Michael Jinkins: Analogies for the church's situation

Whenever we worry about the church’s future, listen for a knock at the door.

One of the more useful exercises our church has attempted in recent years is to discern the right biblical analogy for illuminating our contemporary situation.

A few years ago as mainline Protestants settled into the new reality of numerical decline -- the so-called disestablishment era for Protestantism in North America -- some leaders described us as living in an age of exile. I recall Jack Stotts, then president of Austin Seminary, reflecting eloquently on this theme.

My colleague and friend, Cynthia Campbell, long-time president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, recently used Exodus 14:10-15 to shine light on our present situation. With their backs to the sea and their faces turned to Pharaoh’s armies, the people complained to Moses about dragging them into the desert to die. The passage ends with the Lord God saying to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” I think Cynthia is right. This passage has a lot to say to us today.

But another analogy has been rattling around my brain, and I offer it because I think our situation is complex enough to require a variety of biblical perspectives to illumine it well.

There’s a moment in the life of the Christian movement when our every hope lay buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. We get glimpses of this moment in Luke 24:1-12 and John 20:1-31.

The disciples hunker down in a room in Jerusalem and worry about the course of their lives, anxious about the future of their fledgling messianic movement. Their charismatic young teacher, crucified by the Romans, lay dead in a cold grave. Tension and fear filled the room: “Are we to suffer the fate of John the Baptist’s followers after his death? Will we just scatter? Are the Romans coming after us? Will we share the fate of Jesus?”

So much hope lost; aspirations, evaporated. Maybe Peter contemplates buying a new fishing boat. Levi wonders if he can return to his tax business. Simon the Zealot eyes his political prospects.

What a contrast to the room in which they met the night before Jesus’ execution, when they dined with Jesus and prayed with Jesus and pledged themselves to walk with Jesus. Now he is dead, and with him, their hopes.

The irony is that even while huddled in that room the resurrection already had happened. Jesus already was raised from the dead. Their hopes could not stretch large enough to conceive of resurrection.

It’s so easy to blame those disciples for not having a hope big enough to encompass resurrection. But that’s really a cheap shot. They merely knew what they knew. Dead is dead. Gone is gone. Impossible is impossible. “Let’s get real,” you can almost hear one of them say, “Whatever dreams we had are buried in Joseph’s tomb.”

Whenever I hear someone say that the situation we face now is graver, more challenging than any we have ever faced, I stifle a laugh. Our low point surely was at the beginning of the Christian movement. We muttered and worried in that room long ago and could not imagine that Christ was raised from the dead, risen with healing in his wings, and with his death and resurrection had judged even our highest aspirations as inadequate. He pronounced our greatest hopes as infinitely too small.

There was a knock at the door of that room in which the disciples huddled. Women knocked at the door, fresh from the tomb with incredible news.

Do we hear the knock at the door today?

There are witnesses fresh from the empty tomb. They have run here. They are out of breath. They have news for us. Christ is raised from the dead. This news is too big for our hopes. This news makes our doubts and anxieties obsolete. This news requires new plans.

Rather than return to their fishing boats and tax offices and swords, the disciples long ago spread out across their world with this good news on their lips, building communities of persons whose worlds were turned upside down, whose lives were baptized into the death of Christ and raised into a new life, a new identity that trumped every old difference that divided them in the world.

Do we hear the knock of witnesses at the door?

“What’s next for the church?” we ask again and again. This is what’s next: resurrection. Resurrection which has already happened, which has the power to overcome and overwhelm everything around us, to make all things new.

Do we hear the knock of witnesses at the door?

Do we have the courage to open the door?

Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.