Many people church shop. Chances are, that’s how most of you came to be in your church. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, for some church shoppers, the shopping never ends. They labor under the misconception that the right church for them will always make them feel good, will always confirm what the already believe, never challenge their preconceptions and cater to their every need. In other words, somewhere out there is the perfect church.
While viewing churches web sites a few years ago, I came across one for a church in a nearby town. On the home page, the pastor had a refreshingly unusual greeting. It said. “We are not a perfect church. If you ever find a perfect church, please don’t go there. You’ll probably ruin it.”
Obviously, people’s imperfections, including yours and mine, make any church imperfect. These imperfections can be intimidating and discouraging. We may want to follow the way of Christ, but whenever we try, our shortcomings become obvious and dishearten us. We want to love our neighbor more, but seriously, have you ever seen my neighbor? We want to develop spiritual practices in our life, but like that exercise program we’ve been meaning to start, our daily spiritual workout keeps getting pushed off just one more day. We feel inadequate, not perfect enough to follow Jesus or be a Christian.
What’s worse, people outside the church are more that willing to point that out. Our imperfections look even worse from the outside and turn off for a lot of people. Over the past few years, there has been an endless stream of polls and studies demonstrating that many people outside the church view Christians as hypocrites who don’t live up to their own perceived demand for perfection in others. In other words, we are imperfect.
We Christians have an image problem that just seems to get worse and worse. Best-selling books rightfully list all the evil that has been done in the name of Christ, throughout history. These critics point to the millions of graves filled with the victims of Christianity. However, quite wrongly they conclude it’s time for the world to move beyond Christianity and on to atheism. In response, we could point out the millions killed by atheist regimes such as that of Stalin or Pol Pot, but their accusation remains. Christianity is an imperfect, flawed, and broken religion.
To which I, and the apostle Paul reply, “Of course, it is. That’s the point.”
One might expect that we could turn to Paul, the New Testament’s most prolific writer, for some support here. Surely this saintly man can provide us ammunition to use on our critics, everyone from the persnickety church hopper to the atheist academic. Surely the Bible will provide us with comfort that the church and Christians are indeed the epitome of perfection and all these critics are doomed to Hell.
Yet when we turn to Paul’s writings, in this case to the Corinthian church, we discover that Paul portrays us Jesus followers not as shiny jewels of perfection. At almost every turn, Paul describes us as beat up and broken vessels, who carry within us the treasure of God. He describes following Jesus as being perplexed, persecuted, struck down even carrying the death of Jesus around with us.
What kind of defense of the church is that? Hasn’t this guy ever watched a televangelist? Perplexed? Aren’t we supposed to have a sure purpose driven life? Persecuted? Aren’t we supposed to have our best life now? Struck down? Aren’t we supposed to be wild at heart? It seems this Paul guy has never read most of the best sellers in a Christian bookstore.
The story of Jesus is always one of a heavenly treasure to be sure, but in an earthen jar - of a perfect God conveyed through imperfect vessels. From a baby in a dirty manger, to a state criminal executed on a cross, to a body in a tomb, God’s treasure came to us through broken containers. In the case of Jesus, a broken and bleeding container. God’s treasure came to us through people like Paul, who once persecuted Christians. Through this flawed man, God speaks to us. What he says to us is this, the treasure of God is always found in flawed and fragile containers.
That should be good news to all of us because, I don’t know about you, but my life more often resembles a cracked pot than it does a treasure chest.
Following Jesus often leads us to be confused about things. We aren’t always sure what to believe or what to do. We look at issues facing our world such as poverty, war or health care and wonder, what is the best way to address these problems? We’re perplexed.
You know what? That’s okay. Paul says we will be perplexed, but not to give up and despair. Wrestling and grappling with the issues of the world is part of what it means to follow Jesus. The way forward isn’t always clear. For many people, Christianity is supposed to be a religion of certainty and perfection. However, I believe that is a distortion of our faith.
God is up to something in the world. The kingdom of God has arrived. That’s what Jesus preached. This kingdom, this treasure of God, does not always come in the perfect package. It comes to us through fragile cracked pots like imperfect churches and flawed Christians. It comes to us in our doubts and our struggles. It comes to us not in our perfection, but in our brokenness.
Have you ever wanted to get involved with some good cause in this world, but you hesitate because you don’t agree with every single point the organization stands for? Or you don’t like some of the people on their board? So you never get involved. Have you ever hesitated to support a politician because, even though a lot of what they say resonates with you, some of what they say doesn’t? So you don’t vote. Have you ever been to a church where you sometimes agree with the preacher and sometimes don’t? Or you meet some people you like and some people you don’t? So you move on again … and again. You allow being perplexed to lead to paralysis.
Have you ever been excited about your faith? Perhaps you stepped out and proposed a new ministry at your church, or began serving somewhere - and someone slapped you down? Maybe you started coming back to church and your friends and family responded, “Church? No one goes to church anymore. Aren’t we all past that?”
When those things happen, we easily fall into despair. We feel crushed and destroyed. A deep part of us dies and so we give up.
Sometimes we miss God’s treasure because we are looking for it in the perfect package. There is no perfect package because all of our packages are human creations and we are imperfect creators. Don’t despair and give up. Don’t take the toughness of your spiritual journey as a sign that God has forgotten you. Our imperfect life is only a means to let the perfection of God shine through us, so that people would see God doing the amazing work of reconciliation through us and so that people would know it’s all about God an not all about us.
Now that should never be an excuse for us not to change. We may not be perfect but as John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement said, we are moving on to perfection in Christ. However, perfection is difficult and it’s a process. It’s a process of being perplexed, persecuted and struck down. In the meantime, all those people and churches Christ is perfecting are going to always be messed up.
Just as God’s treasure was found in imperfect disciples, fishermen, tax collectors, Doubting Thomases and prostitutes. God’s treasure can be found today in broken families, single parents, questioners, recovering alcoholics, and a flawed pastor. In other words, we carry this treasure of God in this earthen vessel of our church.
We’ve been talking these past few weeks about being a healthy church. A healthy church is not perfect. A healthy church knows it’s not perfect, but a healthy church is moving on to perfection through Jesus Christ.
The church will always mess up. And so will we. That’s why there’s always a place for us here. The fact that no church or Christian is perfect is not proof that God does not exist. It is proof that God’s grace and love can work through anyone, even you, even me, even us.