I spent the past three days attending the new student orientation at school. The first day was overwhelming on so many levels. Too many people in not enough space, too many stresses and not enough reassurances, too much information and not enough room in my brain… When we finished in the late afternoon, I retreated back to my little oasis of quiet and calm.
Now before you begin feeling too sorry for me, let me amend the above statements with some key information. We started the first day with nearly 2 hours of worship. The admissions director greeted us with the words, “Welcome home,” which just about undid me considering I spent the morning trying to shut off the broken record in my head: “Do I really belong here?” [I keep waiting for the admissions office to rescind their offer and inform me of the accident that was my acceptance.]
We were lead by many different kinds of people, which was absolutely refreshing, and we engaged in several different styles of worship. A young man preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. We then shared in the Lord’s Supper together as we all gathered to acknowledge the beginning of this journey. The Holy Spirit was present, active, and evident in so many ways.
In the midst of this worship saga, a thought struck me as they often do: LOOK at all of these people. In that room, there were people from 37 different states, 10 different countries, 30 denominations. There were people from every race, gender, orientation, and creed. We were all worshipping together. We were all in that place because we are called to ministry in the Kingdom of God.
Out of all the information I gathered, this was by far the most important: despite our many and widespread differences, we are truly the Body of Christ. I saw it, in all its splendor. And friends, let me tell you, it was a sight to behold.
As a young black man serving in a church in Chicago this summer, our preacher that first morning was a part of many of the peaceful protests and movements that went on there in response to the violence in our country. His testimony, full of raw emotion and honesty, was moving and powerful.
The text was from Luke 22, where Jesus retreats to pray and takes a few trusted disciples along with him. Once there, he sets them up on guard duty. Then, he prays a sweaty, desperate prayer in the face of his impending arrest and execution. At dawn, he returns to find his trusted guards asleep.
As he wakes them up, a crowd comes to take him away. Out of panic, one of the disciples uses his sword to cut off the ear of a slave of the high priest. When the whole crowd begins to escalate, the voice of Jesus rises above all else: “No more!”
They all fall still. He picks up the discarded ear and returns it to its rightful place. He submits peacefully, and no doubt leaves behind a stunned slave.
Throughout the sermon, the preacher asked us, “Can you see it?” Can you see Jesus praying fervently in the dark of the night? Can you see him return to his sleeping friends? Can you see the tense violence about to erupt after the slave’s ear is cut off? Can you see the people flooding into the streets of Chicago, crying out “No more!” in response to all that happened this summer?
As he continued to weave his own story with God’s story, he came to a beautiful conclusion. He quoted Paul’s Christ-hymn from Philippians 2: “Be like Christ Jesus… who took on the very form of a human slave” (ARV- Amanda Rigby Version). He proposed that in the moment Jesus cried out “No more!” and healed the slave’s ear in the last act of his ministry, he was actually healing himself. Christ, a slave, returned his own body to fullness. As the Body of Christ, he said, this is the calling of the Church. In a world full of violence and death and chaos, the Church is to be peace and life and shalom.
As he was wrapping up, he paused and looked around at the room full of hundreds of future church leaders. He smiled wryly, and asked us, “Can you see it?” As he walked away from the pulpit and sat down, there were only a few moments of stunned silence before the chapel erupted with voluminous applause.
Growing up, I was involved in many extracurricular activities. Basketball, dancing, fencing, swimming, water polo, and even academic competitions filled my time outside of school.
I have always been a very devoted student [read: nerd] but in all other things, especially the physical, I am very average. I never stood out as the star player on any team. I was never the worst, but also never the best either.
As you might imagine, I spent a fair amount of time on the sidelines. For the most part, being a bench-warmer didn’t bother me. There were others with more athletic ability so of course they would play above me.
Sometimes in the Church, when we feel ill equipped, it is too easy to get comfortable on the sidelines. It is too easy to think, “Surely someone with better gifts can take my place here.” Trust me, I know. I have thought those exact words before.
One of the problems with our modern Church is that this mentality is pervasive. We as the Church (yes, the big ‘C’ Church!) have ignored our calling to be peace and life and shalom for so long that the sidelines have begun to look like center field. We have confused warming the bench with being the star player.
As a result, the Church is broken. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and phobias of all kinds are just as prevalent in the Church as they are in the world. We have splintered our unity past the point of recognition. We have become exclusive, and elite, and concerned with so much other than the Gospel.
These past few days have reminded me how diversity is beautiful, but disunity is hideous. I have also been reminded that there are no sidelines in the Church. As baptized members of the Body of Christ, we are all the star player. We are all center field. We are all playmakers, point guards, quarterbacks. We are all vital members of a body. We are all the newly restored ear of that slave.
If you’re reading this as a non-Christian, what you might be thinking about the Christian Church is true. The Church can really be homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical and insensitive (see Barna’s March 2015 study). We want to be better. More importantly, Jesus calls us to be better. Be patient as we try.
If, however, you’re reading this as a Christian, receive it as a diagnosis you may have already heard, or that you at least saw coming. Receive it as a call to action.
Be reassured; I am right here with you! The future church leaders I am studying with are right here with you. We are beginning to realize that the diverse, unified, beautiful Body of Christ needs us. AND it needs you, too. Our work in the Kingdom is necessary if we are to accomplish that which Christ calls us to do. There can be no more hiding on the sidelines.
In a world that is spiraling into violence and death and chaos, we are commanded to stand up and shout “No more!” We are expected to heal that which has been broken, especially if that brokenness was perpetrated by a member of our own body. And then we are called to go in peace, to die to ourselves as Christ died on the cross, and to rise with him, ready to transform the world.
To quote a brother in Christ:
“Can you see it?”
Grace and peace,