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Why the Church - Who Needs It?

May 2, 1999, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifth Sunday in Easter
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14;

Why the church – who needs it? I can worship God anytime I want, I don’t need a church to do that or to believe in Jesus. Really? How often have you heard that as an excuse for why someone does not belong to or attend a church? Obviously, you don’t believe that because you are here this morning. But what do you have to say to those who do believe it? Certainly, you and I can worship God anywhere. But the truth of the matter is, we rarely do. As God is reported to have said to the man who had spent every Sunday on the golf course, “Why is it, the only time I heard you mention my name it was in anger?” But even if we do worship God in nature and other places, is it enough? Why the church -- who needs it?

What is the church? Certainly it is more than a building, more even than a community of people committed to one another’s well being or common good. Those definitions fit most clubs in this town, who, interestingly enough, usually have much stronger standards and requirements for membership than any church I know. In fact, I have often found myself, during stewardship time, contemplating what would happen to our budget if members gave to the church what they annually spend on their clubs. But let me not get distracted or venture too far from the subject. What is it that makes the church the church, and sets it aside from all other organizations civic, humanitarian or religious, save every other Christian church wherever?

Jesus Christ, of course. We are sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ. He is our head, our leader, our source. He is the one in whom we see God. In the words of the gospel lesson this morning, to have seen Jesus Christ is to see this One he told us to call “Father.” Why? Because the two are so bound to one another in unity of the Spirit and so much a part of one another -- of the same “being,” says the creed -- that to see Jesus is to see God as God has chosen to be revealed in human form. Is there more to God than we see in Jesus? Absolutely – we use the names “Father” and “Holy Spirit.” But in Jesus we see all we need to know, or perhaps more correctly still, all you and I are able to comprehend.

Now, tell me what you know, what you comprehend about God. Once you have done that, tell me how it is that you came to know that? Where did you learn that? And, how do you know it is true? Let me put it another way: why is it you believe that God is even concerned with human beings, much less relentlessly pursuing us in love as a parent ardently pursues and cares for her children and their welfare? Why should God be concerned with us? What is it that causes you to want to abandon the philosopher’s notion of God as the divine watch maker, who having finished the job, winds it up and leaves it to run until its mainspring exhausts itself and everything stops ticking? Or, why is God not the prime mover, itself unmoved, in contemporary terms, the spark that set off the big bang, and then stepped back to watch it expand and then contract, with little interest in any of it save the phenomena itself? Why is it you know life has a purpose and destination? Why is it you believe there is someone behind all reality you can talk to, call on for help, guidance or comfort, who promises not only to meet you on the other side of what we call death, but walk straight through its valley with you? Where did that notion come from? And, by the way, how will you be treated by this God once you have been found, once you have come home, once you have traversed that valley and stepped into a world with dimensions that make the three we know absolutely primitive? What is it that makes you think the divine arms are wide open, and that the past you left behind is not only forgiven but forgotten? Where have you learned that?

The Bible? Ah, yes, the Bible. Certainly you and I can read that for ourselves. We don’t need the church for that, now, do we? Or, do we? Forget the fact that you don’t speak the languages in which it was originally written and someone thought it important enough not only to preserve but to translate into your language, how do you know you are reading it correctly? What keeps you from reading texts 2,000 to 3,000 years old only through the lens of late 20th century sensibilities? What keeps you from incorrectly projecting your questions onto its answers? Remember, even a correct answer applied to the wrong question, is, after all, wrong. How do you know you are getting its message right, its questions right? More, how would you have a Bible in the first place?

Where did it come from? Who preserved those stories? Yes, you would have the Hebrew Bible: Torah, prophets, writings. But the Christian Bible, for all of its Old Testament’s similarities to the Hebrew scriptures, is, even there, different in its structure and self- understanding. Not only are the books of the Old Testament arranged in different order, they are understood to have a different purpose. For the church, they set the stage for God’s central act of redemption in Christ. Without them, we do not know who Jesus is, or why he came. Indeed, Christ is to be found in the Hebrew scriptures, precisely as the infant church found him on virtually every page. That is why the New Testament so often quotes the Old, saying “this was done to fulfill what was spoken of old by the prophet ....” The point is, the Bible is the church’s book. Without the church you would not have it. It is the church that decided which of those writings would be included and which would not, which Gospels were true to their experience of and with Jesus and which were not, which spoke truthfully about God, Christ, the Spirit and human life, and which did not. Without the church you would have no Bible to tell you who God is and who you are.

Who are you? Remember the caterpillar’s famous question of Alice? Who are you? How you answer that depends upon the community that shapes you and gives you meaning. Are you a Rotarian, a Wall Street Banker, a father or mother, a physician, a retired person, a singer, writer, teacher, scientist, educator, a graduate of “Whobody University?” Of all the choices out there, the church tells you that you are first and foremost a child of God, beloved of God, a sister or brother of Jesus Christ. Whatever other identity you bear, none is more important than this.

That identity leads us into other relationships. We are also sisters and brothers of one another, simply because each of us is related to Jesus Christ. According to this morning’s Epistle lesson we are linked to Christ as stones are linked to a corner stone of a building, being built into a spiritual house. Linked to the living cornerstone, we become living stones, the dwelling place of God. For where Christ dwells, there God dwells. And those who are so united to Christ have become a part of his spiritual household -- the church!

And now the cascade of images is almost too much to bear, so grand, so audacious that none of us would dare speak them of ourselves: a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.1 Saying that of ourselves would be outrageously presumptuous save for two things. First, they are spoken not about you and me in and of ourselves, but only as we are linked to that cornerstone, only as we are in relationship with Jesus Christ and one another as church. And second, these are not titles of privilege, but tasks to be taken on and fulfilled, names which designate our purpose. We are to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people, once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.2 We are not a voluntary association, but the house in which God’s Spirit dwells. We are not a collection of like minded people except in those moments when we share the mind of Christ. We are not a group of people committed to making a difference in New York City. We are God’s chosen to bear Christ’s presence, to be his holy hands that touch suffering, that heal sickness, that lift up the poor, that call out for equal justice for all. These are the meanings of “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s own people,” chosen for service, so named that we might proclaim what God has done, and what God is continuing to do in life.

We cannot do that without being linked to our Lord and linked to one another. We cannot do that without being here on the Lord’s Day, and working together at other times. Can we worship God anywhere? Absolutely. I spend my summers in a thoroughly beautiful place in New Hampshire, fifteen feet from a warm water lake so clean you can read the New York Times on the bottom of the lake when the sun is directly overhead and the water is smooth. The loons are busy feeding their chick, and brown tailed hawks circle, riding the thermals. It is an extraordinary place, and daily, sitting on the dock with a cup of coffee and my Bible, I can and do worship God. But it is not enough. And so, each Sunday morning you can find me in the little church in town. The point is, as beautiful as the lake, as wonderful as the White Mountains, as nurturing as nature can be, it is no substitute for being in church on Sunday, gathered among the saints, listening to the scriptures being read and proclaimed, singing, praying, and receiving Christ in the gifts of bread and wine.

Why the church – who needs it? I need it if I am to remain Christian, if I am to be empowered to live as Christ’s person. You and I need it if we are to live and work together as Christ’s sisters and brothers – God’s people in the world. But most of all God needs it, if only, because it is through the church that God has chosen to make himself and purposes known and to reveal his salvation for all people.

Now, let us prepare ourselves to taste and see what all of this talk has been about.

  1. 1 Peter 2:9
  2. 1 Peter 2:9-10

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