The Perfect Temples We Create
A few years ago, I was sent into a church that was deeply divided and in conflict, and the purpose of my ministry there was to help that community through their crisis. I listened, provided pastoral care, and to tried to uncover the source of the strife. I was hopeful for this church, because on my first Sunday the choir sang the hymn, “We are one in the Spirit.” The lyrics are:
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
Later that same week I remember vividly a conversation I had with one woman about her experience of church there. She said, “I came here two years ago, seeking a community where it was different from the outside world. I wanted a community that did not fight, where power struggles did not happen, and where everyone treated each other with love and respect. I always felt church should be better than the outside world I lived in, but I was so disappointed.” Many of us have come to church expecting it to be the perfect society, and we too have been disappointed.
Often we create false relational edifices in our minds that come with misconceptions of what church should be. We construct images and expectations of the perfect temple we hope to one day stumble upon, only to discover that once we arrive, everyone there still comes each week with the same attitudes, challenges, and problems, they have out there in everyday life. We all show up with our stuff, our spiritual needs, and yes, our sin, plus we think the grass is greener on the inside of the church walls, but wherever we go, we are there.
Even though the Body of Christ carries the scars of battles and spats, she must remember that she is called by God to serve as a witness, where God’s grace can emerge and abound through her authentic self. Grace is effective when we can take off our ego armor, and we can pull down the great stones of our ego walls that keep us from being vulnerable to and open to the saving grace of God.
Temples of False Expectation
Today, in the gospel reading, Jesus was leaving the temple with his disciples and one of them pointed out to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” Jesus responded, “Do you see these great buildings, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” I wonder if after being disappointed with how people in the temple system treated one another, and how that system created relational divisions among God’s people, Jesus rolled his eyes at the disciple’s star struck comment about the temple.
I wonder if Jesus thought, “Wow, all those false structures of expectation and grandeur about the temple, which they have, and all of that false perfection they seek in that place are mere spiritual window dressings that cover up the desperate need for reconciliation and forgiveness within themselves.” We too get star struck when we hope for that perfect church. It is like planning to go on a dream vacation, building it all up in your mind, only to arrive at your destination, and you are disappointed with the reality of the food, the service, and the décor that your hotel brochure promised.
Jesus’ warned his disciples about putting too much hope in the temple, and his forewarnings of its demise were not about its literal destruction by the Roman occupiers in 70 AD. Jesus was telling the disciples that worldly edifices do not last, unless they are a place where justice abounds, oppression ends, mercy overflows, and reconciliation is the way of life. Then and only then will it withstand any false ideals of perfection that we construct in our minds? In other words, we have to hope that our life together will always provide opportunities for grace to be made present, even in times of trouble.
Wars and Rumors of Wars
Jesus warned his disciples of these kinds of apocalyptic end times, and he used foreboding imagery to describe it. Today, on television and the big screen, real calamity and chaos is being played out on the world stage. We live in a time when the heat of the Cold War era rivalries is rekindling. The world power relationships that we thought were reframed by former “wars and rumors of wars” are being pushed to back to the brink of division, and the battles do not stop there.
Some of us have experienced the pain of family relationships being torn apart. Some of us have been separated from long-time friends because of social media political tweets or Facebook posts. Even in churches, among sisters and brothers in Christ, we have unfortunately hurt one another. Even though strife, disappointment, and broken relationships permeate our times, we can still live in the hope that these tragedies are not the end of the story.
Jesus said, “These are but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Why do you think he used this metaphor? I believe it’s because after the life threatening, body changing, experience of childbirth, the parent’s lives are never the same again. Someone new is now in the midst of the once couple and the child has changed everything. That sounds hopeful to me. “In the middle of those cataclysmic, apocalyptic, foreboding, and fear-inducing events, which the “end times” promise to bring, Jesus is offering us the hope of new life – which God desires for all creation.”.
We are supposed to be a people of hope and promise even when this common life together is challenging, imperfect, and filled with little spats and misunderstandings. When we show up expecting this or that to be perfect we are not putting our hope in Christ but in something or someone else. I think we need to let go of unrealistic expectations of Church and of all relationships, and we need to approach things differently.
In her book Daring Greatly, author, researcher and Episcopalian Brene Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” (4)
When the little “wars and rumors of wars” of life raise their ugly head, reconciling love and forgiveness is the only way lasting new life and new beginnings are possible. In order to practice reconciliation, we must take off the armor of perfection, and get real with one another again. If we can be vulnerable with one another, then love for one another has a chance to flourish and grow. Then and only then can we be the kind of community that will be a shining example of reconciling love, especially for this world fraught with “wars and rumors of wars.”
Imagine what could happen in the world, if our political strife, broken families, shredded friendships, and tumultuous organizations were transformed by unity and love. It is possible if we choose to live and love as if the end were coming tomorrow. What if the church universal recognized her frailty and faults, and embraced the fact that her true strength is found in the vulnerability of the cross. What an example we could be of God’s transformative grace if we but strive to live in peace, and at the same time, believe God’s grace can truly change us. Then our example will transform the hearts of unbelievers in the world that is if they can recognizewe are Christians by our love.
1 Anderson, Mary W. “Time’s Up.” Christian Century 120.22 (2003): 19-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.
2 McGrath, Alister E. “Christian Theology: An Introduction” Blackwell Publishing, 2007, Oxford, p. 475