The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

The church is dead, long live the church!

It is possible you have heard the phrase “The king is dead, long live the king.” It is a pronouncement made upon the death of a monarch where the succession of the new monarch is automatic. I suppose at some point we will hear the words “The queen is dead, long live the king” when Elizabeth dies and Charles becomes king.

It seems like an appropriate proclamation in relation to Christ, on what we know as Good Friday, Jesus died and yet we also celebrate that day as the moment whereby God triumphed over death. On Easter Sunday we celebrate that Jesus rose again and brought forth a new covenant, a new opportunity, a new way of relationship with our Creator, because Jesus lives in and through eternity. Across the Easter weekend we might call out in reference to Jesus, “The King is dead, long live the King”.

So, what does it mean to say “the church is dead, long live the church”?

Throughout Christian history there have been attempts to destroy the church. In the earliest days the church was persecuted in some hideous and atrocious ways. Given that Jesus death was about the most gruesome and painful ways of killing someone it should be no surprise that further killings took place. In Acts chapter 2 the day of Pentecost is celebrated, by Chapter 4 Peter and John are seized (though later released), in Chapter 5 we are told the Apostles were persecuted and by Chapter 7 Stephen is stoned to death. The persecution develops over subsequent centuries as Roman Emperor’s treated believers as scapegoats and encouraged or permitted varying degrees of persecution and punishment. This was until the rule of Constantine who converted to Christianity and who then brought Christianity to Rome and it became the official faith of the Empire.

In addition to the persecution of ‘outsiders’ the church has been caught up in fighting with itself. English Christian history is a microcosm of the conflicts which took place in other nations whereby the desire for power led to churches joining forces with a monarch. The primary contests being between Catholic and Protestant, we have a country littered with the remains of abbeys destroyed by other groups of Christians in the attempt to kill off the other church. Protestants have disagreed with one another and this has led to the forming of breakaway churches, which is why we have Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and many more. These have formed due to a belief that the others are in some way wrong, and there have been attempts at different times to lure people away from one church to another, encouraging them to “see the light” and ultimately seek the end of the other “wrong” church. Even amongst Baptists there are different types or groups of Baptist Church, just within the UK there is the Ana-Baptist Movement, Grace Baptist Partnership and my own Baptist Union of Great Britain, with the addition of the Baptist Union of Scotland and Baptist Union of Wales which are separate from the Baptist Union of Great Britain. Some of this is due to the historical development of local and regional church growth but also due disagreements.

The church has long history of outsiders trying to kill off the church[1] or one church trying to kill off another. Factions of the church also lose sight of Jesus and seek power and dominion over others, it happened with the Kings and Queens of England and is seen mostly vividly today with the evangelical Church and the Republican party in America, in particularly the 45th President.

We now stand at a moment in time which is a marker in history. Students will study the coronavirus pandemic in history lessons, it will be included in sociology, psychology, medicine, global relations, politics, economics. It will become a feature of English literature, music, art, theatre studies and more as the stories behind the pandemic and the stories that come from the pandemic shape culture and are retold in different forms and narratives. And, where will the church be within this? What stories will be told? What lessons will society learn from the actions of the church? Will the church be a footnote or a leading voice?

Like so many others, our local church is in survival mode.

It has been for some time.

The frequently voiced concern is that there are not enough people.

“If we had more people then they could get involved in helping to lead services, to run groups, to manage the finances, to maintain the building, to ensure we are compliant with policies and procedures, to enable Bible studies, mission, worship, prayer…”

… the list goes on.

“If we had more people we’d be able to generate more income to pay for more of the facilities and activities. If we had more income we’d be able to do more as a church to reach out, to care, to offer services that people need, to pay for the up keep of the building, if we…”

… the list goes on.

We are dying, the church is at best in palliative care. We don’t hold the place in the community that we perhaps once did, people know our building for what else takes place there but not for the church, we do not have the presence or influence we once may have had amongst key members of the community, we are not a place or people that others turn too if they are in need. We are maintaining a minimal set of functions and exhausting resources to gain an extra few weeks or months. There is an occasional visitor, but mostly we only see the same few people.

What we have is nice. It is safe. It is pleasant. What we have in its current form is not sustainable or healthy.

We now stand at a moment in time which is a marker in history.

Could we proclaim not just “the church is dead” but “long live the church”?

Jesus could not rise again, without first having died. And, Jesus did not rise the same (note the disciples take a while to recognise him) but he rose bearing the scars of his death, able to eat yet able to appear in a room without using the door. He now had a new role, not one of remaining on earth, but of interceding on our behalf to God the Father. He was the same, yet different.

The early followers of Jesus were not afraid of death but saw it as a mark of honour, a victory, an act of obedience in staying true and faithful to God. The words of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage from the year 258 AD when publicly examined by the proconsul Galerius Maximus provide an incredible insight,

Galerius Maximus: “Are you Thascius Cyprianus?”
Cyprian: “I am.”
Galerius: “The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to the Roman rites.”
Cyprian: “I refuse.”
Galerius: “Take heed for yourself.”
Cyprian: “Do as you are bid; in so clear a case I may not take heed.”

Galerius, after briefly conferring with his judicial council, with much reluctance pronounced the following sentence: “You have long lived an irreligious life, and have drawn together a number of men bound by an unlawful association, and professed yourself an open enemy to the gods and the religion of Rome; and the pious, most sacred and august Emperors … have endeavoured in vain to bring you back to conformity with their religious observances; whereas therefore you have been apprehended as principal and ringleader in these infamous crimes, you shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly associated with you; the authority of law shall be ratified in your blood.” He then read the sentence of the court from a written tablet: “It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword.”

Cyprian: “Thanks be to God.”

Taken directly to the place of execution, Cyprian was decapitated.

Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-37 tell us something of the faith and the unique way in which the believers lived. They did not follow the norms of the society, they did not seek to have or do anything solely for themselves, but they shared everything. Selling houses and land they gave up their inheritance, the opportunity to pass on something to their children and families. They invested what they had in the Kingdom of God.

What if we were to wake up to our situation? If we look around at the resources we have in our trusteeship, if we took this moment in history to reflect and ask what could this local church look like if we were willing to lay it down, to permit it to die, so that it can rise again?

Imagine we didn’t have to worry about maintaining a building, generating income, managing finances…

Imagine if we discovered that we are united in one heart and mind…

Imagine if God’s Spirit was permitted, encouraged and welcomed that God’s grace was clearly powerfully at work in all of us…

Imagine if because of our collective beliefs there was no one needy amongst us…

Imagine is we devoted ourselves to the breaking of bread and to prayer…

Imagine if we met together where other groups and people were meeting (as they did in the Temple courts)…

Imagine if we broke bread in one another’s homes and ate together…

Imagine if we devoted ourselves to the teaching and fellowship of the Apostles…

And who are the Apostles? Well, there are the original disciples of Jesus. But then there are those we free from the need to work so that they can teach and proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

Redirecting our resources we could engage a pastor, an evangelist, an administrator, a facilitator… Personally I’d add something about acting justly, loving faithfulness and walking humbly, we could free the deacons to guide the church, release the Minister to pastoral care and teaching, equip an evangelist to build bridges between the church and the local community, an administrator to manage many of the practicalities… We could be reborn, we could move from survival, from dying, to living and loving, there could be a revolution…

We now stand at a moment in time which is a marker in history.

What will we do with this moment?

The church is dead, long live the church!


[1] [And the church isn’t innocent from trying to kill off others either, but that is for another day]

2 thoughts on “The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

  1. Nice concept – but I don’t see us meeting in each other’s homes to break bread at least until there’s a vaccine 😦

    Like

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