When you’re in Greece, and you’re after a Greek Salad, I figure there’s no need to specify the ancestry of the salad you’re after. You simply order a salad. Perhaps it’s the same with a sandwich in Oslo, chicken in Kiev, fries in France, and sprouts in Brussels.
The first time I visited Italy twenty years back, I came with an understanding that a macchiato meant a whole lot of milk – essentially a stronger version of a café latte. On my first day in Rome, I sidled up to the bar and stiltedly ordered my coffee of choice. What I was handed was a short, potent cup of truth that changed my palate forever. There was no turning back, no turning back.
These days, in Perth, a barista will sometimes ask if you’d like a ‘traditional short mac’. There’s no such nonsense in Italy – a qualifying label only serves to deviate from the truth. A macchiato means one thing: espresso (preferably doppio and ristretto) and a stain of milk.
As I revelled in the lack of need to qualify my order with some brand of apostasy, I found myself thinking of the nuances of my faith tradition.
When we joined with a church on Sunday in Rome, Molly asked me what ‘baptist’ meant and then followed up with “so what sort of church is The Big Table?”.
The answer shouldn’t matter whether I’m answering a nine-year-old or a ninety-year-old. We’re a church that follows Jesus. A people who have been ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven by the righteousness of Jesus. Better still, people who have been given the undeserved pleasure of being made whole and holy by Jesus’ righteousness and having the joy of receiving Christ’s imputed righteousness on us. Ok, I didn’t whisper all that to Molly in the heavy wooden pew in which I was wriggling, but I started out the same way.
We follow Jesus. Just like the church we were gathering with in Rome.
We are called to continually give a reason for the living hope that is ours, not dissimilar to how a barista might describe the essence of crafting a fine macchiato. But we’re also called to be people who hold authentically to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords as our anchor. There is no other name through which men and women (and boys and girls) can be saved.
The moment we start giving oxygen to the periphery, it has the tendency to head to the centre.
As my girls made a long walk with me to the Vatican the next morning, Molly started probing me with questions about the Pope. It’s hard to answer some of them without feeling as though something at the periphery has slidden to the centre.
“He’s very important in the Catholic Church.”
“They believe that he’s the most important man in their church.”
“They look to him for…”
While I don’t live in Pope-land, pretty much anything I have seen and heard of Pope Francis’ words and action has been patterned after Jesus, so this is in no way seeking to denigrate the character of the incumbent. That said, it’s hard to avoid the elevation of the man amongst some of the adherents of this faith tradition as akin to religious, man-made worship. At least on a superficial, observed level.
If the posters in most shops were anything to go by, it seemed like a little bit of Jesus, a healthy dose of Mary, topped to the brim with lashings of tradition, religion, and man-made authority.
Again, this is a superficial observation – I don’t know the hearts of those that I’m thin-slicing here – but I know that Jesus plus nothing equals everything. The moment we bring gravity to the periphery, it slides to the centre – or distorts the shape that was originally intended.
We are distinct. A peculiar people. This isn’t a call for homogeneity; it’s another reminder to make the main thing the main thing. And the main thing isn’t structure, an edifice, a mode of worship, or a style of gathering, it’s consecration and complete devotion to the only name who saves.
“Ecclesia Reformata et Semper Reformanda Secundum Verbum Dei” is one of the few strings of Latin I know. “The Church is reforming and continually reforming according to the Word of God”. Continually formed by His Word, continually shaped by the life of Jesus.
We may abide by man-made structures and institutions, but we are never called to put the weight of our trust in them. Only in Jesus. All other ground is milky foam…or something like that.
The invitation that God makes to all in Jesus is into a Kingdom that will never perish. Elections will come and go. Success will fade. The once-glorious will become ruins, yet there is a New Jerusalem coming where those who call Jesus “Lord” and place their faith and trust in Him will be citizens of a Kingdom of His perfect reign and rule.
And then we will fully know as we are fully known. And we will know with complete knowledge that Jesus plus nothing equals everything.