Why Does Church Matter?
Today, all over the country, Lutheran churches are kicking-off their program year: re-starting education programs, and coming back from the common summer lull (hopefully) re-energized for the ministry of the church.
Today is also the completion of my first year as your Vicar – an anniversary that you all helped me to celebrate early (thank you SO much) by surprising me with an extra week of vacation with my family, so that I could come back re-energized for the ministry of the church.
And all of this congregational attention on re-energizing begs the question: what is the point of all this energy and effort? why does church matter?
That’s not a rhetorical question, and nor is it meant to be cynical or snarky. I honestly want you to hear this question as an invitation to really think about what we are all about as a church:
Why do we spend our Sunday mornings, and Wednesday evenings, and maybe other times as well gathering and worshipping and working together?
Why do we give of our resources, and donate to the food pantry and the homeless collection and hurricane relief, and make commitments to buy a new boiler that we will all need to pay for?
Why do we engage in rituals that combine words with water, and bread, and wine and believe that we have been touched by the divine?
Why do we sing songs written hundreds of years ago, and read stories written thousands of years ago, as though they matter?
Why does this all matter? And if it does, why (as one of you wrote in your questions for God last winter) why don’t other people do the same? Why don’t they come to church? Why, especially do the young fall away?
These are all important questions, and they don’t have simple answers. There is no process of ten steps to a meaning-filled church, or seven signs of spiritual depth, or purpose-driven mission statement that will tell us what church is supposed to be so that we can just follow the formula.
Church is NOT a formula. It is a broken, blessed, incarnational experience of God showing up in all our messiness, and teaching us what LOVE looks like in the midst of it... not as a set of sterile principles, but as life lived in imperfect human community.
Our texts for the week witness to that incarnational answer to the question of why church matters. I am convinced of that, despite the fact that the first part of our gospel reading for today has often been interpreted precisely AS A FORMULA: either as a formula for mending relationships (ideally), or as a formula for how to go about kicking people out.
And that reading is totally understandable if you read verses 15-17 out of context. Read by themselves, they look like a 3-step process for addressing conflicts in the church:
First – go to the person privately. If they don’t listen, then
Second- bring one or two other people who agree with you and have them make your case. If the offender still doesn’t listen, then
Third – bring the matter to the whole assembly, and either the witness of the whole church will change their mind, or if not, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile a tax collector.”
Super clear and simple, right?
Except, WHEN in the entire history of Christian community has a disagreement EVER been that clear and simple? The final remedy, in this hypothetical, is that the offender should be given the chance to listen to the WHOLE church… because, obviously, the WHOLE church (other than this one person) will all be lined up clearly on your side, right?
But has anyone ever had that experience? An experience where a problem is all just one person’s fault, and everybody involved agrees on what should be done about it? No! It’s just messier than that in real human community. We are all both sinners and saints.
Plus, there is the larger context of these verses, which are immediately followed by Peter asking Jesus how many times he has to forgive. Peter ups the ante from a three-step process to suggest forgiving seven times, but Jesus doesn’t approve this generosity of forgiveness. Instead Jesus says he should forgive seventy-seven times, a number that symbolizes completion. In essence, Jesus is saying there is no formula, and no limits on the lengths we are to go to in seeking restoration in Christian community.
And that is consistent with the little parable that immediately precedes our reading, which talks about leaving 99 well-behaved sheep alone on the dangerous mountain to search for the one that has gone astray…. It’s a story about relentless pursuit of the screw-ups, pursuit that doesn’t make sense from an economic or practical point of view. It’s a story about slogging through the mess to love the one who needs it.
And speaking of mess and loving the ones who need it… what does it mean to treat someone like “a Gentile and a tax collector?” Didn’t Jesus’ ministry grow to include reaching out to just these outsiders and traitors? Didn’t he proclaim the kingdom to them and tell them that they could be part of it?
It seems to me like the first part of our reading, when read in its proper context, is NOT about a formulaic approach to addressing a problem member. It’s not about – “follow these steps, and if they won’t listen you can wash your hands of them.” Instead, it’s about NEVER saying enough’s enough… it’s about loving even the people who look like our enemies. It’s about exhausting every effort to restore relationship, even to the point of treating your offender like your mission field.
And all of this is a testament that indeed, church does matter.
It matters because the challenges of living, breathing community are where faith becomes real. Because, as one commentary on our Romans reading explains, “the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ must land somewhere in real space and time.” And when it does, that incarnated proclamation profoundly changes us. It transforms us – not into the perfect community, but into a community that can be different because Jesus is actually here among us.
Jesus promises that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here – and he’s not here to act as some cosmic wish-granter but as a source of communal transformation. As Paul tells us in Romans 13, we are to “put on Christ.” Because Christ is what changes us from people who seek to gratify our own selfish desires, and who want to wash our hands of stubborn offenders, into people who “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
As one pastor in my text study group said this week, both of these readings (from Matthew and Romans) are about a vision of Alternative Community. Alternative community is where our faith develops because transformation is a communal process. It doesn’t happen just through personal, private spirituality. I can’t “fulfill the law” of “loving my neighbor” all by myself. I CAN connect with God – absolutely! – but that connection is incomplete until it lands in space and time… until it lands in a messy community that needs forgiveness seventy-seven times and dares to believe that Jesus will keep showing up anyway.
The gospel lands in communities that make mistakes, and also declare the presence of Jesus Christ actually here among us… in bread and wine, in Word, in the peace that we speak into each other’s lives.
THIS is why church matters. Because it proclaims a scandalous gospel of actually owing each other love, and nothing else. Because it witnesses to Jesus present in our mess, in the complexity and beauty of imperfect, alternative community.
I can’t claim to have the definitive answer about why people don’t come to church, or why the young fall away. But I know that when people outside the church talk to me about church (which they frequently do – occupational consequence), THIS vision of alternative community is NOT what they describe having left, or what they think is irrelevant to their lives. And when I read the responses that young people give to polls about religion, they describe WANTING a source of meaning and transformative community; they just don’t think they will find it in church.
And this is the CHALLENGE for all of us who still think church matters: NOT to market ourselves in a new way that will draw people in, but to ACTUALLY BE the Transformed and Transforming community where Christ is present in our mess.
In two weeks, on September 24, we will be gathering for a special congregational conversation following worship. We will be looking at some proposed updates to our mission statement that came out of the Council Retreat last Spring; and we will be reviewing the inspiring ideas that you all proposed in our Time & Talents survey; and we will be talking as a community about what we are all about, and what we want to be busy doing.
And the result WILL NOT BE a perfect formula for how we can do church better. But I encourage you to make time to be part of that conversation anyway, and to engage in it thoughtfully and prayerfully, because church does matter.
God has given us the church as the place where the gospel lands and takes on flesh – our flesh. We are the body of Christ, as a community.
The community that we build, and the way we reach out to our neighbors in love, is the way the world gets to see Jesus. And the world needs Jesus, whether they know it or not.
All the we owe one another is LOVE. And LOVE is here among us.
Thanks be to God.
 “Commentary on Romans 13:8-14,” Kyle Fever. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3401.