The church is fully human. This thought crossed my mind in the midst of Sunday morning worship. There was no particular reason for it. Just a simple reminder, maybe a divine nudge, raising my awareness of the body of Christ’s humanity.
In my role as a conference leader, I find myself apologizing often. I would have never guessed how frequently I would need to say “I’m sorry” or some variation of “we’ve messed up.” This is not in my job description, but I need to do it.
These apologies make me keenly aware that the church is a reminder of the divine, not divine on its own. While we are the body of Christ, we are also deeply wounded and imperfect.
We have betrayed our most vulnerable members and neighbors to protect our image and our understanding of God.
We have confused the image of God with the image of ourselves and our institutions.
The list of sins and failures is long. The church often sinks into the same cultural captivities that entangle secular communities. We continue to discover the numerous ways we have fallen short of the goodness God intends. We work out our penance in fear and trembling.
I believe the growing awareness of our failures is the work of the Spirit toward our freedom and the fullness of salvation. This is not a work of progress toward perfection but an encounter with what God requires of us in this time and place.
I trust that God holds the church in care and protection even when our errors compromise God’s mission. The way of Jesus continues to call us to accountability in the ways we relate to God and to each other.
I believe many of Jesus’ interactions were intended to move people toward seeing the possibility of redemption for those outside the Jewish religious community. The Spirit continues to invite us toward this disruptive journey for our own religious communities.
The full humanity of the church is not a weakness but an opportunity to collaborate as people and communities created in the image of the divine. At the same time, we must be ready to repent, to apologize, to make amends, to be honest, to listen those who are vulnerable — when we have gained enough trust that they speak to us, whether tenderly or angrily.
The full humanity of the church is also cause for celebration in its creativity. For me, the full humanity of worship last Sunday included a boy with autism dancing to the praise songs in the balcony, bilingual prayers for peace in tumultuous times, and a sermon from our beloved pastor that was sometimes hard to follow in the English translation but funny in Indonesian. It included praying with someone who would return to his homeland after losing a case for religious asylum.
The church is fully human, wounded and full of sin. It is also full of goodness and possibility.
It is the Spirit’s incarnation of the way of Jesus in diverse languages and cultures.
It is the steward of our cherished institutions and traditions, even when these are changing or dying.
It is our relatedness, the ties that bind — the reflection of God that is recognizable in all of us if we look, listen and love long enough.
It is this love, which never fails, that roots this fully human community in Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell will never prevail, even when it feels like evil has won the day.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.