Gathering, Scattering and Being Church

A core belief and value that we strive to abide by at Heatherhope is that it is the will of God to gather. We believe that gathering happens when we believe God has made all people worthy of honor and care. The Evil powers and principalities at work in the world have infected the church through the ages and distracted members and leaders into distorting God’s Word and will in such a way as to work against that gathering.

I grew up, was ordained and served in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod before rotten elements in that denomination re-defined things and drove me out.

As part of my Missouri Synod training I was taught a warped kind of catechetics. I thank God that my pastor (Dobelstein) had a good spirit. But much of the approach in a thing called Schwan’s Catechism (an expansion of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism), was warped, including something fatal for a healthy view of the Eucharist. It was the idea that the crucial thing in receiving Holy Communion was discerning the Body. This was interpreted in Schwan’s version of things as believing in the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.

There is this passage in Paul’s letter to gentile converts to Christianity in Corinth, in which he speaks of the Eucharist. He declares, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves (11:28,29).” Schwan’s version of the Catachism insinuated that the discernment was of the real presence and the judgment was an eternal damnation. The language used pointed me as a young learner to the things–the piece of flat bread and the sip of wine in a tiny cup. It warned me that if I did not have the notion of Christ’s presense there, I was taking the sacrament unworthily and thereby becoming guilty of the body and blood of Christ.  

So, from the time I was in catechism instruction as a young teenager, till I was in seminary a young twenty-something, I was plagued with this idea that if I didn’t conjure up inside myself a strong “belief” that Christ was truly in that bread, and I was truly ingesting him, I was in deep, deep trouble from God.

Thanks be to God Schwan’s Catechism had a lot of good stuff in it along with the bad. Thanks be to God our pastor was a kind and loving witness to Christ.
And, thanks be to God that in seminary we actually read the Bible. We studied it. We interpreted it so that we could actually live it. We didn’t lift it up as a talisman.

When we read and studied 1 Corinthians, it was rather easy to notice that Paul was not talking at all about some metaphysical belief in essence or substance of a body. He was talking about The Body. He was talking about the very earthly and very earthy little community gathered for an agape feast in a house church in Corinth. Here is what he says:

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.  For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing. (11:20-22)

The body the Corinthians are not discerning is their own community that should be a sacred thing to them. Paul goes on at length in the remainder of chapter 11, and chapters 12 and 13 to teach what it means to discern and not discern – to honor and not to honor the body. To honor it is to honor and care for each person, in one great resistance movement to the way the world selectively dishonors and destroys people.

So, here is a classic way in which the word of an apostle of the church has been distorted by teachers of the church so that the will of God to gather has been thwarted and people are separated from one another. Instead of breaking down the barriers so that the Body may be made stronger, the teaching of the church some times encourages people to separate from one another in a futile and fallacious exercise in metaphysics. How tragic it has been that teachers and dogmaticians of the church have at times managed to divide families and whole civilizations over abstract and absurd and unsolvable philosophical problems through the ages. Just how many natures and persons and essences and wills does Jesus Christ have? How and when and where and why did these make their appearances in the cosmos? Answer rightly and you belong. Wongly and you are outside the pale—perhaps an enemy, perhaps worthy of scorn or death.

I was sitting in a seminary chapel, waiting my turn to rise and approach the altar for the Eucharist one day, when I was pondering whether I could well and purely ratchet up a saving belief in the real presence of Christ, when I was distracted by my fellow classmates all about. Those were the days, in the early ‘70s, when hair was in fashion, even among male seminarians. I noticed, to my extreme annoyance, how many of them were scratching their crummy looking beards. Suddenly the power of Paul’s teaching on the Eucharist and the Body hit home. I would never reliably know if I discerned the real presence. But I could discern that caring for these guys with their very different ideas of good grooming, was a wonderful product of discerning us all as part of the Body of Christ in a living community.

So, here is a key text about perhaps the most important ritual in the life of the church – the Lord’s Supper; and it has been twisted by some beyond recognition in the name of good, orthodox doctrine.

Another key example of this is the way the Apostle Paul interprets perhaps the most ancient New Testament text of all. It is a hymn about Christ, scholars say, and it says this about him: 
… who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
   but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
  he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
  Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
  so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
  and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

    Through the history of the church this text has been quoted, sung about, confessed and analyzed as much as any. Paul wrote earlier than any New Testament writer, and this text was already a part of church life before he came along. 

But what does it mean? For Paul it meant that the new converts of the church should quit their stupid and destructive squabbling and get along. They could do this if they would, in Paul’s words, “let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus.” In other words, the Spirit of Christ is one of honoring and caring for all others—even to the Christ-like extent of putting their concerns ahead of your own.

Paul’s concern in quoting this Christ hymn is, once again, ethical. It is to draw people together. But here again, through the history of the church, teachers and dogmaticians have used this text not to gather, but to scatter. Ever around us are the forces that scream for us to let charity begin at home and then stay right there. Voices that would slice and dice the peoples of the world into us and them. The church has in its arsenal the greatest force for fighting these forces–for gathering people–in the story of the Son of God who emptied himself to draw people together and to God. But teachers and dogmaticians have often interpreted this power by seeing it as ammunition for abstract academic debates about the metaphysics of Christology.  Is Jesus’ humanity a full nature, separate and distinct from his divinity, or did he simply abstain from using his divine nature? Do we ever solve any of these philosophical questions? Is anyone ever made a better person by them?

I don’t mean to say that we should stop philosophizing or thinking of doctrine. Human beings have complex brains and complex needs to both feel things and understand them. We have a need to try to figure things out  and put them into words. But we must be realistic enough to understand that words fail us. Therefore all word games–all philosophical questioning should be questioned. Is it leading anywhere in the real world?

The tragedy is that God’s Word is for the real world and we have often squandered its power. If any dogma is valuable it is valuable in that it truly corresponds with God’s grace—God’s power to forgive, heal and gather—a power that is so wonderfully embodied in Jesus Christ… and in Christ’s church that goes on gathering.

Karen Armstrong, in all of her recent works, especially in her book, The Case for God, points out how the enterprise of theology should be seen as a part of the holistic “spiritual exercise” of living as church. In discussing Paul and his use of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2, she says the Apostle understood that unless Christians “imitated Jesus’s kenosis [self emptying] in the smallest details of their own lives, they would not understand the mythos [foundational story] of the lord Jesus (p. 85).”

Dogma is important. What we get “dogmatic” about is what is central to our thinking and our living. Surely being permeated with the Spirit of Jesus, the One who shows us God, we should be dogmatic about his radical commitment to gathering all the sinners of the world to the redemptive grace of God.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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