Jesus Goes to Church (Fourth Sunday after Epiphany)

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Often, when we read stories about Jesus, we focus on the remarkable things that Jesus did.  This isn’t wrong, and honestly, the Gospel writers often wrote these stories down precisely because of the remarkable things that Jesus did.  They astounded others, they astounded the Gospel writers, and they often astound us.

And so usually, when I’ve read today’s story, I’ve marveled at the remarkable ability Jesus had to cast out demons.  In other stories coming up, it will be easy to focus on Jesus’ remarkable ability to feed 5000 people with merely 5 loaves and two fish.  And of course, when Jesus raises somebody from the dead, that’s an event too remarkable to miss.

This year, however, as I read today’s Gospel reading, besides casting out demons, I noticed another remarkable thing that Jesus and his disciples did.  At least, it seems remarkable, even if it shouldn’t be.

Our story begins, “when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught.”  Jesus went to church!  I mean, that shouldn’t be so remarkable, but we haven’t been able to do that together in months! 

Last year at this time, it was just part of the routine for many of us to gather together on Sunday for worship.  And it was also a routine part of Jesus’ life to gather with others on the sabbath for worship and study.  It didn’t seem all that remarkable.  It wasn’t then.  And it wasn’t for us just a short time ago.

But now, “going to church” seems like a remarkable activity.  And sometimes, when something has just been part of the routine, you may not notice how significant it is to the story.  And in fact, in any other year, I’d probably not pay a lot of attention to “Jesus goes to church”, and instead pay much more attention to the cosmic conflict of exorcism.

But actually, “Jesus goes to church” forms the context of the story.  And it’s not an insignificant detail.  And perhaps now that it seems so remarkable, it’s a good time to remember why.

In fact, Jesus being in the synagogue is an important part of this story.  For it’s in that context, and others like it, that we’re reminded that most of the remarkable things Jesus did happened:

  • In the context of community – Jesus isn’t a hermit who touches the lives of the chosen few who trek out to find him.  Instead, the saving and healing power of Jesus is experienced most often when people are gathered together…
  • Where people are gathered to listen and learn – Jesus rarely “got in the face” of people who weren’t seeking to learn about or experience God; whether in a synagogue, on the hillside or in the Temple, Jesus’ power and help were experienced among people who were open to and receptive to what God was doing in their lives, even if they doubted or were skeptical that God actually cared …
  • Among people who were willing to be more than spectators – certainly, there were many who just came to hear an interesting lecture.  But there were always those who were willing to bring those who were sick to Jesus; there were always those who were willing to share the message with others; there were always those who were willing to do even simple tasks to help, like sharing the bread with people on the hillside…

The thing is, it’s in the context of community that Jesus did many of his remarkable things.  And often, it’s in the context of community that Jesus is still at work, and still doing remarkable things in our lives.

So, maybe it’s good if we don’t pass over the seemingly unremarkable thing of Jesus going to church.  And we also shouldn’t take as unremarkable the fact that we’ve continued to be able to BE church – to hold together as a community of Jesus – even when we can’t “go to church.”

And so maybe right now this story is God’s way of calling us to think more deeply about how we’ve been called to be Jesus’ community – among whom he can do remarkable things; and how it is that we can be that community both now, while we can’t “go to church” and how we’ll best do that later on, when we can “go to church” again.

At our Annual Meeting today, we’ll be doing some things differently because we’ll be meeting by Zoom.  But one of the neat things we’re going to try is to divide everyone into break-out rooms to discuss a few questions.  And those questions really are intended to help us think about what things can help us to be community, both while we’re socially distanced, and later when we can gather in person again.

That is, let’s consider, at today’s meeting and throughout the next few months, what’s important to help us to:

  • Be community together – that is, to have and to build relationship with one another and with God?  After all, as Jesus “goes to church”, he’s there to help people build a relationship with God.  Yet at the same time, he’s helping those he meets to build relationships with one another. Remarkably, we’ve found ways to do that even when we can’t be together.  And it’s clear that when we get to “go to church” again, it won’t be just to be in the same building together.  So what’s important for us to grow as a community of Jesus?
  • Listen and learn – through these months, we’ve learned to worship while we’re apart.  And it’s maybe instructive to note that people in Jesus’ day didn’t primarily come to the synagogue to worship.  Instead, they came to read together, to listen to each other and to learn more about who God was calling them to be and to become.  And while worshipping together is something I really miss, it’s also important for us to consider the things we do together that help us learn and listen to Jesus.  What helps you and what doesn’t?  What are the ways you learn and grow that you just can’t do by yourself?
  • Grow in becoming a community that acts – surely, some of the people who came to the synagogue just came to listen to the debate.  But many others acted on what they heard and learned.  They figured out from Jesus not only what God was doing, but how they might respond.  How they might help.  And how they could share the message in the actual lives of others.  How can we do that, too?  How should we do that?  Surely, Jesus intends us to act in our individual lives, but how is he calling us to act in ways that make our actions more than just the sum of our individual responses?

We’re not going to answer all those questions today, or even in the next few months!  But it’s in the context of the community that Jesus calls us to constantly wrestle with those questions.

And so maybe “Jesus goes to church” is more remarkable than we think at first.  And that’s because community isn’t the background noise of the story, but the very context in which other remarkable things happen.  Community isn’t a complication for Jesus, but the place where he intentionally chooses to work.  And therefore, community isn’t simply a random gathering of volunteers, but is instead the very creation and design of the Holy Spirit, who calls us together so that Jesus can do remarkable things in, with and among us.