What is the church for?
I lead a parish and deanery, I work (overwork) for the institution, and I have for most of the last twenty years (I had a year off in 1998.) I am an insider. So I get naturally defensive when people say they are spiritual but not religious or Christian but don’t attend.
But I also get it, time is precious. Why am I giving up the most precious resource I have for an hour or more a week? In a world like ours, with so many things competing for our time, with kids and work and activities, something that is going to ask for more has to have a purpose. I get it.
The problem is that the church is inherently made up of people who assume that its importance is obvious and agreed to: people like me. But as soon as I typed that first question I stopped. I have a particular way of talking about this, and there is no short way around the question.
Jesus probably wasn’t intending to create a diocesan structure made up of parishes with a clergy person and committees and mission statements, much less a national church or pope. So why do we have all of that and why should you join it?
First off, I think Jesus was inaugurating a reality, what he called the kingdom of God, which is the way things are but do not appear to be currently. This reality is based in who God is, what God intends, who we are, and who we are to be in relationship to God, the world, and each other.
These things about the kingdom of God are true now, even though they are not obvious; that is why I am calling it a reality. God is abba now. He is loving and compassionate and made the world in love. It is a complex world in which we have a role as God’s children and stewards, the caretakers of God’s creation. We failed to live in our boundaries right from the beginning. Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is an analogy that we still make true on a daily basis.
Jesus talks about humanity in terms of being God’s children. This Hebrew concept still lives in our current language. When my dad says that I am my mother’s son, he is saying that I have her character. When Jesus tells us to live as God’s children, he is telling us to have God’s character, and then he carefully teaches what that character is. We read about forgiveness and get stuck on needing forgiveness, but Jesus focusses in the Gospels on us being forgiving, on us forgiving other people’s sins.
We were to wake up to our reality, be born again into the reality of God’s abbaness (I made that up), our status as God’s children in Jesus, and that we have God’s Spirit dwelling in us, as Paul focusses on, teaching us, giving us life, and enabling us to embody God’s rule of love and compassion. In this way we take on our full humanity as it was intended, mature human beings taking care of the world and living in peace and love with each other.
This work sounds soft in the face of violence, oppression, racism, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation. But it is courageous and brave, honorable work. It is human. It is the natural state of the whole and healthy human being. This is obvious to all, even if rarely experienced.
So if this is the reality that Jesus inaugurated and taught and made real in his death and resurrection, taking away the consequences of our failure and revealing God’s love and forgiveness in his sacrificial death and bringing new life in his resurrection, then why the church?
Couldn’t we just live into that reality on our own? I think we probably can, but I cannot sustain it very long by myself. I need a community to hold and mold me. I need to be taught the teachings of Jesus and the Bible and our tradition. I need to be told about the world that I can’t always see. I need to be supported in the mad trust in a reality that seems at odds with the messages of my culture. I need to be with other people who believe and who love that way.
And I want a place where I am treated that way, as a human being. Not a consumer or merchandise. Not a supporter or an enemy. Not a machine or an idea. Not an animal or a plant.
I completely understand that church has failed to be that for many people. But I have hope. And I am doing my part. Jesus told religious people, the chief priests and elders in the temple, that the tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom of his Abba ahead of them. That’s still true, I guess. At least I know I have tasted that kind of love and reality in some strange places, like bars and back rooms with disaffected people. But I so often get little tastes at church, where I put myself in the way of grace with a whole lot of people who are very, very different from me and find myself at home in the house of God with my family.
And like my own family, I get all kinds of frustrated and angry, but I also get loved and helped out, reminded and remade, and I am doing my part. I am not just a recipient in church, I am a participant. I am making the place along with a whole lot of really cool people who are not like me but not so very different either.
So yes, I think you should join a church and help to make it. Help make it a little more like God’s house, full of human beings in our infinitude of graces and failures, care-taking creation and each other into a more holy human divine house of love.