Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Resurrection and irritating Christian community

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

One of the interesting parts of being in a church that follows the full liturgical calendar is that Easter is actually more than one day. In the tradition of the church, the celebration of the Resurrection lasts 50 days — 10 days more than the Lenten season that precedes it.

It probably says something about modern Christianity that most of us are much more intentional about 40 days of penitence than we are about the following 50 days of celebration.

One way of extending our experience and celebration of the Paschal Feast is to spend some time reflecting on the implications of the Resurrection.

As I mentioned in my Easter sermon this past Sunday, the women in Mark’s Gospel all fled from the tomb terrified, not telling anyone. They were probably on to something, because the resurrection of Christ does indeed turn our world, our very lives, upside down — if we are willing to let it. In Christ’s death and resurrection, everything was changed.

When Christ died on the cross, the curtain that hung in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. According to the Talmud, the curtain in the temple was 80 feet tall — meaning no one could reach that height. It was as thick as a man’s hand. When it was cleaned and rehung, it took 300 priests to do this.

Scholars estimate that it weighted 4-6 tons. That is the curtain that protected people from the danger of God’s presence, a curtain that was only passed through once a year, when the high priest made offering for the sins of the people. When Christ died, when he made his suffering the new way into God, that immense curtain in the temple was torn from top — 80 feet up — to bottom, making the Holy of Holies visible and accessible to all people.

As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”

Through Christ’s death, we can now enter the sanctuary, we can now enter into the very presence of God. But notice, therefore, that we don’t enter alone. We don’t enter as individuals, here to claim our place with God. We enter together. We enter as a community. We enter. Not I. Not you. We.

The author of Hebrews makes this even more explicit later in chapter 10, where he writes, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The community exists to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”

What a fascinating word, provoke. The Greek word used is parosxusmon. This word means provoke in the sense of inciting or irritating something. It is the same word we get paroxysm from, a word that means a sudden attack or a violent expression of a particular emotion. In this text, the author is saying this is what you and I do to another is that we incite, we irritate each other on to good deeds.

Of course, if you have lived in Christian community, you probably know it can be pretty irritating at times. You have probably felt provoked, maybe once or twice. What is unfortunate, though, is that generally when we find ourselves irritated and provoked in Christian community, we leave to find another one, a place where we are more comfortable. We don’t mind being challenged, but we prefer to agree with the challenges we hear.

If you ask the average seeker what they are looking for in a church, “a place where I am irritated by my fellow congregants” is likely not the first thing we think of. But I wonder if it should be.

I had someone tell me that sometimes he left church on Sunday and didn’t feel very uplifted. I said, “Good. Because I don’t think the church is here to uplift you (though I hope it does that sometimes, too!). I think the church is here to make you uncomfortable so that you will reconsider your strongly held opinions — and so you will push me to reconsider my strongly held opinions — so that we may learn to love those with whom we disagree.” As the Proverb says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

That is what church is about. You are, interestingly enough, in the words of Hebrews, called to irritate your fellow congregants into being better Christians. And your pastor is called to irritate you into being a better Christian.

The only way it works, though, is if we persist through the irritation. This is why the Benedictines have a vow of stability, of remaining in one place no matter how irritated you get. Because they knew that the truth of the Gospel is that persisting in love, refusing to walk away, that all of this is actually what makes us holier people.

So, I hope you find yourself irritated at some point in these Great 50 Days of Easter. I hope that when you are irritated, you talk to the person, you remain in relationship. I hope that if you are irritated in your community of faith, you choose to persist — see if it creates greater holiness in your life, see if you help contribute to greater faithfulness in your community. It normally can, if we let the irritation soften our hearts and create humility in our spirits.