I saw a quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, the now-famous Lutheran pastor, that read, “People don’t leave Christianity because they stop believing in the teachings of Jesus. People leave Christianity because they believe the teachings of Jesus so much, they can’t stomach being part of an institution that claims to be about that and clearly isn’t.”
I hadn’t articulated it in so few words, but this was something I felt in my body as I watched a friend get commissioned in the United Methodist Church this past week. In the UMC, commissioning is an acknowledgment that a candidate for ordained ministry has satisfied all of the educational requirements for ordained ministry and their call has been affirmed by both lay and clergy members of the conference. It will be at least two years before my friend can apply for ordination, whereupon the successful examination of the fruits of her ministry, she can be ordained.
This is a process I know a little too well. When I went through the commissioning process I was living in the Virginia Annual Conference, but a member of the Upper New York Annual Conference, the result of which was satisfying the requirements of two different regional bodies ahead of ordination. When I worked at Drew University Theological School I coached UM students through this same process, in annual conferences around the country. Still, I have a nagging conscience about what exactly we are doing as a church.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a strong understanding of the theology of ordination. I know the doctrines of my church (and several others!). But, I have also seen really gifted pastors be excluded from ordination because they did not speak English well enough to articulate their thoughts. I have seen outstanding examples of Holy Spirit-inspired preaching ousted from the church because the candidate identified as gay. I’ve watched as potential clergy literally aged out of the process (mandatory retirement is at age 72 in the UMC). Is this the body of Christ? Where you can be too gay, too old, or too monolingual to be a gifted leader?
When I think about this, Paul’s rhetorical question echoes in my ears, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” What kind of God couldn’t raise the dead?! Why is the resurrection so incredible? It isn’t even the most talked about thing in the gospels! The fact is, it isn’t amazing at all. Nature is defied every single day.
What is absolutely incredible is how people respond to the resurrection of Jesus. Paul says he was the most Jewish Jew anyone had met - just ask his friends! That didn’t mean he understood the magnitude of God’s love and power. Even Paul, a man who understood his own tradition inside and outside, had something more to learn about God. Even Paul, someone who never doubted his own faith, could be stretched a little further.
When Paul met Christ (he literally met the risen Christ), he instantly had an experience that caused him to know that the institution of his faith didn’t match the experience of his faith. This did not make Paul faith-less. He simply worked to change the institution. This got him into a lot of trouble but he could not have integrity in his faith without changing the way he expressed it.
I pray daily that we are not so devoted to institutions that we lose sight of the things that ground our faith. The architecture of our faith can never be more important than the expression of our faith.