Salvation Bigger than the Church


1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

Psalm 16

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Luke 9:51-62

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In the first section of today’s gospel, Jesus must restrain his disciples who would nuke Samaritan villages that will not receive him. He would have his disciples know that retribution is not consistent with the reign of God he proclaims. Jesus’ love and forgiveness extends even to those who reject him. We never find Jesus turning away anyone in need of his assistance. He does not ask any one of the five thousand people he fed with loaves and fishes to demonstrate genuine need or that they have made good faith efforts to find gainful employment. Jesus responds with compassion to agents of the Empire occupying his homeland and which ultimately crucified him. He welcomed invitations to dine with respected religious leaders as well as social outcasts. Jesus’ love is radically inclusive, embracing even those who nailed him to the cross.

When it comes to selecting his disciples, however, Jesus is careful and discriminating. He spent the whole night in prayer before selecting the Twelve. Luke 6:12-16. He made it clear to the admiring crowd following him that, if they would be his disciples, they would need to put the reign of God before everything else and be prepared to take up the cross on which he himself would soon die for its sake. Luke 9:23-25. In the second half of our gospel reading, Jesus turns away three people who desire to be his disciples. The first, who promises to follow Jesus wherever he might go, is warned that homelessness is part of the discipleship package. The second two learn that the reign of God takes precedence even over “family values.” All of this strikes one as rather severe and uncompromising.

Or perhaps not. If we understand that Jesus’ love extends to all people and, indeed, the whole cosmos, then his words to these would be followers do not amount to rejection. Nor are they a reflection on their characters. Jesus is simply suggesting to them that they are not yet ready to be his disciples. They are not ready to make the sacrifices required to proclaim in word and deed the good news of God’s reign or to begin living into that reign in the mist of a world hostile to it. It does not mean that they are excluded from that reign or from the love God has for all creation.

Perhaps one of the most destructive errors infecting the church over the centuries is our coupling of church with God’s promise of salvation. I have seen on any number of occasions and perhaps you have too the bumper sticker declaring “No salvation outside the church.” I grew up with that assumption in my home congregation. As a young man pursuing ministry, I believed that salvation consisted in being converted to Christianity and being thus included in the church. My job, then, was to “bring people to Christ.” Over the years, however, I have come to recognize the insidious effect this misconception has had on what was supposed to be “good news.” Instead of sharing an incredibly good word to a world hungry for God’s inclusive kindness, mercy and reconciliation, we found ourselves trying to scare people into an exclusive church with threats of God’s wrath. Missionary work was a zero sum game in which people were called upon to abandon altogether their faith, their families and the faith communities that had formed them to “get aboard” the good ship salvation. It was that or face eternal damnation. Of course, this outlook on the missionary endeavor fit all too comfortably with western racism, colonialism and ruthless imperial exploitation. Though there were and are missionaries that respect and value the cultures and religion of the people to whom they minister, too many of them shared the prejudice and contempt of their oppressors. That condescending attitude is amply reflected in the poem by  Anita Endrezze below.

The equation of church with salvation has been equally harmful to our ecclesiology. If salvation means conversion and church membership, then evangelism equates with church membership growth. A church that is not growing is not doing its job. That explains a great deal of the angst these days over the marked decline in membership among mainline and, increasingly, so-called “evangelical” churches as well. If we are not growing, it means we are not “connecting” with people. If we are not growing, it means we are no longer “relevant.” If we are not growing, it must be because we are doing something wrong. Hence, the frantic effort to attract young families with flashy Sunday School curriculum, exciting youth activities, couples’ clubs, singles groups, book clubs and novel worship innovations like “seekers worship” and “dinner church.” Please understand that I don’t believe there is anything wrong with any of these things in themselves. But when they are part of an effort to lure people into the church by appealing to their appitites for freebies, entertainment and cheap babysitting services, they betray Jesus’ call to make disciples.

That brings me to my final point. Nowhere does Jesus call us to make church members of all nations. He calls us instead to make disciples of all nations or, more accurately stated, from among all nations. Membership implies a degree of status that goes with being part of a group. As a member of this church, I have a right to have my kids baptized, confirmed and married here. When my time comes, I am entitled to be buried out of this church. All I need to do in return is contribute a few dollars every year and show up often enough not to be taken off the rolls for inactivity. It is all transactional. As much as we preachers like to rail against inactive members, we have only our own flawed theology and practice to blame. We have sold the church as a warm, friendly community that offers all manner of benefits while requiring next to nothing in return. Can we really blame the people we have lured into our midst on this pretext when they balk at having an offering plate shoved under their nose and a request for a pledge of financial support? Understandably, these folks feel like the victims of a classic “bait and switch.” By appealing to their consumer appitites, we have neither proclaimed to them the Good News about what Jesus has done for them nor have we challenged them to join with him in witnessing to that Good News to a world that desparately needs it.  

The church is not a life raft designed to rescue as many souls as possible from a sinking ship. The church is the first fruits of God’s design to save the ship. The church is to be “a demonstration plot” for the coming reign of God, as the late Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm so aptly put it. To be chosen as Jesus’ disciple is not an election to privilege above and beyond the rest of humanity. It is election to a vocation of service to the world for which God sent the only begotten Son. The church, however imperfectly, testifies to what human community is supposed to look like and the end to which God is drawing all of creation. Its mission is not to expand its numbers, but to form people capable of living in communion of Trinitarian love.  

Properly understood, the gospel lesson for this week is incredibly good news. The burden of saving the world no longer rests upon our shoulders. We need no longer worry about children who seem to have no interest in the church or critics who malign the church or the seeming indifference of the dominant culture to the church’s ministry. The salvation of the world and of each individual is God’s responsibility and God’s work of salvation extends far beyond the borders of the church. As Jesus reminds us, those who are not against us are with us. Mark 9:40. Indeed, if we believe what Saint Paul tells us about “all things being held together” in Christ, then it should not surprise us to find Jesus reflected in the faith and life of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and people other faith-or no faith-traditions.See Colossians 1:15-20.

I suspect that congregations changing their focus from growing membership to making disciples might lose some long time members who want only the privileges that come with belonging to a voluntary organization. I also suspect that such congregations will attract new people hungry for community grounded in thick spiritual practices and dedicated to witnessing in word and action to God’s coming reign of justice, reconciliation and peace. Whether that will be a net loss or gain in terms of numbers, I neither know nor care. The church from which the Good News of Jesus Christ spread to the entire Mediterranean world was small enough to meet in a single room. As the story of the loaves and fishes illustrate, God does not need much to work with in order to accomplish great things.  

Here is the poem by Anita Endrezze to which I referred above.

Indian Vices

By nature Indians are very lazy and sworn enemies of work.
They prefer to suffer hunger than to fatigue themselves
with agriculture. Therefore, they must be forced to do this by their
superiors. With six industrious Europeans one can do more
in one day than fifty Indians
—Joseph Och, Missionary in Sonora: Travel Reports
of Joseph Och, S.J., 1755-176

Mining: The Indian is naked, swinging

quarter to half hundredweight steel-edged crowbars.

He climbs beams with notches set step by step,

carrying ore in plaited baskets

on his shoulders.

They are given one half-bushel of maize per week.

This is their payment unless they have a family–

then they are given two half-bushels.

Two men using a wheelbarrow could haul out

more than can thirty lazy Indians

working an entire day.

Natural resources: They are naked, with only a loincloth.

Otherwise they would steal valuable ore.

Instead they laugh

when their hair is thick with dusted gold

so that they look like ugly yellow-haired creatures.

Their hair is long and they secrete fragments

of ore there, wrapping their hair up

like a turban. You can no more trust them

than you would a Turk.

Gold and silver ore varies.

Some is very heavy, pure

silver spiked, as it were,

with silver nails.

The completely black

very heavy ores

are considered the richest.

Processing: The Indian washes his hair

several times a day, sluicing water

over his long hair, letting the silver fall

into a bowl which he then strains,

keeping more silver.

Then again, the Indian must relieve himself

and he hides behind a bush,

thereby stealing more ore

in a most despicable way.

Some can be reduced by fire . . .

or be broken up

and placed into a clay oven

. . . with molten lead,

until . . . the lead has amalgamated

with the silver.

Pebbles and slag float on top

and are skinned off

with hoes and the lead heated

with a double fire

until it becomes light and frothy

like glass.

This froth is removed in heaps;

what remains is pure silver.

The waste product: When the Indian dies,

perhaps careless at work, he is wrapped in a horse blanket.

Thread from deer or plant fiber

is used to sew him up.

It is heathen, this practice

of putting bows and arrows,

small bowls, and other things

in the grave. Instead, I pull the bell rope

and they are pleased at the songs

and lighted tapers

on the altar of the whitewashed church.

They die when they want to,

saying they are only journeying

to the next village.

They have many vices

which I have discovered

and abolished, including the throwing

of patterned sticks,

which is like gambling.

They would rather lie on blankets

in the bushes, throwing these sticks

against the rough wool to muffle the sound,

than work in the fields

or in the mines which are very near,

nor do they think of tomorrow

and the profit that must be made,

whether it is gold, silver, maize,

or their heathenish souls.

Source: Throwing Fire at the Sun Water at the Moon, (c. 2000 by Anita Endrezze, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Anita Endrezze (b. 1952) is an American poet, writer and artist based in Washington State. She claims Yaqui ancestry from her father. The Yaqui are an Uto-Aztecan-speaking Indigenous people of Mexico in the valley of the Río Yaqui in the Mexican state of Sonora and the Southwestern United States. They also have communities in Chihuahua and Durango. Endrezze graduated with an master’s degree from Eastern Washington University. Her poems and stories have been translated into seven languages and published in ten countries. You can read more about Anita Endrezze and sample more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s