given on Sunday, January 25, 2015
Defining church usually seems a textbook issue, but church is a word that takes on several different meanings considering the context of the situation. For instance, this morning we woke up knowing that we were going to have a little breakfast and go to church. In this reference the word means a structure located in a specific place in our community.
Yet as we read in the scriptures, church is not just a building. The scripture challenges us to decide how literal God wants us to read the words or understand the metaphor the writers used. The first foundation of our faith is scripture and we need to remember that the scripture is literature, written in all types of situations and in all types of literary forms.
John Wesley lived well over 300 years ago, and he insisted that all Christians read and study the scripture. This is one of the works of piety and a church can be the setting for that work. Scripture provides an allegorical meaning to church. Certainly a building provides a structure to meet for study and worship, but defining church according to scripture becomes a practical task but adds to the importance of defining church.
Beginning with the question of who is the church, the scripture in Matthew establishes the very first stone, brick, or concrete footing of the church—Jesus. The church when Jesus was growing up was the Jewish tabernacle and was the site of worship each Saturday, which was the Sabbath day for the Jewish.
But as Jesus began his ministry and was calling the Apostles to join him in building the Christian church, the building was not the church–it was the people. The who of the church was Jesus, his apostles, and all the people who began following him, listening to his message and sharing it. The church today is not the building in which we meet, it is the people sitting beside you, in the church next door or in the community. It is all Christian people, not the denomination—not United Methodist only, but also the Baptists, the Catholics, and all the many, many protestant Christians, even the Orthodox Christians.
What is the church then? The church is the people who have accepted Jesus as their savior. The church grows each time a person is baptized and declares his/her belief that Christ lived, Christ died, and Christ lived again so that we might have salvation or eternal life right along his and God’s side.
The ‘what’ of church really is a common belief in the power of God’s love. God created us. God loves us and grants grace to all, even those who do not believe. Since God is love, the church is love. For those who follow the Methodist doctrine, that love is shown by doing all we can for all the people we can in as many different ways as we can so that others may experience God’s love and grace. The church is believers living as Jesus taught through the sacred words of the Bible.
Defining church as those with a common belief in God and his son, does lead to another set of characteristics: when and where. Certainly the common belief is a unifying quality of the church, and that means the questions of when and where is the church can be as simple as saying wherever a professing Christian stands, the church stands.
Yet, the church strengthens as the believers join together to meet for worship, study and fellowship. The when and where of the church becomes a time and a location where the believers meet. In our community we know that there is a church building located at a specific place a few feet or a few miles from us at any one time. The church building we does have designated times for services and various other Christian activities. At times the buildings change, the times change, but the purpose of Christians coming together does not.
The purpose of the church answers why is it important to have a church. Certainly God’s expectation that we worship him is why we have a church building. Even Jesus went to the temple to worship. Attending church is a discipline demonstrated by Jesus and his disciples we follow today.
Wesley asked his followers to attend worship as an act of piety, also. Worship strengthens and renews our resolve to live Christian lives. But worship is also when we join together to thank God for his grace and forgiveness. We share our stories of how God works in our lives and how he blesses us. We join together at church to plan and to do whatever we can for others—believers and non-believers—because we are the church.
How can we be the church? The words of scripture tell us to love one another. The lyrics found in the hymns guide us. The prayers written and shared keep us connected to God. Quiet time by ourselves open us to hear God talk to us.
How to be a church is living the Christian lifestyle. A church building is built with that purpose in mind. The church identifies what it can do in a community and uses the building to reach out to others. The doors are opened so others may seek answers in their lives. The people inside are there to welcome others so they may experience the greatest love ever, the love of God. The Church’s space is God’s space. It provides sanctuary to the weary. It serves as a holy place for worship, for baptisms, for weddings, and for funerals.
The challenge in defining church is being the church. Paul, the missionary, knew that church was the people, but he also pushed the boundaries of the church to reach beyond those miles Jesus traveled. He walked and walked, he sat in foreign prisons, he wrote letters, he took ships, and he witnessed how the church carried God’s love to others.
In Luke’s writing, Acts 20:28, the instructions are clear:
We are the church right here in our communities. The who, what, when, where, why and how of church is only answered by who we are and what we do. We are the church; we are the ones who show others God’s love and grace. We define church by defining ourselves as Christians. God asks us to be the church and we are. We build our church by building our own foundation as Christians right here, right now.
Dear Father, founder of our church,
Lead us in building our Christian foundation
So we may continue building your church
Guide the church in helping one another.
May we do all we can to grow in faith,
To thank you for all your blessings,
Sharing the Word with others.
Thank you for loving us so much
You gave your son to be the foundation
In our lives and in our church.
Thank you for the leaders like Paul
Who built the church
Reaching around this world. –Amen