The Canadian vernacular has several expressions, such as paradigm shift, watershed or game changer to describe a significant alteration in life. Things will now be radically different.
The Christian Church has long contended that the historical shift in human existence is Jesus’ resurrection. Jaroslav Pelikan, a renowned historian, expressed this truth thus: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not—nothing else matters.” Paul expresses similar thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 concluding, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and … we are of all people most to be pitied.”
The resurrection is pivotal for faith and for hope—and also for the purposes of this article about renewal. Renewal can have many concepts or images. Some are essentially cosmetic in essence, like re-painting a room. Other expressions are more substantive, as in moving walls, adding a room and filling in the swimming pool. And still others are very thorough—the complete razing of the existing bungalow and building a two-storey house, with only some of the original foundation kept intact.
For all my time as a minister of word and sacraments, the theme of “Renewing the Church,” and in particular the Presbyterian Church in Canada, has been on the table. Prior to that period of my ministry, I was a member of the State of the Church Committee (perhaps the token lay and youth representative?) which identified areas for renewal.
If we were to use the resurrection of Jesus as a model through which to assess our persistent search for renewal, what might we learn?
Well, first, the cosmetic variety of change doesn’t appear to be an option. Even those close to Jesus (e.g., Cleopas and Mary) have some initial difficulty recognizing him, so something more than surface change has likely happened. Then there is the mysterious “now you see him, now you don’t” ability of the risen Jesus. He is among his followers one moment, more or less as he always was; and then, without an “Excuse me” or shifting in his chair or opening a door, he’s gone. Thus cosmetic change as a resurrection-shaped renewal option seems to be ruled out.
Setting the physical elements of resurrection aside for a moment, the core essence of Jesus seems little altered by resurrection. The deep compassion that typified his ministry continues to dominate his post-Easter interactions. See, for example, his deliberate and thorough embracing of Peter, who had denied him, and his gentle reaching out to Thomas, the doubter. The aura of enigma that tinged much of his teaching continues as he deepens the disciples’ comprehension of the scriptures, but leaves some things for future discovery under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
So to my mind, if the risen Jesus is the template we use to form the shape and goals of renewal in the PCC, we will pursue change that is substantive, and maybe even thorough, in its nature. Yet it will be change that maintains the root or core of the gospel, which is perhaps as succinctly stated in John 3:16-17 as anywhere else.
So how are we doing? How have we done? From my perspective, as well-intended as these decades of discussions and endeavours have been, I observe mostly cosmetic efforts. We tweak worship music, preach without a tie or collar, institute term eldership, even alter national committee structures, and though all those can be worthwhile, we continue to be essentially a Christendom-shaped church in attitude, approach, structure and practice. We are still rooted as much (or more) in our culture as we are in the resurrection.
Thus, after decades of what appears to be a fruitless pursuit of substantive renewal, I sometimes begin to despair, somewhat like Paul in Romans 7:21-24. Then I read on to verse 25 (“Who will rescue me … ? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”). This triumphant shout of hope is immediately expanded in the following Easter-themed verses of Romans 8. In that glorious portrayal of resurrection hope, I am reminded that God is bringing this groaning creation, this struggling denomination of mine and this wretched mass of brokenness known as Ian Shaw into greater and deeper levels of wholeness because Jesus lives, and because the Spirit is pouring the power of new life into our world through God’s holy, beloved and faithful children.
And maybe one day soon we will see and be part of a substantive, thorough renewal which will reflect and proclaim the joy of resurrection that we have sought for so long. Hallelujah!