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Born again

Born again

by Lawrence L. Graham

Recently, a gaggle of self-proclaimed guardians of Christianity have announced that the Episcopal Church is either dying or already dead. They cite declining membership and budgetary issues as their secular evidence, and put the blame squarely on the Church’s excessive liberalism.

I have words of wisdom for them:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.’” – Matthew 21:31

That’s radical. Yes, there is such a thing as radical Christianity. In fact, there is no other kind. There is only the one based on the radical and revolutionary teachings of Jesus. The term “liberal” pales in comparison to what he actually said and did.

The religious authorities of Jesus’ time had become concerned only with preserving their institution and aggregating power to themselves. Here’s what he said to them:

“Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, pretenders, who are like white tombs, which from the outside appear lovely, but from within are full of the bones of the dead and all corruption!.” – Matthew 23:27

Things are not so very different today. Then and now, corruption lies in those places where children are molested, women get second-class treatment, the plight of the poor is ignored, the sick are left to die by the side of the road, greed is good, mammon is worshipped, and the supposedly “unclean” among us are cast out.

In Jesus’ time, the Jews despised the Samaritans as renegades – just as traditionalists despise liberal Episcopalians today. But, Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the Good Samaritan parable, and the authorities of his own time the villains. Radical? Yes. Popular? No!

But let justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. – Amos 5:24

Like the prophet Amos, Jesus was far more interested in a just society than in the preservation of institutions for their own sake. So, Jesus went about healing the “unclean” – folks that “good people” wouldn’t even touch. Among them were several lepers, the woman with an issue of blood, and even the Centurion’s boyfriend. (Yes, the Greek original appears to say that in at least one place, but the translations still soft-pedal it as too radical.)

When asked which of the ten commandment was greatest, Jesus responded with the Summary of the Law:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22: 37-39

But for the past two-thousand years, far too many guardians of Christian tradition and Holy Scripture have done their best to water Jesus’ teachings down and explain his radical actions away. Like the authorities of Jesus’ own time, their interest lies in preserving the an institution and aggregating power. And that is deadly.

The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:9

Jesus dared to confront the religious powers and secular principalities of his own time. And his teachings are not merely artifacts of an historic past, nor the story of a one-time rabbi in long-ago Israel. They are the plumb line by which real Christians measure the uprightness of their every thought, prayer and action – no matter how impolite or shocking or radical or liberal our fickle secular society may think them.

Thanks be to God for the Episcopal Church, a church that still hears Jesus’ voice, follows his teachings and is willing to “die to self and chiefly live by His most holy word.”

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”– John 3:7

Phoenix-like, the true church is always dying to itself, only to be reborn by the Holy Spirit so it can proclaim anew the Good News of Jesus’ radical and everlasting way of life.

Mr. Graham is a parishioner and verger at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia

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Bill Dilworth

The centurion/boyfriend argument is bunk. The same word used to describe the servant, pais, is the same one that’s used to describe Jesus’ relationship with God. It’s variously translated as boy or servant, but is not used as a term for a same-sex sexual partner. Unless we’re going to start claiming that Jesus was God’s boyfriend, it’s time to drop the claim.

Clint Davis

I cannot believe this way, it seems obvious to me that the sensory experience that transmitted what happened 2000 yrs ago came first, then all the writing about it came afterwards. Thus, whatever meets the senses in worship is subordinate to this transmission and must continue it forward in a way that transcends trends, preferences and styles. In many ways this has been lost and so now we are literally paying for it, trying to buy our way into that old magic and though this is making people a lot of money and flattery, it is obvious that this misses the mark terribly.

Harriet Baber

Sorry, but this “personal contact” evangelism is IMHO a cop-out. And it’s an anachronism. It assumes we live in relatively close-knit communities where religious affiliation is the norm, within a circle of friends who, even if they aren’t church-goers are receptive. Many of us now live in worlds where churchgoing simply is not done—and don’t know any church-goers socially or professionally. The personal touch didn’t get me in the door—or anyone I know.

Also compare this to the strategies of growing megachurches. They collect demographic data and go though extensive planning about how to reach their target group. Their “pastors” go door to door. Most importantly, they create an impersonal environment in which visitors can check out the church without being “welcomed” or otherwise hassled—they allow people to choose their level of involvement and, if they prefer, to avoid contact. The thing that strikes one about these churches is that they’re very much public places—like shopping malls—where you don’t feel you need to dress up, where you can go without being noticed.

And they aim to please. Saddleback, for example, has a variety of outbuildings on its campus that provide different styles of music and décor. Mention that to virtually anyone in a leadership position in the Episcopal Church and they sniff about “consumerism” and congratulate themselves for NOT aiming to please

Execute

Harriet:

You’re right – at least where you are. You clearly have gifts to offer. On the other hand, I know of parishes where those gifts would be utilized happily, and appreciated not only by the cleric(s)but by the whole congregation.

So, do we offer opportunities to lay folk as often as we might? Probably not; but I do think it’s more a local issue a church-wide issue. In the congregation where I worship, almost all the adult education is led by lay persons. It’s a congregation that is growing, for a variety of reasons. I’m also aware that in our smaller, more rural congregations we’re using models of team ministry that certainly engage lay folk in a number of areas of leadership.

I would comment about evangelism: historically, in studies and in experience, the most powerful tool for evangelism is to invite persons individually, and when individuals come for the congregation to be welcoming. I think we should have better marketing, too; but it’s the personal touch that gets most folks through the door, and then persuades them that we want them among us.

Marshall Scott

Harriet Baber

What are you, Harriet Baber, not being allowed to contribute that you think you should?

I’ll bite back.

(1) I’m a philosophy professor. I’ve published in journals on the doctrine of the Trinity and the Eucharist. And I’m currently writing a book on the Trinity. But within the church my professional expertise isn’t taken seriously: I have to listen to priests who don’t have that expertise pontificating about what I should believe.

(2) I’m a teacher. I’d love to have the chance to teach in the church. But where I’m at, and in most places, lay people don’t have that option. I would LOVE go lead discussions, not just on the theological issues that preoccupy me professionally, but on current events and all sorts of stuff. But within the Church I’m just another old lady, another “pastoral care object.”

(3) I’d do anything I could for evangelism. I’ve in the past gone door to door. But there really isn’t any option currently in most churches to promote evangelism.

How’s that for a start? I’m a smart, educated, enthusiastic, energetic person totally committed to evangelism. But in the church on the ground I haven’t found much scope to promote these goals. Yeah, you can say work harder, look further, but jeez—where?

I have something to give—my expertise, my energy, my commitment. It is just very difficult to contribute. I think I have something to give, but I haven’t been able to find any way to do that. And, I’m sorry, but I am not called to do pink-collar shit work and smarm work. Do-goodism isn’t my calling.

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