On our recent trip to Europe, my husband Fred and I must have visited around 40 churches. We saw 10 in Cologne alone – and, yes, there are quite a few interesting churches besides the famous cathedral. We saw cathedrals – and ancient humble village churches. We saw any style: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Classicist, modern, and anything in between. We worshiped in a place that was built at the beginning of the 4th century AD – in the Constantine Basilica in Trier, to be precise, which started out as Emperor Constantine’s throne hall and today houses a Protestant church.
For me, it was just awe-inspiring to think about the history of all the churches we saw – how many people had worshiped there over the centuries, how many ancestors in the faith walked the same holy ground. And more than once I felt surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses that transcends time and space.
Now most of the churches we saw have something in common: they are not today what they used to be. Sometimes, the original building was destroyed by fire or warfare and rebuilt – once or twice or several times, as happened with St. Pankratius Church in the small town of Stuhr near Bremen. Sometimes the old building would become too small and needed to be expanded, as happened with the cathedral in Trier, which originally was built in the 4th century AD and today has several add-ons. Or a church would be torn down and rebuilt bigger. Sometimes folks wanted their place of worship to be in the latest style and, for example, demolished a church in the outdated Romanesque style to replace it with a spanking new and awe-inspiring Gothic building – as happened with the cathedral in Cologne.
Sometimes the interior of a church would change. Many an elaborately decorated house of worship would be stripped down during or after the Reformation. Or the interior of a church would be remade in the latest fashion – again, the cathedral of Trier is a prime example for that. We have the building in the mostly Romanesque style, but inside, we find quite a few elements from the lavish Baroque period.
Many ancient churches in Europe were badly damaged during the air raids of WW II. And most of them were lovingly restored, like the cathedrals in Cologne and Trier.
All those different church buildings reflect the turmoil of history – and are symbols for the communities of faith which worshiped there throughout the times and who experienced turmoil themselves.
Yes, the Christian church has managed to survive and has been a constant presence in the last 2,000 years. However, the Christian church has also always been in turmoil, be it from the outside or the inside. The Christian church has always been subject to change and renewal. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes because of the latest theology or the latest fad or fashion. The Christian church has always lived within the tension of permanency and change – a quite creative tension, if you think about it.
Now change isn’t easy. We all know that. Most of us would rather stay in our comfort zone than venture out and try something new. And we tend to bemoan that the ‘good old days’ are gone. How often do those who came here from Germany at some point say that it’s not as enjoyable going back to Germany as it used to be – because ‘Germany is not what it used to be.’ We grieve for what is lost, that’s only natural.
As church, we often long for the ‘good old days’. Days that seemed to be so much easier, because people just showed up, Sunday school classes were large, and the commitment level was much higher than it is today. As communities of faith before us, we are confronted with changing circumstances. There are forces from the outside that affect us – and COVID-19 would be a current example of one such force – but at the same time, we encounter pushes and pulls from the inside as well. We lose people who are pillars of the congregation – today, we will say goodbye to longtime member of St. Matthew’s and financial secretary extraordinaire, Brigitte Pfau. And internal conflict arises, often because of discontent or disappointment. And sometimes internal turmoil is caused by things that happen on the outside. Again, the whole COVID situation would be an example for that.
Now I just said that tension can be quite creative and bring forth new ideas, new impulses, new life. God’s Holy Spirit has the best chance of entering in and moving us when we are not too comfortable where we’re at, when we are not too rigid about our idea of who and what we are as the body of Christ. Our online worship services are but one example of the good that can come out of a moment of crisis and lead to inspiration.
With all that in mind, I want to take a look at today’s gospel story. Talk about turmoil, talk about tension, talk about crisis! Jesus and his disciples are now on their way to Jerusalem and the cross. The disciples have to grapple with the fact that their master and friend will be tortured and put to death, in other words, that things will change drastically. Nothing will be as it was. Change is afoot, in fact it is already happening.
The disciples are tense. Last week, the gospel story talked about how the disciples argue among themselves who is the greatest among them. That’s the first time we hear about them arguing. And the gospel story we heard today shows us that tensions continue to abound. The disciples encounter what they think is an outside threat to Jesus’ ministry, and to their status as the chosen ones, the inner circle. ‘Jesus,’ they complain, ‘there is a guy who drives out demons in your name. And we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following us.’
Now isn’t it interesting – they don’t say, ‘We tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following YOU,’ but rather, ‘because he was not following US.’ The disciples make it about themselves, their sense of entitlement and privilege – hey, after all, they are the chosen 12. They feel they are losing control – and maybe their outburst about that guy who drives our demons is but a symptom for their sense of losing control as Jesus is on his way to the cross and they don’t know what’s next.
For the longest time, life with Jesus was straightforward, intimate, relatively easy and uncomplicated. Jesus revealed God’s kingdom first and foremost to them in word and deed. But now it dawns on this tightknit group of Jesus’ followers that something is happening that is beyond their comfort zone, beyond their control. What they perceive as a threat from the outside reflects more on their internal turmoil. No wonder tensions are flying high.
And I think we can all relate to that. Who likes to lose control, who likes to see things we hold dear disappear or change? Right now, some are not happy that we have a transgender, non-binary bishop in the Sierra Pacific Synod, that there is someone who does the work of God even though they don’t fit the stereotypical Lutheran or societal mold. Some see it as a threat to the church, which we have a certain image of: who can be a part of it, who should have power in it. Some see it as a threat to values they hold dear. ‘But Jesus, they are not one of us!’
And this discomfort with a new and unexpected turn of events probably says more about us and our internal turmoil: our anxiety about the future, our sense that we are losing something that has been so dear to us. That we are moving into a future that is unknown and uncertain.
And what does Jesus say as he hears about his disciples’ discontent and discomfort? What might Jesus say to us today, for that matter? ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’ Whoever is not against us is for us.
Be open to the work of God’s Holy Spirit. Be open to the creative tension we experience. Who knows what new things, what new life might come out of it? And God knows we need something new to happen. We may long and grieve for the good old days of the church, but at the same time we know that we can’t just turn back the clock.
Things change. The Christian church has changed throughout the centuries (and I’m not only talking about church buildings changing) – and continues to change. But at the same time, there is constancy. We are not only surrounded by, we are also part of the great cloud of witnesses that transcends time and space. We continue in the legacy of Jesus Christ. We rely on the eternal promises of God – the promises of forgiveness, grace, and a new life for all beyond our wildest dreams.
And we continue to gather under and around the cross, the central symbol of our faith – a symbol which reminds us of the constancy of God’s presence among us as it symbolizes the transience of all things at the same time. The cross symbolizes the tension we live in as followers of Christ. There is a reason that Christians throughout the ages have held on to this symbol – because it upholds us as and gives us hope as we deal with the turmoil and the changes of our life.
This post is also available in: German