November 5, 2019
Chapel of the Shepherd at General Theological Seminary
If you’ve spent any time in Austin, TX, you probably know that the city has a semi-official slogan—Keep Austin Weird. The slogan serves both as a celebration of a uniquely eccentric and creative city, and as a call to arms against the deadening forces of unchecked gentrification, big-box consumerism, and general conformity that increasingly plague the main streets of America.
It’s a slogan I believe Paul would have admired, and I think it captures some of the spirit of the opening to the 12th Chapter of his letter to the Romans. Scholars have wrestled with one another for centuries over just who Paul was, and what made him tick, but there seems to be consensus on at least one thing—Paul of Tarsus was a very weird dude.
So what made Paul that way? He himself makes a pretty convincing case that it was his encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, and subsequently committing the rest of his life to living out the implications of Jesus’ Gospel. Paul clearly lived what he preached—and I think it’s safe to say that he was not conformed to this world.
But then Jesus in the Gospels seems pretty bizarre himself. His closest friends can barely make sense of the things he says. His own family wonders if he’s gone insane. Poor Pontius Pilate has never seen anyone like him. I think Jesus’ weirdness springs from his being utterly free—free from the toxic effects of selfishness, fear, pride, even from death itself. And because we’re unfamiliar with the sheer freedom that Jesus embodied, that he inspired in disciples like Paul, and that he invites us to share—we find it strange, and even scary. Yet on some basic level, to be Christ-like is to embrace a freedom, that, to the world, looks profoundly weird.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed
The word Paul uses for “transformed” is metamorphao—and it’s the same word Mark and Matthew use to describe what happened to Jesus on Mount Tabor, when his physical human body became permeated by the uncreated light of God. Paul is exhorting us to share in that same transformation, a transformation that is impossible for those who are conformed to this world.
But that’s why we have the church, right? Doesn’t the church sufficiently form us all for transformation, for nonconformity to the world? I think we know all too well that that’s not the case. That sadly, in our day, the church is often quite closely conformed to this world. And so if we conform ourselves to the church, we are always at risk of being conformed to the world.
This might be easier to understand if we remember that Paul wasn’t writing for the church. He started churches, but I doubt he had any conception of the institutional church as we know it today. Jesus, of course, neither started a church, nor left any specific plans to do so after he was gone. This was surely deliberate—who can read the Gospels and think that Jesus envisioned an organization that would, over 20 centuries, so thoroughly contradict the example of his life and ministry? That someone who was crucified for resisting imperial power would inspire an institution that would become synonymous with a succession of Empires?
We can all feel that tension, can’t we, how closely the church has conformed to the world? Many of us have been working on parallel tracks for several years now, balancing the mundane political demands of formal discernment within the church, alongside that small, still voice inside us that persistently reminds us of our divine vocation. Those two tracks may be running side by side, but they are not equal. Because our call is from God, not the church.
The institutional church is the mechanism through which we will live out what God has called us to do; as a means to that end, it has a place and a purpose and should be preserved. So by all means, read the literature on management theory and family systems and institutional giving. And glean whatever wisdom you can from them. But remember you are not leading a corporation, a psychotherapy practice, or a foundation. You are a disciple of Christ, a priest in his church—you are wild with the transformative freedom of Jesus.
There will be church leaders who will tell us we’re naive, reckless, full of ourselves. They’ll tell us not to change anything in our parishes for the first three years, that we need to adjust to the ”reality” of part-time and bivocational ministry, that we’re lucky to have such a healthy pension fund. And we will listen to them, patiently and respectfully, remembering that these are the same leaders under whom the church has suffered a catastrophic decline in membership, and become increasingly irrelevant in the public square. So we will weigh their wisdom appropriately.
We are the ones being sent out onto the front lines, so we will have to listen first and foremost to God, then to each other, and finally to our own hearts. We will need to feel free to find and experiment with everything that is weird and wild in the church. Transforming the church out of conformity to the world and ever further into the image of Christ.
It won’t be easy. It will require bravery, and we will all experience doubt and discouragement. Luke’s Jesus recounts the parable of a great banquet, which, one by one, the invitees find excuses not to attend. What will our excuses be? How will we find ways to stay conformed to this world, to remain untransformed?
My wife, who does as good a job as anyone of keeping me on my toes theologically, has asked me more than once how I might explain the eucharist to someone who feels drawn to the church, but who is uncomfortable with, even scandalized by, all our talk of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus.
It’s a good question, and I don’t know if I’ve given her a satisfactory answer; what I do know is that an honest answer would still be discomforting. Because whatever else it is, the great eucharistic banquet we have all been invited to is shocking, astonishing, and deeply weird. And that is precisely its power, that is its grace.
The sacraments are what we have to offer the world that it simply can’t get anywhere else. In Baptism and the Eucharist the church is most out of conformity with the world—and most capable of transforming it. Because if we mean what we say about baptism and eucharist, there IS no more effective social justice work. Do we mean what we say? Do we believe that to be baptised into Christ’s death is to receive eternal life through his resurrection, to be indissolubly bonded with God? Do we believe that at the Eucharistic table our sins are forgiven, and that we’re made one with Christ and one another?
Because if we don’t believe that, if we think that baptism is just a symbolic cleansing and the eucharist merely a memorial meal, I’m not sure what other purpose the church serves. The secular world does things like social services and real estate development at least as good as, and usually much better than we do—not to even mention better music and better food. The sacraments work for everyone, always and forever. If we believe what we say about Baptism and Eucharist, nothing the world has to offer us is as definitive, as permanent, and as liberating as the grace we receive in them.
And that is the church’s single, strange, wild and beautiful gift, an alternative to a world which consistently chooses greed over generosity, war over peace, death over life.
If we’re doing Christianity right, it should never ever sit easily alongside the respectable people and institutions of society. To follow Christ was not, is not and never should be comfortable, because nothing is weirder or more shocking than to worship a crucified saviour. Nothing is weirder than the idea that love conquers death, that all our sins are freely forgiven, always and forever, by the very source of Creation. Being the church should always look weird to the world. And thanks be to God for that.
My friends tonight I appeal to you to keep the church weird. Do not be conformed to this world, or to the church insofar as it conforms to the world. Embrace the wildness and the freedom that Jesus embodied, offer yourselves as a living sacrifice at the Lord’s table, and be transformed.