is not a group of nice, agreeable people we have organized, but a community of Jesus’ friends gathered together by him through the work of his Holy Spirit. God undercuts our pride and shapes our hearts by teaching us to love the actual church Christ has called together, rather than the ideal church of our imaginations.

Remember that the next time a Kendall wanders in your door. Remember that the next time you find anger rising over the distressing opinions or disagreeable temperament or odd behavior of another member of Christ’s church.

I don’t want to romanticize these situations—they cause incredible amounts of stress and upheaval and disruption to the church’s life. But the presence of challenging people in our fellowship is a sign that we are on the right track. Because just as the misfits and the outcasts and the maladjusted flocked to Jesus in his earthly ministry, so they continue drawing close to him today. When Jesus shows up, he brings his friends with him.

Can you see now what a revolutionary commandment Jesus gives us? “[L]ove one another as I have loved you:”[3] That doesn’t just mean, “Love your already lovable friends and neighbors as Jesus loves them.” It means: “Widen the scope of your love to the alienated outcasts and difficult personalities who are the objects of Jesus’ special compassion.” Love them as I have loved you, says Jesus: sacrificially, unhesitatingly, and without reserve.

That sounds like a very tall order, but if you pray for the power to love Jesus’ difficult friends, God will give it to you. And hidden within this miraculous and difficult sort of love is the power and promise of Christ’s coming Kingdom. Think about it: right here, right now, in your heart, God will sow the seeds of a love that is more powerful than human brokenness. God is cultivating right here in this church the seeds of that miraculous love which will one day transform the entire cosmos.

This love isn’t limited to the nice people or the people who are deserving of it. In your heart and mine, God calls forth a love that can reach out to the desperate and the despised and the despairing ones whose hearts are overwhelmed by loneliness and whose lives are staggered under the weight of human rejection. In your heart and mine, God places that same love that will one day shine into every darkened corner of our world, gathering up the children of rejection and embracing every lost and damaged soul. It is a love that will comfort the alienated heart and heal the wounded spirit. And its dawn is already rising right here in this place, as the Holy Spirit teaches us to embrace the friends that Jesus brings along.

“This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” Open your hearts to the miracle, good Christians, and know that the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dr. Mark Achtemeier is a Presbyterian writer, minister and theologian residing in Dubuque Iowa. He can be reached at:     [email protected]


[1] Acts 10:45

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, ch. 1

[3] John 15:12

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