What it Means to be Church

What it Means to be Church

October 03, 2021 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler burned down the Reichstag in Berlin and assumed control of Germany for the Nazi party, a Presbyterian pastor in Pittsburgh came up with the idea of World Communion Sunday to symbolize the unity of all churches. If churches would celebrate communion together on the same Sunday, maybe we would focus more on our commonalities than our differences.

As dark and foreboding forces led to the outbreak of World War II, the desire for unity among Christians increased so that by the first Sunday in October 1940, World Communion Sunday was endorsed by most major Christian branches of the world, realizing that the more challenging the times, the more critical it was for Christians to come together.

That makes an ideal Sunday to take the next step in our STEPS series and talk about the role of the church in living out our faith. Unity that draws people together, especially in times of division and threat, has always been the grand ideal of the church. But, as we have established quite well over the past couple of months talking about The Church the World Needs, and through a fair bit of this series, the Church has unfortunately added to the division of the world. As Barbara Brown Taylor observes, “…human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.” (Leaving Church, p106)

So without needing to rehearse any more of the Church’s sordid past, let’s talk this morning about why the church is here in the first place, and what it looks like when serves it purpose well. Let us pray…

There’s a story about a pastor who preached his first sermon at a new church. After the service he greets people at the door and this boy walks by and says, “Boring sermon.” The pastor grins to himself and keeps shaking hands with people as they file out. A few minutes later the same boy walks by again and says, “Fell asleep.” The pastor now tries to ignore this, and continues greeting. A few minutes later, he’s back again and says, “Bad preaching.”

Well, the chair of the church board was nearby and she could tell this was starting to annoy the pastor. She took him aside and said, “Don’t pay any attention to that little fellow. He’s a bit odd. He’s developed the habit of walking around repeating what he hears other folks say.”

That was reassuring wasn’t it? Well believe it or not, preachers actually get a kick out of that story because it calls out the malady of the modern church. Too many churches today have developed a culture of spectators determining if we like or dislike what goes on, and we have somewhat lost the understanding of church as a sending institution that instills in people a sense of missional living.

Now, to be clear, I am going to ask you at the end of the message, “Did you like the sermon?” But before we get there, I want us to think about why we come here.

Over 20 years ago The United Methodist Church, after decades of decline, recognized that the more churches focus on their own needs, the more we shrink. The problem was we never were clear about what the mission of the church is. So we approved our first mission statement in 2000 and eight years later amended it to it current form: “The Mission of the United Methodist Church is…to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

In other words, the purpose of the church is to be a sending institution helping people carry on the work of Jesus through the help of the Holy Spirit. To which the Apostle Paul would say, “Amen!”

Paul wrote extensively about the mission of the church. The word in Greek he used for church is ekklesia. Many modern folks mistakenly translate ekklesia as a noun meaning “assembly.” But the way Paul used it it’s more like a verb that means “Called-out assembly.” It is a community called out by God to carry on Jesus’ work in the world. But just what is that work?

In Ephesians chapter 2 Paul addresses Gentiles, non-Jewish people who were not fully accepted in Judaism but had found a place in the church. In verse 19 he shares what is one of the most important descriptions of who the church is called to be: “you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

Now to appreciate what Paul is describing in terms of ekklesia we have to understand two important aspects of Jewish worship in Paul’s day, the Temple and the synagogue. Let’s start with the temple. It was designed around a series of courtyards. As you can see by this picture there was the first courtyard, the Courtyard of Gentiles. Anyone could come into this area, but there was a wall of separation with signs warning Gentiles that if they went further they would be put to death.

 Then there was the Courtyard of Women. Then through another wall, there was a courtyard of Israelites, meaning all men. Another barrier and you get to the Courtyard of priests. Eventually deep inside is the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant was placed. This symbolized the presence of God. Only one person, the High Priest, was allowed there, and even then just once a year.

Now just looking at this diagram what theological message would you say it sends? To me it sends the subtle message that the closer to God you get the lonelier it is; that God relates to us by categories and divisions, with some people being more important than others. The very design of the temple communicated that this was how God means for things to be.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “You want to talk about the way God intends for things to be? I have some insight on that.” He talks about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it himself. That He becomes the temple. That’s why Paul wrote in Ephesians “Christ himself is our peace. He made both Jewish people and those who are not Jews one people. They were separated as if there were a wall between them, but Christ broke down that wall of hate by giving his own body.” (Ephesians 2:14 NCV)

So for Paul, what is the purpose of the church? To help Jesus tear down walls that divide!

And that brings us to the other element of Jewish worship, the synagogue. In 586BC the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Jews who fled Israel and those in captivity began worshipping in little communities to study Torah and encourage each other. These groups became known as assemblies or ‘synagogues.’ Even after the Temple in Jerusalem was built, the synagogue had become a popular form of worship in Judaism.

So Paul took this idea of assembly and applied to church, understanding that its job wasn’t just to gather, but carry out. The church would carry out Jesus ongoing mission of tearing down walls between people and God and the walls between people and people.

Now time doesn’t allow me to do justice to all that is in this passage. Paul offers three important identities for what it means to be church: Citizens, Family and Building. They each have important concepts for what it means to be church, but for sake of time, I want to jump to the last one, because Paul offers the idea of a building as a key image for how we are to live as a church. He writes, “You are like a building that was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Christ Jesus himself is the most important stone in that building…”(2:20)

Paul, no doubt was picturing the stones in the temple. Like any good builder does, each stone is carefully chosen based on its fit.

Last summer we found some folks who rebuilt some rock walls in our back yard. They took it all apart, re-dug the foundation then put the wall back together. They carefully took each stone to determine where it fit best, so that the strength of the wall is now determined by the right fit of each stone.

That’s how the church works. The gets stronger and stronger when each one in it discovers their right fit. And this is where the Holy Spirit comes back into play. In other letters Paul talks about the way the Holy Spirit gives us gifts, talents and abilities God uses to make a difference in the world. Do you know what your spiritual gifts are? When we volunteer in places that are not our gift, our work is draining. Have you ever volunteered in the church simply because they needed warm bodies, but it was not your gift or passion? If so then you know what its like to feel that the church just becomes one more place that takes from you.

But when you serve out of your spiritual giftedness, you come to life. As Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

So the spiritual exercise this week is to take a Spiritual Gift inventory…

But let’s go back to a very important understanding of temple, because to miss this is to miss Paul’s entire ecclesiology, his theology of church. Paul says we are to be the temple. Now think about this. Church takes on a real missional power in our lives when we understand that it doesn’t exist for our benefit. Oh sure, it starts that way. We come here because we find hope. But at some point Paul says, we blend into the walls. We become the bricks and mortar of the place. We become the church that exists for others. Or to borrow a phrase from our last series, this is the church the world needs.

Let me tell you a story I shared a couple years ago, but then close by adding a Paul Harvey to it.

The founder of Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas was a pastor named Tom Shipp. When Tom was a boy in the 1920’s his mother died and his father had to take a job with the railroad, so the children had to be sent out to live with different families. Tom went to live with a German farming family. After completing all the chores he joined the family at the dinner table. The father said, “Boy there’s no room for you here. You’ll eat on the porch and your bed is in the barn.”

He did this for a whole year until he couldn’t take it anymore, so arrangements were made for him to live with another farming family. Only this family welcomed him to the table, and gave him his own room. On Sunday he went with them to a Methodist Church. This is what he wrote about that experience:

The first Sunday I attended church it was communion. The ushers directed people to the communion table. The family I was with, insisted that I go with them. As I knelt down (to receive the elements) the man I had worked for knelt down beside me on my right, and the man for whom I was now working was at my left.

The communion elements were served. And the man at my right for whom I had worked took my hand and held it just as I reached for the bread. I can still feel the tension. The man to my left was a German, and his face turned bright red. I can still hear the words that he said as he leaned forward, the preacher still holding the elements, not moving. He said to the man, “It’s not your table! There was a hush over the whole sanctuary. “It’s not your table! It’s not your table!”

Finally, before matters came to blows, the man released his grip and I was allowed to take Holy Communion for the first time.

Years later Tom Shipp, through the help of church people who became his family, he went to college and felt a call to ministry. When he started Lovers Lane in Dallas he wanted it to be a church that welcomed all people, alcoholics, addicts, divorced persons, people who had given up on church or on the possibility of a God who cares about them. He died while serving the church.

And here is where I do the Paul Harvey thing, “Now for the rest of the story…”

Twenty one years after serving the church, Stan Copeland became the senior pastor. He learned that Tom Shipp recorded his sermons on a Dictaphone and the week he died he left a sermon 2/3’s finished. The tape was still around. So Stan decided to preach Tom’s unfinished sermon. For 2/3s he preached the recorded message word for word, but then he finished the last part in his words. It was titled “A Sermon from the Other Side,” and two thousand people attended to hear Tom Shipp’s last message 21 years after his death.

I believe that is a picture of the mission of the church. We follow a Savior who lived, taught and preached love and compassion to people who had given up on God or the possibility of a God who loves them. He reached people who divided from God and others because of the realities of religion and the world. But then he died before his mission was complete. So now that mission continues in the lives of his followers. It continues through you and me as we become the living sermons of Jesus.

So let me ask you, did you like the sermon? Did you think it was good? Not so good? It really doesn’t matter much, because the most important sermon is the one you now preach.