Perhaps the best description of the church I know – the church that seems to be emerging for a new generation of Christians in the twenty-first century – is also one of the oldest and most enduring. It was developed nearly 1,500 years ago by the leader of a small Christian community in central Italy, and at its heart it’s as relevant today as it was then.
That early sixth century church planter was Benedict of Nursia, and he made it his life’s work “to establish a school for the Lord’s service” (Rule of Benedict, Prologue 45). That is, he set up a school in which people could learn to imitate God and love one another as Christ loved us (Eph. 5:1-2). Every time we receive someone into the church through the sacrament of baptism, we enroll one more student in the school where all of us are studying how to love as God loves.
The aim of our studies in this school for the Lord’s service is not to receive a diploma certifying that we’ve acquired the right knowledge and memorized the catechism and passed all the tests. It’s not to get promoted to a higher life. The goal of our studies is to have in this life, here and now, what Jesus said he came to offer: abundant life, real and eternal life, more and better life than we ever dreamed of having (John 10:10).
Our scriptures tell us we had such a life once, in a garden God planted in Eden (Gen. 2:8), so far away in space and time it’s remembered only in the sacred story passed on to us from the ancient ones. And we lived there in peace with creation and with God before somehow we lost it. For a long time people dreamed of returning to that life, where an endless banquet will be prepared for us, and darkness will be dispelled, and death will be swallowed up forever (Isa. 25:6-7). We dreamed of it for so long, we began to think it will never come in this life, that the fulfillment of the promise is so far away in space and time, it will be ours only in some afterlife, some time at the end of time.
And then the Life that is above all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:6) spoke through Jesus to say our waiting is over. The life we tell stories about from a perfect past, and the life we’ve been dreaming of and waiting for and yearning for in a perfect future – that life is at hand (Mark 1:15). It’s spread all around us, and people don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113). And we will never see it until we stop looking through the eyes of the world and start seeing with the eyes of our heart (Eph. 1:18). And we will never enter it at all until we enter it in this moment with a love like God’s love.
When we baptize anyone into the church, we vow – and our vows are sacred, which means they are essentially tied to our life and death – we vow that we will surround that person with a community of love and forgiveness, so that person will learn how to serve God and love others. And we vow to pray so that person may be a true disciple, a true student of life and love, who walks in the way that leads to life. At every baptism we recommit ourselves to our studies in the school for the Lord’s service.
In this school, we’re going to disagree about many things. We may disagree about whether the sword that guards the way to the tree of life at the center of the garden (Gen. 3:24) is meant to keep us away or to keep the way open for our return. We may disagree about whether the keys held by the risen Christ at the end of the age (Rev. 1:18) are keys he will use to keep the gates of hell shut for all time or at last to open them and release all who for a season have been imprisoned there.
And we may disagree about everything in between: same-sex marriage; abortion; ordination of gays and lesbians; racism and white privilege; Israeli-Palestinian relations; what worship style we like and which hymnal to use for congregational singing. All these debates help clarify and define our faith, and in every distressing choice is our chance to be blessed. Part of what this school for the Lord’s service is about is learning to live with reference points for choices that lead us further toward abundant life.
But even if we disagree about all these things and more, can’t we agree to strive to imitate God and live in love? Can’t we try to look at each other with God’s eyes and consider every other person – every other one – as an essential player in the drama of God’s continuing creation, without whom our own lives would be essentially diminished? And can that not be the context that defines and cradles all our disagreements, debates and relationships? That’s the curriculum of the school for the Lord’s service. That’s our course of study in the church.
The funny thing about this school is there are no teachers in it. In Jeremiah’s description of the new covenant God planned to make with us, the covenant we believe is signed and sealed in Christ, God says we will no longer need to teach one another to know God. Everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know God in their hearts, in the place where love resides (Jer. 31:34).
In the church, there are no teachers, only spiritual doulas. Webster defines a doula as “a woman experienced in childbirth who provides advice, information, emotional support, and physical comfort to a mother before, during, and just after childbirth.” A doula is someone who has given birth and who helps another woman give birth.
In the church, we don’t teach one another how to serve God or imitate God in love, at least not in the way we commonly understand teaching. Education in the church is not the adding of information or truth to someone; it’s the drawing out of what a person already knows, an inner truth that person already possesses and is in the process of discovering. Those who have experienced new birth, birth from above, and who are maturing in new life, help others give birth to the new life God has sown in their hearts, that’s true and authentic to them.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for this child Anthony whom we baptize today – indeed, maybe the only true thing we can do for him – is attend single-mindedly and whole-heartedly to our own growth into the unique, gracefully eccentric people God is making us to be. Maybe it’s to learn to love God personally with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Maybe it’s to risk sharing ourselves, openly and freely, in all our spectacularly ignominious glory, as God’s gifts to the world, and to recognize each other in that way. Maybe just so, the new thing that God has sown into the soil of this world in Anthony will find encouragement and support as it grows into its own unique fullness.