Church and Church: what’s in a name?

Tonight

Tonight, we gather to honor Martin, our patron. Martin was a man whose life expressed his deep concern for others. Martin believed that violence was against Christ’s call but also understood faithfulness to duty. After a period of military conscription, he devoted the rest of his life to the pursuit of holiness, at first in pursuit of his own spiritual quest but eventually in a wider service of the community. Let us pray for his spirit to infuse us- so that like Martin we may not be found wanting in witnessing to Christ in our own day through lives of holiness in action.

Tonight, we have an opportunity to celebrate the completion of a major restoration of our beautiful church. As we move into the first years of a new century in our parish life, the lot has fallen to us to meet some serious restoration challenges in order to secure the integrity of our church building for the next 100 years. Some might say it’s a piece of bad luck that the need to meet this challenge fell to us on our watch. But God raises up the right people for the task at the right time through the quality of leadership from John Bracken and David Brookhart as Church Wardens, and the professional expertise of Peter Lofgren as supervising architect.

There is a growing realization in the community that without the impetus of a big challenge, would we be able to move beyond our comfortable expectations to forge the foundations of a renewed vision for our future?

What’s in a word?

I have been thinking about church as a word. Is it not odd that we use the same word to speak about the building as well as the community? It’s important to remember that the church (ecclesia) first described the community and only later came to refer to the building in which the church met.

Over the last year we have come to speak of the restoration of the church when referring to the renovation of the physical structure. The greater challenge, however, is to remember that when we speak about the restoration of the church we are also speaking about the renewal of the community. For we have a church, yes. Yet more importantly, we are the church.

Is restoration an expression of our love for God or is it a significant distraction from our primary purpose?

The expenditure of considerable financial resources on the building begs important questions about our priorities. Is it an expression of our love for God or is it a significant distraction from our primary purpose? There is room for disagreement here. However, none of us believe that God’s primary concern is for our building. Nevertheless, we do intuit that our building articulates an ages-old human aspiration to be associated with something greater than ourselves and the utilitarian priorities of our age.

Having a church is only important when it is one of the ways we identify ourselves as being the church.

As history shows, a church as a building can easily overshadow our awareness of the church as a community. While the two go hand-in-hand, they also sit in an uneasy and often confusing tension. The only insight I have to offer here is that we must hold this tension between having a church and being the church. Because, having a church is only important when it is one of the ways we identify ourselves as being the church.

A lesson from history

In 587, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, taking those who lived within the Jerusalem Beltway of Jewish society into captivity in Babylon. In 539, the Persians invaded Babylon and Cyrus I decreed that the Jews could return home and rebuild their city and temple. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of this return and the struggles and successes encountered in the great national restoration project.

In the OT lesson for tonight we heard about the laying of the foundation stone for the new temple. We heard that the older Priests and Levites wept when they saw this while the rest of the people shouted for joy. The fact that priestly weeping seems juxtaposed with popular joy suggests that the priest wept not for joy but because they remembered the glory of Solomon’s temple and perhaps were dismayed by the reduced scale of the envisaged new project.

We are coming to the end of a discernment process that is attempting to map the community priorities emerging from our restoration project as it moves to the next phase in capital campaign preparation. An initial perusal of the notes taken by dedicated scribes at the cottage gatherings reveals a range of both complementary and clashing priorities.

Tonight’s lesson from the book of Ezra is a salutary reminder that restoration projects trigger an inevitable clash between nostalgia for the past and the framing of a vision fit to meet the changing circumstance demanded by the future. The easy part is to restore the building. Much harder is the task of renewing the community with a vision to carry us forward into a future that will bear very little resemblance to our past.

Through a monumental material and human expenditure by the returning exiles a new temple arose from the ruins of the old. Nehemiah the governor had a dual focus. On the one hand he was responsible for ensuring enough supplies of both materials and labor while protecting the building works from the constant attacks from the neighboring peoples. But what interest me more is his request that Ezra, the Scribe of the Lord, read from the Book of the Law before all the people gathered before the Water Gate.

Nehemiah 8 records the moving depiction of Ezra standing on a wooden podium built for the purpose – a kind of pulpit I suppose, reading from the Book of the Law before all the people. As Ezra read the unfamiliar words of the Law, for it had mostly been forgotten by the people at this point, 12 Levites engaged in a kind of simultaneous interpretation of his words so that the people would understand what was being read to them. In this moving scene we hear all too clearly the echo of our own tension between having a church and being the church; the movement from the restoration of stones to the renewal of spirits, hearts, and minds?

It seems it’s never one or the other – church as building or church as community. Both exist in an oscillating tension – a balancing movement, back and forth between the two.

In the tonight’s NT lesson from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul weaves a wordplay between the material and the spiritual by using an analogy to a physical building to speak about the life of the Spirit within and between us.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? …. for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

1 Cor 3:10

I would propose the litmus test for us is when church as building ceases to be an inspiration for and expression of church as community – only then will it be the time to abandon our buildings to decay.

Church as a building – is for Paul really the metaphor for Church as the community. Remember the word first applied to the community and only later to the building where the community met. I would propose the litmus test for us is when church as building ceases to be an inspiration for and expression of church as community – only then will it be the time to abandon our buildings to decay.

There are three key resources that sustain our community life. The commitment and vision of our members, the dedication and skill of our staff, and the quality and serviceability of our buildings. These three key resources are infused by the Holy Spirit – who is always present among us. The Holy Spirit makes her presence known to us when we gather for worship, when in small ministry groups we embed the Bible to continually reshape our vision, and when we reach out to others in acts of solidarity.

Tonight, we gather to honor Martin, our patron. Martin was a man whose natural bent was to care for others. Only reluctantly did he take on the burdens of community leadership. But he fulfilled the responsibilities of pastor and bishop as dual aspects of his response to God’s call. Let us pray for his spirit to infuse us- so that like Martin we may not be found wanting in witnessing to Christ in our own day through lives of holiness in action.

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