What is church?

Originally published April 20, 2011

What is church?  What exactly do we think we are for and why do we think we should be?  It strikes me that God doesn’t exactly need us.  If every Christian in the world disappeared tomorrow (& no I don’t mean in a rapture) I suspect God would still find a way to make God’s self known and felt.  That said, Christ chose disciples who, in faith, established a human thing called church to maintain the integrity of their witness and to pass along the story of Christ from one generation to the next.  From that the church has long understood itself to be, in some way, the “body” of Christ in the world.  The biblical story claims that the church then is animated by the Holy Spirit as it seeks to be Christ in the world.

So how do we know when we are being Christ?  Well, when John the Baptist’s disciples come to ask Jesus how they should know whether he is the expected one or not, Jesus says; “go and tell John what you have seen and heard, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.”  From this list I would expect then that church would look alot more like a hospital than a meeting hall.  And in most Episcopal churches there aren’t alot of poor around to have the gospel preached to them.  So maybe that’s not it.

Well, in another story Jesus rails against the religous authorities.  He is like an Old Testament prophet unleashing his righteous anger and he goes to the temple to clean house; he “went to the Temple and began to drive out all those who were buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the stools of those who sold pigeon,and he would not let anyone carry anything through the Temple courtyards. He then taught the people: “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations.’ But you have turned it into a hideout for thieves!”  Well, the Romans knocked down the Jerusalem Temple almost 2000 years ago;  I guess we could rail against television evangelists and their ilk who have turned faith into a profitable enterprise for themselves.

Of course, at the end of Matthew’s gospel the resurrected Jesus gives his disciples a mission; “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” Well, now maybe we’re getting somewhere, we’re supposed to baptize people and teach them to do what Jesus would have us do.  But there are lots of people who have been baptized and catechized who no longer ever darken a church’s door.  Is that really enough?  What does baptism mean then?  Is it some kind of “get of hell free” card?  Surely there’s more to it than that?

It’s funny, I don’t see anything in any of these stories about lots of the things the church does.  There’s no political action, even though to join the church is to acknowledge a ruler beyond any human government.  Christianity would seem to imply some sort of almost seditious act but I’ve not seen much evidence of that really.  Why the Episcopal church even has a National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

In those stories there isn’t anything about deciding what groups of people are families and which aren’t.  But the church is an agent in marriage and various parts of it have weighed in on whether LGBT folks should be married or be able to adopt.

There isn’t anything in that list about building buildings, or forming committees, or music or the Bible even.

In the reply to John’s disciples, Jesus is saying take care of your neighbor, attend to their needs  In the Temple I think he’s saying don’t get too wrapped up in religion.  Faith isn’t about the right kind of music or the order in which the candles are lit, its about acknowledging the Holy and making it part of your life.  It’s also a reminder to those of us who would be professional religionistas that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously; our goal isn’t to be princes of the church, but slaves of the church.  And inthe Great Commission of Matthew, we are called to come together.  Baptism isn’t some magical ritual, it is the mark of inclusion into the body, but for a body to work the parts kind of need to stay together, we need each other and the most important thing is to be a community of believers.  And as a note I would remind you and myself that Jesus commands us to teach people to do as Jesus asks, it doesn’t say “and bash them over the head and say bad things about them if they don’t always do it!”

In simple terms, we are called to be loving, to support one another in doing so, and together to discern how best we can love and accept one another.

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