I met Johann Detweiler quite by accident. It was just a few weeks ago, on the light rail between the airport in Minneapolis and downtown. I’m trying hard to break myself of the habit of talking to every single person that I meet, and I was doing pretty well with that until Johann dropped a stack of papers that landed all over the aisle of the car. As I stooped over to help him pick them up, it just seemed rude not to introduce myself.
Johann, as it turns out, was a professor of Mathematics in town for a conference and – as his name would indicate – German, but now living and teaching in Tennessee. From the book that I was reading, perhaps, or maybe from my ring, he surmised my occupation.
So, you must be a pastor.
Yes, I replied. A Lutheran pastor. I’m assuming that you grew up Lutheran in Germany.
I did. But now in the US I’m a Methodist. I married a Methodist.
So did I.
It’s quite different, going to church as an adult, Johann said. When I was a kid in Germany, I found that I was AT the church. But now, I’m IN the church.
That was about the beginning, the middle, and the end of my conversation with Johann Detweiler. The next stop was his, and I’ll probably never see him again. But I won’t forget anytime soon what he said. Before, I was AT the church. Now I am IN the church.
Which brings us precisely to the point of these three magnificent texts for the second Sunday of Advent. Are we AT the church? Or are we IN the church?
It was the question of John the Baptist to the religious leaders of his day. Brood of vipers, he called them. Remember? Not exactly a great way to make friends and influence people. But John wanted to know. More important still, he wanted them to know, and to think about for themselves: Are you AT this faith of yours, or are you IN this faith of yours? Because if you’re IN it, then your lives should be reflecting the fruit that is worthy of your repentance. You can’t simply rely on your heritage, cling to the good old days. Your life – your life – is to be a reflection of God when you are IN your faith.
Speaking hundreds of years before John, Isaiah painted a picture that has come to be a description of what life IN the community of Christ might look like:
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on the faithful,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Wisdom, understanding. Counsel and might. Knowledge and the fear of the Lord. These are the marks of those who are IN the faith, not merely AT the faith.
And writing just about a generation after John the Baptist, St. Paul wrote this about being IN the faith:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to
live in harmony with one another,
in accordance with Christ Jesus,
so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just a few weeks ago, God’s prophet Johann Detweiler renewed that vision, at least for me:
When I was a kid, I found that I was AT the church. But now, I’m IN the church.
So what about us? In? Or at?
I don’t know about you, but I find usually that it’s AT. I bend toward being AT church. I like its worship and its hymns. I like being around people like me who share my values and help me feel good about myself. I like being AT church.
AT allows me the loopholes in my behavior when I need them. It won’t hurt if I don’t speak up about injustice, what good would one voice do, anyway? I find I’m usually AT church. Would it be so bad if I gave 3% of my income rather than the 10% that God asks of me? That may not be a full-blown fruit that is worthy of repentance, but at least it’s something. Better than most.
I find I’m usually AT church. Does it really matter if I’m not reconciled with that difficult family member? That I ignored an opportunity to serve? That I’m just too overwhelmed to care about the poor and the needy? After all, I have myself to take care of. And most days, that’s a full time job.
That’s the sort of tape reel that plays in my head most days. Most Mondays through Saturdays, I’m content to be AT the church.
Well Paul Hoffman, you little viper, John the Baptist might say. Sucking all the life that God intended for you right out of the life of possibilities God gave you. That’s what vipers are, you know. They’re life-suckers. Jesus doesn’t want us simply AT his church. Jesus wants us IN his church. He came to live among us, as one of us, to make it so.
And that, that is very heart of the Advent matter, isn’t it? Jesus is not simply AT our lives, standing by on the sidelines, offering a nod of approval now and then, or a raised eyebrow of disdain, when necessary. The God we worship is not simply AT this church.
The God of steadfastness and encouragement, the God of hope, of whom Paul writes to the Romans, is IN the church. He is IN our midst. He is deep, deep IN our lives. Emmanuel. God with us. Not merely looking AT us. The Word became flesh and lived among us.
That same Jesus for whom John the Baptist paved the way is here today, winnowing fork in hand to remind us of that thick, deep presence. He scoops us up, BOTH the worthy wheat and the shabby chaff of our daily decisions. Winnows, then reminds us that what we can’t help or won’t help about ourselves he will take to the cross. The bondage to our own sin has been taken into his life, into his love, into his flesh. And now by God’s grace moves us from a place AT the edges to a home IN the center. From the cold hard stone of compromised lives, Christ has raised up new sons and daughters of Abraham. Even more, Christ by his presence IN our human lives, has raised up new sons and daughters of God.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you. It is the very least that we can do for so great a love as this, to extend that same love and mercy to one another. And not only to the one another’s in the family of faith, but to all people everywhere, as Paul so convincingly urges in his relentless references to the Gentiles – another way of saying, bring this loving Jesus to all the world.
It is in our baptisms that the word picture of Isaiah about being a child of God is repeated and affirmed. Looking on his beloved community of faith in love, this is how God sees us:
people of wisdom and understanding,
people of counsel and might,
people who live IN the knowledge and awe of the Lord.
We won’t get it right all at once. Truth be told, we will never get there completely. We will never, this side of Christ’s second coming, be fully IN the body of Christ.
But the mysterious and wondrous message of our Advent God is the rich reassurance that the body of Christ, and his precious blood, will always, and forever be in us. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
Stretch forth your hand, our health restore
And make us rise to fall no more.
Oh, let your face upon us shine
And fill the world with love divine.
(ELW Hymn #249, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry, st. 4)
In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.