Church (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Last week, I pointed out that Matthew had used a word which appeared nowhere else in the Gospel.  And today, he did it again!

Actually, it’s a word which appears twice in Matthew’s Gospel, but is never used in ANY of the other Gospels.  It’s the word “church.”  And while the word “church” and “churches” appear in many later New Testament documents, that word appears in any of the Gospels only in this passage, and later in the 18th chapter of Matthew where Jesus speaks about resolving conflict with one another.

“Church” is an unusual word in the Gospels.  But it’s not an unusual word for us.  And that’s of course because, hey, we’re all sitting in church!  And indeed, even among people in our society who are not now and have never been Christians, the word “church” isn’t one of those deep theological terms that we need to explain.

Or is it?  Indeed, when a word that’s unusual to the Gospels has become common for us, we ought to stop for a moment and ask ourselves if we’re using the word in the same way as the Gospels use it.  And in fact, we use the word “church” to mean a variety of different things.

Sometimes, we use the word “church” to mean:

  • The organization or the structure – as part of helping put together the Interfaith 5K for next weekend, we got asked to provide the church’s federal tax ID number; and there are a lot of times like that when “church” means the official, 501c(3) organization that forms a legal identity…
  • Programs and activities – anytime you say, “I’m going to church this morning”, you may imply that you’re heading to this building; but probably more likely, you mean you’re coming to worship; or to a class; or to an activity or meeting; “church” can sometimes mean an event…
  • The building – especially if you’ve been even been involved in caring for the property, we often speak of things like, “the church needs to be cleaned” or “the church needs to be repaired”; those things are almost always true, and indeed are the reason that we’re focusing on doing some of those things during “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday in a couple of weeks!  But when we speak like that, we use the word “church” to mean “the building” or sometimes more generally, “the property.”

All of those are perfectly OK ways to use the word “church.”  But that’s NOT what the word means when Jesus uses it in the Gospels.  It’s not even what “church” meant when it’s used later on the New Testament.  Indeed, until about the third century, it was rare for Christians to have a dedicated building to call a “church.”  And often, Christian communities had no legal standing at all.

And so it’s helpful to remember, when the word “church” unusually appears in today’s Gospel reading, to remember that the Greek word we translate as “church” is “ek-klesia” (from which we also get the English word “ecclesiastical” which IS a big churchy word for church stuff!).

But the Greek word itself means “community.”  It is the group of those “called out of the world” or “called together” in order to be the community of Jesus.  And that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading.  It’s the experience and reality of Jesus – the son of God and Messiah – which is the “rock” on which the community is drawn together and sustained.  The “church” is, from beginning to end, supposed to be the community of Jesus in the world.

And that’s the same definition of church that’s used throughout the New Testament.  When somebody writes to “the church” in someplace, they’re writing to the community – a potentially small group of people who don’t own a church building; who probably don’t have many structured activities beyond meeting for worship; and who definitely don’t have a 501c (3) federal tax ID number!

“Church” means the community of Jesus – those called out from the world and called together by the Holy Spirit to be the body of Christ in the world around them.  And that first and basic definition is important for all of us to keep in mind, especially when we use “church” in some of the other ways we use that term.  Indeed, as things change drastically and rapidly around us, it’s all the more important to remember that our identity as “church” is grounded in being community in Jesus, and considering what that means when we use “church” to mean:

  • The organization or structure – sometimes, we get tied to “the way we’ve always done things and organized ourselves.”  But is the structure and the way we’ve organized ourselves sustaining us as a community, or making life more difficult?  And do the rules keep people away?  When I was growing up, and for a long time afterward, the “rules” usually required that people show up “in person” if they wanted their participation to be counted.  “In-person” is still vital, but we’ve also learned in the past few years that allowing people to participate in online meetings keeps more people connected to community and helps more people be part of what’s going on…
  • The programs and activities – when I was growing up, and for a long time afterward, the “programs” – Confirmation, Sunday School, Choirs, Bible studies, Youth Groups and all kinds of other things – were how you strengthened and continued the community of Jesus.  But fewer people participate in many of our programs now. And often, we get stuck wondering “how to make that program work again.”  But sometimes, the answer is to try something else.  Building and sustaining our community in Jesus is the thing that’s vital, not necessarily continuing a program that used to serve that goal, but maybe doesn’t anymore…
  • The building – whenever I’ve been involved in building additions or renovations, we’ve always remembered that the church building is the “house of the church.”  That is, it’s the building where the community meets and is strengthened in faith.  And it’s a place which can serve as an outpost of mission to others in our area.  It’s a reason we spent time and effort developing the patio/courtyard area in recent years – it serves to strengthen community and be a place of healing and support for others…

More and more, as the world changes around us, we need to keep in mind what “church” really means.  From the beginning, Jesus used this term to mean a community called together to be his body in the world.  And that community can, and has, functioned without structures, programs and even buildings.  And while I think we’ll have all those things for the foreseeable future, it’s important to constantly and continually ask ourselves if our structures, programs and building are sustaining community in Jesus.  And if not, what do we do about it?

Because in the end, the “church” is Jesus’ idea, not ours.  And Jesus intends this community we share to be a community in which we grow more deeply in our relationship with him; in which we help each other in living lives of faith and service; and through which we invite others to experience the living presence of Jesus.