Most all signs point towards the impending death of the church. Declining attendance. Increasing congregation closures. Reactionary, anxiety-laden decisions made by leadership. Growing irrelevance in the public eye. For better or for worse, the picture is not as it was 50, 100, or even 500 years ago. If anything, we today resemble the earliest roots of the Jesus movement—small and struggling—more than perhaps anytime in the past two millennia. Some are saying its demise is long overdue, whereas others are mourning the quickened decay of their blessed memories of a church once at the center of society. Either way, the institution is proving to be undeniably mortal—now a far cry from its stately Christendom stature of seasons past. Will the very community of faith calling all others to honesty about the inevitability of death continue to deny and avoid its own nearing end? Are we, the church, being called to demonstrate for the world around us what it looks like to gracefully enter into death—holding fast to the hope and promise of resurrection life? Might we followers need ashes on our sanctuary doorposts, now more than ever, as a reminder of our ephemerality—trusting in the One who formed us out of nothing?
Ash Wednesday—quite literally marked by its dirty foreheads and litany of life culminating just as it began, in muck—is a humble reminder of both our mortality and complete dependence upon God the Giver of all life. For many, the season of Lent is a timely moral compass reset—reconnecting oneself with God through selective abstinence and/or recentering spiritual practices. But it’s more than that. It is a journey with Jesus through the truth of sin (its consequences) and death (its finality) into renewed clarity (thankfulness) and the hope of resurrection (life anew with God is indeed the last word). Without the 40 days of Lent, Easter Sunday is not worth rejoicing. If we seek to take a different route bypassing the road to the cross, the empty tomb loses all meaning. So we begin with coarse words that are not easily swallowed. Grit smeared, though it can be washed away, soaks deep into our hearts and minds—leaving us cautious and convicted. It’s no symbol to be worn in boasting, rather a mark of brokenness and transience. Our lives are each a gift, our years numbered. Only God—and none else—is eternal. This means even the church, with its beginning in Peter and the other apostles, will one day come to an end.
Perhaps, now more than ever, the church needs ashes spread upon its forehead—to remember not just for what purpose we were created but also that this body, too, must eventually die. How can we speak good news with only one foot in the story? If we are not incarnational—fully living out the very message we claim to be truthful—are we being true to our calling? The church is not the kingdom come, rather it bears its promise and can only hope to participate (somedays at best a smidge) with the Spirit’s guidance in bringing about its reality here and now. Might we be humbled to accept that we, the church, are not God’s greatest gift for the world—that is instead Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One. Whether we are approaching our expected end or prematurely reaping the consequences of our (in)actions, I don’t know. What I do believe is that if we are to profess resurrection hope in the One who was raised from the grave after three days, we need to, with faith, apply this promise to more than just our individual earthly lives. Jesus’s promise of new life is universal for the whole cosmos and all it contains—and in my mind this includes even the church. As we enter into Lent this week, might the Spirit of Life be calling us (both disciples individually and the church communally) to journey fully into death with Christ so that we may be raised with him in a resurrection like his? Dying to the world around us, the church can only find life anew in the One who first gave us breath to speak the gospel. Today, the church wears ashes on its forehead; in the unknown future of tomorrow, may we be clothed in the resurrection joy of Christ Jesus.
– Pastor Andrew