The State of the Church: On the Road to Antioch
Watch Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), give a presentation recorded at the Eastern Regional Benefits Consultations in Philadelphia for the Board of Pensions.
"Last year in this presentation I lifted up four Biblical metaphors, journey metaphors, and one that I think fits where we are as a Church is the whole story of the Church on the road to Antioch. And the story is, basically, after Stephen was elected Deacon he became a well known speaker, got noticed, unfortunately too much and so he was stoned and there was this persecution of the Church and the Church basically was pushed out of Jerusalem. It was a ‘mega church’. 5,000 people were coming. All of these great things and suddenly was pushed out of Jerusalem and had to move into other parts of the world and as it moved into the other parts of the world it began to evolve into a very different kind of Church than probably the Church it would have become if it had stayed in the traditional confines of Jerusalem.
One of those things that is a challenge to us on the road to Antioch to being the Church where they were first called ‘Christian’ is we have to continue to learn as they did to engage different cultures. If you think about Peter’s dream on the roof of Cornelius’ house, if you think about what the Epistles say over and over again, the challenge to be a Church of different kinds of people worshipping the same God together has always been before the Church. But if we are going to be a faithful Church, as Frank has lifted up, if we’re going to be a faithful Church we’re going to have to continue to engage the culture that we are in and the people that are in that culture. We cannot be, we can not be, we can not claim we are faithful and be a 92% white Church in this century. We will not be faithful and we will not be seen as faithful. We have to learn to engage different cultures. And engaging different cultures does not mean engaging cultures that are willing to adapt to who we are. We have to be open to their gifts and open to how they can change us as well as we can be part of their own life.
We have to continue to learn to be a Church that is articulate. The Church that moved into Antioch had to move in to this world where if you wanted to be, you know in the Presbyterian Church if you want to be a real ‘smarty’ you have to go to Princeton like John. Right? You have to have Princeton somewhere in your name. Both my children are named Princeton just so they would be respected in the Church. But back then if you wanted to be a ‘smarty’ in the culture, if you wanted to be articulate in the culture, if you want to explain who you are, you had to understand Greek philosophy, you had to be able to argue that. We have to see what is the language of our day that we need to learn. Who are the people that we need to be listening to? Who are the people that we need to be talking with and learning how to talk about this Gospel that’s 2,000 years old but we see it as new every day. And how do we learn to be articulate about that?
And we need to be called to make space at the table. Now a couple of weeks ago many of you perhaps were either at church or leading a worship service where you talked about (how) this is not the Presbyterian table, this isn’t my table, this is God’s table, and that’s true. None of the tables in the Church belong to us. Okay? The tables where we talk about how we’re going to be Church, the tables where we talk about what it means to be faithful… all of those tables don’t belong to us either. So we need to make sure if we’re going to be a Church that’s going to engage other cultures that we need to make space at the table for people to come and offer their gifts and offer their insights so we can understand who God is calling us to be in this time and place.
And we need continue to fight against this temptation to see the Church as the ‘ends’ and not the ‘means’. It’s not just enough, it’s never been just enough, to get people to be on the roll. Right? That’s not enough. We’re never done when that happens. We’re never done with that and the Church is not here just to have a roll. The Church is here to be God’s mission tool in the world and so we have to continue to see ourselves and understand that we are here to be God’s hands and feet, for the Church to be God’s means to bring the whole Gospel to the world.
And we need to continue to hold on and claim to this wildly unrealistic hope. This crazy hope thing that we have and Frank referred to this thing that we believe despite everything in front of us. Not with our eyes closed, not being optimistic Pollyanna, but because we believe in Jesus Christ. Because that we believe in God that we have this hope that we carry with us into the world.
So I want to start at a foundational level about where the Church is. I want to start with the Apostle’s Creed. The Reformers started with the Apostle’s Creed. Many of our Confessions are framed in the Apostle’s Creed. So the Apostle’s Creed is very Reformed in that it says God started it. Alright? You didn’t start it. I didn’t start it. We didn’t vote to start it. You know? There wasn’t a Book of Order amendment to start it. God started it. God starts it all so in the beginning there was God and God started it and God built/created what we are and who we have and this world that we see and God created that.
And God so loved this world though we who are in it had broken it that God sent God’s Son into flesh into the world. Now yes, unfortunately, Mary gave birth in an out-of-network facility. You know? But those things can be worked out sometimes. That may be why that had to go to Egypt was to escape the copay, I don’t know, you know, what the whole story was. But nonetheless God came to the world as Jesus Christ and he walked on this planet and, you know, you think about all the images that are lifted up in the New Testament stories about Jesus. It’s the sense of those feet and those sandals and what it means about foot washing and all of that stuff. And God created us out of the dust and God came back to God’s planet in Jesus Christ and walked among us and lived in this flesh that we have and was the person they were for our sake.
And he descended in to Hell and on the third day he rose again. Now we are past Easter. Right? We’ve had ‘low Sunday’. We’ve had our humble Sunday. Right? When all those faithful people and eager people that kind of followed us through Lent and showed up on Easter have gone somewhere else… for a while. Fishing. They’ve gone fishing. Amen. Right. But I think we have to always challenge ourselves. And always push ourselves to really ask ourselves the question, “Am I an Easter person?” Am I an Easter person? Do I realty think death is the end of all things? Am I not an Easter person? Are we not an Easter Church? Are we not a Church that believes that beyond what looks to us to be the end is really a bigger beginning? Are we not an Easter people? Is it not an empty tomb? Are we not people who have... we have not seen as it says in 1Peter we have not seen Him but we believe in Him? Are we not those people? Who believe in a God of great things?
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, it says in the Creed. Now I kind of like this, sort of, Thomas Merton version of the Holy Spirit. It’s not flying around. He’s not shooting fire into people’s heads and all that kind of stuff. He’s just kind of sitting there in this solidarity. This peacefulness that we are a people. Maybe this is the kind of Holy Spirit that Calvin wouldn’t have been afraid of. I don’t know. But there they are. A people that believe in this Spirit that is in all of us calling us to be a Church.
And we believe in the Church. The Holy Catholic Church. This thing that God created and gave us to the world so that we could be dong God’s work in the world of the Church that we’re a part of. Over all of these years and all of these decades and all of these people who made us what we are and somehow, believe it or not, we are making people what they are.
And this whole forgiveness of sins, this whole relationship thing that’s in the Church where, you know, you bump against me and I bump against you and we have to get sore about it and bruised and all this stuff and work through all of those things. This reality of forgiveness and living into forgiveness. It’s hard work. It’s hard work to be in relationships. And that’s what the Church is about. Is being in relationships with each other. To care for each other. To accept each other for the broken people that we are and realize that we are accepting each other because God is accepting us for the broken people that we are.
Now because the Church says it believes in that and because this Church has always said it believes in that that is our foundation as a Church. That’s who we say we are as a Church. What we believe as a Church. And because of that we went out into the world and we created congregations. We created them all over the east coast and all over the Midwest and the south. We created them out in the west. We created them in the northwest, and Southern California, in wider Alaska, and around the world because we believed in those things. Because we believed in a God who called us out into the world. We went out and helped that happen. As the part of the ‘means’ to God’s ‘ends’ we did that.
And we realized it wasn’t enough to get people just to sit in that church that we brought people into the church and we sent them out into the world, out into their neighborhoods, out into a thousand places where they touched people’s lives and changed people’s lives. I talked to some of you at lunch. A question that we added to the congregational survey this year, that really exciting end of the year stuff we did was this basic question, “How many people does your congregation serve beyond its membership and I can’t tell you how many exciting conversations I’ve had with people when they start thinking about that. There’s a little church up in Maine and they feed the workers in a sawmill across the back lot. They feed them a couple of times a week for lunch because they’re all minimum wage workers, seasonal workers, and they called and they said look, “we buy those groceries ourselves”, this little church of 10 or 15 people, “we buy those groceries ourselves”. “If we added all our money that we spent together can we claim that as our local mission money?” We said sure. $135,000. Now what is the mission, what is the budget of that church, really? Is it what’s in the plate? Who does your congregation serve? How, really, do we go out into the world?
And so we did go out into the world and we had vocational training. We had a working man’s department. We owned vehicles that went out and set up Sunday School on Alaska and the Wild West. We were asked. We, the Presbyterians, were asked to come to the lumber forest of Northern Wisconsin and evangelize the lumber people. We did all that because we believed… we believed those things. God the creator. Jesus the Son. We are Easter people.
So as we come to this General Assembly this is our theme. From Romans 15:13-“May the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope”. In other words, more hope that you need. Hope that makes you bounce around. Hope that you can give away by the Holy Spirit. That’s who we say we are. That’s what we’re claiming as a people as we come to this Assembly.
So, when we gather in the Cobo Center, it’s named after a person there’s no initials there just absorb that now. When we gather there we’re not gathering there as strangers from different planets or strangers from any place else. We are gathering as people that eat at potluck dinners, and go to Bible studies, are in Sunday Schools, and there are Teaching Elders, and the Ruling Elders. We’re all going to gather there and we’re going to try and figure out what does it mean to be a people who believe those things and who abound in hope in this place and in this time.
So what we’ve done this year – first year I think I had seven hopes and last year I think I had seven aspirations but this year, working with the COGA (Committee on the Office of the General Assembly) we came up with three questions we’re kind of asking the commissioners to think about as they come in to the Assembly and we’re asking really the whole Church to think about these questions. We all have a story of faith. Where does your story encounter hope? And this is not where your organization encounters hope. Where do you personally, where do you personally as a person, where is the place where hope has touched your life so much that you know you can’t claim that it didn’t happen? That you are a hopeful person. That you are a caring person. Second question came from one of our members, Chris Rhodes, and ended up being framed like this: The story of the Church is following the Lord who journeys before us. What does it mean to follow the Lord? Or as Chris originally gave it to us, “What does it mean to follow a God in a tent?” As some of you might know I have a grandson. You may have heard about that. If you want to go you can go look at DillonBook where his picture is all the time. Some people call it FaceBook but I don’t know why there are other faces on there. It’s just that I see no purpose in it. But anyway, Dillon is now, he’s now at the point where he’s a toddler and there’s no babysitting him while sitting down. Right? This is a kid on the move. His favorite song is “I want to Move it Move it” from Madagascar. Okay. What does it mean for us to serve a God that won’t sit still? Right? What does that mean for us? What does it mean for us as a people to serve a God that won’t sit still? And finally number three is “How do you make room in your church for people to share their true, the true stories of their lives? And how can we listen to stories of people who are beyond our church or outside of our church? Or just literally, maybe literally, physically outside our church?
So what I’m going to ask you to do is for the next 10 minutes is kind of turn around wherever you are. Form a spontaneous small group, you know, you can do this. You’ve done this a hundred times. Pick any one of these three questions you want to talk about and for the next 10 minutes talk about those questions. Okay? Everybody clear about that? Just pick one of these questions and talk about it in your group. One, Two, Three go.
And so, because the Church believes those things the Church did those things and because the Church still believes those things the Church is still capable of those things and is doing those things. So on behalf of my grandson do not stop being an Easter people and abound in hope. Thank you."