sacrifice and identity in the local church

I’ve been thinking about how I belong to my local church, my personal history with it, and how my own experience is different from other Christians outside of the United States. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany, Rami Ayyad of Gaza, and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. It is hard to call myself part of the Church when I think of these three men. Compared with them, my connection to the Church is frail, for it has never truly been tried by fire.

I cannot identify with Bonhoeffer’s choice of fleeing to America or being placed on the frontlines of battle for a State headed by a powermad criminal. I’ve never known the harrowing life of living in a religious minority under military occupation like Rami Ayyad, working against all odds to spread the Word of God, only to face a violent and mysterious end. Finally, I cannot imagine leading a historic Church that is barred from the State from opening a place where it can teach and ordain and pass on its traditions. This is the daily reality for Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The number of Orthodox in Turkey in the early part of the twentieth century was at 400,000, by 1960 it was at 150,000, and by 2004 it was at 2,000.

There are many others throughout the world, some of whom I’ve met most of which I have not, in places like China, Haiti, India, each with their own stories of sacrifice, of identity that binds them to the Church. And I ask, what is my sacrifice? I guess the question behind this is “How does freedom of religion effect sacrifice?” Sacrifice, for whatever reason, binds us to our Church, gives us a cause, asks us “Is this faith thing worth dying for?” In countries where that sacrifice is successfully altered, muted, blurred, or displaced,  something else takes the place of identity with the local church. Rootedness is related to domesticity, the status quo, being productive. It is this church, which poses no threat to the world, which knows no need for sacrifice, that ceases to truly identify with Jesus Christ and the scandal of the cross.

The true Church of Jesus Christ is called to suffering and sacrifice. It does not rely on the State for its freedom of religion. The proclaimed Word of Christ confronts the State for its claim on the human body. The current form of accepted nation state the world over knows money as its god. It knows no power greater than money and it enslaves each of its populations to this power. In so far as the true Church calls money a power and decries its worship, that Church can be sure to suffer–beginning with its membership! The Church that prays “give us this day our daily bread” confronts money and its State over what it means to be humans who rely on God.

Where can I locate myself locally in the true Church? I find it in a Church that voluntarily sacrifices through economic redistribution modeled after the early Christians in the book of Acts. The fear of the Lord causes us to realize that we are not defined by what we possess, but rather in Christ who possesses us.  I do this personally by living and working without a salary, within a nonprofit ministry in economic trouble, knowing that the true wealth of our particular Church community is invested not in words but in the hands that prepare our food, and make beds for our homeless guests. These outward acts must be rooted in prayer or they lose their meaning. I often say that Jesus can be the only reason why I live in this crazy manner.

Money is the default power that always claims its influence. “Move away from that crazy life,” it calls “to one where you’re more protected, more at ease, more sensible.” But money has never saved me, or anyone else for that matter. It has never loved me. If anything, all around I see the destructive effects of its power. The casino buses that escort our senior residents to and from Indiana at the end of every month. The blank stares from intoxicated or high neighbors finding their momentary escapes. The decked out Escalade, dwarfing our street, that we all know our neighbor can’t really afford. These are little symbols of money’s power, giving nothing to its users but heartache.

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Filed under Dietrich Bonhoeffer, money, Pastoral Ministry, theology

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