Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitysn famously said that the line between good and evil runs not between states, ideologies, or people, but right through the middle of them. It seems to be the way of life in our fallen world, where even humanity’s greatest and most beautiful aspirations are marred by our ugliest traits. Lust for power, egotism, greed, envy — these all follow the human spirit wherever it goes and wreak their havoc. Jesus runs up against this in one of today’s appointed Gospel readings, lamenting over Jerusalem and its long history of murdering its own prophets:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Lk 13.34)
Sadly, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the Church has had a similar troubling history of persecuting rather than promoting holiness. Many of my favorite saints were either viewed as enemies by the Church leadership of their day or spent their lives embroiled in institutional controversies not of their own making.
What do we make of this? What do we do with these institutions that are both necessary — as Christians, we insist that are called and saved together into a body — and yet always compromised?
The institutionalizing impulse is universal and is not of itself a bad thing. Humans do well with structure and routine. Law and order is a necessary good. And yet our institutions can so easily become obsessed with themselves. Structure, routine, law and order, can so easily be confused for the experience itself instead of the scaffolding it is intended to be. Similarly, authority and power, and the comforts they can bring, are seductive and therefore can become jealously guarded. And, the good of the institution — its stability, its finances, its reputation — can so often take precedence over the goodness of the institution. And so those people who try to call the institution back to its mission and heart are often seen as threats, as enemies of stability and harbingers of destruction.
But these are also the people we come to know as Saints.
Rules and norms — the world of institutions — are not bad, but they are not the point. I’m reminded of the Buddhist parable that compares such externals to a rowboat that you leave behind once you reach the shore and don’t drag with you: They are helpful in allowing us to get where we need to go, but they are not ends in themselves. They are also not the way of the Spirit. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3.8). If institutions seek to make the village centre a comfortable place, the Spirit pushes us to the margins, bringing life to the desert and the wilderness, life that doesn’t necessarily look like life in the village. The unruly and abnormal Holy Spirit often butts head with the rules and norms of the institution. It’s no wonder that Jesus takes special care to note that blasphemy against the Spirit — to say that something of God is not of God — is the one unforgivable sin (Mt 12.31.32).
Our instinct is to codify God and God’s work to look like what we do and what we know. Jesus reminds us this is a very spiritually dangerous thing to do. Just as Jesus had to remind the Pharisees that holiness didn’t necessarily look like ritual washings and the Sadducees that it didn’t necessarily look like temple sacrifices, so too does Jesus remind us to keep our eyes open to the surprising ways of the Spirit.
The activity of the Spirit may not always look like what we know or expect but it will always — always — bear the same fruit, the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. The anointing of the Spirit may not always be convenient or comfortable to us, but it will always — always — be good news for the poor, heal the brokenhearted, free captives, and proclaim the coming of God’s new day. It will bless the poor in spirit, comfort the mourning, fill the hungry in soul and body, and lift up the peace-makers. Truly, against such things as these, there is no Law.
Our institutions will always let us down. We will always be lamenting with Jesus, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Oh, Church, Church!” The good news is that our institutions aren’t the whole story. God isn’t finished with them, or us, yet. And God’s unruly and abnormal Holy Spirit empowers us, and calls us to the edges, to bring life to the wilderness.