What does the death of the church look like? “To everything there is a season,” the Teacher wrote, “and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Eccles. 3:1-2). Does anyone expect death to leave the church unvisited? Has any church been planted that will not be plucked up?
Several years ago I stood in the shadow of Whitby Abbey. Founded in 657 and important enough to have been the burial place of royalty, researchers think, it was destroyed by the Vikings about two centuries later. Refounded in the 1070s and enlarged and rebuilt in the 1220s, it was one of the grandest abbey churches in all of England until it fell victim to Henry VIII’s reforms in the mid sixteenth century. Now all that remains are portions of its walls. History can be hard on churches.
It seems history is not the only thing that can be hard on churches. Even God intends to do away with them. In his Revelation, written to interpret the severe hardship and persecution the church suffered in the late first century, St. John describes his vision of “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). And in that new Jerusalem – symbol of God’s creation made perfect, complete, fulfilled – John “saw no temple” (v. 22).
Imagine it! In the final perfection toward which God is moving all history, there is no temple, no steeple, no recognizable institution of religion. Does God’s plan have no place for the church we’ve been trying to pass on to future generations? By trying to grow the church, are we unintentionally thwarting God’s plan? If so, it would not be the first time the church has misunderstood God’s instructions. Maybe we’d better take another look at them.
Matthew’s gospel has been called a “church book,” written specifically to meet the needs of the church as a developing institution after the fall of Jerusalem and the collapse of temple Judaism late in the first century. It provides a basis on which the church could build its life, a clear set of instructions for how to conduct its affairs, and an interpretation of the church’s past, present, and future to make sense of its ongoing life in the world.
The people who were becoming the church needed such guidance as they organized to continue the work Jesus began, ushering in God’s perfect reign on earth. Matthew’s gospel even provides a mission statement for the church. Jesus himself lays it out at the end of the gospel as he hands over to his followers “all authority in heaven and on earth.” “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he said, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
Go and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to do everything Christ commands. He doesn’t say build a church; he says make disciples. He doesn’t say recruit members and grow your numbers; he says make disciples. He doesn’t say train and organize volunteers; he says make disciples. And that’s where we still are. Our mission today, clearly and simply stated, is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Book of Discipline, ¶120).
As Christians, we understand that we’re part of the work God is doing, work St. Paul described this way: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). Our work is not to achieve the triumph of one religious association over others. It’s not to Christianize the world. Our work is to restore an original relationship that ties God and all people together.
Our job is to carry in our lives that message of reconciliation, to live as the vanguard of a unified human family, and to model that reconciling life for others. Rather than preserving and building the church, our job is to restore and build holy relationships among all people. It’s to break down the walls, including walls of religious affiliation, that separate members of the human family from each other.
Whatever our politics or nationality, no matter our skin color or gender identity, no matter what faith we claim – Christian, Jew, or Muslim; Buddhist or Hindu; Sikh, Sufi, Shinto, or something else – God’s work is to do away with labels and categories that separate us and to reconcile us as a single, united human family. And that is our work as God’s people.
The obstacles to reconciliation are so many and so great, we seem to be a long way from finishing that work, or God seems to be a long way from it. But you never can tell, God’s notion of time being so different from ours. God may finish it “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52), or it may not happen for a long time as humans measure time. Whenever it comes, it’s up to God to do it. But we can, you and I, remove some of the obstacles to that reconciling work.
We can simplify and concentrate our life together, focus less on serving the institution of the church and more on fulfilling our mission, the mission of making disciples. We can spend less time volunteering and more time working to be good disciples, modeling our lives after the teaching and example of Jesus. We can spend less effort on making members of the church and more effort on making disciples of Christ. We can stop building walls that protect and preserve us and our congregations, and we can start breaking down walls and laying down our lives for the sake of the gospel of reconciliation.
In the new Jerusalem, there’s no temple because God is not found in any temple or institution. God is encountered directly, without any mediating structure. As St. John wrote, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God, and they will be his peoples” (Rev. 21:3). We will meet God here and now, among all who share this world and this life with us. Christ calls us to live that way today, as well as we are able.
A rabbi once tested his students to see how well they had learned the finer points of the law, and he asked them, “How can you tell when night has ended and day has begun?” One student responded quickly, “You know night has become day when you can look at the far hillside and tell the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree.” “Wrong!” the rabbi said.
Another student tried. “You know when night has ended and day has begun when you look across a field and see the difference between a sheep and a goat.” “Wrong!” the rabbi said again.
A third student thought you could know when night becomes day when you can shoot an arrow into the air and see where it lands. Again the rabbi said, “Wrong!” And no one dared guess any more.
Finally one student asked, “Tell us rabbi, how can you tell when night is ended and day begun?” The rabbi paused for a long moment to let his message find its mark and said, “When you can look into the face of any stranger you meet and recognize that person as your brother or sister, then you will know that night has ended and the day has begun.”
And that’s what the death of the church and the fullness of God’s reign looks like.