The gospel's radical cure for church institutions

July 2nd, 2015

What if only what kills you makes you stronger? 

The young Kierkegaard thought a lot about the way in which Christianity is a radical cure for what ails the human. To understand Christianity aright, he thought, is to have some sympathy with those who avoid or delay conversion. So he wrote in his journal, "Christianity or being a Christian is like every radical cure; one puts it off as long as possible" (9 Oct. 35 I A 89).

No one is excited about a medical procedure that saves one's life by ushering one to the brink of death. As regards our flesh, occupied by the sin and darkness of "the present evil age" (Galatians 1:4), Christianity doesn't stop at the brink.

"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:19b-20 NRSV).

Jesus Christ revealed to the Apostle Paul that only a sharing in his own real death — a death that puts to death our fallen flesh — can save us. That is what is involved in Christian renewal, or new creation. In Jesus Christ crucified we become vivaciously new, self-less in the sense that in fellowship with Christ crucified we love to give our self away for others.

We can think about Galatians 2:20 in relation to individuals, and this is certainly warranted. The Christian mystical tradition extending from the Syriac monastic writer who called himself Dionysius the Areopagite, running forward in the Latin west through the Victorines and Franciscans and many others, does just this.

Yet while Galatians 2:20 certainly applies to the individual Christian, it is likewise crucial to apply it to the institutional churches of which we're a part. After all, Paul wrote, "To the churches of Galatia" (1:2). In what follows, I unpack some of the riches in Galatians 2:20 with regard to the church, to the "we." I'm a United Methodist, so I'll be thinking about the UMC in particular. Yet I daresay Galatians 2:20 applies to whatever church institution you call home.

1. We have been crucified with Christ. Most Christians have occasion to observe, now and again, "My church has serious problems." Sin, lack of direction, misdirection, corruption, institutional inertia, institutional anxious hyperactivity, pastors never staying long enough, pastors staying too long, possibly-unconverted folk entrenched in key positions of leadership: We have no shortage of problems. Yet often we think of all of these sufferings as though we were not united to Jesus Christ through his Spirit. I often find myself imagining that these travails prevent us from ministering with the freedom and power of Jesus. "If we weren't such losers, we could really be the body of Christ." This is mistaken. Through the unity with Christ we enjoy by the activity of the Holy Spirit, these sufferings are themselves ways we share in Christ's crucifixion. We're intimately united with him even in weakness and failure. Jesus Christ has taken all these things we suffer into and upon himself, such that the weakness and death and suffering and impotence of our churches is not absent the redemptive work and purposes of God. The Father who raised Jesus Christ from the dead works through us inasmuch as we are joined to Jesus in his death.

So, as James Harnish recommends in his extraordinary book on church leadership: "You only have to die."

2. It is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives in us. United to Jesus Christ, we can lose ourselves in the very best sense of the expression. We can set ourselves aside — ourselves as individuals and churches full of sin, confusion, death and anxiety — and let Jesus Christ do the living in and through us. We can say, "It seems like we have x, y and z problems which seem intractable. But we as a congregation are going to live in Jesus Christ, and not in our problems. We are going to let him act in and through us."

There is such comfort and health in the knowledge that we don't have to obsessively fight off our own institutional deaths since we are secure in Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. In the UMC we've noticed that we're in decline, numerically speaking, and have been for some time. We're also used to speeches by our leaders urging us to rally and turn this decline around. One problem with this is actually the deceptive shape of the decline narrative itself: As Wilson Pruitt has pointed out, it is difficult to tell just based on numbers where the burst of the post World War II membership bubble ends and where the decline in committed disciples begins. Another problem with our going into flailing crisis mode, like an animal trying to free itself from the jaws of a wolf (In order to glorify God? No, to reverse the decline) is that to do so is sowing to the flesh rather than to the Spirit. When we're scared of our shrinking metrics we're not abiding in Jesus Christ who is risen and who abides in us. If we "do evangelism" out of fear of decline, our efforts will be beset with manipulation and control tactics. That's not even real evangelism. Real evangelism is witness to the crucified and risen Lord arising from the fact that he loves us unchangingly and forever, that he is risen and with us, that he even lets us speak words of freedom and truth which he turns to eternal life in our hearers. Praise the Lord!

3. The life we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. When we're secure in what Jesus Christ has done, we don't have to consolidate our own closed community. Friendship and community suddenly aren't all about our security. We're free to invite others in and genuinely welcome them.

Jesus Christ loved us and gave himself for us while we were yet sinners. There is deep security in that, a security the world cannot give. "If God is for us, who is against us?" (Rom. 8:31). This means our fleshly life — even with our besetting sins, weaknesses, imperfections and institutional failures — is fundamentally transformed. We are free to delight in giving ourselves away for others. As Christ's church we love doing so. Christ's church is Christ's body, and the body does what the head does. In Jesus Christ's great faithfulness we find our inspiration and our own faith, our own ability to trust God's love for us. We get to live in that love, live with it, and live out of it — for the glory of God, and for others.

That's the best!

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and the truth that we are partakers in it, gives us pause. It also gives us sympathy for those people and churches who shirk away from it. Yet Christ crucified is God's radical cure for the institutional church, a cure which kills to make alive, a gift which makes us selfless in order to free us in love.

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of "Christ the Lightgiver" in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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