A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about how one Sunday morning his son aged thirteen or fourteen didn’t come down for breakfast. He yelled up the stairs and got a faint groan. Ten minutes before they were supposed to be out the door to church, Greg walked into the kitchen, disheveled, still in his bathrobe, and said he wasn’t going to church. “I don’t want to do this church thing today.” To which his father replied, “Nope, son, no choice about that in this family. Church is who we are.”
My friend was right. Whether it’s right to force thirteen year olds to go to church, I can’t say. I’m not a parent and that I should ever be one seems, well, let me say, dubious at best. But I believe that my friend spoke Truth when he said that Church is who we are.
Although Christ’s church has often masqueraded as an organization, a club, even a business, Jesus found never founded any of those things. In his ministry, he actively crusaded against attempts to organize religion around those models. In and of its essence, Christ’s church is an organism. Jesus was about life and how we live our lives. The blood and water pouring from his side on the cross brought forth a People and a People is an organism — and for that reason we dare call ourselves the Body of Christ.
One of the loveliest and most important and complicated organisms is the human household. Great loyalty, mutual self-sacrifice and endless acceptance are called for. Not to mention endless love and commitment. Paul reminds us of this when in his letter Roman Christians he says, “…owe no one anything, except to love one another.” The New Jerusalem Bible’s translation has greater punch in that it translates the sentence as an imperative: “The only thing you should owe anyone is love for one another.” Paul actually says we owe love to one another. Jesus said the same thing to his disciples.
Loving is not a matter of personal choice let alone preference. One of the great gifts of living in Christian community here at the monastery is that I’m a reminded of this constantly. I don’t get to choose my brothers. It’s not my choice whether to love them or not. It’s not about whether I think it’s a good idea or not. In other words, it’s not about me. It’s a good thing whenever we can recognize that the life we share is not about our self, our wants, our needs, even our desires.
The larger Church calls for all these things as well. We are a “household of faith.” Just as we are part of familial households, as I am a member of a religious community, so we all of us together make up the “household of God.” We reaffirm that piece of our identity in Baptism when we all say together to the newly baptized person, “We receive you into the household of God.” This is a who we are; a part of our very self.
We seem to be fighting several aspects of our selves. Church stay-at-homers outnumber churchgoers. They catch a bit of God on TV or radio or a quick prayer or have a religious thought. But that is not Church. Christ called together a community of faith, not a diverse collection of onlookers or spiritual couch potatoes. We can’t be passive observers.
Now I am not here to tell you that because we are here at worship this morning that we are somehow better than the stay-at-homers. We need to relegate that kind of pious, self-righteous clap-trap to the dustbin once and for all. What I can say, speaking only for myself, is that I’m here because, well because I am a sinful man, a broken man, a wounded soul. I’m here because I need to be here, I need all of you and I know it. I leave it to you to provide your own answer to the question of why you are here this morning.
Religion or spirituality, whatever you want to call it, is about a practice. It’s about doing something. It’s about doing it. It’s about actually doing it. It’s about going through the motions and going through them again and again and again. That’s why the transformative power of religion can only happen when we actually practice our religion. Actually go through the motions again and again and again. We don’t go to church because we are believers. We go to church to come to belief.
The Jewish tradition of the minyan requires ten people present before liturgical prayer can take place; ten honest to goodness people with their good points and peculiarities, with talents and short-sightedness. Ten real people who can actually touch each other.
Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” In the Christian tradition you don’t even need ten. Just two or three will do. Even a small number who get together so close that they can touch each other is enough so the miracle can happen — the miracle of separate people becoming a community, becoming a family at worship. Life is changed, the delusion of our separateness begins to dissolve and oneness happens.
This oneness was so profound to a man with whom I was speaking one time. He explained to me how for many years he was an agnostic. He had consciously decided NOT to decide whether there was a God or not. He knew the facts on both sides of the issue and could not accept one view or the other. He stepped into St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City one afternoon for an organ recital and was touched by the beauty of the music and the interior of that magnificent church. He came back on a Sunday and was blown away again, not just by the music and the beautiful interior of the church, but even more intensely by a sense of the presence of God at the time of Communion, when all partook of one food and expressed their oneness most clearly. After a while he realized that he wanted to be part of that.
The Church gives each of us a real encounter with humanity and a real encounter with God, as opposed to some phantom encounter on the Internet or television or a book. The problem with media and the Internet is that we are left free to create a whole world of fantasy in our heads in response to what we passively experience. When we’re around real human beings, whether it’s wonderful or not so wonderful, at least it’s real. All of our senses are potentially involved in human interaction. We potentially experience the real through all of our senses, not just through sight and thought which so easily can create a phantom.
Our lives are in danger of becoming phantom lives! From e-mail pen pals we’ve never met to computer voices over the telephone to the imaginary “friends” of social networking. None of that is real. Spirituality is always about what is real. It’s always about living in reality. Technology that came to us promising to link us more closely is in fact driving us apart. As Christians, I believe that we are called to stand against that trend. We are called to remain in community with one another so that we don’t forget how to be a community, how to be the Church, how to be true to our real selves.
Church is staying in touch. And sometimes that’s harder than ever with our hectic lives. Staying close enough together that we can touch — that’s being the Church… that’s being the Body of Christ. Honestly, it’s who we are in God. And we’re not alone. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” said Jesus, “I am there among them”
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