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This messy thing we call church

“Church is messy.” This has become a shorthand joke in the Congregational Committee over the last few weeks as we’ve struggled to make sense of how the church is and ought to be changing in these new times. We this phrase, especially, when we don’t know the road forward and when we realize that we can only see but a small part of God’s greater plan for this congregation and in our lives in general. Truth is though, this was always the case with the church. We are called to enter the messiness. In a way, the messiness is both a gift and a calling for the church. If we had to arrive at a “safe” zone, unaffected by the messiness of the world, it would be detrimental to both church and world.

Let's start by looking at an overview of the book of Matthew -

During the week, we followed Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-20. When reading this text, one is immediately aware that Jesus was aware of the messiness of what we now call church. Conflict in the Christian community, so it seems, is inevitable. As the joke goes: “for where two or three gathers in my name, there we will start a new church.” This text challenges this too common assumption about the church. What is surprising is to see that Jesus deals with it head-on. There is no postponement of the issues, no beating around the bush. Jesus asks of his disciples to short their stuff out, to name “the thing.” As such, when reading this text, we are called to do the same. This is easier said than done.


It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. - Eugene Ionesco

This text offers a few challenges. The first, and more obvious, is that we need to learn how to talk with one another whenever conflict arises. This presupposes that we understand church to be an interdependent community where each part relies on the next. For this, following Debbie Thomas here, we can develop different habits as a community – these are:

  1. Choose Depth

  2. Preserve Dignity

  3. Guard the Truth

  4. Lean into the Body

  5. Lament Brokenness

  6. Practice Hospitality

These were also the six themes that we explored in the sermon on Sunday (6 September 2020) 

In retrospect, however, I’m aware that none of this makes sense when we remove it from a deep theology of unity. Contrary to what is often professed and lived, Christians believe in unity. We believe that it is an integral part of the Christian faith itself. We should live toward visible unity because we believe that the church is called to be one and that division is sin.

These are the words of D. Smith as he explains that any other motivation for unity than the above “will never suffice, particularly not during times when the spirit of the time contradicts this calling.” He continues: “…mere expediency, more effectiveness, pragmatic, strategic, political or ideological reasons – or whatever other motive people may have – will never sustain the commitment to visible unity when times become difficult.”

Therefore, he suggests, we should never be fooled into asking whether this is the favorable time for unity or not. In fact, “the spirit of the time should not determine whether the church should be one.” As such, any conflict arising in the Christian community has as its subtext the need for renewed unity. To be one isn’t an optional extra or something that we can postpone. No, unity is the Christian witness within a fractured world. It points toward a God who is in Godself whole and holy and who wants this wholeness for every creature.

The film Unforgiven: Rwanda traces the journey of reconciliation after the Rwandan genocide. Many of us are familiar with this hurtful story. An estimate of 800,000 Tutsis killed by Hutu extremists in 1994. How is even possible to speak about reunification, nation-building, and, most importantly, forgiveness after such a terrible event? What this documentary makes clear is that it can only happen in time. Perpetrators are seen building houses and planting gardens for victims, hoping that they will once again be reunited. Toward the end of the film, however, we come to see that not all victims want reconciliation. The concrete acts of justice are not enough to replay a family member lost. In a word so messy, how can we work toward wholeness and unity? These are the difficult question that this text places on my heart during this week.


What is the next step?

  1. Perhaps we should start small: how can we, how can you, walk the extra mile toward wholeness during this week? With whom do you need to go and talk? Where should your weapons be turned into plowshares? If we can only figure this out during this week we might get once step closer to understanding Jesus’ radical message in Matthew 18. Write these down and continue by making appointments with these people.

  2. Watch the documentary Unforgiven: Rwanda.

  3. How does this change your view of forgiveness?

  4. How does this link with the text?

  5. What have you learned from the Rwandan story? Does this resonate with our society?

  6. Study the Belhar Confession

  7. What difference will it make if we lived into these beliefs of unity, reconciliation, and justice?

  8. Look at the six habits again. Where can you actualize these in your daily life?


Shaking Hands by Pádraig Ó Tuam

Because what’s the alternative?

Because of courage.

Because of loved ones lost.

Because no more.

Because it’s a small thing; shaking hands; it happens every day.

Because I heard of one man whose hands haven’t stopped shaking since a market day in Omagh.

Because it takes a second to say hate, but it takes longer, much longer, to be a great leader.

Much, much longer.

Because shared space without human touching doesn’t amount to much.

Because it’s easier to speak to your own than to hold the hand of

someone whose side has been previously described, proscribed, denied.

Because it is tough.

Because it is tough.

Because it is meant to be tough, and this is the stuff of memory, the stuff of hope, the stuff of gesture, and meaning and leading.

Because it has taken so, so long.

Because it has taken land and money and languages and barrels and barrels of blood.

Because lives have been lost.

Because lives have been taken.

Because to be bereaved is to be troubled by grief.

Because more than two troubled peoples live here.

Because I know a woman whose hand hasn’t been shaken since she was a man.

Because shaking a hand is only a part of the start.

Because I know a woman whose touch calmed a man whose heart was breaking.

Because privilege is not to be taken lightly.

Because this just might be good.

Because who said that this would be easy?

Because some people love what you stand for, and for some, if you can, they can.

Because solidarity means a common hand.

Because a hand is only a hand; so hang onto it.

So join your much discussed hands.

We need this; for one small second.

So touch.

So lead.

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