"You Call This A Church?"
The Second Sunday of Easter
April 6, 1977
"Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, 'Peace be with you.As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.'"
In my ministry I have been privileged to visit, and to preach, at many, many churches, churches in the United States, churches in Canada, in Europe, in Australia and New Zealand.
In one month, I began by preaching in a college chapel where about a hundred students gathered, bookbags ready to return to the library after church; a great, downtown cathedral where nearly two thousand gathered that Sunday; and finished the month at a one hundred member congregation in a South Carolina pine forest where I preached to twenty folk.
Frankly, these churches don't have that much in common. Their congregations gather in vastly different circumstances. There is no common architecture. They all worship in different styles.
Some churches seem to have everything. I serve a church that seems like that to many people. We have a huge choir, something over a hundred members. Our building is an unsurpassed neo-gothic marvel. Stained glass windows with a million pieces of imported glass. Four pipe organs. And of course, some of the best preaching anywhere!
What else would you need to have church?
Indeed, Easter Sunday I talked to a couple who had driven over three hours to be with us. "You do church the way it ought to be," they said, justifying their efforts.
All of this is in sharp contrast to today's gospel. Our gospel gives us a picture of a church which had no pipe organ, or even an old upright piano. No choir. No pastor, even. In fact, it's a picture of church at its worst, the most miserable little conglomeration ever to take upon itself the name, "church."
It's the disciples of Jesus, gathered after his resurrection.
And look at them! For long, painstaking chapters in John's gospel, Jesus has been preparing his disciples for his departure. He has gone over, then 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 be ready to follow him at all costs.
Somebody wasn't paying attention. Look at them, cowering like frightened rabbits behind closed, bolted shut doors! Some disciples, some First Church Jerusalem!
They were supposed to be the ones walking confidently out into the world, full of the Holy Spirit, announcing the Easter triumph of God. Look at them hunkered down, cowering, hoping that nobody in town will know that they're there. Here, says Tom Long, is the church at its worst -- "scarred, disheartened, and defensive."
Long asks, "What kind of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members? 'The friendly church were 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 this even be called a church? Not only has it got no sanctuary, no pulpit, no choir. It has no plan, no mission, no conviction, no nothing. Awhile back, a preacher asked Robert Schuller what was one of the most important requisites for a growing congregation. Schuller is said to have responded, "A good parking lot."
Though some of you, having hoofed it up through the woods, might agree with Dr. Schuller on the importance of good parking, you have to admit church ought to be more than that.
Not long ago, in a questionnaire, we asked laity of my denomination what they most looked for in a church. They said, "Friendliness." Number two was, "Bold, interesting preaching." Nobody replied, "Locked doors." "Frightened members." "Fear."
Here is a church with absolutely nothing going for it except....
Except that, when it gathered, the Risen Christ pushed through the locked door, threw back the bolt, and stood among them.
And maybe that's as close as any church ever gets to being church. Even the one in Houston with a dozen bowling alleys and a pool, or the one near us with a hugh screen, closed circuit TV, or my church with its big choir, its gorgeous windows, its adorable preacher -- left to our own devices, we are nothing. We are nothing more than a huddle of confused, timid, cowering failures who got "F's" in the course called, "Following Jesus."
We ministers and musicians have learned this here. At Duke Chapel, we're supposed to set the standard in liturgical worship and music. We meet every Monday afternoon and evaluate the service from top to bottom. We carefully select every hymn, coordinated to the texts for the day. Yet we have learned that despite all of our educated evaluation and dedicated planning, worship, real worship, is not of our creation. It's a gift.
In fact, sometimes I think that our laborious planning, or selecting and evaluating, is just another form of those disciples' locked doors. We plan the service, proofread the bulletin, make sure everything is tied down and planned, so we can keep it all fixed, predictable, and under control. And this can be death.
But sometimes, by the grace of a living God, the Holy Spirit slips through our closed doors, our plodding through the bulletin, our respectable reverence and there is worship, worship not of our own creation but worship as a gift. And we take off our shoes in awed wonder for we have become church.
Years ago the late Bob Wilson and I thought of writing a book titled "The Successful Church." We suspected that there were churches who, to the outside observer, maybe even some of those on the inside, looked successful, prosperous and thriving with their attractive, well-maintained buildings, their numerous programs and activities yet, at their heart, they were cold and dead. Keep everyone busy, going to meetings, ceramics classes, yoga classes, twelve-step programs and maybe no one will ever notice that there's no room left for God!
So Stanley Hauerewas and I, when we wroteResident Aliens, said that there was a good deal of "atheism" in much of our church life. Too many of our churches, we thought, were a-theistic. That is, they kept cranking along, offering ceramics classes for older adults, yoga classes for busy homemakers, trips to Disney World for the youth so that God really didn't matter. They were successful at being an uplifting moral improvement society for the youth, or a place for retirees to hang out during the week, but they had failed at being church.
If you want to see us, stripped of our sacred trappings, our pretenses peeled away, then look here in this twentieth chapter of John -- a pitiful huddle of timid souls hanging on to one another behind our locked doors. Without the presence, the presence which makes our human gatherings the church of God, this is about all we are.
And the good news is that it was tothis church, which was hardly church, that the living, Risen Christ came saying "Peace be with you" (John 20:19). Into this busy, buzzing void, there was a voice, a presence, a peace not of our devising.
You might have thought the Christ would come like our Methodist bishops. When a church has failed to pay its full apportionments from the general church, they send down the District Superientendent to lean on them saying, "Shame on you all! You call yourselves a church!"
No. The Risen Christ comes and he says, "Peace be with you," showing them his pierced hands and feet. He says again (in case we failed to get the point) "Peace be with you," telling them that he is sending them out into the world. Then he breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit, bestowing upon them the awesome power to forgive sins.
Here is the church as much church as it ever gets. Calvin said that the true church is "wherever the word is rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered." Well, yes and no. Because even our right preaching and our due administration can't make church. Church is a gift of a God who refuses to leave us be. He comes to us. His presence makes this church. To the church which had nothing, Christ gives everything. Spirit. Mission. Forgiveness.
We are church, not because of the building we've built and cared for, not because of the choir, the organ, the preaching, or the various activities. We are church because to us, even to us, Christ has come and given us his gifts of Spirit, mission, and forgiveness, commissioning us to give them to the whole world in his name.
That's why we're called 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 thrity 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
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 isn't my hard work, your earnest effort, our long range planning or heavy duty giving. Church is a gift, a visitation, an intrusion of the Living Christ standing among us.
(I am indebted, in this sermon, to Thomas Long, Whispering the Lyrics, Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., Inc. 1995, pp. 89-94.)