Sunday, November 14, 2010

Church Happens

Isaiah 65:17-25 Acts 2:42-47 Matthew 16:13-18

It has been said there are countless reasons not to get up early on a Sunday morning to attend worship services, but there is only One Reason why we must. I think this is not in dispute - among the faithful. What does seem to be in dispute among the other, less-than-faithful is whether that One Reason is good enough - or whether that One Reason is merely an opinion held only by those who have varied social or professional or even financial interests in high attendance numbers.

There is also the dispute about whether or not a failure or outright refusal to attend to worship is a "sin" and whether the Lord will hold it against us if we choose to pursue our own pleasures and individual interests rather than bother to show Him and fellow disciples some love and a little devotion by giving Him one silly hour out of our entire week to hear the Word proclaimed, to attend to the Sacraments of the Church, to support the Church, His Blessed Body, and to show support for one another in fellowship in our common prayers and presence.

It is truly all about "love" and whether such sacrificial love (and, ultimately, the Lord Himself) exists within us; whether there exists a mere PROMISE from the Lord - OR - if we are entered into a COVENANT with the Lord - and make no mistake; there is a substantial difference. It is that same Divine Love that not only created us for a specific purpose but, ironically, also set us free; and by creation and redemption even made it possible for us to not only choose to come but also stay - or not. To enter into Covenant with Him - or simply accept the Promise as our own "personal" guarantee and run.

Clearly my bias is showing, and clearly the Arkansas Conference will determine the effectiveness of any pastor and the usefulness of any particular United Methodist Church at least in part by rising - or flat and declining - attendance numbers. Clearly the burden for each member is diminished when more contribute to the upkeep of the Church. It's ok to be honest about these things because these numbers do speak to the current state of the Church overall; not just this one. So it is within the context of the greater and whole Church, the Body of Christ, that the question must be answered: Why Church? What purpose does the Church serve? Is the Church merely an antiquated institution that is no longer relevant? Is the usefulness or effectiveness of the Church in a secular society determined only by the Church's ability to manipulate the political and social agenda?

Why Church? Where would civilization be without the Church? It is painfully ironic that the many so-called "spiritual" Christians would insist that one can be a faithful disciple and/or redeemed apart from the Church - because the Church, for all her human imperfections, is still the Body of Christ - and it is Christ who redeems! - expressed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians: "[The Lord God] put all things under [Christ's} feet and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all" (1:22-23).

Some questions we should ask of those who insist they do not need the Church or that the Church does not need them or that the Church is no longer needed at all:

• Who will proclaim the Gospel of Christ if not the Church?
• Who baptizes according to Christ's command (Mt 28:19) if not the Church?
• What is one baptized INTO if not the Body of Christ, the Holy Church?
• Who is the guardian and herald of the Covenant if not the Church?
• Throughout the Bible, to whom are most of the "letters" and epistles addressed if not to the Church (and in the O/T, to the nation of Israel) as a whole?
• The Lord commanded through Moses that "the redemption story" is to be told perpetually, throughout the generations. Who will tell the story if not the Church?
• What did St. Peter mean when his eyes were opened and he proclaimed, "In truth I perceive that the Lord God 'shows no partiality' (NRSV)", or in KJV, 'is no respecter of persons' (Acts 10:34)? In other words, no individual or "personal" favors?

Tony Campolo, in writing for Christianity Today, expresses some harsh criticism of the Church as a whole, and the evangelical church in general, in his article, "Letter to a young evangelical", while still defending the integrity of the Holy Church. He writes: "Think about the words of St. Augustine: "The Church is a [harlot], but she's my mother." You don't have to look too hard to see that the ... Church in America has a great propensity for reducing Christianity to a validation of our society's middle-class way of life. Unquestionably, the church too often has socialized our young people into adopting culturally established values of success, rather than calling them into the kind of countercultural nonconformity that Scripture requires of Christ's followers" (Romans 12:1-2 = "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed ...").

"Why, then, do I encourage you to participate in organized religion and commit yourself to a specific local congregation? Because, as Augustine made clear, "the church is still your mother". It is She who taught you about Jesus. I want you to remember that the Bible teaches that Christ loves the Church and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). That's a preeminent reason why you dare not decide that you don't need the Church. Christ's church is called His bride (2 Cor 11:2), and His love for her makes Him faithful to her even when she is not faithful to Him."

This argument goes back to a previous statement I made in which we are challenged to engage in Christ fully and completely, all aspects of His being, His Life as well as His death, in recognizing that we cannot have one without the other. It is utterly ridiculous, disingenuous, and unbiblical to believe one can be redeemed by His blood while simultaneously rejecting the relevance of His Life, the Presence of which continues in and through the Church.

It is important to remember and embrace the fidelity of the Lord regardless of our response - or lack thereof - because He is the one, single, solitary Constant and Certainty and Covenant in a world filled with inconsistencies, uncertainties, and broken promises. If we are making an argument "for" Church, the argument is empty without Christ - for the Church is empty without Christ. Without Christ as the divinely appointed Head, we may as well call ourselves the "Rotary" or "Optimists" or "Elks" or any number of other secular, civic organizations whose rules and standards of conduct are subject to majority vote of humans and their own cultural standards.

Tony Campolo, the same author mentioned earlier, tells of one of his earliest recollections of Holy Communion at the church where he grew up. As the bread was being passed around (the tiny crackers on a plate), a sobbing young woman seated in the pew just in front of him refused the plate when it was passed to her and then lowered her head, sobbing in despair. Tony's father leaned over the young woman's shoulder and whispered, "Take it, girl. It was meant for you."

"She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that [it was only the] Church that could offer Communion to hurting people as a special gift from God."

Where else, indeed, will such Good News be proclaimed? Clearly the elder gentleman was not so concerned about making the young woman feel good about herself by granting her a social "pass" for her mistakes, but was instead seeking to make the young, heart-broken woman feel good about her Lord - who gave Himself so completely for her IN SPITE of her sinful state. Where else would this happen but within the Body of Christ?

There is a saying: "We're not what we ought to be, but then we're not what we used to be."

The Holy Church, as the Body of Christ, is made up of her individual members, those members who choose to step forward and come into Union with Christ AND with one another in COVENANT. It is the Church called forward by the "Great Commission" to be Christ in and to the world. The Lord did not offer an "option" prior to His Glorious Ascension; He issued a directive, a command. And He put His Body the Church in place, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to continue His ministry to those who cannot find their way. Who else but the Holy Church? And within the Holy Church herself, Christ's promises are sure: I will be with you ... And the gates of Hades shall not prevail.
In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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