About 10 years ago, I attended a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in which a professor from a nearby college discussed the similarities and differences between the spirituality of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton. I don’t remember a thing about the speaker’s remarks, but I vividly remember one exchange from the question and answer period that followed the talk. A questioner asked the speaker, “Did Francis of Assisi want to reform the church?” The speaker replied, “No. He wanted to live the Gospel.” The questioner then asked, “Did Thomas Merton want to reform the church?” “No,” the speaker replied, “he wanted to live the Gospel.”
This brief exchange stayed with me long after the other details faded away. When I’m asked, “What is the greatest challenge facing the United Church of Christ?” I always reply, “the greatest challenge facing the United Church of Christ is how do we live Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This has been a springboard for many interesting conversations over the years. It is the issue that the church faces in every generation and that we face today.
Last fall, the National Leadership published new purpose, vision, and mission statements for the whole United Church of Christ. They are:
Purpose: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
Mission: United in Spirit and inspired by God's grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.
And the vision: United in Christ's love, a just world for all.
For at least a generation, members and leaders of the United Church of Christ and its closest sibling denominations have experienced declining membership and participation, scarcity of resources, and reduced impact on the lives of their members and on society as a whole. Our appreciation of the value of religious faith and our love for the Church that has nurtured us have led us to focus much effort, time, resources, and energy on trying to “fix” the church. Based on the ways we measure this decline, our efforts have not been fruitful.
What if, instead of trying to fix the church, we focused our energy on living the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What if “how do we live the Gospel?” became the lens through which we viewed every activity the church undertook? What if, instead of asking, “how can we fill the pews or the offering plate?”, we asked, “how can we get better at loving God and our neighbors?” “How can we welcome all? “How can establish a more just world?”
Epiphany commemorates the ways that Christ is made known to the world. We can make Christ known to the world and to ourselves by committing ourselves to live as God calls us to live, loving God and neighbor ever more fully, welcoming all to God’s beloved community, and seeking to establish a just world for all.
May the light of Christ shine in your life and in the life of your church during this season of Epiphany.
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