Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
What’s the point of church?
Or more precisely, why do we have to have a congregation?
Since the beginning, the people of God have gathered together, and since that very beginning, there’s been trouble.
Especially in smaller churches, we like to quote the gospels, saying, “where two or more are gathered” Jesus is with them. But another parable that might hit home is “it takes two to tango.” There’s no friction when you’re alone. Only peace when you sit alone in your sacred space, reading what you want, praying what you want, believing what you want, finishing when you want.
It’s hard to be together as a community. We might wonder how much we have to hold in common- or how little we can hold in common, before our differences break us apart. Even though statistics say that the church hour is one of the most segregated hours of our week, we know that being a congregation means sitting side by side with people who don’t live, work, believe, or act the same way. Surely it would be a lot more uplifting to simply practice our faith alone!
To do it all on our own makes sense in our American, individualistic culture. But it isn’t the culture God wishes to form. The Greek word often used for the Christian community is ekkelsia- the called out ones. We are called out, brought out, of our solitary lives, of our closed cliques, of our personal choices, to be the people of God together. Congregations are a necessary unit for the people of God.
Three functions of the congregation come out in our readings for Sunday. Of course there are many others, but these three are as good a place to start as any. The community disciples, fosters accountability, and speaks truth.
The community makes disciples.
We hear the core phrase of discipleship in action from John: “Come and see.” With those three words, the movement of Christ-followers begins- and it snowballs from there! Jesus first utters these words, but then they are repeated on Philip’s lips, and you can imagine this invitation echoing throughout a town as they begin to see the miraculous things Jesus is doing.
“Come and see” is an invitation to an encounter. It’s the method through which the church grows. One person meets Jesus, thinks he has something to offer, and invites another person to meet Jesus for herself. That person gets to know Jesus, recognizes the power of God in him, and invites her neighbor to meet Jesus for himself. Pretty soon there are crowds following Jesus.
Today, the community continues to disciple in this way. Some of you are here at Cross because you had a friend who invited you to “come and see” their congregation- a place where they had encountered Jesus. The community makes others disciples, other followers of Jesus, by inviting people to experience Jesus as part of the community who gather around Jesus.
First Samuel offers another image of discipling. Samuel lives, works, and trains under the priest Eli, in the temple. Eli is a mentor to Samuel. Eli teaches Samuel everything he knows about being a priest, including how to recognize and respond to God’s voice. At Cross, we disciple through mentorship in formal ways with our youth: in Sunday School and through Prayer Partners. But even as adults, you disciple through your faithful living and sharing your stories- those moments of recognizing God- with each other. It was so beautiful to hear a witness to those who have discipled during the Thankoffering service this fall. Sunday School students are probably more eager to write thank you cards to their teachers at the end of the year, but we adults would do well to recognize those who have helped encourage us in faith. You might be surprised by the people who have been strengthened through your witness.
The second function of the community is to hold people to account. That might sound a little more strict than our experience, so think of it as: we help each other live as the people of God. What we do doesn’t buy our salvation, but it does reflect on the community and on God.
The church in Corinth, about which we read in First and Second Corinthians, was a church like so many others: deeply divided and conflicted. They had a hard time figuring out how to live their faith. They had a hard time learning to be a community together, often trying to separate rich from poor, powerful from weak. They didn’t know how much their community should look like any other gathering in their culture.
That’s the issue we hear about in today’s selection. You might imagine Paul’s stern voice: “It might be that normal gatherings at Corinth have prostitutes, but that’s not what you people of God are about.” Or to us: “Maybe other bachelor parties end up at the strip club in Lebanon, but not ones whose marriages are blessed here.”
Basically, the message of First Corinthians is that the church exists as a community of people helping each other live as people freed from the binding role of the law, while ensuring that their actions reflect the love and care that is due all creation. Just because Jesus has saved you and you’re going to heaven, doesn’t mean that you make this life hell for yourself and others. This life matters. When we’re faced with so many choices of how we’ll live, what we’ll do with our time and our resources, how we’ll choose what is right, the community can become a place of discernment. We give each other wisdom. We remind each other of our call to live as Jesus, for the sake of the world. We gather for fun that is life-giving rather than damaging. We provide opportunities for each other to live in joy and service for the sake of a world we know God loves.
Finally, the community speaks truth. Back to that story from First Samuel. So often we use this text as a reflection on how we hear God’s voice, and an encouragement to respond to God’s call. But did you catch what God told Samuel to do? This kid has to tell his teacher that God is angry with the way he and his sons have been living, and punishment is coming their way. Samuel is reluctant to tell this all to Eli, but Eli shows his faith and his wisdom by asking for God’s word.
One of the most sticky and difficult roles of the congregation is working through issues together. When complaints arise in our congregation, or when an issue in our culture touches the way we live, we wrestle together with it, through God’s presence and God’s word. This is so hard to do! It’s one of the most counter cultural things we can do as a congregation: to choose to deeply listen to the experience and wisdom of another, to set aside our own emotions, and to pray side by side with those with whom we disagree, trusting that God will show us God’s will. In other instances, it might mean that we hear some way our actions are hurting others. It is so difficult to hear someone else speak of our failures, and to have the courage to say I’m sorry, and to try to change. The beautiful thing about a congregation is that our worship included a time in which we all declare our sin. Not one of us is perfect- and we’re not afraid to say it. We say this truth about ourselves, so that we can experience reconciliation, healing, in our relationships with one another, just as Jesus has given us reconciliation in our relationship with God.
These are just some of the functions that the gathered community of Christ-followers performs: things that couldn’t happen if we practiced our faith in isolation. But the answer to the why we have Christian community is simple. Jesus forms community. Through his ministry, and especially on the cross, and in his resurrection, Jesus brings people together. Jesus makes one what was once divided and multiple. (“Through (Jesus) God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” Col 1:20 Ephesians 4:4 “There is one body and one spirit”
It’s not up to us to decide if we have enough in common to hold us together, Jesus has decided to make us one. What Jesus wills is accomplished.
As we look forward to our annual meeting: remember that the business of the congregation serves God’s purposes in the world. Our business: our finances, our structure, our building- all these things exist to serve in the mission of God. They aren’t goals in themselves. Congregations, communities of people called out of their daily lives and into relationship with each other and God, are a part of the way God is working in our world. Cross has been a faithful participant in this work. But it’s not the only place, and maybe not the only place you’ll be nourished. We’re called to steward this community for this season, listening to hear where God might call us to work, always seeking for how God might use us today.
The congregation is a glimpse into God’s kingdom, here and now. When we gather around the Table, we are feasting in Jesus’ presence. Your tablemates are people God has chosen and claimed, forgiven and died for. The unity of our community, despite our diversity, is a reminder Jesus unites us with people of all nations and times. This is the place where God comes to us: through water, Word, wine and bread. Let us give thanks for the gift of this community.
Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment