Being ChurchApril 17, 2005, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fourth Sunday in Easter
quot;What is the church?" I asked a group of our children last Wednesday at Kid's Club. "We are the church!" came a bold and confident reply. You do not recognize it, but this is the answer to question thirty-five of a document developed by the Presbyterian church about seven years ago called Belonging to God: A First Catechism.1 We use it in Kids' Club as part of the curriculum. Clearly, someone had been listening several weeks before and had learned the catechism's answer to this question well: "We are the church."
quot;Just us?" I asked, pressing these 3rd, 4th and 5th graders to think a bit harder about the question. "No," came an almost unison response. "You mean Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, free-evangelicals, Pentecostals are all church too?" "Yes; anyone who believes in Jesus is a part of the church."2 That, by the way, is another part of the answer to question thirty-five.
What do you mean "believes in Jesus?" I had been asking this very same question of some of their older classmates just thirty minutes earlier, as we were reading our way through the Gospel of Mark. Those students had discovered Mark begins by calling his book the "the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," but when Jesus emerges from his baptism and temptation, he comes "proclaiming the good news of God, saying 'God's reign is here, turn around and believe the good news.'"3 So, what do we mean when we say "the good news?"
It's about God's love for us, love Jesus not only talked about but proved on Good Friday when he died for us. But it is also about God's reign. What's that? God's power to help us live the way God wants us to live--to become more like Jesus. We talked about what it means to live in God's reign and how to become more Christ-like. As that earlier discussion ended, those two young scholars decided that believing in Jesus was believing the good news that God loved us, no matter what, and because of Jesus, has promised not only to forgive our sins and give us eternal life, but to give us power to live in this world as his people now. In fact, this is what the church means by the word "salvation." Salvation is about God's forgiveness, the promise of eternal life, not only after this life, but right now! So, anyone who believes this is part of the church.
So far, so good, but now the questions got a bit harder: "Is that it? All you have to do is believe it? I mean, can you be the church by yourself?" Now the answers came a bit less quickly--some "yes," some "no"--but their inflection made them sound more like questions than answers. I explained that the word church means a group of people who believe in Jesus who come together as an assembly to be church. "So," I asked, "how do you get into this assembly; how do you get to be a member of the church?" That one was as easy for them as the first question: "You get baptized." "You put water on their head in Jesus' name," came another response. "Just Jesus' name?" I asked. Now some serious thinking was going on. "How many times do we put water on your head?" "Three times, and then you make that sign on their forehead with the nice smelling oil." "Right, but what do we say? I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit." So, church is about more than Jesus? "Yes, it is about God and God's Spirit and Jesus, God's son." Not bad for budding theologians of their age, I thought. "And what do we say when we mark your forehead with oil and make the sign of the cross?" Silence! We say, "You are a child of the covenant, marked as Christ's own forever." You are now a child of God's covenant. Covenant: that means promise--God's promise. God promises that you belong to God in Jesus Christ, forever.
But is that enough to be church--just believe and get baptized? What else does the church do to be church? Silence again; they seemed to have forgotten the second part of the catechism's answer to the question: "What is the church?" And so I asked "What else do we do in church?" "We pray, we sing, we read the Bible, we listen to sermons, we give money...." Yes, and what else? "We have communion!" Communion--what's that? Now they were sure I was pulling their legs; they are too young to know about the Socratic Method. "You know," they continued, "bread and wine." But why do we call that communion? Communion with whom? "With Jesus; when we eat bread and drink the cup in his name, he is with us in a very special way!"
Now it was time to turn to the catechism's full answer to the question, "What is the church?" Opening them, we read together: "We are the church: the people who believe the good news about Jesus, who are baptized, and who share in the Lord's Supper."
But the catechism's answer doesn't stop there. It has a second sentence: "Through these means of grace, the Spirit renews us so that we may serve God in love." What are "these means of grace?" I asked. What does that mean? Deafening silence! And so I explained that a means of grace is a way to experience God's presence, God's love and God's power. Baptism, the Bible, the Lord's Supper, each is a means of grace, yes, even sermons! Each is a way that God gives us the gift of God's love so that we know we belong to him, so we know what God is like, so we know what God wants from us and from the rest of God's children, so we have the food we need to become more and more like Jesus, so you and I have the power to live as God's child and the will to serve God in love. That is what we mean when we talk about the means of grace.
And the Spirit--who is the Spirit? "God" came the answer. What, another God? "No, God--you know, the part of God that we can feel, the part of God with us, now that Jesus is back in heaven with his Father. The Spirit is God's invisible presence, like eternal arms reaching out to hold and hug us; the Holy Spirit." The Spirit uses water and words and bread and wine to make us more aware of God, to help us become closer to God, to help us become more like God's Son, and to be with us all the time. And, anything the Spirit uses to do all of this we call "a means of grace."
So, what is the church? The church is the place where people who believe the good news about God, the good news of Jesus, come together to receive the means of grace to become more and more like Jesus.4 When we do that we are being church.
The church has been being church this way since God first brought it into existence that day of Pentecost in Jerusalem when God poured the Holy Spirit on everyone who believed in Jesus. We read in our first lesson that "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers." Here is the earliest description of Christian worship: coming together to listen to the apostle's words, to share their lives together in fellowship, to break bread--the New Testament term that means Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist--and, of course, the daily prayers. When the staff was looking at this text last Tuesday, I reminded them that, interestingly enough, what distinguished the worship of these first Jewish Christians from the worship they continued to participate in at their synagogues and the Temple, was the apostles' teaching and the breaking of bread--Calvin called that "Word and Sacrament," the essentials of Christian worship, and the defining characteristic that distinguished the true from the false church. And, each time believers came together they did so, not simply because Jesus had told them to, but because it was in these actions that they most knew the risen Lord to be present in and to them. Day by day they did this, with glad and generous hearts, praising God. Acts tells us that as they did, awe came upon everyone around them. They shared so that none among them was in want, and day by day the Lord continued to add to their numbers those who were being saved--those who believed the good news of forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Jesus.
But life was not always as easy as it was in those first several weeks of the church's life. Soon there was controversy, spiritual pride, dissension, even martyrdom. By the end of the first century there was the church to which the letter of Peter was written, a church made up of slaves, many of whom had cruel masters, a church made up of women married to unbelievers, in which the freedom experienced in church was not only a problem at home, but also a scandal. And, of course, there were the churches where their members had been cut off from family, disowned, barred from commerce, as well as synagogue, simply because they believed this good news about Jesus. And so the author of 1st Peter reminds the church of another means of grace--suffering.
Now before going a step further, let me remind us that this text was terribly abused in the 18th and 19th centuries as a justification for slavery--it is not! And, it continues to be abused today whenever some uninformed literalist tells a wife she must remain with and submit to an abusive husband--a kind of turning scripture inside out to accommodate it to our evils--the most faithless and abusive use of scripture, and abuse which God will certainly not let go unpunished.
That said, we need to remember this book was written, not only in an attempt to describe and encourage faithful Christian living in an alien and unbelieving culture, but also as a word of hope for any experiencing unjust suffering--whether first century slaves with cruel masters, and wives with unbelieving and demanding husbands, or those today who suffer unjustly for the name of Christ, whether in China, the Middle East, Darfur, North India, or by standing up for what is right in the communities, political circles, corporate offices, boardrooms or places where entertainment or artistic decision are being made in this country. The letter responds, not with an exhortation to an idealized suffering for its own sake. Rather, it puts such suffering in a theological context which is larger than the suffering itself.5 It equates it with Jesus' own unjust suffering for righteousness' sake. None of our translations do justice to what the text really says in Greek. Suffering for doing right, suffering for what is just, suffering for righteousness' sake is, quite literally, a grace6--not God's favor, as the NRSV says--but a means of drawing us nearer to God in order to be able to withstand the hardship and pain, and endure. In such suffering, the one who suffered unjustly on the cross for our sake, the one who is still the shepherd and guardian of our lives, comes to lead us through the valley of that shadow of death. God's Spirit embraces those who suffer for righteousness' sake, and sustains them through such hardship, enabling them to bear suffering as Jesus bore it, not threatening, not abusing, not returning evil with evil, but by entrusting themselves to the One who judges justly, thereby overcoming evil with good. This too is being church, serving God in love.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- Belonging to God: A First Catechism, Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY: 1998, question 35.
- Mark 1:1; 1:14-15.
- Belonging to God: A First Catechism, op cit.
- Marion Soards, et al. Preaching the Revised common Lectionary, Year A, Lent/Easter, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), p. 140.
- The text says “this is grace from God” touto karis para Theu.
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