When you read this, the final reports of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the church will have been published. The PC(USA) has invested itself in this four year process, not because what it recommends will solve our problems re:scriptural authority and ordination, but in hope that a way forward will emerge from the battles ravaging the reunited church for at least two decades.
To anticipate the report, I remembered a sermon on Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13, the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time. There is nothing ordinary about this parable, which speaks to the problem of evil — not as out there to be restrained by the forces of righteousness in a weed-free church. Instead, the parable invites us to decide how we will deal with the weeds. The good farmer sowed wheat in his field. While he and his servants were sleeping an enemy came and sowed weeds. When the servants discovered it, they asked the landowner how it could have happened, and he replied, “An enemy has done this.”
Then when the weeds grew up alongside the wheat, the servants went to the boss and asked to pull them up. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Let them both grow together until the harvest. Then the wheat will be gathered into my barn and the weeds will be bundled up and tossed in the fire.”
F. Dale Bruner, upon whose commentary I depended, reminds us that the church is not only a community for divine work, but also one in which there are satanic realities. The weeds come from an enemy. No surprise from that ancient Tempter, who came at first to cripple human life, and to abort God’s gracious purpose for the creatures. Surely that enemy would make a similar effort, with equal ferocity and subtlety, against God’s new creation of water and the Word.
Jesus tells the parable to keep us from being discouraged when (from within Christianity) there arise religions and spiritual movements that deny God’s way and power. We see this in our origin, in the earliest letters of Paul to the churches he organized. Those churches faced, not simple issues of tolerance, but life and death struggles over the nature of Christ and acceptable behavior in the community. An enemy does this.
I argue that we need a new understanding of the nature of the church, quite unlike the one in “A Declaration of Faith” in which we are “charged [having been sent to strive for justice] to root out prejudice … from our hearts and institutions. We must not countenance in the church and its institutions the inequities we seek to correct in the world.“
That charge assumes that we are not weeds ourselves, and that we have the righteousness to secure justice or to purify the church. Jesus, on the other hand, does not assume that we should embark righteously on either course. In spite of our can-do American/Christian triumphalism, Jesus calls us to humility, asking us to love our enemies (not terrorists who blow up buildings) but those in the church who do not wish us well, and who seek to overcome us.
Bruner cites a ditty attributed to Martin Luther: Wherever God erects a house of Prayer, the Devil builds a chapel there. … And ’twill be found upon investigation, the latter has the larger congregation.
We, all of us, have stood and cheered while that chapel was built. With God’s grace and the Spirit’s help, the report of the Task Force will help us tear down the chapel, and rebuild the house of Prayer that God so graciously erected for us, a new creation in Christ for the sake of the kingdom. As Bruner understands it, we must be always on guard against an enemy, who, if he cannot hinder faith, will surely try to corrupt love. Resist him!
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13 — 28, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2005, p. 57 — 58, and p. 72 – 79.
A Declaration of Faith, Chapter 8, “The Christian Mission,” in Our Confessional Heritage, The Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1978.