Following his famous 1938 meeting with German Chancellor Adolph Hitler in Munich, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned home holding up a piece of paper and declaring “peace in our time.” Within a year the British fleet mobilized and the evacuation of London began, Nazi Germany launched its blitzkrieg into Poland, and World War II was under way.
After being tested in the wilderness, Jesus came home, opened up the scriptures, and declared peace in his time. Reading Isaiah’s announcement of “the year of the Lord’s favor,” he turned to those around him and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). God’s long-awaited peace had arrived, he said. By the end of that generation, war with Rome broke out, their nation’s capital fell and their temple was destroyed, and hope all but vanished.
Today is Ecumenical Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Every year, prayers for unity are offered among people of faith riven by disunity in a world torn apart by conflict. In Christ’s name we continue to proclaim God’s peace in our time, while suffering persistent brokenness. So a cynicism that tries to pass for realism takes over, and we dream about how it was better yesterday or hope for a better tomorrow.
But Jesus said God’s peace is neither lost in a golden past nor reserved for a better future. It’s now or never; it’s here or nowhere. When his disciples asked when God’s kingdom would come, Jesus said it “is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it” (Gosp. Thomas 113). It’s like a children’s puzzle with dots scattered on a sheet of paper. When we connect the dots in the right order, a picture emerges. When elements of God’s reign on earth are connected in the right way, we begin to see its presence.
In the novel The Secret Life of Bees there’s a conversation between Lily, a motherless white girl on the run from her abusive father, and August Boatwright, the black beekeeper with whom she found refuge. They’re talking about a statue of a black Virgin Mary that Boatwright keeps in her home, and she tells Lily, “Really, her spirit is everywhere, Lily, just everywhere. Inside rocks and trees and even people, but sometimes it will get concentrated in certain places and just beam out at you in a certain way.”
Lily muses, “I never thought of it like that, and it gave me a shocked feeling, like maybe I had no idea what kind of world I was actually living in, and maybe the teachers at my school didn’t know either . . . . I started thinking about the world loaded with disguised Marys sitting around all over the place . . . only we didn’t recognize them.”
Black Virgin Marys, bearers of Incarnation, all over the place, unrecognized; seeds of heaven scattered among us, unseen; elements of the peace we seek, strewn around us, waiting to be connected so the picture of God’s reign will emerge. These are not empty hopes; they are promises of God, waiting upon us for their fulfillment. And they are fulfilled in our hearing, not in grand ways that leave no room for doubt but in small ways that leave room for our imagination.
In her article “10 Ways to Revive a Dying Church,” Pastor Theresa Cho wrote:
“[H]ere is the kicker. As a church, it isn’t about reviving or redeveloping a dying or struggling church. It’s about being relevant in one’s community – visibly living out Christ’s presence in your neighborhood. Moving from the mindset of revival to relevance is vital to determining the future of the church.
“Revival can put the congregation’s focus inward to think about what to do to increase membership, increase tithes, and build the church back up to where it used to be. Relevance is about figuring out the current identity and gifts of the church now and matching that with the needs of the community. Relevance is not about survival, but about recognizing no matter the size of your congregation, Christ is calling you to use your gifts in a particular way for a particular reason. . . . Being relevant causes us to not be selfish about what we want, but to also look at what Christ is calling us to do in ways we never could imagine possible.” (Sojourners, 12 July 2011)
Not long ago some folks in the congregation were discussing new ways to reach into the community. Several different ideas were offered, all of them with one thing in common. All of them were seen as ways to bring more people into the church to increase our membership and financial strength.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a larger and stronger congregation. Size and strength have their place. St. Paul claimed the reason God gave the church the gifts we have is to build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12-13). Sometimes God does revive a congregation in energy, in numbers, and in significance. Paul also reminds us that God chose what is weak in the eyes of the world – what is low and despised – to shame the strong and prosperous so we’d have nothing in which to take pride (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
We don’t serve God better by growing larger and stronger. Size and strength are not needed to serve God’s will in the world. The perplexing paradox of our faith, according to St. Paul, is that when we try to make ourselves bigger and stronger, God humbles us and brings us low, and when we humble ourselves and take the form of the lowest servant, God exalts us and makes us great (Luke 14:11; Phil. 2:5-11).
To build up the body of Christ, of which we are all indispensable members, we need to faithfully surrender our focus on growth in numbers and look instead to our relevance to the world around us, humbly accepting our role as servants to the community in which we live. We need to live with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. We need to remember that we are not called into the church for our salvation; rather, as the church we are sent into the world for the transformation of all creation.
What would happen, I wonder, if our commitment of people, time, talents, and financial resources to ministries of outreach were at least a vigorous as our commitments to maintaining the organization of the congregation? Wouldn’t you like to find out?
We continue to pray for the unity we do not yet fully know, for the peace fulfilled in our time that still eludes us. As we do, we hold up the message we have from God, that we are connected with each other in our commission to be instruments of God’s peace in this time and place, doing what we can to throw our pebbles of faith into the pond we inhabit and watch their ever-widening circles reach far beyond us, knowing that God’s word will not return empty but shall succeed in that for which God sent it (Isa. 55:11).