What Is the Church? (April 15, 2018)
Greetings from Christ Church, Cranbrook.
Greetings from your brothers and sisters in the East Kootenay region.
Greetings from Archbishop John, whose prayers are with us this morning.
I want to talk with you this morning about what it means to be the church. So I’m just going to ignore the Scriptures we just read … and I’m not normally very comfortable with doing that. Today is a time to step outside my comfort zone.
That’s appropriate, because I suspect that some of the things I’m going to say this morning, both in worship and in our meeting following worship will challenge us, and take us all outside our comfort zone.
So what is it to be the church?
Sometimes a good way into the subject is to say what the church is not.
The church is not a building. I’m sure we’ve all heard this before, but let’s put it out there. We’re so used to talking about “going to church” as if the church was a destination, a place to go to. But this building is not the church. Above all, the church is a people, a community.
Now to be honest, we need buildings where the church can meet. But this building is not the church. It merely houses the church.
A love song was released in the early 1980’s which illustrates my point. “A chair is still a chair, even when there’s no one sittin’ there; but a chair is not a house and a house is not a home when there’s no one there to hold you tight, and no one there you can kiss goodnight.” You may remember it.
In the same way, this building’s not a church if there’s not a faithful community here living out God’s mission and ministry in this place in this time. And the building doesn’t define our identity as the church. If we think the church is a building … then we have to change our thinking.
The church is not a social club. While it’s true that fellowship is an important part of forming Christian community, that’s not what makes us the church. It’s a good thing to gather with friends and neighbours, but that’s not the essence of who we are as the church, the people of God. What makes us the church is that we gather together as God’s people to listen to the divine promptings to live out God’s mission and ministry in this place. If we think the church is a social club … then we have to change our thinking.
Thirdly, the church is not a voluntary association. In my mind, thinking of the church as a voluntary association is one of the most dangerous ways of thinking. A voluntary association is like a quilting bee or a hobby club or a yoga class. Members choose to be part of it because they’re interested in it. You can come or not, depending on whether you feel like it.
The church is not like that. We are the church because God calls us into community. We live in the world as a people who have been claimed by God. We have yielded ourselves to God. We will do what God invites us to do. We will be who God invites us to be. We are minister of God’s purposes.
Now, we do have a choice in this. We can choose to ignore God’s invitation. But if we do so, if we refuse to live as people who are claimed by God, then we fail to be God’s people. Then we are not the church. If we think the church is a voluntary association … then we have to change our thinking.
So if that’s what the church is not … then what is the church?
There are many different ways to answer that question. Our Diocese has been working on a process for the last 2 years or so called Nurturing Faithful Communities. It’s coming up for discussion at Synod next weekend. I’m going to take my lead from that document. Every congregation will be invited to participate in a process to assess our strengths and our weaknesses according to five qualities which mark a vibrant congregation.
1) A vibrant congregation is immersed in baptismal living.
We are God’s baptized people. That means a whole pile of stuff
- God love us and calls us God’s cherished daughters and sons;
- God claims us and marks us as a covenant people who belong to God;
- God invites us to live in that covenant, which is marked by the promises we make in our baptism — turn to p 331 in your BAS — we will participate regularly in worship; we will persevere in resisting evil; we will proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ; we will seek and serve Christ in all persons; we will strive for justice and peace among all people; we will respect the dignity of every human being; and we will respect, sustain and renew the life of the earth.
These promises encompass our whole lives. We live within the love of God, and we reach out to love our neighbours. Baptismal living means to make the Great Commandment the very heart of our lives.
2) A vibrant congregation is patterned by a particular story.
This story begins and ends with God. This story finds its Source and Goal in God. It’s a story about God who acts to set God’s people free from every form of bondage. In this story, God calls us to respond by becoming a people of freedom and grace and compassion. God invites us to follow Jesus, to walk in the way of the cross, and to serve the world.
It’s a story of resurrection. But the problem with resurrection is that you have to die before you can be raised. So the heart of our story has to do with self–giving love. This is the self–giving love modelled by Jesus. This is the self–giving love to which we are called as we walk in the way of the cross.
That’s our story. It goes against the story which the world likes to tell. The world’s story is about how to become more comfortable, more successful, richer. Get what you can while you can. The one with the most toys at the end wins. Never let them see you sweat.
That’s the story the world tells. But it’s not the gospel story, and the gospel story sets the pattern for our lives.
3) A vibrant congregation is shaped by active hope.
When we live in hope, we choose the ways of life. During Lent, we heard Jesus say in John’s gospel, “I came that you may have life in all its abundance.” Choosing life means to follow in the way of the one who gives us life. That way leads to a cross … and that’s the paradox of Christian hope.
In Lent, we also heard Jesus say in Mark’s gospel, “If anyone wants to be my follower, you have to deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.”
That’s not easy stuff. In fact, it’s hard. Jesus is talking about life and death. The truth of Christian faith is that when we do everything in our power to make our lives more secure, more comfortable, easier, then we have settled for second best. When we try to save our lives, we will lose them.
To live in hope is to trust the God of life. To live in hope is to walk in the way of the cross. To live in hope means denying ourselves in order to love others. To live in hope is to revel in the abundant life given by Jesus, which consists of self–giving love.
4) A vibrant congregation is transformed as a people.
This is where that last piece was leading to. We have to let the gospel seize us. We need to be shaped in the image of Jesus. Abundant life is about being transformed, and living in countercultural ways.
We resist the world’s story, and we let the gospel story grasp us. We live our lives according to God’s gospel values. So because we are God’s people, we set different priorities. We seek to live in God’s gospel way of love, compassion, and grace.
5) A vibrant congregation is caught up in an on–going mission.
Sometimes people say that the church has a mission. That’s not true. God has a mission, and God invites the church, the people of God, to participate in that mission.
John Dominic Crossan talks about this as “God’s great cleanup project in the world.”
Michael Curry calls this “getting involved in the Jesus movement.”
The question facing us always is “What is God up to? And how can we get involved in what God is doing?”
Here’s one way of talking about what it means to be the church. We are immersed in baptismal living, patterned by a particular story, shaped by active hope, transformed as a people, and caught up in an on–going mission.
The church doesn’t exist for its own sake. We are here in the name of God for the sake of the world. Not a building or a social club or a voluntary association.
Following worship, we’re going to talk together about what it means to be the church here in Fernie. I want to invite you to stay following worship, to discuss together, to think together, to do the hard work together about how we move into God’s future. It’s an important conversation to have. Not only is it important, it is necessary. We are at a crossroads at Christ Church, Fernie.
But we engage in that conversation hopefully … because
We are the church.
We are the people of God.
We walk with Jesus in the way of the cross.
We seek, with every ounce of our being, to love God with all that we are, and to love this world which God loves with an intense and deep passion.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
April 15, 2018 (3rd Sunday of Easter)
Preached at Christ Church, Fernie
Acts 3: 12–19
1 John 3: 1–7
Luke 24: 36-48