Eph. 1: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
John 17: 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one,Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am,and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you[e] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
To answer the question that is the title of this message, “What is church?” let’s first consider what church is not. That’s question number 1 in the sermon outline, if you wish to follow that. Church is not what you see pictured here. This building is not the church; it’s the church’s building. A building is a good thing to have, if you can afford it, and use it in keeping with your mission. We did that yesterday, by hosting and feeding representatives from churches in our conference. We’re doing that this morning for Christian Education and Worship, and for hospitality again today.
Nor is this the church, this organizational flow chart that you see pictured here. Nor this church constitution. Although those, too, are very good things to have. People gripe about “organized religion,” and I get it. But try having “disorganized religion,” without any recognized and agreed-upon beliefs, or any covenants of accountability and responsibility.
Nor is this the church, a genealogy of a family, any family. With names like Young and Hughes, from the 16th Century, it could be a Puritan family heritage, or an English Baptist family. I could have shown a similar one for an Italian Catholic family, or a Mennonite family, they also have strong family church heritages. Now, a Christian family heritage, or a Christian cultural heritage, are very good things to have. It means you come into the world with some spiritual capital. It’s not so good whenever we treat the church like a family heirloom, nor a genetic entitlement, and get all excited about the identity, while ignoring or betraying the mission.
My Roman Catholic friends would say that the sacraments, like communion and baptism, and the clergy, from priest to Pope, going all the way back to St. Peter, are absolutely necessary for there to be church. I agree with them that the sacraments are extremely important. I also think that ordained, accountable and supported leadership is a good thing for churches to have, and not only because that’s my job. But clergy have lost a lot of respect of late, and with things like clergy sex abuse scandals, or some of the preachers who get on TV, it’s no wonder. The greater anyone’s responsibility and authority, the greater should be our training, our transparency and our accountability.
But what if all church buildings and church organizations and professional and lay leaders were suddenly taken away? Or if we had no Christian heritage, in either our family or our society? Those things are not just history. They’re current events in much of the world. In other settings, poverty, war and social chaos make it impossible to have buildings, paid leadership, official recognition and organization. Does that also make it impossible to have church?
From a human point of view, that would look well nigh impossible. But today’s readings from John’s Gospel and Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians give us God’s perspective on what church is. To understand the eternal, enduring, unchangeable, high and holy nature of the church, in any time and place, in any situation, good or bad, we must follow Paul’s gaze and lift our eyes up beyond the temporal, material things we just saw, to the One who is the church’s head, to see the church from God’s perspective.
We get closer to that divine perspective of church with this picture. And with this one, where you’ll notice that the setting is a restaurant, not a sanctuary. Instead of bread and wine, there will be pizza and pop. Here we see that the church is people, of course, not just a person. There is no such thing as a church of one.
But we’re still one step shy of God’s definition of church in today’s readings. We’re missing someone very important to making the church the church. He was there when this picture was taken; he even convened these people in that pizza parlor, whether they knew it or not. But it’s impossible to ever get him visually into the picture, except for the time that Leonardo da Vinci managed to do that in this painting. Here we get closer to the definition of church in today’s passage: people and Jesus. Or, as Paul says about a dozen times in the first Chapter of Ephesians, a people (not just persons), “in Christ.” Or as Jesus puts it in his high priestly prayer: a people “in me, as I am in you (holy Father)”
That is the answer to question #2 in the sermon outline: What the church is. It is a people “in Christ,” and “Christ in a people:” that’s what Paul wanted his readers to know about the most essential requirement, the most basic bedrock identity and definition of the church. For they too were asking that question: What is the church? What is this strange new thing of which we are now a part? For the Jewish believers among them, church was definitely not like the synagogue, in which every member was Jewish, and everyone was related to each other all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. The church of Jesus Christ has Gentiles in it.
For the new Gentile believers, church was not like their trade associations, nor their former secret religious societies. In those groups, people often gathered to indulge themselves riotously, with drunkenness and debauchery. But the church is calling us to a higher, holy way of life. In their old groups, blacksmiths may gather just with blacksmiths, slaves with slaves, free people with other free people, wealthy with the wealthy, Greeks with Greeks and Romans with Romans, sometimes, just men with men, or just women with women, and any mixing among them would defeat the purposes of such groups. But the church has all these different people mixed in together. And they’re having a hard go of it sometimes. That’s why they needed today’s reminder of What constitutes the church.
Twenty centuries later, we also need to stop and ask such basic questions as, “What is Church?” Especially because we have so much by way of property, programs, organization, leadership, structure, history and tradition. Much of that is quite good. But we must not define nor identify the church by these human, visible, material things. Either we risk over-relying on them, or we risk being at a total loss if ever they are gone.
In fact, worldwide, church without all these tools and traditions, props and supports, are the growing edge of the church, soon to overtake, in numbers and spread, the church that has cathedrals and articles of incorporation, wealth, power and prestige, and clear-cut lines of denominational identity and organization. If our world should continue to grow ever more hostile and dubious about the church and the gospel, we might need to learn a few things from these bare-bones churches living and ministering in the least likely of places.
We must rediscover, understand and define church in relationship and reference to Jesus Christ. Because we are Christ’s church, the church is Christ’s body, and Christ is its head. Church, then, is that people in Christ, and that people in whom Christ is. The outward shapes and structures of Christ’s church can change with time and place, but the essential remains a people in Christ, and a people in whom Christ is.
Which brings me to the third point of the message. Being in Christ, and having Christ in us, is first of all, sub-point A, a status, an identity, or a place of an unimaginably great dignity. Identity and dignity are universal human needs. But we can’t manufacture them on our own. To know who we are, we need also to know whose we are. Family may do that for us. The Black Lives Matter and the Metoo movements are some of the more current assertions of our universal human need for dignity and identity. They assert that we are not just pawns or playthings of more powerful people, for reasons of gender or color.
At their best, they also counter the false notion that there is only so much dignity to go around, and that my dignity and identity can only come at the expense of your dignity and identity. Until the tables get turned, and then you get your dignity and identity at the expense of mine. Everyone already has great dignity simply by being the image and the handiwork of God. But as long as we try to base our dignity and identity on comparisons and competition with each other, we will always feel insecure and threatened about our dignity and identity. Like someone said, “If we ask, ‘how do I rate?’ in comparison with others, that’s all we’ll get: irate.” That’s just as true for groups, countries, churches and denominations as it is for individuals.
The people who first heard this letter needed to hear that just as much as we do today. Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, rich and poor, even men and women, had long defined and themselves and their worth over and against each other. But to be “in Christ,” and to have Christ in us, means that Christ is the source, the basis and the foundation of our dignity and identity. “You… were included in Christ,” Paul says in verse 13. We are, “God’s possession,” he says in verse 14, and not of any king, country, party or politician. Nor of anyone who would abuse and exploit us. Instead, to be in Christ, and to have Christ in us is to bear before all the powers of this world and the universe the most royal seal of the universe, the seal of Christ’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and the name above all names, the name of Christ himself.
There is nothing competitive nor higher nor lower about an identity or dignity rooted in Christ, because Christ shares his supreme identity and his dignity equally, generously, with those in him, and with those in whom he dwells, regardless of race, color, gender or any other worldly distinction. That should make the church a safe and non-competitive community for everyone’s dignity. That means that we can hopefully recognize the church of Jesus Christ by the ways in which we consider and treat each other, as those who bear and who share the dignity and the identity of Christ. That’s one thing that we show when we get down to wash each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday. We still recognize our differences and diversity in color, class, culture, opinions, parties, and more. But we look beyond them to that identity and dignity that Christ shares, equally, and extravagantly.
Secondly, or sub-point B in the outline, being in Christ, with Christ in us, is also a status, or a condition, of hope, even, a secure and extravagant hope. The presence and power of Christ among us and within us is also called, “The Holy Spirit.” For he is the Spirit of Christ Jesus. Paul says that the Holy Spirit is also God’s down payment on the fullness of our redemption and our coming inheritance, our current foretaste of a greater and eternal glory to come. The faith, hope and love that we experience and that we share, which we cultivate and encourage within ourselves and among each other, are like the first few robins to show up in late winter, sometimes hopping around in the snow, before whole flocks of them arrive in the spring. The presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, his working in our hearts and minds and relationships, are the first fruits and foretastes of greater things to come from being “in Christ,” and from Christ being “in us.”
Thirdly-and this is subpoint b in the third point of the outline–being in Christ, and Christ in us, is a status, or a relationship, of great intimacy with God and with each other. The gift of the Holy Spirit is effectively God’s gift of himself to us, in us, and among us. The story of God’s great intimacy, vulnerability and availability to us began with a pregnancy in Mary’s womb. It continued with the birth of a needy, defenseless baby in a manger in Bethlehem, and it continued in his willingness to share our life and our death. The intimacy and vulnerability of God with us still continues in the life of every person and every church “in Christ.” The life of any Christian, and of any Christian congregation boils down to this: Christ’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit within us and among us, connecting us with himself, and with each other, and the world to himself. Anything of lasting fruitfulness in our life together is a result of Christ’s life and Christ’s love, flowing through this, his body, like blood, birthing and nourishing and growing our faith, hope and love, our spiritual gifts, and the fruit of the Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, patience, and more.
Whenever we pray and worship, that’s not just from us. To some mysterious degree Christ himself is interceding to the Father with us and through us in prayer. Somewhere, at a level deeper than words, God’s Spirit touches ours, and our spirits, through him, touch each other. We long for greater spiritual intimacy and transparency with each other, only to find that we cannot demand them nor manufacture them on our own. We only receive greater spiritual intimacy and connectedness with each other as gifts, from drawing closer to Christ, who is the center of our community and of our selves. Such gifts—true spiritual intimacy with God and each other, a lasting, enduring hope, and a supreme yet equal dignity—those come with being in Christ not just as persons but as a people, and when Christ is not just in persons, but in a people, the church.
A survivor of World War 2 recounted a most memorable experience of church. He spent the war years in a Japanese internment camp for civilians like himself, one that lacked a sanctuary, a pulpit, clergy and even bread and wine for communion. Though it seemed like the war would never end, and they were always hungry and losing weight, some Christians gathered one day to hold a makeshift, barebones worship service. It included a communion service, in which they handed each other an invisible, make-believe piece of bread, as they said to each other, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” Then they moved their hands to their mouths as though there were communion bread in them. They did it again, sharing an invisible cup of communion with each other. No one asked about any of their denominational affiliations.
To their captors, they looked like crazy people. But to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, they were displaying the most powerful, royal seal of the universe: their dignity and identity in Christ, and their union through Christ’s Holy Spirit, as a promise and foretaste of a destiny and an identity that even their brutal captors and their brutal condition could not take away. In the love, the life and the worship that they shared, we see the hope, the dignity and the spiritual intimacy with God and each other that comes from being in Christ, and having Christ in us, as persons and as a people.
And there you have church.