Year B, Lent 2
I hear a lot about the church of the 1950’s and 60’s. The church was full and everyone attended every Sunday. Church mattered. Businesses were closed. Nothing else was happening on Sundays. You came to church because that was the place to be. If you were a community leader, a government official, a business owner, anyone in leadership, you went to church. If you did not, you were judged accordingly. Church attendance hit an unprecedented high in the 1950’s. Some people have called that period the 3rd Great Awakening.
Since then church membership has been on a steady decline. Steady might not be the right word—it was on a gradual decline and has plummeted in the last 20 years. Sometimes, I wish that I had been born decades earlier and could have served in a church that prospered with little effort. There was no need for evangelism or marketing. You opened the door and people came in (of course, I would not have been able to be ordained as they did not start ordaining women until the end of the 1970s—but that’s not the point.) It seems odd to be nostalgic for a time I did not live in; yet I find myself longing for that experience of the 1950’s church.
A lot of people who remember the church of the 1950s and 1960s assume that it was always like that. The reality is that the church and the Christian faith have gone through many periods of growth and decline. After both the American Revolution and the Civil War, the Episcopal Church was near collapse. Even St. John’s barely survived those difficult times. While there have been tumultuous times in the last 300 years, it was probably the first 300 years of the Christian Church that were the most challenging. Being a Christian was a dangerous thing to be as Christians were openly persecuted. They were tortured or killed for admitting their faith.
It should not come as a surprise that the Christian faith struggled to gain a foothold for several centuries. Our God died on a cross. He was killed by the people who were in power. Who wants to join a faith community that worships the losing side, the guy who was killed? Today, the cross is not shameful, nor is a crucified Messiah. Now the cross is a symbol of our faith, a faith that has survived and thrived for over 2000 years. However, for the first 200 years of the church the cross was not a welcome symbol. There was shame associated with that kind of death. Jesus was not the only person crucified. Criminals were crucified by the thousands in that time.
If it was difficult to accept a crucified Messiah after his death and resurrection, imagine what it must have been for the disciples to hear Jesus talk about his impending death. The disciples had come to know Jesus in a specific way. They had seen all the miracles he performed, the people he had healed, the huge crowds who had followed him. They had seen him preach to masses and beat even the greatest theologians and church leaders in arguments. While not all agreed with him, all recognized his power and authority.
Shortly before our reading for today, Jesus asked the disciples who people thought he was. The disciples answered that some thought that he was one of the prophets, or John the Baptizer come back to life, or even Elijah, the great Hebrew prophet who had died and was expected to return right before the arrival of the Messiah. So far, no one was right. Then he asked who they thought he was. They knew him best. If anyone knew, they should know. Peter spoke up and said, “You are the Messiah.” Finally, they were getting it. These disciples finally saw Jesus for who he truly was.
Immediately after this revelation, Jesus started sharing that he would have to undergo great suffering, be rejected, be killed and then rise again. Perhaps he thought that they were ready to hear this now that they understood who he was. But how could knowing he was the Messiah possibly prepare them for this? Messiahs are not rejected by humans and they certainly don’t suffer. They definitely don’t get killed. It’s madness. Peter rebuked him. We don’t know exactly what he said when he rebuked him, but it was probably something like, “Don’t talk like that! Chin up. You are the Messiah. You are not going to suffer and die.” Peter probably thought he was being supportive.
Jesus did not like what Peter had to say because he called him Satan and told him to get behind him. He then said, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” If I had been Peter, this would have confused me a little. If anyone was focusing on human things, it was Jesus. Humans are rejected. Humans suffer. Humans are killed. Messiahs shouldn’t experience those human things. It would seem that Jesus had some funny ideas on what it was to be a Messiah.
Then Jesus made it worse because he told the disciples and the assembled crowd that they too would have to suffer if they wanted to be his followers. Not only will Jesus have to carry the cross, but all his followers will have to take up their cross. I bet Jesus did not gain any followers that day. The disciples stuck around, partially because they were convinced he wasn’t serious about this whole suffering thing. He had to explain it to them two more times and they acted confused each time, as if this was the first time they were hearing it.
Who can blame them? Not only did it not make sense, it was an incredibly difficult teaching. The cross was a form of torture. None of these men had easy lives. They were Jews living under Roman occupation. While Jesus was popular with many, the religious authorities did not like him. The disciples knew this and this must have made them a little anxious. They knew what it was to suffer. But death on a cross? Where is the victory? Where is the triumph?
As people who know what it is to celebrate Easter, we know what the victory is. We know that Jesus conquered death. But we also know that most of the disciples were killed eventually, some is rather horrific ways. There are still people being killed today just for being Christians. And on a much less violent note, we in the Episcopal Church know what it is to be part of a church that is not considered successful, not in human terms.
I entered seminary in 2001. In those first 5 years of the millennium, church attendance and membership moved from a gradual decline to a nosedive. When I decided to pursue ordination in 2004, someone asked me, “Why would you want to be ordained when the church is dying? It’s a sinking ship.” At the time, I thought that was ridiculous. The church would turn around. This was just a blip. But it has not turned around (and I am hoping this great decline has no direct correlation with the fact that I was ordained near the beginning of it!)
Before we all get too depressed, I would like to suggest something. Instead of worrying about the decline and bemoaning the loss of the status of the church, perhaps we can look at it from another perspective. Like the disciples, Jesus asks us not merely to look at the human things, but the divine as well. It is human to suffer and die. We can all agree on that. According to Jesus, it is divine to suffer and die. But it is also divine to rise again.
It is not easy to be the church in today’s world. We have to work harder and to some extent we have to suffer a little as well. However, if we believe this is God’s church, then suffering and death is only part of the story. The final part is resurrection. It is new life. We assume that if the church is suffering it’s because something is wrong. Perhaps we can see it as part of what it is to be a disciple; and instead of looking at it as suffering, we could look at it as living into a challenge. That is not just true for the church but for every individual life. Everyone faces challenges in life—some more than others. We don’t give up when we face challenges, we find ways to rise again.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told Peter, “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” Despite Peter’s faults, Jesus called him the rock. The church was built on a flawed human and that gives me hope, because Jesus knew he was flawed and he still chose him to be the rock. Even though the church was built on a flawed human, this church, our church was built by Jesus. The powers of hell will not conquer it.