No true life
LAST YEAR, I was asked by a conscientious churchman why I thought Episcopal churches in the Northeast were failing, while Evangelical churches were comparatively thriving. I answered that the Evangelicals believe in Jesus Christ, who is worth believing in, while Episcopalians mainly seem to believe in being nice, in putting in a day, but that it wasn’t really something to get very worked up about, and certainly nothing that could or should change one’s life and commitments.
It was a short conversation.
This week, I attended the funeral of a lifelong member of her parish, a woman who sang in the choir for decades, who was a longtime public servant, an elected official who worked on behalf of her district, who worked within her town (and with an Episcopal clergyman) to develop affordable housing for low-income families, and who was a faithful Christian for her entire life. In her final years, it was her delight to struggle mightily against a failing body to make her way to Easter services, to receive communion at home, to follow the words of her Prayer Book.
In his homily, her rector mentioned none of these things. It would be a surprise if he had even bothered to read her obituary.
But more than that, the rector missed an opportunity to preach the Good News. He failed to mention to a church filled with nominal Christians and non-Christians that this woman, now departed, had been sustained throughout her life by faith in Jesus Christ. He failed to mention that in Jesus Christ, God has done a tremendous and stunning thing for his human creatures. He failed to mention that in Jesus Christ alone do we have hope in a world that is both beautiful and sad, in which good men and women come to dust in the end.
In the face of this hopelessness, we have Jesus Christ. As Ignatius of Antioch implored the earliest Christians,
Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up. In the same way his Father will likewise also raise up in Christ Jesus us who believe in him. Apart from him we have no true life.1
None of this was heard from the pulpit. Instead we heard a tepid summary of this fine woman’s endeavors in the nursing-home crafts room, a trite and predictable account of the fine personal qualities she shared with other fine people. Very nice, one supposes, but it was entirely forgettable. The homily failed to answer the most basic question faced by the church: Who cares? What does any of this have to do with anything? What does any of it matter?
The prize of a burial homily is not merely to “celebrate the life” of a dead person, as too many funeral homilies have come to do, but to celebrate the Lord Jesus in whom Christians have their life. Most who darken the door of an American church will never have heard much about Jesus, and most of what they will have heard will have been bad. Most men and woman spend every day struggling, and pointless commonplaces about a person’s “spirit” do not fortify the faithful or spread a word of hope to those in despair.
This homily follows the general trend of decline, the general listlessness of a church and clericus that is not sure of a purpose that separates it from the general culture of do-goodery. I recently heard an Episcopal seminarian say that Christianity was “meaningful for her,” but that she felt uncomfortable saying that “it was true,” as such a truth claim would be disrespectful of non-Christians.
I don’t much know what to say about these things. If a thing is true, then it is worth fighting for, and it is worth dying for, as indeed we see in the examples of the saints. If a thing is true, then it must be grappled with, it must be considered, it must be faced. If a thing is “meaningful for me,” well who cares? A person’s favorite color doesn’t cause me to re-examine my priorities: you like red? How nice for you. This is not good news. Hell, it’s not news at all.
Rowan Williams, in an interview published in Image in 2014, spoke of saying the “Nicene Creed every Sunday without [his] fingers crossed.” To say Credo in unum Deum, “I believe in one God,” is not merely to make a statement of personal preference, but to make a statement about the nature of reality. To say “I believe” in Jesus Christ is not to say “I prefer,” but to say, as an old priest friend of mine has done, that “it’s all true.” And if it’s true, then it’s worth telling people about.
Where we tell the story of salvation, churches thrive, and where we deliver flaccid commonplaces, the church fades into well deserved oblivion. It’s up to us Christians to follow the Great Commission and spread the good word of Jesus Christ, a word without which the whole edifice of the church is a pointless and sentimental relic.
1. Ignatius, Trallians 9:1-2