Free ferry

Published November 1, 2011

I had no idea that my mind would retire at the same time as the rest of me.

One of the great attractions of living in B.C. is that ferry rides are free for seniors. It’s even said that there is a seniors’ club that rides the three-hour return trip between Victoria and Vancouver each week just to socialize and watch the glorious scenery slide by. All for free.

So I’ve been anticipating free ferries for some time.

The first time I sailed as a senior, I proudly handed the ticket agent my proof of age along with my credit card. He handed me my ticket but didn’t process my credit card. Young people can be a bit slow, so without drawing attention to his mistake, I quietly handed him my credit card again. Again he refused my card and waved me on. It wasn’t until after I’d boarded the ship, still worried about whether I was legal, that it dawned on me that I had taken it for granted that one has to pay to get on the free ferry.

I laughed all the way home. For free.

I have a friend whose wife is descending into dementia, but through embracing the painful reality of his spouse’s illness, my friend, astonishingly, is experiencing joy. He has participated in Jesus’ death and now in his resurrection. But he doesn’t attend church, he isn’t a believer in any traditional sense, he wouldn’t identify himself as a Christian, and he’d be very doubtful about being told he is living in Jesus’ resurrection. Yet he is joyously participating in that new life in Christ.

He didn’t pay anything to ride Jesus’ free ferry to joy and peace.

I’m not sure that’s fair. I paid, my whole life. He really ought to pay, too.

It’s threatening to imagine that a person could participate in the risen life of Christ absolutely free. No need to join the church. No need to join my former church in particular. No need to believe anything about Jesus. No need to be a Christian.

You have to be kidding.

Congregations are dwindling enough already. Make it clear that you can have the resurrection without paying any dues at all? You don’t even have to join? That doesn’t make any sense. Down that road lies institutional collapse.

We all know the theory, of course-that salvation and wholeness in the risen life of Christ are absolutely free. That’s what the Reformation was about. Sacraments aren’t a kind of ticket the church hands out. Belief isn’t a kind of secret password. Praying hard isn’t a way of getting God to notice you. We want nothing to do with a church sign I saw recently: “A lot of kneeling will keep you in good standing with God.” No, we don’t believe any of that. Even being good, as our Lutheran brothers and sisters remind us, isn’t the prerequisite for receiving Christ’s risen life. We know the pitch-the gospel ferry is absolutely free.

But deep down we know it’s not enough just to proclaim the freedom of the gospel. If the preacher, ordained or lay, has successfully communicated the good news of God’s free gift, and the listener goes on her way rejoicing and we never see her again, we know we have failed. The free offer of new life is just the way we get them started. After that, they have to join and pay their fare, like the rest of us, through religious involvement. Deep down, that’s the truth we really believe, isn’t it?

But not to worry.

Nobody believes us anyway when we tell them God’s ferry is free. If I tell my friend whose wife has dementia that his experience of joy in embracing reality is really a free experience of Jesus and that he’d be even more fulfilled in church, he’ll know I am trying to get him to pay for what I insist is free. That’s why we don’t have to worry about the fact that we actually believe there’s a cost for God’s free ferry. Outsiders are quite sure there’s going to be a fare demanded sooner or later. They aren’t surprised if they discover that deep down we don’t really believe the gospel is free either.

So what are we going to do?

Or, rather, what is God going to do?

What God did was to send Jesus to me, cleverly disguised as a B.C. Ferries ticket agent. The one who wouldn’t take my credit card. I can imagine him, after I’d boarded, chuckling with the agent at the next wicket: “Another newbie senior who thinks he has to pay to get on the free ferry!” But his interaction with me was totally respectful-he didn’t demean me by explaining the obvious-“Sir, the ferry is free for seniors. Duh!” What he actually did was to ensure that I got on free, and that I didn’t pay one iota of humiliation for having doubted him. So free, in fact, that he left it up to me to discover for myself the joys of a free ride.

What would it be like for a congregation to act like that? Could you imagine two longtime members chuckling during coffee hour about how some newcomer still thought they had to be good, or holy, or join a committee, in order to receive God’s fullness of life? And then allowing the new person to be surprised by joy when she discovered on her own that she didn’t have to do anything? One church I know announces every Sunday that visitors and newcomers are not to put anything on the collection plate because that way they can experience the freedom of Christ. Would your congregation consider doing that?

How ingenious of God to disguise Christ as a ticket agent to get past my steely determination to pay for God’s free gift of new life. Keep an eye out for the extraordinary ways in which God may appear to you or your congregation to get around your resistance. And then enjoy laughing at yourselves all the way home to fulfilment.

That’s the sort of free ferry ride lots of people would love to sail on every week.
And might you be the gracious ticket agent?

For nearly 13 years, the Rev. Canon Harold Munn served as rector of the Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, B.C. He retired last May and was appointed mentor-in-residence at the Vancouver School of Theology, where he teaches Anglican polity, ethos, ministry and mission.


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