“We see the water of a river flowing uninterruptedly and passing away, (and all that floats on its surface, rubbish or beams of trees, all pass by). Christian! So does our life…I was an infant, and that time has gone. I was an adolescent, and that too has passed. I was a young man, and that too is far behind me. The strong and mature man that I was is no more. My hair turns white, I succumb to age, but that too passes; I approach the end and will go the way of all flesh. I was born in order to die. I die that I may live. Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom!” —St. Tikhon of Voronezh (an 18th century bishop in Russia in the Orthodox Church)
The mystery of life is that change is one of the constants, even though it does not change our identity. Not long ago my sister and I were musing about the changes that have taken place in our aging mother. She is not the person we knew growing up. Communication with words is no longer possible with her. As I look at pictures of her through the various stages of her life, I would not connect them with the person she is now except for the fact that I have witnessed many of these changes. She is still our mother.
In the mid-1980s an ad hoc group was assembled by what was then the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries — you see, we no longer have that organization within the Mennonite Church, but we still have the church — to explore what it might mean to express a vision for the church in the future. One exercise we did was to re-enact the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. I and a few others were assigned to represent the position of the Jewish believers who wanted the new converts to observe all the laws of Moses. Having always had the perspective and experience of a “Gentile believer,” this was a challenge to most of us. Yet we engaged the exercise with gusto and a desire to represent the position well.
While we were preparing our arguments for this position, it occurred to me that if our position did not carry the day, it would mean a profound change in what it meant to be a believer. I realized that the faith community of which I had always been a part would possibly cease to exist — it would never be the same again.
Our exercise did not overturn the result of the Jerusalem Council. That was not its intent. But the exercise did remind all of us that change had come to the faith community, and change would likely come to the faith community many more times in the life of the church. While some change would be modest, other change would likely be profound. There had been times in the past, and there would likely be times in the future when believers would recognize that the church as they had come to know it might never be the same again.
But the takeaway from that exercise that empowered us all was the awareness of a profound distinction. While the church as we (or others before us) had come to know it might never be the same with the embracing of significant change, that did not mean that the church would not be. Change did not destroy the church. It might not look like the faith community of the past, it might not sound like the faith community of the past, but it would still be the faith community. Despite the profound change that happened in the faith community embodied by the outcome of the Jerusalem Council, the church continued. And from our perspective today, we would say that the church of that time flourished and grew. May God’s church continue to flourish and grow!