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