The Messy, Mixed-up Church
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Romans 8: 26-39
Matthew 13: 47-53
Rev. Dean Snyder
There are 2.1 billion of us now – 2.1 billion Christians on the face of this earth, one-third of the world’s people. We are the largest religious group on the face of the earth, so more than anyone else we need to take responsibility for the way the world is. One-third of the world’s people call ourselves by the name of Christ and are part of the holy, catholic, universal church. We are organized into more than 33,000 different denominations. Last year when I talked about this, it was 32,000 denominations, and by this year it is actually 33,000 plus, and it has probably increased by 1 or 2 somewhere in the world during the time that we have been meeting here for worship.
when you have time, visit the website called www.adherents.com and you can read about
the varieties of the world’s religions and also the variety of Christianity’s
denominations. Everything from the Alpha and Omega Pentecostal Church
As Christians, we are part of something here covering the face of the earth that is almost beyond our ability, at least my ability, to comprehend. Starting from just a few dozen people who walked with Jesus during his lifetime, the church has grown to 2.1 billion people. It consists of people who it seems to me sometimes have almost nothing in common, except for two things: in one way or another, we all name the name of Jesus, and we all wrestle together to try in someway to understand the same book.
we live in community with 2.1 billion other people, some of whom follow a
Jesus who seems to be the polar opposite of the Jesus I follow? I was talking
a number of years ago to Gordon Cosby, whose brother was a pastor in
Matthew, the writer of the first gospel that appears in our New Testament, began to see the way that things were going early on. Matthew had a hard time with this direction that the church seemed to be going. He wanted everyone to believe the same way, to think the same way, to live the same way if they were to be followers of Jesus. He wanted the Christian church to be pure and orderly and orthodox. But Matthew began to observe very quickly that the church was becoming not pure, but very diverse and mixed up, messy. It was becoming disorderly rather than ordered. It was becoming heterodox rather than orthodox.
He had to wrestle with this and he shares with us a story that Jesus had left behind, a story with a principle as to how to deal with this church that is not orderly but messy, not orthodox but mixed-up. The principle that Jesus left with Matthew was this: live with the mess and let God sort it out by and by. Live with the mix-up and let God straighten it out by and by. He left Matthew with the story about a fisher of people who went out and caught a bunch of fish in the net. Some of them were trout and bass, and some of them were carp. Some of them were food fish and some of them were trash fish. But leave the fish in the net.
first time I went to Africa, as I was preparing for the trip, my bishop at
the time who had been to
are things being taught in the United Methodist churches around
Well, what do we do about this mess, this mix-up within the church? Jesus’ answer to Matthew was: Nothing. We do nothing about it. We rub fins with one another. We hang out in the same net. We let God by and by sort out the mess. Let God straighten out the mix-up. And let me add this: Matthew’s imagery of this parable, this story, is that someday God is going to open the net and God is going to take some fish and put them into a basket to save, and God is going to take some other fish and burn them in a fire. I don’t think that’s exactly the right image. I don’t think it’s an “us – them” thing. I think that within each of us there is some richness and some goodness. Within each of us there is also some resistance and some sin. What will be burned will not be them as opposed to us, but the “them” that is inside and a part of all of us. We will all be purified.
try to figure out what God is doing in our world, I am convinced that God is
at work in the church. But I am
convinced that God does not draw with straight lines. I am convinced that
God’s paths are much more intricate than we can understand most of the time.
I am convinced that the rationality of God is so intricate that in terms of
our human ability to understand what God is doing doesn’t make sense to us.
But God is at work through this church that appears to us to be messy and
mixed-up. God is doing something important and profound. From time to time, if
we are alert, we can see a sign of it.
the case in
little later in the service, as the worship was continuing, Jane got out of
her seat in the congregation and walked up to me to show me her hymnal. Her
hymnal on the front page, the hymnal that the other congregation was using,
There are times in our journey, in this messy, mixed-up church that is larger than we comprehend where there are signs of the presence of the movement of God in our midst. Our task is not so much to figure it out or to steer it, as to make ourselves available to the Spirit of God as God moves this church in ways and directions that we will not fully understand, but that we will celebrate together with all God’s people when we understand it better in the by and by.