Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 30, 2008

2008.03.30 “You Call This a Church?”

Central United Methodist Church

The 2nd Sunday of Easter

“You Call This a Church?”

John 20: 19 – 31

March 30th, 2008

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

– John 20: 19 – 31, The New Revised Standard Version

Throughout my ministry I have been privileged to preach in many kinds of churches:

– Little country churches with a handful of people.

– Chicago Temple, First UMC

– city churches where fights broke out at trustee meetings

        – wealthy suburban congregations (like this one)

        – even in a church in Africa.

Most of these churches, though different, were alike.  Most had pews, stained glass windows, choirs, organs, pastors. Some even had parking lots. 

Yet all these churches are in sharp contrast to the church portrayed in today’s gospel. Our gospel gives us a picture of a church which had no pipe organ, not even an old upright piano. No parking lot. No choir. No pastor. In fact, it’s a picture of church at its worst, the most miserable little gathering ever to take upon itself the name, “church.”

It’s the disciples of Jesus, gathered on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. 

And look at them! For long chapters in John’s gospel, Jesus has been preparing his disciples for his departure. He has gone over and over again, his commandments to love one another, to be bold, to trust him, to be the branches to his vine, to feed on the Bread of Life, to follow him at all costs.

But somebody wasn’t paying attention. Look at them, cowering like frightened rabbits behind closed and bolted doors! You call this a church?

Here, says Thomas Long, is the church at its worst — “scarred, disheartened, and defensive.  What we see, he says, is:

“a church with nothing. No plan, no promise, no program, nothing. A terrified little band huddled in the corner of the room with the chair braced against the door.” (Thomas Long, Whispering the Lyrics, Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., Inc. 1995, pp. 89-94.)

      Long asks, “What kind of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members? ‘The friendly church where all are welcome’? Hardly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality.  ‘The church with a warm heart and a bold mission?’” Forget it. This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees and a firmly bolted front door.”

Could it even be called a church? Not only has it got no sanctuary, no pulpit, no choir, no pastor.  It has no plan, no mission, no conviction, no nothing, except . . . 

Except that, when it gathered, the Risen Christ pushed through the locked door, threw back the bolt, and stood among them.  And they experienced the presence of the Risen Christ.

Maybe that’s as close as any church ever gets to being Church.  Whether its Willow Creek, Holy Name Cathedral, or Central United Methodist Church — left solely to our own devices, we are nothing more than a huddle of confused, timid, cowering failures who get “F”s in the course called, “Following Jesus.”

I know you know this, but sometimes we forget it: the church is not the building. It may add particularity to us, just as our bodies add particularity to our personalities, but our building does not make us “church.”  You might not believe this, but — God forbid — if this building burned down tonight — next Sunday we could meet in a storefront, and be just as much the church as we are today.  Because the determining factor is not the building, but the fellowship, and whether Christ is present in our midst. 

        Whether we are the church is not our form of worship.  I work hard each week, along with Marlene and Joe and Millete, to craft a worship service and sermon. We get it all lined out in the bulletin, all themed and planned, and — sometimes — it never rises beyond that. 

On the other hand, sometimes, by the grace of God, it comes together, and the Spirit slips through our closed doors, our plodding through the service, our respectable reverence, and worship happens, not of our own making, but as a gift. And we bow in awed wonder, for we become church.

Nor is what makes us church the programs we offer. Do you ever wonder as you drive around and look at churches, especially as there are so many, of so many different kinds? There are churches who, to the outside observer, and maybe even some of those on the inside, look successful, prosperous and thriving with attractive, well-maintained buildings, numerous programs and activities; yet, to visitors, they may feel cold and dead.  Because it is too easy to keep everyone busy, going to meetings, ceramics classes, yoga classes, twelve-step programs, trips to Disney World for the youth, that maybe no one notices there’s no room left for God! We might be successful at being an uplifting moral improvement society for the youth, or a place for retirees to hang out, but do we fail at being church, the place of the presence of Christ?

If you want to see the church, stripped of sacred trappings, with pretenses peeled away, then look here at this pitiful huddle of timid souls hanging on to one another behind locked doors.  Without this holy presence which makes our gatherings the church of Jesus Christ, this is all we are.

You might have thought Christ would come back to them like a Methodist Bishop. When a church fails to pay its apportionments, they send the District Superintendent to lean on them saying, “Shame on you! You can do better! You call yourselves a church!”

But the good news is that it was to this church, which was hardly a church, that the Risen Christ came saying, “Peace be with you”, showing them his pierced hands and feet. Then he breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit, bestowing upon them the power to forgive sins, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

We are church, not because of the building we’ve built, not because of the choir, the preaching, or the activities we offer here.  We are church because to us, even to us, Christ has come and given us his gifts of Spirit, forgiveness, and mission, commissioning us to give them to the world in his name.  How and how well we succeed in this, will be the sole indicator of our success. 

Even if we see ourselves as tentative, as fearful and doubtful as that ragged group of Jesus’ first disciples, there is hope for what Christ can and will yet do through us, sometimes in surprising, even amazing ways.

William G. Willimon, now the United Methodist Bishop of the North Alabama conference (to whom I’m indebted for the perspective in this sermon), tells such a story about his first church:

My first church was in rural Georgia. I was fresh out of seminary, eager to be a good pastor in my first parish. I was in graduate school at the time, commuting out to the hinterland on the weekends. Most Sunday mornings at dawn, it was a tough trip out there from Atlanta. I used to say, “This trip only takes thirty minutes but takes us back thirty centuries.” It was a long way from Atlanta to Suwanee, Georgia.

My first visit to one of the churches, I found a large chain and padlock on the front door, put there, I was told, by the local Sheriff. “The Sheriff, why?” I asked.

“Well, things got out of hand at the board meeting last month, folks started ripping up carpet, dragging out the pews they had given in memory of their mothers. It got bad. The Sheriff come out here and put that there lock on the door until our new preacher could come and settle things down.”

That rather typified my time at that church. I would drive out there each Sunday, just praying for a miraculous snowstorm in October which would save me from another Sunday at that so-called church.

I spent a year there that lasted a lifetime. I tried everything. I worked, I planned, I taught, I pled but the response was always disappointing. The arguments, the pettiness, the fights in the parking lot after the board meeting were more than I could take. It was tough and I was glad to be leaving them behind.

“You call yourself a church!” I muttered as my tires kicked gravel up in the parking lot on my last Sunday among them.

A couple of years later, while visiting at Emory, I ran into a young man who told me that he was now serving that church. My heart went out to him. Such a dear young man, and only twenty-three!

“They still remember you out there,” he said.

“Yea,” I said glumly, “I remember them too.”

“Remarkable bunch of people,” he said.

“Remarkable,” I said.

“Their ministry to the community has been a wonder,” he continued. “That little church is now supporting, in one way or another, more than a dozen of the troubled families around the church. The free day care center is going great. Not too many interracial congregations like them in North Georgia.”

I could hardly believe what he was telling me. What happened? I asked.

“I don’t know. One Sunday, things just sort of came together. It wasn’t anything in particular. It’s just that, when the service was done, and we were on our way out, we knew that Jesus loved us and had plans for us. Things fairly much took off after that.”

I tell you what I think happened. I think that church got intruded upon. I think someone greater than I knocked the lock off that door, kicked it open and offered them peace, the Holy Spirit, mission and forgiveness. And now, they are called “church.”

Church – finally – isn’t my hard work, your earnest effort, our long range planning or heavy duty giving, not our frantic activity.  Church is a gift, a visitation, the intrusion and presence of the Living Christ among us.  Now that’s what we call “Church.”

[I am indebted, in this sermon, to William Willimon, “You Call This A Church?”, preached in the Duke Chapel on 4/6/1997, and to Thomas G. Long, “The Church with Nothing”, Whispering the Lyrics, Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., Inc. 1995, pp. 89-94.]

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