Over the past weekend, the congregation I serve celebrated its 75th anniversary. Here are some of my thoughts.
Jesus didn’t know the term “church”. In the first decades after the resurrection, a word came to be used to describe the followers of Christ who lived and met in community. Jesus, the man at the center of this movement, worked long before the faithful accepted words to describe who they were and where they met. To the first disciples, to label themselves as anything other than a “follower of Jesus” made no sense. It is not how they viewed the world.
Jesus’ “church” was the back roads, hills, and valleys of Galilee. Long before John Wesley said, “The world is my parish”, Jesus abandoned the synagogues and took his message on the road. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is expelled from the synagogue where he was raised and taught to fear the Lord. As you or I would put it, he is in his “home church”. His homecoming sermon did not go well. Jesus was rejected and nearly killed in the place where he went to Vacation Torah School, Sabbath School, and learned to read the Bible. Mark says, “They were repulsed by him”. Who is repulsed by Jesus teachings? The people who knew him, loved him, and claimed to have his best interest at heart. Take note. The people who ought to know Jesus best are the ones angered with him the most.
The people of Nazareth embraced two distinct ideas. God’s presence was to be found in a building. People weren’t especially sacred. To be deemed holy in a holy building required one to jump through numerous hoops. Secondly, faith was something you could own. Like an inheritance, it was a possession you claimed and could be squandered. Belief was passed down like property.
How could a carpenter’s child, the son of a teenage mother (people still talked about the strange circumstances surrounding his birth), question their faith and religious inheritance? This was their synagogue. Jesus’ Nazareth friends and family believed Jesus had wasted his faith. People get angry at people who waste things they regard as valuable.
For Jesus, structures weren’t vital to his mission. The disciples, walking two by two with only walking sticks, no money, no bread, or bags became the closest thing to what we might call “church”.
What did it mean to be the “church” in the year 30? Here’s the best answer to a flawed question: it meant a way of life which most modern United Methodists wouldn’t accept. The ability to embrace poverty while meeting the needs of the poorest in the Kingdom was a primary challenge. Secondly, if there were obstacles (doctrinal, hierarchical) to hearing the Good News, Jesus removed them. The church made reaching Jesus easier.
What does it mean to be a church or to call ourselves church in 2018? The answer should be the same. We are challenged to deny materialism and wealth “no votes” in our efforts to reach the most vulnerable members of the Kingdom. It’s our calling to go out instead of waiting for people to come to us. While we’re at work, let’s make it easier for people to see Christ at work in the world. Instead of planting doctrinal, Disciplinary, and other stumbling block; are able to make it easier for those in our community to reach Jesus?
After seventy five years of uninterrupted history, given our identification as Methodists and people of this island; what does it mean to be the body of Christ on Ocracoke in 2018?
Churches are monuments, created to reflect ideas and aspirations of the world they surround. They evolve from the evolved. Humanity’s need to worship a God or Gods has, for centuries, led people from sacred groves of trees to build and maintain holy buildings. Despite our best intentions, when the grandest cathedral is finished or the simplest chapel completed; we’ve limited our vision. Our view of the kingdom of God is bounded by the four walls of sacred space we claim as our own. God keeps growing after we settle down. Our challenge is to never be comfortable waiting for the outside world to find their way to our door. We go to the world.
As with the first disciples, we are sent to engage with Jesus’ message and to embody his values as our own. Our commitment to this church (not solely to the church as a building or birthright) but as an idea will be what keeps the United Methodist Church alive and vibrant.
The church is not a building nor is it simply the people. Church is more than a holy noun. Instead, the church is an idea we hold in common (like democracy). Transcending the barriers of time, the church is present in all ages, spaces, places, and peoples. We are not our monuments. Were the church the sum total of our flesh and blood, stone and mortar, wood and nails; the church would have died over two thousand years ago. Instead, we are the resurrection made real and the recognition of the Holy Spirit in the lives of one another. We are more than we realize.
The church is an intangible reality found inside each of us and it is also present when we gather as a community. We are unable to see what makes “church, church”. However, this indefinable quality gives us words to pray, songs to sing, and a faith in which to believe. It is the realization of the kingdom of God, the tiniest glimpse of the reality Jesus promised, at least that’s what it should be.
The church has never been about one thing.* The church, like the Kingdom, is everything. If that idea is overwhelming, bigger than you imagined; then we’re headed in the right direction.
Richard Lowell Bryant
*At points in history when the church has been about one thing, bad things usually happen.