Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Forgotten Treasure of the Church

It reads like a segment of Antiques Roadshow. A recent article in the New York Times told the story of a forgotten treasure discovered in a church. (May 11, Sold for a Song, a Church’s Windows Turned Out to Be Tiffany). Last autumn two stained glass windows were sold by a West Philadelphia congregation to an antique collector from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At the time of the sale, neither party knew what they were or their value.

The dilapidated Gothic Revival building, built in 1901 by St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, was in bad shape. The new owner, the Emmanuel Christian Center, was renovating the rundown property. They wanted to convert the space into a modern worship center and youth center. The old church windows did not fit their vision. They were located high in the old stone building, covered in dirt and soot. They had to go.

The pastor looked at the windows to assess their value. They were cracked and covered in mold and grime. In his opinion they were not salvageable. So the church decided to demolish the two old windows. Reluctant to take a sledgehammer to them, the salvager asked an antique collector if he was interested. So the church sold the two eight-foot diameter rose windows to the antique collector for $6000. The collector spent an additional $15,000 to have them removed.

The collector then took them to an appraiser, who identified them as Tiffany glass. He spent another $50,000 to have them restored. On May 18 they go up for auction at an estimated value of $150,000 to $250,000 each. Needless to say the pastor of the church is kicking himself. The money from those windows could have paid for the renovation in full. “I feel embarrassed that I did not know,” He said.

This is a parable of the Christian church today. The church has a treasure, and it doesn’t know it. This treasure is the spiritual teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. It has been neglected and ignored by the church. It has been covered in the mold and grime of centuries. Some of the worst filth has accumulated during the last century.

Fundamentalism has obscured the message with legalism and literalism in the last hundred years. Evangelicalism has buried the teaching of Jesus under politics and built sterile, windowless worship centers. In recent years Christian Nationalism has been slinging so much mud that the treasure can barely be seen. Not to mention the church sex abuse and financial scandals, which have tarnished the reputation of the gospel.

When people look at the Church today, they no longer see Jesus. They no longer hear about this spiritual treasure. They no longer see the Life, Light, and Love of God. They see a political and social agenda, coupled with immorality, prejudice, anger, and intolerance. For those reasons people want nothing to do with it. Consequently the church is declining rapidly.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest non-Catholic denomination, recently reported that it lost nearly half a million members last year – the most in over a century of record-keeping. It has lost over a million members in the last three years. Membership is at its lowest number since the 1970’s. Other denominations are in worse condition.

This is happening because Christianity has forgotten its treasure. The teachings of Jesus are out of sight and out of mind. Yet the treasure is still present, if we have eyes to see. It can still be discerned in the words of Jesus in the gospels, if we have ears to hear. 

This treasure was proclaimed by Jesus, but it was already ancient in his time. He told the story of a farmer who uncovered buried treasure in his field while plowing. He told the story of a pearl merchant who discovered a priceless pearl at a booth in an open market. Jesus called this treasure the Kingdom of God.

Some still see this eternal gospel. It still shines with divine glory. If we restore this treasure to its proper place in Christianity, the church can shine like a light in a dark world, like a city set on a hill. Those were Jesus’ words. 

This message of Jesus is written in red letters to make it easy to find. For decades Bible publishers have printed “Red Letter” editions of the New Testament. The words of Jesus are printed in red ink as opposed to the black type of the surrounding text. In these red letters lay the church’s treasure.

The gospel of Jesus is different from the gospel of the church. It is not a gospel about Jesus. That is later church tradition. The gospel of Jesus is found in the words of Jesus. It is not a gospel of doctrines and dogma, laws and rules. It is not a worldview. It is not a philosophy or religion. It is Reality. 

When the church ceased to listen to Jesus and began to talk about Jesus, it began covering the gospel with layers of tradition that eventually obscured it completely. It buried Christ all over again. Yet Christ will not stay buried. Life finds a way. That is what resurrection is about.

You will not hear this gospel of Jesus preached on Christian radio stations. Televangelists do not broadcast it. Evangelical churches do not proclaim it. Most mainline churches do not teach it. Christian bestsellers do not expound it. Few seminaries mention it. Most churches would not recognize it if it were preached from their pulpits.  

Yet some people can still hear it. The heavens and earth proclaim it. It is difficult to describe in human words. That is why Jesus told stories rather than give lectures. You can discover it for yourself by reading the red letters. When you hear it, it will upend your life. This message of the Kingdom of God will only be believed when it is seen. Seeing is believing. So I invite you – as Jesus did – to “come and see” for yourself. This is the greatest treasure the world has ever known.

1 comment:

we are one said...

Thank you, Marshall.
A truth well illustrated.
Anne Galli