Even Jesus had difficult disciples:
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. ’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)
“I am not like other men. I do not sin. I have not sinned. I am not a sinner.”
I think that explains the church today. I think it explains the church for much of its history.
The church lives in a difficult place. On the one hand, it is the gathering of people — of a people — who generally see themselves as failures. As sinners. This is the glory of Israel’s story. In Nehemiah 9, Israel confesses it’s story, and in doing so, relates the entire OT history of salvation:
6 “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. 7 You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. 8 You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. (Nehemiah 9:6-8 ESV)
Israel then tells itself its story — of enslavement in Egypt, of its liberation from servitude to Pharaoh, of the settling of the land, and of its disobedience. In this confession, Israel tells the story of God’s forebearance with Israel — “Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them of forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (Nehemiah 9:31, and yes, the word used here is *God* אֱלֹהִים) — that it is God who is patient with Israel, redeems Israel, gives Israel a second chance, and is righteous. God is faithful and acts righteously with Israel, “while we have acted wickedly.” (Nehemiah 9:33) And it is here that Israel makes an amazing confession:
36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36-37 ESV)
This is a plea for deliverance. It is grounded in the history of a God who acts, over and over again, to deliver His people.
But it is the prayer also of sinners. Of people who know they are utterly dependent on the goodwill and grace of their God. Who have nothing, who would be no one, were it not for the act of God to call and save and redeem. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ.)
There is an interesting tension in our history as a people. If we live as we are called and commanded to, then we will prosper. But that very prosperity makes it possible for the Pharisees among us to say, “I am not a sinner like you.” It allows for the creation of a social order which looks more to the virtues of sinlessness rather than the grace of forgiveness and redemption. This is not merely a matter of morality and ethics, it is also a matter of politics as well. Israel becomes a powerful state because of the faithfulness (to God, at least) of David, but slowly unravels as that power proves too much for the people of Israel too sustain (1 Kings 12:1-24). Kings, their courts, and their armies are costly.
Power undoes itself eventually. And so does virtue, in that it becomes possible to live in a community so focused on being sinless to begin with that it forgets what it is be forgiven. To be redeemed. That our entire confession of faith is rooted in that experience of mercy and redemption.
Christendom allowed us to forget that. Christendom allowed us to think that what mattered was the creation of a society in which Christian identity mattered more than following Jesus. In which rules and order fostered sanctified and relatively sinless lives (at least, from the Pharisee’s perspective; after all, he’s probably correct — he’s probably not really a sinner). In which sinners had no place, because if you needed redemption, you’d clearly made all the wrong choices — choices Christendom could not allow, or allow to go unpunished.
But Christendom allowed us to forget who exactly God called to follow — sinners — and what exactly it was we have been called to proclaim — a kingdom this is both God’s judgement upon and redemption for a faithless world.
This is why I celebrate Christendom’s end. I celebrate the end of a culture that effectively prays the Pharisee’s prayer, that sees no place for sinners. It’s easy to forget that Christ called and built his church with sinners — Peter, Levi, Saul.
It’s also easy to forget just what those sinners did, and how much they changed the world.