Last week the Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church in Canada met in Crieff, Ontario. The Assembly Council is a group of people from across the church, some more representing various governing bodies within the denomination's structure, and staff. They do a lot of the business of the denomination between annual General Assemblies. I read the summary of the meeting and noted this report from the Moderator, Karen Horst.
Throughout her visits across Canada, she has witnessed the numerical decline of a number of our congregations. She stressed that we need to be honest about this issue. The other issue she has experienced was a surprising degree of prejudice from members in our pews towards refugees, Indigenous people, as well as on human sexuality.
She said these issues were alarming, and I suppose they are. But I'm afraid they're not surprising. I wonder if they go together. I suspect they do, in many places.
Sunday's first reading is Revelation 7:9-17, a wild and woolly vision of saints assembled in heaven to receive their reward for endurance through hard times. The celebration is led by a flock of angels and elders who fall down on their faces around the heavenly throne. The traditional reading says it's a vision of the church as it is on earth and as it shall be in heaven: The Church Militant and The Church Triumphant. All intended to encourage the church as it was, 1900 years ago, in a time of increasing persecution within the Roman Empire.
Those terms, Militant and Triumphant, survived. Even though we don't use the words much these days, they have shaped the way a lot of people still think about the church and its mission. For them, the church in the here and now is all about hard work and struggle. It's also about settling for less than the best we can be. After all, things will be perfect in heaven, or in some sweet by and by when God takes over. The saints will be rewarded for their endurance when they get to heaven. So holding on and keeping on before God finally moves us on is our bounden duty. The Church Militant will defend itself against all change. Against all comers, if necessary!
The term "Militant" used to mean totally focused on mission, and ready to give everything if that's what it takes to do God's will. The vision in Revelation 7 is of a "multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages." It's pretty clear the work of the church on earth, the Church Militant, is to reach out and welcome in all comers. To be passionate about growing, and embracing all kinds of people and all the change they bring. All for Christ's sake, not ours.
The purpose of every vision the Bible gives us of what is to come is to inspire us, here and now, to live that vision and its values. Blogger Glennon Melton asks, "What kind of heaven do you believe in? Are you WAITING for it or WORKING for it?"
So, just what did the Moderator see and hear in her travels this year? I think she met a lot of tired, frustrated, even angry people who are dedicated to being the Church Militant; just like they think their grandparents were, and just like they were told past generations of saints and martyrs were. They're waiting for heaven but their vision of heaven has very little to do with life on earth.
I'm not convinced the Militant / Triumphant dichotomy is helpful to us today. I'm wrestling with the commentators as I prepare for Sunday's sermons. I do think we can distinguish between the Church Positive and the Church Negative. The Church Positive is motivated by the possibility that we can live and be in mission today in ways that reflect the wonderful vision Jesus cast of the Kingdom of God. We can live the crazy hope of a heaven where God "will guide [us and all] to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear." That will give us strength and courage to do hope-filled things like feed people who might not eat on a cold winter Sunday night, sponsor Syrian refugees, join with neighbours to clean a ravine so all can enjoy public space, work to bring clean water to First Nations Communities, weep with the people of Attawapiskat, and use the power and influence we have as citizens to work so that their tears will be wiped away.
I'm sorry the Moderator encountered so many examples of the Church Negative in her travels. I'm not surprised, but it still hurts to read her report. But her words call us, at Glenview, to ask what kind of church we are and want to be. Are we still waiting for something to dawn on us? Or are we working for it?