Commenting in the catch of fish in the Gospel story, St Maximus of Turin draws a parallel between “the dying fish . . . brought up from the deep” and held in the boat and “the human beings” who are in “the vessel of the Church.” He says that in Christ we “have been freed from [the] turmoil [of the world]. . . . [and that] the Church gives life to those who are half-dead, as it were.”
That at least is how it should be.
For many their experience of the Church is not a freedom from turmoil, but an increasing in turmoil, conflict, and anxiety. Often they feel more like Peter after a night of hard toil. If they hear Jesus’ word to them at all, they often drop their net out of resignation rather than faith and more from exhaustion or frustration then obedience or hope.
St Augustine looks with a clear eye at the Church–at the actual men and women who fill the ranks of the faithful (and the clergy for that matter) and says that “it contains countless numbers [of men and women], both good and bad.” It is only after “the resurrection” that “it will contain only the good, and [then only] a definite number of them.”
Try as I might I cannot shake the conviction that, while yes, in fact the Church is meant to be somewhat motley group of saints and sinners—I am after all myself both saint and sinner (though if the truth be told more sinner than saint)–that can’t be the end of the story. Too often we justify moral or spiritual complacency by saying we’re all sinners, or that the Church is a spiritual hospital.
While this is all true, it should spur me to action, not cause me to shrug my shoulders (or worse) in the face of human sinfulness. That shrug, that shrug reflects my own lack of repentance, the lingering attachment to my own sinfulness.
It isn’t however my attachment to this or that sin that causes me to be indifferent (or worse) to sin in my brother or sister. No, it rather reflects a deeper, more firmly rooted, unwillingness on my part to imitate Christ and bear the Cross for the salvation of another person.
Working to root out sinfulness in the Church is always hard work and always costly to us personally. It is frankly easier to simply shrug my shoulders and offer a bit of “cheap grace” then risk calling someone to repentance.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God (p. 45).
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. That was the heresy of the enthusiasts, the Anabaptists and their kind (p. 46).
Offering cheap grace keeps my life comfortable. How? Well, part of the risk in calling others to repentance is that my own sinfulness will be exposed. When I worked with novice therapists they were always amazed that therapy was a very personal work–I can’t effectively heal my client’s wounds without becoming rather uncomfortably aware of my own hurts, my own little (or not so little) neurotic struggles, my own petty (or not so petty) narcissisms.
Unlike Jesus, when I pick up the Cross I pick it up as a sinful man and so the Cross exposes my sinfulness to me. So I shrug at moral or spiritual complacency and sinfulness in the Church because I am unwilling to have my own wounds brought to light. I never press the issue, and so there is no stress, and so my flaws are never brought to light.
I very much want to appear to outsiders, and to myself, as “forgiving” and “understanding.” I want to appear to be a saint without having to actually do the hard work that sanctity requires. Put another way, I’m a spiritual poser. Or if you prefer, I like “having a form of godliness [while] denying its power (2 Tim 3.5).
So what are we to do?
Like Peter we have to confess our sinfulness. The problem of course is that those who shrug at sinfulness in the Church are precisely those people least likely to repent. And this is precisely why those who are angry or discouraged about the presence of moral or spiritual complacency in Church need to examine ourselves and not only step forward and issue the call to repentance, but also together and take up the Cross of Christ.
Fr John Chryssavgis in his book Light Through Darkness: the Orthodox Tradition, writes that the Cross “we encounter the struggle between the power of love (as it is revealed in Christ) and the love of power (as it is perceived by our world” (p. 141). He continues:
The powerlessness of Christ has always threatened the powerfulness of the world. And the silence of the cross is the most eloquent sermon about the power of love. Despite what we know in ourselves and whatever we see in our world [and at times even in our Church], the cross proclaims what love can and will achieve. The scandal of the cross is that, in spire of our wrongs and the wrongdoings of our world, God loves us to the point of death.
Practically speaking this means that while we shouldn’t shrug off moral or spiritual complacency (to saying nothing of outright error and sinfulness) in the Church, our energy needs to be directed to caring for those who the world have forgotten. In response to every abuse or lapse in the Church we need to gather together around the Cross, lay aside our own sinfulness, and demonstrate by our actions and the integrity of our lives an alternative. Like St Peter, we need to drop our nets in the deep water of human need.
Am I concerned about sexual misconduct by the clergy? Then I shouldn’t simply expose sinful clergy, but to educate, support and sustain clergy and laity. I should see that people have a wholesome view of human sexuality that conforms to the Gospel.
Am I concerned about financial impropriety? Then I need to be a clear and even shining example of the kind of behavior that I want to see in the Church.
And so on with catechesis, missions and evangelisms, the philanthropic, ascetical or liturgical dimensions of the Church’s life.
You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Mt 5.14-16).
Or, in another place,
By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn 13.35).
Again, we can’t ignore ills in the Church. However painful, they must be brought to light and corrected. But above all we need to take seriously our call from Christ to bear witness to the Gospel with our lives. Rather then simply complaining about the Church, or worse walking away, we need to demonstrate how things can be different by how we live our lives.