I’m a sucker for Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life!” Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, Bert and Ernie — what’s not to love? My family and I find ourselves quoting from the movie often. “You call this a happy family? Why’d we have to have all these kids?” “Another red letter day for the Baileys!” “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” When one of the girls feels sick, I put my palm all the way across her face to check for fever the way Stewart does with Zu Zu. When the issue of money comes up in family discussions, one of us will inevitably borrow George Bailey’s response when his guardian angel, Clarence, says they don’t need money where he comes from: “Yeah, well it sure comes in handy down here, bub!”
The question in that movie is: What if George Bailey had never lived?
Stewart’s character is about to go to prison because of something his incompetent uncle messed up. And he’s standing there on the bridge, in the snow, in the dark, contemplating suicide. Most of you know the story. He winds up face to face with Clarence (“you look like the kind of angel I’d get!”) and eventually admits that things would not be better if he were dead. Instead, he declares, “I suppose everybody would be better off if I’d never lived!” And the angel grants his wish. George Bailey gets to see Bedford Falls as if he’d never been born. And it’s awful.
There’s death and violence, depression and drunkenness, disputes and greed and lust — all kinds of evil has taken over the whole town. George Bailey had never been born to make the beautiful difference in that town, to have the fabulous impact on the people that had resulted in so much harmony and peace and good will.
Allow me to put a little twist on this excellent story. Instead of asking “What if George Bailey had never lived,” what if we asked “What if George Bailey had lived but had just made different choices?”
What if George had hesitated and thought of the great risk to himself as his brother slipped through the ice that morning? What if George had decided Mr. Gower’s problems were none of his business? What if George had taken off for Tahiti to chase his own lifelong dreams of fortune and glory instead of sacrificing those dreams to stay in that “crummy little town” to help others realize their own dreams? The answer is, the results would have been the same as if George had never been born.
Now, if God’s Church makes decisions and acts in ways that are only concerned with us, it’s as if the church were never born. It’s as if the Church doesn’t even exist. The results for the world are the same.
God has established his Church to be a Kingdom of priests, a holy priesthood, to live like Christ in a way that completely contrasts with the way the world lives. We are to show the world an alternative way to think and to act, an entirely different way to live. In the movie, the world deems war heroes and business tycoons as wonderful successes. But in God’s eyes, living life for the sake of others is what’s truly wonderful. Staying behind and giving up one’s own pleasures for the sake of others — a way of life ridiculed by the world — is what’s really wonderful. And it’s the same way for the Church. The world judges churches on attendance and money and buildings and membership demographics. God judges a church based on his heavenly directive to live holy and sacrificially important lives in a world that desperately needs his salvation.
You see, it really is a wonderful church. When we remember that it’s about serving, about being last, about sacrifice; when we remember that it’s not about us, it’s about everybody else; when we remember the way of our Lord and then live like him more every day, it really is a wonderful church.