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The Church Is So Not Perfect

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee ..." - Matthew 28:16

Ten-Year-Old Me

I hated going to church when I was ten years old.  

Yeah, that's where I want to begin:  the fact that ten-year-old Wes loathed going to church with my family on Sunday mornings.

True story.  Back in 1989, on Sunday mornings at around 8:30 am at our home at 965 Maxwell Lane in the Colony Woods subdivision of Zionsville, Indiana, you probably would have found me hiding in my bed.  You wouldn't have known, perhaps, that I was hiding.  It would have just looked like I was sleeping in my bed - eyes closed, deep breathes and all.  But, I wasn't sleeping.  I was pretending - pretending not to hear my mom calling up the stairs to my sisters and me, pretending not to hear her tell us us to get up and get ready for church.  

Every Sunday I would indulge in this fantasy.  Sunday after Sunday I would dangle out the hope that maybe if I stayed in bed long enough and pretended not to have heard my mom's evermore insistent directives there was a chance my family would be forced to leave without me.  Maybe, I thought, this Sunday they'll be forced to pile into the Dodge Caravan and leave me behind.

A boy can dream.

So, I would sit with the sheets pulled up over my head, laying their motionless, half afraid of my mom coming into my room at any moment to pull the sheets back and half euphoric over the possibilities of being free from this Sunday burden.

The ten-year-old me knew that church was a boring place.  And I knew church could be a drag.  I always felt like everyone there was trying to act perfectly, and I felt like I had to be perfect ... or, at least, that my mom wanted us to look "put together" when we went.  

So, it wasn't just the fact that I was hoping my family would leave me home Macaulay Culkin-style so that I could eat a huge bowl of Lucky Charms while watching cartoons.  It was also this:  I didn't want to have to go and pretend that I was a well-behaved kid.  I didn't want to play the "perfect game."

The Church Is Full of Perfectionists, But Its Not Perfect

Details in the Bible are important, and that's especially so in Matthew's Gospel.  It matters where Matthew positions Jesus, and who is around Jesus.  It matters who is related to Jesus.  In Matthew's mind, even numbers are important.  That's why when Matthew tells us that "... the eleven disciples went to Galilee," to meet Jesus after his resurrection, we should ask ourselves why he specifically mentions "eleven disciples."

There is a reason, and Dale Bruner explains Matthew's number choice very well:

"The number 'eleven' limps; it is not perfect like twelve ... Matthew sees Jesus commanding a defective eleven.  The church that Jesus sends into the world is 'elevenish,' imperfect, fallible.  Yet Jesus uses this imperfect church to do his perfect work."

Hear this 'cause this is important:

The earliest church gathering was a church of imperfect Christians.  

And when I say imperfect Christians, I'm not just referring to the number in their congregation and neither was Matthew.  The imperfect "eleven" represents the deeper reality of the disciples' imperfections.  The very next line Matthew goes on to tell us that some of these eleven, even as they have just encountered the Risen Jesus and have worshiped him, still managed to have doubts:

"When they saw [Jesus], they worshiped him; but some doubted" (Mt. 28:17).

So, there's the first imperfection.  Discipleship does not mean absolute faith all the time.  Being a Christian does not mean always having your faith together.  You are not a failure if you go to church and find that you still have doubts bouncing around in your mind.  In fact, if you go to church long enough, it is going to happen.

But, that's just the first imperfection.

These are the eleven disciples who failed the test of allegiance to Jesus, at least ten of them anyways.  They made commitments that they failed to live into.  They broke promises and had to face the reality of their inability to stick with Jesus through thick and thin.

Then, there's the fact that we know the eleven disciples didn't always get along very well.  They competed for Jesus' approval.  They got upset with one another.  They saw being close to Jesus as a hierarchy of status and power, and they were all eager to get the best seats.

There's more.  A lot of the time the eleven disciples were completely obsessed with worldly realities.  Faced by the overwhelming needs of thousands of people gathering around them, they couldn't get past the logistical details and their own concerns of self-preservation.

They frequently were guided by fear, perhaps just as often as they were guided by faith.  Probably more - shouting out for salvation whenever the waters were troubled out at sea or the religious authorities came to put the pressure on them.

They had small minds and big egos - getting caught up in great, big religious projects like making holy tents for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. 

And this is say to nothing about the motley crew Jesus gathered to himself as his "people," or that last disciple who was supposed to make the perfect "twelve":  the same Judas who represents just how far off course Jesus' followers can veer.

So, it's not just the fact that the imperfect eleven went limping up the mountain to meet the Risen Jesus.  It's the fact that the congregation who gathered around Jesus was always imperfect.  Imperfect ethnically.  Imperfect sexually.  Imperfect theologically.  Imperfect ethically.  Imperfect relationally.

Big Secret:  The Church Is Still Full of Sin & Sinners

And guess what?  Your church is still full of sin and still made up of sinners made perfect by the free grace of God by faith.

I'm not just saying this as a theological assertion.  I'm saying it from lived experience, both personally and pastorally.

I'm saying it, first of all, as someone who is still sinning.  I'm saying this as someone who has ticked off my fair share of church members, and as someone whose mind is just as easily swayed by the anxiety-driven messages of American capitalism as I am by Jesus' call to sacrificial love.  I'm saying it as someone who still feels like pulling the covers over my head some Sundays because I feel like I've got to put on my "good face" when I know my heart has felt black as night.  I'm saying it as someone who gets jealous, as someone who feels like he's got a broken sexual history, and who is all-too often guided by a strong ego obsessed with building and leaving behind a monument rather than moving more deeply into the depths of losing myself out of love for others.

But, I'm also saying it as pastor, as someone on the other side of the curtain, so to speak.

Because if you come into a church ... if you make it a habit to participate in the life of a church community ... if you show up every Sunday (okay, some Sundays) ...

You will find brokenness in the church.  You will find people who will hurt you, and you will find people who are hurting.  

This isn't a possibility.  It is an assurance.

And the deeper you go into the life of the church, the more you will discover this brokenness.  Say, for instance, you not only find the courage to put on your good clothes and walk through the doors on a Sunday morning, but you decide you're going to get more involved.  Let's say you decide you're going to start attending a Bible Study group.  Or, you volunteer to help support a project.  Or, you agree to serve as a leader in the church as a Sunday School volunteer ... or as a deacon ... or, God help you, an elder ... you will be amazed at how entirely human the church seems at times.  You'll find that those same demons that bounced around the community following Jesus in Matthew's Gospel are all right here too:  worldliness, covetousness, jealousy, competition, back-stabbing, ego-glorification, sexual power and sexual perversion ... and everything else you could care to imagine.

It's all there.  You have to get past the make-up and the show on Sundays, but it's there.

Why Go at All?

So, why go at all?  

Why go to church?

You don't have to, you know?  You can stay home.  Or, just stay away.  

And many people do.  Many people finally figure out the church can burn them and scar them.  Many people grow jaded and eventually decide that they've already got enough brokenness in their lives to consciously choose to participate in one more broken community.  So, they decide to do essentially what I did as a ten-year-old.  Sundays are their days to stay where they can be themselves and do what they want to do.  And just like I wanted to watch my cartoons, they find some other activity that they love:  walking in the Nature Park, going for a run, spending time at home, reading books.  

Or, if the person is too "Christian" to ever give up on going for church, there's always the option of church-hopping.  That is a possibility, one all of us find attractive - especially once we start to realize how completely sinful even this particular church is.

"Why, I was really hoping this would be the church for me, but it is so screwed up," we say to ourselves or our spouse.  "This church is never going to figure itself out."

And so we decide that it is time to find a new church community, a place where they are really committed to making disciples ... or doing the work of social justice ... or aren't so worldly ... or have more programs for our children.  And, trust me, church members aren't the only ones who face the temptation of chasing perfection from church to church.  I do it to.  All pastors do ... "If this church was really committed to the gospel ... I guess this church isn't responding to my leadership."

The One at the Mountaintop

So, again, why go to church?

It's certainly not for the prospect of finding a perfect community.

So, what is it?

The answer begins right after Matthew introduces us to the imperfect eleven stumbling up the side of the mountain:

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him ..."

That's why.  

Jesus is there.

That's the only thing that makes it worth it.

And it is the only reason to keep coming back week after week.

It's also the only thing that is going to help you, as a follower of Jesus, maintain your motivation and commitment to going to church.

Jesus will be there in the midst of the imperfect eleven trying so hard to look perfect, and Jesus will somehow use the imperfect eleven to continue the work of spreading the gospel.

Jesus will be there in those moments when the church elders can't seem to agree on anything, and he will make it clear that final authority rests in him alone.

Jesus will be there when the church seems stuck in the past and unable or unwilling to move beyond itself to really serve the needs of the community, and he will continue to call it to go out once again in service to this world.

Jesus will be there amidst the power struggles, and he will continue to call forth a radical commitment and into living lives of service.

And most importanly, when other Christians hurt you ... when your idealism is deflated ... when the curtain is pulled back ... and your eyes are open ...

Jesus will be there still with the promise of new life, with the words of eternal life, with the waters of baptism and the table of communion and grace.

So we have to listen to Derek Webb when he puts these words in Jesus' mouth:

"You cannot care for me,
  with no regard for her.
If you love me, 
  you will love the Church."

Whether we like it or not, the Church and Jesus are a package deal.  

You can't have one without the other.  And maybe that's exactly as it should be.  

Becuase if we can learn to embrace our imperfect church, we may learn just how truly and deeply Jesus has embraced us ... which is to say, completely ... even with our imperfections ... even with all of our history and brokenness and stubborness ...

Even on those days when we feel like pulling the covers up over our heads.

~Wes

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