Death and Resurrection
Remembering About God
Human memory is quite a remarkable phenomenon, both mysterious and complex, very basic to who we are as persons. We speak of one who has lost memory as being robbed and as “not there” anymore. Losing our memories is one of the things we fear most in life. Memories are essential to our identities.
Some of our memories are so powerful that to recall them makes the event itself real to us again. We experience the sights, sounds, and scents as if they existed in the present and not merely the past. That is the sense in which the New Testament uses the Greek word anamnesis, as in, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
These important words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” come to us from two sources in the New Testament, the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians and the Gospel of Luke. The words of Paul and Luke: Paul, who was the Church’s primary missionary carrying the remembrance of Christ, the presence of Christ, to the Gentiles, and Luke, who chronicled the work of Paul in the Book of Acts. The fundamental missionary activity is remembering in the sense of anamnesis—not reminiscing and not telling, but acting, making present, being the hands and feet and vision and compassion of Christ in the world.
The first apostles set out to remember about God, to make Christ present in the world because it was essential to who they were. There have, however, been times when the Church has forgotten. When we do, we are not truly present. We are not ourselves. I believe we are living in a time when we are beginning to remember again who we are after a long, long time of having forgotten. It is an incredibly hopeful and exciting moment in which to live, this time of beginning to remember.
There are those who would tell us it is just the opposite: the Church has lost its way, we have sold out to our culture, and now is the time we have forgotten about God. Perhaps they are right, but I do not think so. I think the truth is that we are beginning to free ourselves of cultural dominance for the first time in a long time, a very long time.
To speak of the cultural captivity of the Church as something new borders on willful ignorance; our cultural captivity did not begin with the liberal drift of mainline denominations in the 1960s. It began much longer ago. It began on October 28 in the year 312. On that day the Church, which had been growing steadily since its founding but which had suffered intermittent and sometimes severe persecution, forgot who it was and made a compromise with power.
The official story is that on that day 1,700 years ago the Emperor Constantine fought a decisive battle at the Milvian Bridge that made him the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He attributed his victory to a vision of the cross appearing in a blazing light above the sun bearing this message: In hoc signo vinces, in this sign you will conquer, followed by a vision of the risen Christ instructing him to use that sign against his enemies.
That does not sound much like Jesus to me, but it does sound a lot like the Church.
Not too many years later Christianity, which had begun three centuries earlier in witness that power was made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), became the established religion of the Roman Empire, the epitome of power. From then until now, the Church, particularly the clergy, especially the bishops, became identified with power, prestige, and privilege. Today we are more democratic perhaps about how we distribute power and privilege, but they are power and privilege nonetheless. Instead of being the voice of truth to power, the Church justified the use of power in the name of God. Instead of being an instrument of peace, it perpetrated violence and preached the crusades. Instead of being the advocate of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, it became the defender of the established order. Instead of a posture of self-offering, it assumed a posture of self-protection. Bishops became princes. Pastoral cures became administrative units based on those of the Roman Empire, which happened to be called dioceses. The concept of jurisdiction replaced the concept of diakonia or service. And the imperial authorities insisted that the church, contrary to its nature up to that point, order itself for the good of civil society even though it had existed quite well without universal councils of any kind and certainly without the Vatican, the Curia, the so-called Instruments of Unity of the Anglican Communion, the Anglican Covenant, and General Convention.
In short, we forgot. We forgot about God. Our memory and our perspective became impaired by power, privilege, and prestige.
We are finding that power, privilege, and prestige are hard things to give up, but they are crumbling around us. The fact that they are crumbling appears to be decline, which has resulted in a great deal of anxiety and acting out by those still trying to cling to the Church that once was. We are no longer the established church nor the church of the establishment. As we are freed from the trappings of privilege, we have an unprecedented opportunity to remember about God, to make Christ present, to be who we really are. I think the world’s salvation may be in that. I know ours is.
So what do bishops do when they are liberated from being princes of the Church? Might it mean they are free to be apostles again? Might it mean they are free to stop being Chief Executive Officers and start being Chief Missionary Officers? There is a big difference between the two.
It is not just bishops, of course. Few laypeople were baptized, or confirmed, or caught the fire of the Holy Spirit to do church work. The ministry of the laos, which is all of the baptized, lay and ordained is to change the world. It is to proclaim the Gospel in the world by word and example. It is to tear down what is unjust and, more importantly and much more challengingly, to build what is just. It is to build the beloved community. It is to love and serve. It is to care for the poor and eliminate poverty. It is to feed the hungry and eliminate hunger. It is to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless and eliminate want. It is to heal the sick and defeat disease. It is to proclaim release to the captives and actually liberate them. It is restore sight to the blind and help light overcome the darkness. It is to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and, in God’s time, to usher in the reign of our God.
What is happening all around us, I think, is one of the most hopeful moments the church has ever experienced, although it comes, as hope often does, in a fearful way. All around us the old way is crumbling. We are finding that difficult. We are finding that anxious. But it is fearful and difficult only when we fail to remember, to remember who we are, to remember about God.
The Constantinian Settlement is being reversed. And its demise will be hastened the more people, all of us, remember about God. There will be those all around us who try, indeed who try desperately, to hang onto the way it used to be. It is futile. It is futile because God does not will the way things used to be. God wills the way things will be. What we have before us is an opportunity to participate with God in creating the way things will be. It is the most interesting, exciting, and spiritually rewarding time in the entire history of the Church. It is the opportunity to participate in the demise of Christendom so that Christendom might be replaced by Christ alone. And all of the boxes we have constructed for God to live in—sexist boxes, and racist boxes, and classist boxes, and imperialist boxes, and oppressive boxes, and myopic boxes, as comfortable as they may be, are going to have to go to make room for Christ himself. There is simply not room both for our boxes and Christ himself. It is something not even God can accomplish.
The Right Reverend Stacy Sauls is the chief operating officer of The Episcopal Church. This article is excerpted from his remarks at the March 2012 Episcopal Communicators Conference.
- Battle of the Milvian Bridge
- Constantine at the Milvian Bridge
- “Remembering About God:” plenary address to Episcopal Communicators Conference, March 2012 – complete text
- “Remembering About God:” full address to Episcopal Communicators Conference, March 2012 - video transcript or here