Jesus prayed that his followers might be preserved from division and falsehood, from the destructive forces we see at work in the world every day. It seems that the jury is still out on whether his prayer was ever granted.
Get involved in the life of any faith community, no matter how healthy it first looks, and it won’t take you long to find just about any form of division and falsehood you can imagine. That goes a long way toward explaining why so many Americans—especially the most idealistic—no longer bother with the church as an institution. They’re disillusioned by all the messiness that comes with people trying to live together in faith and hope and love. It’s what people mean when they say they’re spiritual but not religious. They do want spirituality, and they just as often want to love their neighbors as much as they love God. But they’re tired of dealing with that cumbersome centuries-old institution. They can’t imagine that spirituality could have anything to do with political intrigue, doctrines or set patterns of worship.
I keep saying “they,” but of course I’m not talking about a bunch of strangers. It’s us too. It’s a safe bet that every single one of us has known times when we wish we could just walk away from all this. Faith communities aim to bring out the best in people, but they just as often wind up bringing out the worst. They’re a lot like families—if they’re not dysfunctional, chances are you don’t know them well enough. We look for trust and find betrayal; we look for affirmation and find criticism; we look for peace and find conflict; we look for romance and find ourselves haggling over where to squeeze the toothpaste. Who doesn’t get tired of all this? Who isn’t tempted to chuck the whole thing?
The trouble is, we can’t. We can’t live without relationships. It’s relationships that make us who we are, even when we’re off by ourselves. And that’s a very good thing. It’s a reflection of God’s very own life-in-relationship that we call the Trinity. We were created for life together, and we’re not going to find any genuine spiritual life if we don’t stay connected to other people. We can go it alone for a while, but even then we take our relationships with us. There’s just no escaping them. And no relationship lasts for long without turning messy. They all have to deal with betrayals and conflict and criticism and haggling.
One thing we especially don’t like to hear—at least I don’t—is that the best relationships may be the most exasperating ones. The best relationships show us at our worst as well as our best. They touch us so deeply that we’re likely to let all sorts of things spill out. They make us take responsibility for the betrayals and conflicts that we bring with us to every relationship. They make us honest about where we really are, as well as where we want to be. The best relationships may not be the most comfortable. But they’re the most honest. And that’s part of what it means to be “sanctified in the truth.”
Jesus prayed for that, for our unity and even our holiness, but he also made it plain that none of this takes us out of the world. We’re more than our surroundings, but our surroundings are still a part of us, and part of God’s gift of creation to us, regardless of the messes we’ve helped to make of them—or the messes they’ve helped make of us. The only spirituality we know is a thoroughly embodied spirituality. The Word became flesh so that all fleshly things could be taken up into the life of the Spirit. Even the games we play, even our betrayals, can be made to serve God’s unswerving resolve to make all things new.
That’s one reason so much of what we call Holy Scripture is filled with stories about how God’s people try to get organized—how they try to be united, try to be truthful, try to be holy, and manage to fail over and over again. It’s all very earthy, very fleshy and often very unflattering stuff. Sometimes it’s even grotesque. But that’s the only place to find the Spirit at work.
We don’t have to be disillusioned when our community of faith turns out to be as worldly, and as broken, as any other community. It lets us be honest about the church we actually have, not the church as we wish it were. When promises get broken, when decisions look arbitrary, let’s admit that we’re still a long way from the community we were called to be. So was that first community as it counted down the days between the Ascension and Pentecost. We don’t need to find excuses for their behavior, or for ours. We’re still very much part of a world God fills even when it’s breaking down.
And that’s why we don’t have to look anywhere else for community, for truth, and for holiness. They’re all right here, ready to be celebrated.