12.27.2015 Preaching Text: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…” (Colossians 3:12
In short, the church is on the ropes, culturally speaking. We’re assailed on countless fronts and are rapidly losing ground in terms of perceived relevance.
I tend to be especially aware of this at this time of year when suddenly, like clockwork, the pews swell to capacity on Christmas Eve only to shrink back again the following Sunday.
I was talking recently to my brother-in-law, Bill, a retired U.C.C. pastor, who reminisced about the time he lectured his congregation about the low attendance on the first Sunday right after Christmas. Following the service, one of the bolder members pointed out that he should be complaining to those who were absent, not those who were there!!!
In any event, I’m always struck by the large crowds on Christmas Eve combined with the contradiction of reading the ancient biblical accounts of Christ’s birth. And this goes for all the familiar hymns that charm so endearingly, though their lyrics speak an entirely different language.
These stories and sentiments point to something entirely incongruous with modern life. The biblical narrative is about as far removed from secular society as anything I can think of. But there everybody is, year after year, holding candles in the dark and singing Silent Night.
Today, in one of the lovelier passages from the New Testament, we read in Colossians a lofty description of the newly formed church of Jesus Christ. We are told that it consists of God’s “chosen ones, holy and beloved,” who are clothed with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” It is a community born of forgiveness and bound together in “perfect harmony.”
There Christ “rules in [our] hearts.” It is “one body,” we are told, a community “Christ [dwells in us] richly.” Those within teach one another in “wisdom,” God’s wisdom. So full is the gratitude we feel in our hearts, we cannot help but “sing psalm, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
Part of the problem today is that the visible church has lost much of this, its identity. Private “spirituality” has replaced any need for church involvement. Critics find ever-larger audiences as they gleefully recount the church’s failings, both real and imagined. In this our inner resolve grows weak as we concede that the critics are right, for not only is our message antiquated and fanstasical, but it offers little of any real import to our world.
This loss of self-confidence is amplified as we look toward secular society as the practical replacement for the church’s erstwhile ministries. With rare exception (such as Christmas Eve), we operate largely under the radar, unnoticed and all but irrelevant.
Just this last week, however, at bible study, one of our regulars arrived a few moments late, after we’d already started our readings. Sitting down she shared something revealing with us.
The minute she walked into the room, she said, she sensed a curious sort of peace, a holy peace. It wasn’t what was being said, she assured, for she didn’t as yet know what we were talking about. No, it was a spiritual sensibility she picked up on. Christ was in that place.
Years ago, after I graduated from divinity school, I found myself unable to decide whether to become a pastor. Later, at the ecclesiastic council prior to my ordination, I was asked how I knew I had a call to the ministry.
I knew, I said, because I’d never chosen it. I’d gone through every door kicking and screaming. I never really wanted to be a pastor. But God had other ideas. I was led against my will toward ordination.
I had gone to divinity school strictly for the academics, and not as a path toward parish ministry. Even as I inched closer to a decision, I worried about the politics of church life. And I worried about the people I’d find there. Would they be sufficiently Christian? I wondered.
Part of what finally convinced me to become a pastor was the thought that the church would likely be the only place I’d be able to even talk about the things of God. In college, such topics seemed natural enough. But after graduation, as people got jobs, got married, and began rearing families, these God-discussions would become few and far between. The church seemed the only outlet.
Over the years, I’m glad to report, I’ve changed my view. While it is true that the church remains pretty much the only place for God-talk and spiritual practices, I also have come to believe that the visible church actually is Christ’s body here on earth!
Over the years most of you have heard me defend infant baptism, though at one time I thought it a ridiculous practice. After all, I presumed, genuine baptism demands cognitive awareness of the basics of the faith, not something of which infants are capable.
Since then I’ve come to realize that baptism is akin to being born into a family. Though infants are entirely unable to understand intellectually what their parents think or believe, they are LIVING it. One day, to be sure, they will be able to define the family ethos. But for now they’re simply living and breathing it.
The same applies to baptism and our participation within the body of Christ. Many if not most of us entered church life as infants with no real awareness of what it all stands for. But involvement in church life is not strictly intellectual. It engages all the senses.
In looking back over my early days in the church, I did not appreciate, much less understand, its raison d’être, its reason for being. But, however dimly, I did sense that there was something there that was different from what I experienced in school and out in the neighborhood.
I now know that the difference was the presence of the Holy Spirit. And in spite of me, it was having a salient effect on my life, shaping and molding me in mostly unconscious but significant ways.
In the final analysis, whether we always realize it or not, the church is different from the rest of life, as our bible study member discerned so clearly last week. This difference is a profound, critical, and incalculable good, something to hold on to, celebrate, and extol.
At Christmas time, amid the surrounding darkness, a light has come. And the darkness, we are assured, shall not overcome it. Amen.