Do you remember the old Sunday School nursery rhyme? Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and there are all the people! Did anyone else learn that?
I like it, I really do. But I find there are some points about it that misses the whole point about who and what the church is all about. The first one is that it ties the church building and the people of God that meet together, as being two halves of a whole, like the two hands intertwined together, like peanut butter and jelly, like they somehow belong together. But the history of the Christian church tells a much different story. Throughout the centuries where Christians came together was mainly in homes, but during times of persecution, in crypts and catacombs, in the back of abandoned warehouses and underground in cellars with a wooden crate for the altar, a single candle flickering dimly and a smuggled in Bible and cross. The people of God and the church building have never been one and the same.
The second point that misleads us is that the nursery rhyme tells us that if you want to go to church then you must go to a church building. This is the idea that we continue to struggle with that if you want to be church you must go to the church building, only there are you church. This goes back to the very fundamental question of who or what is the church. Is the church a building you go to or is church the people of God who meet together? How we answer that question will drastically alter why and how you do church.
Now, let me clarify something first. This isn’t the same question as the “I can go out in the woods and worship God by myself, I don’t need to go to church on Sunday” statement. Or the “I can watch a televangelist on TV and have church while munching on Captain Crunch, I don’t need to get out of my pajamas and go to church,” idea. At the very heart of those statements is a sense of being a law onto myself, I set the rules and God can do what I want God to do and I want to stay in my jammies, so if God wants to meet me that’s where He’ll have to find me.
Instead this addresses the question is the church the people or the building? If the church is the building and when I say building I mean: the structure, the facilities, the committees, the organization, then coming to church can quickly become an obligation to meet with dues to pay and mandatory volunteer service time to accomplish. I go to church. This also, like going to the woods on Sunday can be about me, about what I do for the Lord.
But thankfully, that is not the way God made His Church. Church, like the rhyme can remind us, is the people. The building is the house where we choose to meet and like any house it needs maintained and repaired, the structure and organization is how we choose to “do” church, but the church family, the people are our home. I am the Church. The Christian church has always been the people who by the grace of God have come to saving faith in Jesus. and because of Jesus their world has changed.
Without Jesus this world is a place where death dominates and the only fate is one of ultimate meaningless in a world that has been spinning long before we got here and will continue spinning long after we are gone; a world that offers no ultimate purpose but in the trivial and mundane exercises of accumulating more stuff, like children grabbing toys. A world that can give no hope and even the noblest of acts and intentions mean nothing in the end.
Instead, in saving faith in Jesus, this life thought short in years, has meaning and existence for eternity, death no longer dominates, overcome by love and the purpose we’ve been given is to bring that eternal hope to our hopeless world.
Because of this, the Church, the people of God surrounded around the Word and Sacraments, is not optional, the building is. We forget sometimes that Jesus Christ himself instituted the Church to be the place where saving grace is to be found. Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will never overpower it.”
These people, the church, they come together to celebrate! Why wouldn’t we celebrate? We once were dead in their sins but now we are alive in Christ. Once we were lost but now we are found. Once we were enemies of God but now God calls us friends. All of our sins, which were like scarlet are forgiven and are white as snow.
The Church comes together to celebrate what the Lord has done for them in Jesus. To hear His Words, the words of eternal life, and to share in His body and blood in the Holy Sacrament.
Did you notice in the rhyme, when you open the church doors, how many fingers there are? Is there just one waggling about all by its lonesome? Of course not, the church is the people of God, plural, a community, a family. Brought together to show Jesus to their community and to show Jesus to each other. Christianity was never a solo gig, the only reason to think that it is, is because to be part of a family means you have the responsibility to love and care for each other, being alone misses the point of that.
Paul tells us today what it looks like when God’s people come together to celebrate. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” In one sense that word Rejoice, refers to the very personal Joy that comes from knowing the Lord. Because joy comes not from some internal feeling, or something I’m trying to force myself to feel, in fact it is very unique to the Christian I believe. Joy comes from knowing the Lord and that he is about at work in the world and my life bringing his creation and beloved people to the day of promise when all things will be made new and the glory of God will be revealed.
But again, Christianity is not about being by myself. I will not be by myself in Heaven, not even close, and if the New Heavens and Earth are breaking through into my world right now, why would we think life today in the church should be any different. We come together from wherever God has led us during the week to celebrate on the Lord’s Day all that God has done for all of us. This gathering of the church is not necessarily marked by loudness or clapping, though it can, but is more of a gentle and gracious community, that has a place both for the extrovert who likes to show their joy on their shoulder and equally for the introvert (like myself) who are by nature more quiet and reserved. Together, we teach one another to set our hearts and minds on Jesus Christ and focus on what is true, lovely, pure, commendable and worthy of praise. With our hearts focused on what is right, centered in the Word of God and strengthened by the Sacraments we go out to be ministers of God’s peace in our own little corner of the world practicing all that we have heard and learned.
This is the Church, the people of God, gathered together as family, centered around the Word and the Sacraments. Many are blessed to have a steeple to meet under, many churches around the world don’t, but let us not forget who we really are and why we come together. Amen.