My buddy Pastor Tim is getting ready to retire. This is no slight deal for a guy who has been pastor of his congregation for thirty-six years and has built it from a little piddly brick building into a gorgeous cathedral and the most stable congregation in his synod. He's a little anxious about who will succeed him in the ministry and how the church he's loved and labored over for so many years will thrive when he's gone. I'll bet his congregation is pretty worried, too. After all, for most of us it's hard to deal with change.
In the First Lesson (Acts 1:6-14) from the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter Seven, we see Jesus' disciples also struggling with new realities. They seem to really dig the fact that their rabbi has risen from the dead, but they're a little hazy about what it all means. Basically, they seem to want to know when he's going to bring back the good ol' days. You know: those great bygone times when there was no Roman occupation, David was on the throne, and all the nations of the earth feared the God of Israel. I suppose this was their equivalent to the church of 1960—when everyone went to church, there were no money problems, no pesky questions about same-gender marriage, we all wore our Sunday best, and the Sunday School and Youth Group were packed with well-groomed, polite, and non-tattooed young people.
Jesus' response, of course, is that what God plans to do from this point on is really none of our flippin' business. We'll find out soon enough. Our job is to stick together, pray, and wait for the Holy Spirit to teach us how to spread the gospel news.
I wonder if Jesus isn't more specific because he knows what God has in mind in this ever-changing world is more wonderful and mind-blowing than the disciples are able to handle at the moment? Ya think? God is working so far out of the box that they wouldn't believe Jesus even if he told them. Can you imagine it?
“Guess what, guys..? Israel is going to be destroyed by Rome and the Temple smashed to the ground, but that's cool because you dudes will begin to speak in new languages and spread the news of my sacrificial love and conquest over sin and death to the far ends of the earth. I mean, it will get a little nasty at times (In fact, all of you will die horrible, martyr's deaths), but you won't really mind because you'll know that you are giving the world something to believe in which will ultimately outlast the Roman Empire and bring light and learning and healing and justice in my name to all the people of the earth. Whatcha got to say to that, huh?”
Can you imagine the disciples' reaction to that piece of news?
Just so, we can't even begin to guess at the way God will be leading us in the next few years.
A really smart lady named Phyllis Tickle, an author and educator, says that every 500 years or so there's been a radical change in the Christian Church. Just shy of the year 500 AD the Western Roman Empire fell and Christianity became the stabilizing force in Europe. About 500 years later, the Catholic and Orthodox traditions split apart. 500 years after that Luther began the Protestant Reformation. I'm not sure that Professor Tickle isn't reading a little too much coincidence into all of this, but if she's right then we're just about due for another big shake-up.
The disciples in our First Reading have to put on their big boy pants and get ready for a church without the physical presence of Jesus. It's time for them to be ready for the mystery God's Holy Spirit will bring—even though they may be a bit afraid of what is to come.
For the folks at my friend Tim's congregation, they have to get ready to be the Church even without their beloved pastor of almost four decades and deal with the changes that their new shepherd will bring.
For the rest of us, it's time to accept that 1960 won't be coming back, but God will lead us to a whole new group of people, lifestyles, music, witness, ministry opportunities, and ways of being Church that we've never thought about before. And you know what..? We'll be okay. Jesus has already prayed for us:
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)
If we don't know what to expect in the coming years—what with increased secularism, an increasingly pluralistic landscape, a yo-yo economy, mind-bending technology, and all the other forces at work on us on this little rock of a world, we should at least get together and pray for some unity. Whatever we do as the church, let's try to do it together.
God bless. Thanks for visiting my blog. Please come back!
PS- If Phyllis Tickle is right and we really ARE heading for something new, how about we try to work on a new age of Christian unity? There's a pretty cool new Pope in the Vatican. Maybe we can get him to open the doors of his denomination a little and let us crazy Protestant come in for dinner? It's worth a shot asking, don't you think? If you're Lutheran or Catholic, please sign my petition here.