St. Paul’s – Proper 18 – 9/4/22
So, what if we asked 100 people, the question, what is a church? And many people will say, well a church is a building, you know, a place right behind the Presidio County courthouse. Others will say a church is a group of people, a group of believers, a community of faith. We might say an organization with specific religious beliefs and others will chime in and say sure religious beliefs are part of it, but a church is really about a vision of moral excellence…beliefs and practices about how to live… about what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual churches might disagree on the particulars but each one is a group gathered around a moral vision.
The church is a building, a group, an organization of religious believers committed to a moral rule. This idea of a church vision seems pretty clear and pretty close to what most people would say. There’s just one problem when we actually pick up the question, what is a church? and take it with us into the library of the Bible.
When we take our cues from the gospels from what Jesus taught, and how Jesus lived….well, it turns out that at its heart a church is none of these things. Not a building, not a group, not a community of religious belief, and not a society of moral excellence. A church might have a building, mind you and a group of people, sure. And beliefs in a moral Vision. But that’s not what the church is at its core. It’s something else.
What is a church? The first clue Jesus gives us comes down to one word. Mercy.
Let’s start by clearing the ground by clarifying what the church is not. First, a church is not a building. That’s something most Christians would agree with, right? The point is not the building. Although a lot of church resources are devoted to constructing and maintaining Church buildings. So that’s something to wrestle with. And what’s more, the underlying idea that a church is a building can creep into our thinking and start to dominate how we understand the church as a place that you go and meet. You know, a place of gathering in which, if we’re not careful can become the opposite of the church.
When we read, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it’s striking that Jesus doesn’t go around building churches or establishing churches or telling other people to build or establish churches. He did the vast majority of his ministry outside and on the move. The building’s didn’t come into being until later ,much later, like hundreds of years later. For centuries Christians typically met in houses or sometimes down in catacombs.
And we do not see Jesus going around with a clipboard signing people up and founding new congregations. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in forming groups. Certainly not large ones. According to the gospel writers, Jesus encounters thousands of people in the course of something, like three years of ministry. Thousands upon thousands…and he calls to be his disciples 14, maybe 15, 12 say yes. And a couple of others decline. That’s it. To those thousands that he meets, his typical sign off is isn’t come follow me, it’s go…go in peace or go and sin no more or go and declare what God has done for you or go, your faith has made you.
Now, a lot of Christians point to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the so-called Great Commission where the Risen Jesus says Make Disciples of all Nations, and that’s all well and good. It makes sense to interpret that instruction in the light of Jesus’ three years of ministry up to that point, right? It would be strange if Jesus were to carry out his ministry in a particular way, in a particular pattern of action and then at the end, turn around and tell us to do something else, entirely. That would be odd. And Jesus’ pattern of action during his three years of ministry was to recruit a very small group of disciples ,12, and then later 70, who he sends out two by two to surrounding Villages. Their mandate wasn’t to recruit into their ranks, to swell their numbers, invite people into their organization. They were to go out and declare the good news of God’s love and justice to everybody. Not join us, but go in peace your faith has made you well. The point wasn’t the group… the point was the Gospel. To declare the gospel and on that basis to challenge all of us to re-examine the way we live and to make any necessary changes. The church is this work. It is Mission not a membership.
What then would it mean to make disciples of all Nations? Well, in keeping, with Matthew’s emphasis that the gospel is not only for Jews but also for Gentiles, it may mean make disciples of all types. Don’t play favorites. Make sure that Christian disciples, few, as they may be, are a diverse group made up of people from every background, every culture, every nation…not necessarily turn everybody into a Christian, but rather Make Disciples of all Nations.
All right, someone might say that sounds good, but surely that inner circle, that small group of disciples, they were true believers, right? They were the community of belief.
And suffice it to say that if you were to read the gospels, for the first time, what jumps out about the disciples isn’t so much their faith, but rather their lack of it. And as for moral excellence…. as far as we can tell, Jesus, doesn’t recruit the disciples based on their moral distinction. They were just ordinary fisherman. A profession near the bottom of the social hierarchy in those days and a tax collector or two for good measure. Hardly moral exemplars. And their performance during those three years of ministry is checkered at best. Culminating in what is arguably the greatest moral failure. Betraying and abandoning God, deserting God’s child, their friend, their mentor and teacher in his desperate harrowing hour of need.
No, the gospel writers go out of their way to portray the first disciples as a doubtful, fearful, prideful, baffled and bumbling bunch. This theme is so common throughout the gospels in fact, that it becomes part of the point. As if to say, if the mission of the church can include the likes of these confused mixed-up people, well, maybe we’re invited to the party too.
So, the essence of the church isn’t a building or a group or a club of correct opinion, or a society of moral excellence…. so, what is it? The church is a mission, a form of action, an undertaking,. The church may well use a building or a group or a set of opinions or a moral revision in order to accomplish that mission, but it’s the mission that defines it. Those other things are means and instruments to achieve that larger end. Defining the essence of something by way of the instruments it uses is upside down. It’s like saying the essence of a surgeon is a scalpel and a suture. No, the essence of a surgeon is her mission to save or improve lives by the practice of surgery. To accomplish that mission, she uses a scalpel and suture. But that just sharpens, the question. What is the mission that makes the church? What is the mission, which all our architectural, our people power, our theologies, our moral visions should serve. For today, let’s start here. The mission in the Bible is Mercy.
It’s a theme Jesus comes back to again and again over and over in those three years of teaching and healing up on those hillsides and along those seashores. Mercy. Here’s a case in point in the Gospel of Luke, as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where the cross is waiting for him. He tells the disciples a parable. A kind of picturesque fable about a rich man who dresses in purple and fine linen and feasts every day and ignores a poor man at his gate who longs for the crumbs that might fall from that splendid table.
The poor man’s name Jesus says is Lazarus. Now, in all of Jesus’ parables, Lazarus is the only ordinary character who’s given a proper name. This should catch our attention. The name Lazarus means, God has helped. In the context of this fable, the name underscores whose side God is on. And in particular, it underscores that the work of God is the work of helping people like Lazarus. In a word, the work of God, the mission of God is Mercy. The rich man, however, is anything but merciful. Hoarding all he has for himself. And it’s not that he doesn’t know Lazarus. After his death, in the midst of his torment in Hades, the rich man calls on Abraham in heaven to send Lazarus down with some water to quench his thirst. The very person the rich man routinely refused to help. He now asks Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to help him. Isn’t that rich? Jesus is obviously criticizing the rich man character in the parable for not sharing resources. The parable spends just as much time arguably more time, exposing the rich man’s contempt, his presumption, his entitlement. The call to mercy then is a call to share. And it’s also a call to respect, to know one another by name and to treat one another with dignity. The call to Mercy is a call to neighborliness.
When Abraham refuses the request, the rich man pleads with him to send Lazarus to the rich man’s house to warn his siblings. to urge them not to make the same mistake. Rather to be more generous, more neighborly, more kind, but it’s too late. Abraham says, there’s no way to get the word out. After all the rich man’s siblings already have Moses and the prophets to instruct them. The call to Mercy is as ancient as the oldest stories in the Bible. Sure, no new messenger, even one resurrected from the dead is necessary.
Please note far from establishing a new church or a new font of wisdom. Jesus is perfectly content to insist that Moses and the prophets have given us all we require. We only need to listen.
Now, the irony here is that the parable itself is the very thing Abraham tells the rich man isn’t possible. It delivers the message from beyond the grave. It counsels us, challenges us, commands us to share and respect and be the neighbors God created us to be. In that sense, the parable itself is an act of mercy. A call to become generous and just in living out the mission of God. God is calling us mercifully to share with our neighbors, particularly the most vulnerable, the likes of Lazarus. The one whose name means God has helped. The mission of God is mercifully to respect our neighbors and thereby to build up our neighborhoods. And the mission of God is to proclaim this divine mercy for all to hear through The Parables of Jesus. This Proclamation is also a challenge to become more merciful…. to embody mercy in all we say and do. The mission of God is mercy, and that mission is the mission that makes the church.
Pope Francis talks about the church as a field hospital. A facility for care and healing and restoration not up on the hill or downtown in the city, but on the battlefield or on location at the site of an earthquake or a major forest fire. It’s a brilliant metaphor because it puts the church’s mission in the foreground. And places the makeshift tent, the portable cots, the means and instruments of care in the background. In other words, the church isn’t a thing. It’s not a building or a group or a creed, or a moral outlook. Rather, the church is what we become by the grace of God when we act with mercy, when our architecture and people power and beliefs and moral convictions are all put to use for the sake of this higher deeper, more beautiful purpose. We become the church when we give… when we dignify one another…. calling each other by name… when we live together as neighbors. When we move toward difficulty, not away from it, set up a field hospital and get to work. When we proclaim the truth in parables, and sermons and songs and the shape of our lives that the stakes are real. We can become who we are, or we can become lost to ourselves. That the stakes here are real. And at the same time that it’s never too late to change.
For God, above all is a God of Mercy.