“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” –The Gospel of John, 1:45-46
Abortion. Marriage equality. Racial tensions. The airwaves are filled with talk—divisive, hyperbolic talk—defining Us and Them: Real Americans and the enemies; patriots and traitors; the honorable and the despicable.
And the Church, sadly, has engaged in it as well. We talk. All the time we talk, and increasingly people are not listening. They see the hypocrisy; the divisions; the anger; the vitriol; the hatred. They like the message of our Jesus but they really don’t like us.
Can you blame them?
I think a question that faces us in the 21st century Church is this: “Can anything good come out of Christianity?”
As a pastor, I spend a lot of my time talking. On Sundays, I have a captive audience, even amidst shuffling bulletins and wandering minds. I am charged by God and the denomination to deliver a message that will bring alive the scripture texts upon which we focus. To be sure, study is important; it is a foundational aspect of our beautiful faith tradition. But talk only goes so far. A wonderfully worded sentence has power, but pales in comparison to sitting silently with one who is mourning, or praying with one who is struggling to pay the bills. Talk may inspire, but not as much as gathering food, agitating for affordable housing, demanding equal justice under the law, or walking the proverbial extra mile.
In Protestantism, especially for those of us in the Reform branch, we have emphasized good preaching and dynamic worship; while important, I fear that we have tipped the scales away from what God calls us to do. When Philip approaches Nathanael and confesses faith in Jesus as the Messiah, Nathanael is resistant; he operates upon his assumptions about Nazareth, an insignificant little burg that pales in comparison to nearby Sepphoris, cosmopolitan and teeming with persons from throughout the Empire. Nathanael scoffs, asking if anything worth paying attention to can come from a place like Nazareth.
Instead of offering a treatise, a well-written and eloquent exposition of Nazareth, Philip simply says, “Come and see.” It is an invitation, not a challenge; it is an offer, not a defense; it is a willingness to walk beside someone and witness the work of God.
Are we doing that enough in the Church? Or are we settling into our denominational disputes? Are we focusing on what divides us rather than allowing the Spirit to guide us to be God’s hands and feet in the world? Do we talk too much about what it means to be Christian and show too little? Do we simply talk about forgiving those who trespass against us, or do we do it? When we say that the meek are blessed, do we humble our own spirits in order to serve the least among us? When we talk about seeing the face of God in everyone we meet, do we take the time to look into the eyes of the stranger and see Christ staring back at us?
I am not innocent. Much of my living comes through writing words that are meant to inspire, illuminate, bolster, enliven; I spend most of my day thinking about God, and I often have to remind myself that thoughts without action are incomplete; words without commitment are empty; relationships without presence are not fully lived.
So when people ask if anything good can come out of the Church, let us have the wisdom to say: “Come and see.” And let us have the faith to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone, to those thin places where we most powerfully enter into the presence of the Divine.
The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, currently serving First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, a More Light PC (USA) congregation in Ohio. An academic, Aaron has taught at numerous universities and is best known for his book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. He is passionate about social justice and interfaith, ecumenical work. He also serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College.
Image Credit: Cropped from “West door Norwich Cathedral” by mirror via Flickr.