Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Maundy Thursday Memories
In the church of my baptism and childhood confirmation took place on Maundy Thursday. Following a series of classes held in Dr. McGown’s study – our first intimate experience of the beloved pastor who, at least for young people, was a bit remote because of his age and stature – we stood before the congregation in the darkened sanctuary on a holy night, the air thick with the aroma of the grape juice that would become our first communion. We made promises to God and to the church; the church made promises to us. Dr. McGown and the senior deacon extended “the right hand of fellowship,” and we were members! (Exploring the theological link between the membership bestowed in baptism and confirmation would wait for much later in my Christian journey.)
In the Congregational churches of my youth confirmation was “formation lite.” We read the Gospel of Mark, studied the Apostles’ Creed and, this being New England, learned about the Pilgrims and the Puritans, all in four Saturday morning sessions during Lent! My formation would really begin in a rich youth ministry program, at church camp, and in college under a gifted chaplain. I remember being told along the way that we weren’t really “joining” the church that night. In Puritan understanding, we were “gathered,” what the then brand new UCC statement of faith described as being bound by God in covenant. Understanding what that really meant would also take some years.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was that night in Connecticut, but it must have been around sixth grade which would make this year the 50th anniversary of my confirmation. Even if I’m off a year or two, it’s been a long time. Since that night I’ve been “gathered” into several other congregations and been part of extending the right hand of fellowship to young people who endured my own confirmation classes. The Sunday after Easter it will happen again as I am welcomed into a wonderful congregation here in Chicago.
It’s been, I’d have to say, a mixed experience which makes this strange act of being bound to a congregation rather counterintuitive. For every courageous and daring preacher willing to take on the most important issues of the day there has been a cautious and timid one. For every attentive pastor and congregation taking the initiative to be present in the tragic, confused, and troubling moments of life, there has been one seemingly clueless about his or her responsibility. For every generous church with an expansive vision of mission there has been a parochial one, so anxious about scarcity that it doles out meager crumbs from its abundance. For every community of extravagant welcome there has been the rule bound institution more eager to shame and shun than embrace and grace. For every place prepared to live the Maundy Thursday message of losing life in order to gain it, there has been a community desperate to shore up its institutional life as if that will save it. For every act of self-less kindness there has been a mean-spirited one, deeply wounding and hurtful.
The church has a seemingly endless capacity to disappoint us and, if we’re honest, we’ve all contributed our fair share to that sad reality. It is certainly safer to embrace the spiritual but not religious mentality, binding ourselves to God but not to the broken institutions that do such a miserable job of representing Her. When I was confirmed it was simply the thing you did in mainline Protestant religion. The real meaning unfolded later on. Today? Not so much. For some the church has become just one more voluntary organization, a place to be for as long as it serves some useful purpose. For others the disappointments have been too great, the wounds too deep, the hypocrisy too profound. I don’t judge them. In most cases we only have ourselves to blame.
But next week I’ll make my way down the aisle to recall and rehearse what I did half a century ago and will be gathered into yet one more church community. If we’d all paid more attention to the readings that Maundy Thursday long ago we might have been prepared for the betrayals, desertions and disappointments encountered along the way. Older and perhaps a bit wiser, maybe I’ll hear next week’s lessons as a warning to check things out carefully, like another Thomas looking for evidence that this expression of the crucified and risen Body of Christ is the real deal.
And yet in the end there is an odd and mysterious compulsion about it. Gathered, not joining. Not my will, but Thine. A lure and a tug we can’t fully explain borne across the decades by the remembered fragrance of grape juice inviting us to a meal and a table that the church prepares and where there is a Presence that defies the failures of those gathered around it. And while it binds me to all that is broken and flawed, it also binds me to that Presence, where in the words of an old saint of our Pennsylvania Reformed tradition, we pray our foolish and fervent hope,
“O God, who art eternal salvation and inestimable blessedness; grant, we beseech Thee, to all Thy servants, that we who have received things holy and blessed may be enabled to be holy and blessed evermore.” (Henry Harbaugh, The Golden Censor, 1860)
John H. Thomas
Maundy Thursday, 2012