Christ Our Captain

SJF • Proper 12b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.+

It is good to be back from the meeting of the General Convention. I have to say that at times it felt a great deal like being in that windblown boat with the disciples on Lake Galilee. There was, as usual, controversy to spare, and the usual moments of high drama.

But as anyone who knows the history of the church or who can read the epistles of Peter and Paul knows, there is nothing new to controversy in the church. As with most aspects of life, there are ups and downs, ins and outs, and tos and fros. Paul describes the situation as like that of children being tossed to and fro and being blown about by powerful winds. I can imagine he may have been referring to the amount of hot air that emanated from some of the people with whom he had to contend, especially the ones he called “super apostles.” Of course, Paul himself was no lightweight when it came to rhetoric and he could blast his opponents with a force to equal whatever it was they blew in his direction.

What’s strange, though, is that we think of the church as a source of stability — and there have been times in history when the church did provide a shelter from the stormy blast; for example, when the northern barbarians were besieging the Mediterranean world, the church was largely responsible for holding that civilization together.

But the times when the church has served as ballast for the rocky boat of the world seem to be few and far between. More often than not the church was not the brake to slow things down in a runaway world, but the engine that drove the conflict. Like a mad Captain Ahab, instead of cutting sail in the midst of the storm, the church’s leaders sometimes put up even more canvas, and drove the boat onto the rocks. To use another analogy, far from quenching the flames of a world gone mad, the church has often played chief arsonist, and added fuel to the fire.

Sometimes, of course, those flames were literal. During the English Reformation — that long struggle through much of the reign of Henry VIII, all of the reigns of his son Edward and his daughter “Bloody” Mary, and well into the reign of Elizabeth I, who finally settled things down to a simmer — all through those 30 years from about 1530 to 1560 people on both sides of the raging ecclesiastical storm were imprisoned, executed, and sometimes even burned at the stake because of the controversies in which the church was embroiled.

+ + +

The long and short of it is that looking to the church as a source of stability in and of itself is looking in the wrong direction. It seems the more trust people put in the institution the more suspicious we should become. If the sinking of the Titanic taught us anything it is to be cautious when people try to assure you that a vessel is unsinkable or infallible.

So, if the institutional church is not going to be a source of stability, a trustworthy vehicle, where can we look for security and a sure promise. I think we need to look no further than to Jesus Christ himself. Notice how the winds rocking of the disciples’ boat only stop when they let Jesus get into the boat with them. I sometimes wonder if Jesus was at all welcome on either side in the churches of the Reformation — if those who were so eager to silence each other, imprison each other, or burn each other up, would have recognized Jesus or been recognized by him. I can imagine them looking at the Prince of Peace as he passes them by on the stormy sea, as they are hard at work at the oars, as he urges them to calm and charity, and saying, “Who are you? We are doing the work of God!” — burning each other up! Being unable to see the presence of God and hear God’s message can afflict anyone, especially when the demands God places upon us conflict with the contrary devices and desires of our own all too human hearts.

+ + +

I’m reminded of the story about Abraham Lincoln’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Edwards. She had never really approved of her sister Mary Todd marrying that lanky country bumpkin. Even after his assassination and towards the end of Mary’s unhappy life when Elizabeth rescued her from the insane asylum she had been committed to, and took her into her home, Elizabeth still nursed resentment — a resentment not aided by the fact that Lincoln had removed her husband Ninian from a government post in which he had performed poorly.

But then one night Elizabeth had a dream. In the dream, there was a knock at the door; she went to open it, and there, standing outside, was Jesus. But he had bare feet, and those feet had not been washed recently; his seamless robe was dusty, and his hair and beard were wild. And so she wouldn’t let him in!

Fortunately, when she woke from this dream she realized what her resentment about Lincoln had done to her own life — she had missed the chance to come to know one of the wisest and best men of that century; and had been harsh to her sister as well.

+ + +

How often have the members of the church refused to let Jesus in because he didn’t meet our expectations — didn’t let him in to our home, or our boat, or our hearts, or our church? It seems sometimes we would rather be tossed about in the storm, or blown to and fro by the winds of eccentric doctrines, even to give ourselves to the mercies of pirates or mutineers, rather than to find the calm and settled state that can come only if we let Jesus in.

It is hard, of course, to live up to what Jesus expects of us; as Paul says, “to live a life that is worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

It is hard to do this, and we cannot do it on our own. Our General Convention has tried to do this: being truthful about where we stand and what we stand for, in our willingness and our desire to remain in communion with our brothers and sisters around the world, while still standing — as we believe we do — with Christ in his Gospel based on love and forgiveness, and respect for the dignity of every human being. It is only when we do this, standing with Jesus because we have let him into our hearts, our homes, our church, that we can be stabilized by his presence and inspired by his Spirit to do all we are called to do. It is only through his presence that we receive the gifts with which he means to equip the church to do the work of the ministry we are called to do. It is only through him that we are empowered to pass through the changes and chances of this life, the temporal ups and downs of the rocky ride the world will take us through, so that we do not lose hold of that which is eternal.

It is only by holding fast to him, the way a drowning person holds fast to a life preserver; it is only by allowing him to come aboard and captain our boat, that we will safely come to port. The church, after all, is his, not ours: we are only passengers and crew; and we had best not spend our time fighting among ourselves but put our elbows and backs into the work of keeping the church shipshape.

We need not fear the winds of tempestuous doctrines, or the trickery of those who spend their hours scheming in craftiness, the pirates and the mutineers. With our hearts open to Christ, the only wind that need concern us is the blessed wind of the Holy Spirit. We have the Scripture for our chart, the cross as our compass, and our captain at the helm — and, God bless us, it is Jesus Christ our Lord.+