Over the summer I have had numerous conversations with people who have asked a variation of this question: Quo vadis? They don’t usually ask in Latin, but the question is there: Where are you going? Sometimes this question is asked about the church universal, a church that increasingly seems out of step with its time. How does (or should) the church respond to any number of issues, how does the church engage young adults, how does community take root in an age of radical individualism? Quo vadis? Sometimes this question is asked about the church specific—Varsity—given the myriad of changes that have taken place over the past year. What other changes are coming or what direction is Varsity going? Quo vadis?
I haven’t always had ready answers to these important questions. But slowly, over the summer months, a partial response has formed. Go Deep. Live Wide. In light of the complexity of our time, the invitation is to go deeper in our relationship with Jesus (solitude) and with each other (community) and live wider in the world we find ourselves.
The apostle Paul gave similar instruction to the fledgling community in the city of Colossae. He encouraged the Christians there to “set your hearts… and your minds on things above… and let the message of Christ dwell in you deeply…” (Col. 3:1-2, 16). In the face of the Roman Empire, which was none too friendly toward the Christian faith, Paul encouraged his friends to let the Christian story dwell within them (and form them) deeply. This formation “is the activity of the Holy Spirit which moulds our lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This likeness is one of deep intimacy with God and genuine compassion for all of creation. The Spirit works not only in the lives of individuals but also in the church, shaping it into the Body of Christ. We cooperate with this work of the Spirit through certain practices that make us more open and responsive to the Spirit's touch…” (San Francisco Theological Seminary). Notice that the largest parts of this journey belong to God. It is the Spirit of God who shapes our lives to become more like Jesus. But notice also that we participate. There are ways of being (traditionally called spiritual practices) that make us more open, more responsive. Presumably, there are also ways of being that hinder God’s work in our lives. Which brings a second invitation into view.
In our journey with Jesus we absolutely need travelling companions, people who know us, who challenge us, who are there. The primary biblical metaphor for this kind of community is family. Now I realize that many of us have mixed experiences of family, but what is envisioned here is a place of belonging, encouragement and accountability. Back to Paul: “Let the message of Christ dwell in you deeply as you teach and admonish one another…” (Col. 3:16). We need others—and here’s the thing—not simply to agree with us but to journey with us honestly. As Rachel Held Evans so aptly writes, “the church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.” We need each other as we learn what it is to follow Jesus in the 21st century.
Paul one more time: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17). After instructing his friends to journey deeply with Jesus and with each other, he challenges them to live fully in the Roman world in the name of Jesus. Paul assumes that as the message of Christ lived within them deeply, they would live in the world widely. Some of these folks might have been government administrators or soldiers or tradesmen or small business owners; all of them were challenged to be Christians. As are we.
I’ve recently started reading a book on preaching by Barbara Brown Taylor. Despite being published in the late 90’s, it is amazing how insightful she describes our culture: “In this age of a million choices, we are the remnant, the sometimes faithful, sometimes unfaithful family of a difficult and glorious God, called to seek and proclaim God’s presence in a disillusioned world. It is a world that claims to have left us behind, along with dragons and maps of a flat earth, but meanwhile the human heart continues to hunt its true home. Today it is crystals and past-life readings; tomorrow it may be travel to Mars. Our is a restless and impatient race, known for abandoning our saviours as quickly as we elect them for not saving us soon or well or often enough.” Ours is a complicated age of endless opinions, beliefs and visions of the good life. Only as we lean into our journey with Jesus, and do so together, will we be able to step into our culture with something akin to grace and truth (Jn. 1:14)
One final thought. Much of what I’ve been writing about is brought into focus through the regular practice of Communion. As we come to the table, we are reminded again (and again) of how desperately we need Jesus—his acceptance and his invitation to become new people. Each time we come to the table there is an invitation to go deeper in our relationship with him. But there is also an invitation to go deeper with others. Regardless of space in life, we come to the table with a common need for Jesus—in a profound sense, we come together. And then, with Jesus, we extend the invitation to others. Come. You are welcome here.
Quo vadis? Where are you going?
I don’t know. But if you’ll go with me, that is all I need to know.
Tecum, Domine. With you, dear Lord.