Learning to Love the Church

From CT Pastors
By Eugene H. Peterson

When we become Christians and start following Jesus, we soon find ourselves in the company of others who want to get in on it. It does not take us long to find many of these people are not much to our liking and some of them we actively dislike—a mixed bag of saints and sinners, the saints sometimes harder to put up with than the sinners. Jesus doesn’t seem to be very discriminating in the children he lets into his kitchen to help the cooking.

When I became a pastor I didn’t like much about the complexities of community in general and of a holy community in particular. I often found myself preferring the company of people outside my congregation, men and women who did not follow Jesus. Or worse, preferring the company of my sovereign self. But I soon found that my preferences were honored by neither Scripture nor Jesus.

I didn’t come to that conviction easily, but finally there was no getting around it. There can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life apart from an immersion in, and embrace of, community. I am not myself by myself. Community, not the highly vaunted individualism of our culture, is the setting for living the Christian life.

Dozing Through the Revolution

When I was an adolescent, one of the visions that filled my head with flash and color and glory was the French Revolution. I actually knew very little about it. Some vague impressions, incidents, and names were mixed haphazardly in my mind to produce a drama of pure romance, excitement, and the triumph of righteousness.

I had this picture of idealistic, devoted men and women with ringing affirmations of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” (French National Motto) on their lips, marching through a corrupt, sinful world and purging it with their righteous ideas and action. Names like Marat, Robespierre and Danton had a ringing and righteous sound in my ears. Evil dungeons in the Bastille were deep shadows against which the fires of liberation burned purely. Heroism and villainy were in apocalyptic conflict. The guillotine was an instrument of the Last Judgment separating the sheep from the goats.

When I arrived at my university and looked through a catalogue of courses, I was delighted to find a course listed for the French Revolution. The class was one of the significant disappointments of my university years.

The professor was a slight, elderly woman with thin, wispy gray hair. She dressed in dark, shapeless silks, and spoke in a soft, timorous monotone. She was a wonderfully nice person and was academically well-qualified in her field of European history. But as a tender of the French Revolution she was a disaster. She knew everything about the French but nothing about revolution.

I, meanwhile, knew practically nothing about the subject, and the few facts I had in my possession were nearly all wrong. In fact, what I possessed was a vast ignorance about the whole business. But I was right about one thing: It was a revolution. Revolutions turn things inside out and upside down. Revolutions are titanic struggles between antagonistic wills. Revolutions excite the desire for a better life of freedom, promise a better life of freedom. Sometimes they make good on their promises and set people free. More often they don’t. But after a revolution, nothing is quite the same again.

Sitting in her classroom, though, day after day, no one would know that. Ill-fated Marat, murderous Charlotte Corday, the black Bastille, the bloody guillotine, venal and opportunistic Danton, giddy Marie-Antoinette, ox-like Louis XIV—all the players and props in that colorful and violent age—were presented in the same platitudinous, tired and pious voice. Everybody sounded the same in her lectures, all presented as neatly labeled specimens, butterflies on a mounting board on which a decade or so of dust had settled.

For a long time after that the French Revolution seemed to me a very great bore. Say the words “French Revolution” and I yawned.

A few years later I had become a pastor and was astonished to find men and women in my congregation yawning. Matt Ericson went to sleep every Sunday. He always made it through the first hymn but 10 minutes later was sound asleep. Red Belton, an angry teenager, sat on the back pew out of sight of his parents and read comic books. Karal Strothheim, a bass in the choir, passed notes supplemented by whispers to Luther Olsen on stock market tips.

One woman gave me hope. She brought a stenographic notebook with her every Sunday and wrote down in shorthand everything I said. At least one person was paying attention. Then I learned that she was getting ready to leave her husband and was using the hour of worship to practice her shorthand so that she could get a self-supporting job.

These were, most of them, good people, nice people. They were familiar with the Christian faith, knew the Christian stories, showed up on time for worship each Sunday. But they yawned. How could they do that? How could anyone go to sleep 20 minutes after singing “Blessing and Honor and Glory and Power”? How could anyone sustain interest in Batman when Paul’s Romans was being read? How could anyone be content to practice shorthand when the resurrected Christ was present in word and sacrament? I had, it seemed, a whole congregation of saints and sinners who knew everything about the Christian life except that the Gospel had redefined everything and everyone, set everything and everyone in a participating relation to a holy God.

It came to me that holy was to the Christian what revolution was to the French in the 18th century, the energy that created a community of free men and women plunged into a new life. The community that I was working with knew the word “Christian” pretty well, and identified themselves as Christians. But holy? Holy Spirit? Something blazing? A community bonfire?

I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Where the Christian life begins

The Gospel, while honoring our experience, doesn’t begin with our experience. We don’t begin a holy life by wanting a holy life, a generous life; desiring to be good, fulfilled, complete; desiring to be included in the grand scheme of things. We have been anticipated, and the way we have been anticipated is by resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus’ resurrection is the final piece, that together with his birth and death, sets the Good News (the Gospel) in motion and creates the Christian life. Everything necessary for the Christian life is now laid out before us and put into action in us. There is no living worth its salt that is not the consequence of the action of God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).

The do-it-yourself, self-help culture of North America has so thoroughly permeated our imaginations that we don’t give much sustained attention to the biggest thing of all: Resurrection. And the reason we don’t give much attention to it is because the resurrection is not something we can use or manipulate or control or improve. It is interesting that the world has had very little success in commercializing Easter, turning it into a commodity the way it has Christmas. If we can’t, as we say, “get a handle on it” and use it, we soon lose interest.

All four Gospel writers conclude their Jesus story with his resurrection. But John does something additional which calls for special attention: “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ ” (John 20:22). Just before his crucifixion, Jesus had an extended conversation with his disciples that prepared them for his death and resurrection. Throughout that conversation he promised them over and over again, with variation, that when he was gone physically he would be present with them in the Spirit.

On the day of resurrection He made good on that promise: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). He replaced Himself with Himself.

At his Last Supper, Jesus washed their feet and then had a long conversation with them to reassure them that he would continue with them and then give a feel for what would be involved. They would speak and do what Jesus had been doing and in fact, do greater works (John 14:12).

I can’t overemphasize how important this conversation in John 13-17 is for living a resurrection life. But be prepared for a surprise. Yes, the disciples are to continue Jesus’ life when he is not present physically. But how?

They have been eating supper together. Jesus gets up from the table, takes a basin of water and a towel, and proceeds to wash the feet of his friends. Peter objects, but Jesus overrides him and continues the washing. And then he begins to talk. He talks a long time, the longest Jesus conversation we have reported to us. Finally, Jesus prays. As he prays, he gathers up the life that they have lived together and fuses it into the life that the disciples will continue to live, praying his life and work and their life and work into a single identity. It is going to be the same life where people saw and heard Jesus living it, or will see and hear Peter and Thomas and Phillip living it. Insert your own names.

And that’s it.

The pattern holds: Whatever we do in Jesus’ name, we begin on our knees before our friends and neighbors, serving them, and conclude looking up to heaven, praying to the Father. Washing dirty feet and praying to the Holy Father bookend our lives. We can’t live Jesus’ resurrection life and can’t do Jesus resurrection work without doing it within the boundaries that Jesus set.

Cradle Building

A number of years ago we got a call from our son: “Mom, Dad, we’re pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.” Their first child. But even more important, our first grandchild. Within a day we were driving the two hours to Princeton Seminary where they were students. Jan was excited, brimming with anticipation. But I wasn’t feeling much of anything. We had three children of our own. I didn’t see why this was so special, and there were still six months before we would see the baby. As we got closer to greeting them Jan’s anticipation heightened, but somehow this pregnancy hadn’t penetrated my emotions. I felt dull, flat, routine.

Driving back home the next day, I complained of my lack of ebullience, an emotion Jan had in excess. “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I feel anything?”

Jan said, “It’s because you’ve never been pregnant.”

I said, “Well, that’s just great; so what am I going to do about that?”

She told me to build a cradle.

When I got home I went to the public library and found pictures of cradles. I decided on an early American hooded cradle, sketched out plans, went to a specialty wood shop, and chose some Honduras mahogany. Most afternoons I came home an hour or so early from my parish duties to my shop and worked on that cradle. I decided to finish it with applications of Tung oil. I worked on each piece of the cradle with the finest grade of sandpaper, over and over. I then went to steel wool, over and over. Each application of Tung oil deepened the color. After several applications it seemed like the wood glowed from within. I worked with each piece of the cradle—shaping it, holding it, rubbing it over and over and over—and all the time anticipating the baby that would be in that cradle, over and over and over.

Jan’s prescription worked; I got pregnant. Week after week shaping that cradle—my hands and fingers working the wood, over and over anointing with the oil that set the mahogany on fire from within—I imagined the developing baby that would soon be swaddled in that cradle, praying in gratitude and anticipation for the life in our daughter-in-law’s swelling womb. By the time the cradle was ready, I was ready, prepared to receive the gift of new life.

Think of Jesus’ words and works as cradle building, the images and repetitions. The images: The continued life of Christ in us grounded in the physical act of kneeling and material stuff of dirty feet, a basin of water and a towel; the life of Jesus continued in us offered in payer to the Holy Father who, we can be very sure, is faithfully even now answering in us Jesus’ prayer for us. And the repetitions: Jesus’ words working deep into our praying imaginations, over and over and over. Jesus visibly leaving, Spirit invisibly arriving. Resurrection. Think of your week by Sunday worship—cradle building.

As North Americans we are typically impatient with this kind of thing. When there is something important before us, especially something dramatic we like to set goals and develop strategies. That works for a lot of things we face, but it is not the resurrection way. We are taken into the company of Jesus’ friends where we listen to him speak and watch him serve us and pray for us, a resurrection community. It is not a private experience; it does not make us self-sufficient or autonomous.

Narcissus Goes to Church

The Greeks, as so often in human experience, provide us with just the right story about the Me problem, the seed story of selfish. It is the story of Narcissus.

Narcissus was a gloriously handsome young man. All the girls fell in love with him. They adored him, threw themselves at him, treated him like a glamorous celebrity with all the attributes of a god. But Narcissus paid the girls little mind. He rebuffed ignorance and dismissed them. He scorned their adulation. Narcissus had no time for them; he was all the company he needed. He could not waste time on anyone; he required his full attention.

One of the girls (that Narcissus slighted) prayed to the gods for redress, a prayer that was immediately answered. Greek deities love answering these kinds of prayers. The great goddess Nemesis was right there to answer the prayer of the girl with the broken heart; she heard and stepped in to take care of Narcissus. She decreed, “May he who loves no other love himself only.”

One day as Narcissus bent over a pool to get a drink of water, he saw there his own reflection. Wow! He already knew he was important; he knew all the girls were falling all over themselves to get his attention. But he had no idea that he was this good-looking. He fell in love with his reflection immediately. He exclaimed, “Now I know what all those girls see in me, no wonder they are in love with me—I’m in love with me! How can I ever bear to quit looking at such loveliness that is me mirrored in that water.”

Narcissus couldn’t tear himself away from his image. Kneeling at the pool he pined away, fixed in one long, adoring gaze. The whole world was reduced to that image, the Narcissus-adoring self. Narcissus got smaller and smaller and smaller, until there was no Narcissus left; he had starved to death on a diet of self. Selfism is suicide. All that is left to this day is a white flower that we call Narcissus, a frail memorial in the cemetery of selfism.

Narcissus would seem to be an unlikely character to show up in companies of Christians. And yet the progeny of Narcissus keep showing up in our communities of created and saved souls. They are so glaringly out-of-place in the context of the biblical revelation defined by the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, one would think that they would be immediately noticed and exposed. More often they are welcomed and embellished, given roles of leadership and turned into celebrities.

It is an odd phenomenon to observe followers of Jesus, suddenly obsessed with their wonderfully saved souls, setting about busily cultivating their own spiritualities. Self-spirituality has become the hallmark of our age. The spirituality of Me. A spirituality of self-centering, self-sufficiency, and self-development. All over the world at the present time we have people who have found themselves redefined by the revelation of God in Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, going off and cultivating the divine within and abandoning spouses, children, friends and congregations.

But holy living, resurrection living, is not a self-project. We are a people of God and cannot live holy lives, resurrection lives, as individuals. We are not a self-defined community; we are a God-defined community. The love that God pours out for and in us creates a community in which that love is reproduced in our love for one another.

Eugene H. Peterson was for 29 years pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. He is the translator of The Message.