Monday, November 19, 2012

Has Anyone Seen the Church?

The bishop entered the nave and made his way down the side aisle.  He was dressed in rotchet and chimere, crosier in hand.  The front pews were full of children and their parents gathered for the start of Sunday School to meet this day’s special guest.  As he approached the young congregation, the bishop said loudly, “I am looking for the church.  Has anyone seen the church?”  At first the children did not know what to make of this strangely attired person or his odd inquiry.  Again the bishop said, “I am looking for the church.  Has anyone seen the church?”  With this second prompting, a brave young soul spoke up, “You are in the church.”  “No,” the bishop said, who was now standing in front of the children and holding his hand to his brow as if to shield the sun from his eyes as he scanned to and fro, “I’m in a building, but I’m looking for the church.  Has anyone seen it?”  By now the children were whipped up into a perplexed frenzy.  “You are standing in the church,” they screamed over and over.  That is when the bishop said to the children very clearly, “The church is not a building.  The church is a group of people.  You are the church and I am looking for you.” 

He was right, of course.  The church is not a building, it is the people.  If some one asks you “Where is your church?” the appropriate answer might be to say, “Well, a little bit of it is right here with me, but my whole church gathers at St. Paul’s every Sunday morning and at various times throughout the week.”  Think about it: you can worship in an edifice that is derelict and drab, but still be part of a vital, dynamic church.  Conversely, people can congregate in a magnificent cathedral adorned with inspirational treasures of art and yet the church can be on its last gasp.  Church as people and church as building are linked, to be sure, but they are not one in the same thing.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear of a time when Jesus is walking out of the Jerusalem temple with his disciples.  Far and away it was the most impressive structure they would see in their life time.  It was enormous.  It was elaborate.  It was inspiring.  Taking it all in, one disciple must have imagined that the temple would exist forever and said so: “Look at the size of these stones.”  Jesus’ response is quick and cutting: “Not one stone will be left upon another.  All will be thrown down.”

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written in and around the time when the Roman army destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. after nationalists had occupied the city for four years.  Titus, who would eventually become the emperor, led an military siege of the holy city and when it succeed his forces saw to the complete demolition of the temple.   The Jewish people where trying to make sense of what religion would look like in a post-temple era.  Christians, who at the time were a small subset within the Hebrew tradition, were especially keen to remember Jesus’ teachings that might help them make sense of this new world. 

For weeks now our New Testament readings have been taken from the Letter to the Hebrews.  Throughout the document the author has dealt with various temple functions – important aspects of the religious tradition that could not happen after the temple was in ruins – and describes how Jesus fulfills those functions once and for all.  In today’s reading, for example, the author describes how the temple’s work as a place for offering sacrifices to achieve the forgiveness of sins – something that was on-going each and every day – has been completed once and for all through Jesus’ offering of himself. 

The author then points the readers of the time to what religion in a post-temple era should look like:

·  Have confidence that in Christ you are acceptable to God.
·  Hold on to this hope without wavering.
·  Encourage each other to demonstrate love and to do good deeds.
·  Meet together on a regular basis.

Not one stone was left on top of another, but, because the church is not a building, the church continued.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am not anti-building.  The space where the church gathers forms and shapes the people in important ways.  The building we call St. Paul’s Church is a legacy from our ancestors and the place where we gather together to encounter God.  It is from here that minister to one another and to the community.  We hold this building as our shared responsibility to preserve for the future.  But while the building and the church exist in relationship to one another, they are not one in the same… as the bishop reminded those children.  The building exists to serve various functions.  The church as people exists because Jesus Christ calls it into being.

This point was sharply driven home to me years ago not long after I graduated from Virginia Seminary.  Now, I love VTS and my time there was powerful and formative.  Once ordained and back in the Diocese of Ohio I worked to create an alumni reunion event to be attended by the seminary’s development officer.  A couple dozen people attended the lunch and (as they say) a good time was had by all.  The development officer gave a short speech to bring everyone up to date on school happenings.  I will never forget what he said:

“Right now God is seeing fit to use the Virginia Theological Seminary in certain ways.  There will come a time however when God will not need to use the seminary and it will exist no longer; certainly by the second coming, if not well before.”

A time when the seminary won’t exist?  What kind of heresy is this, I thought.  But as I considered the matter a little more, I realized I was the playing the role of the disciple admiring the large stones and he playing the role of Jesus reminding me that institutions don’t remain standing forever.  It is the church as God’s people that endures for all time and beyond.

Many are suggesting that the church now exists in a time similar to when the temple was under siege.  Change is in the air and it is hard to know what religious life will look like in the coming years.  This much is clear: the fastest growing religious group in America is ‘none’ – people who identify themselves as having no church or religious affiliation.  All Christian denominations across the board are experiencing declining membership and attendance; thus our institutions are charged with anxiety about the future and grief around our diminishing standing in today’s society. 

Jesus’ word to us this morning is shocking before it is comforting: the church is not the stones of the building nor is it the structure of an institution.  The church is the people and thus the church will endure.  The reason the church will endure is because God wants to be in relationship with us.  Thus, there will always be those who are gathered around Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Church.  That gathering may look very similar to how we are gathered this morning, or it may look very different, but those gathered, in whatever form or fashion it takes, will be the church.

If our time is similar to the period when the temple was destroyed then the counsel of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes on even more significance:

·  Have confidence that in Christ you are acceptable to God.
·  Hold on to this hope without wavering.
·  Encourage each other to demonstrate love and to do good deeds
·  Meet together on a regular basis.

“I am looking for the church,” the bishop cried out.  “Has anyone seen the church?”  In our day and age, fewer and fewer people are looking for a building in which to worship nor are they interested in signing on with a religious institution.  But I do believe people are looking for the church.  They are looking for a people of faith because ultimately they are looking for God.  God responded to human searching long ago by becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.  It is this Jesus who now becomes incarnate in and through the life of the Church.  Therefore it is God’s ultimate dream that those who search for God will find God in our common life as the Church.