The Church as Sacrament, another young pastor responds

Josh Graves (far right, with Brandon Scott Thomas and Josh Ross) is the teaching minister for the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Nashville. He’s author of The FeastHeaven on Earth, and Tearing Down the Walls. You can follow him on twitter (@joshgraves) or check out his blog: www.joshuagraves.com

And I consider Josh a friend who brings theology into pastoral theology and the local church, or perhaps he brings the local church into theology and pastoral theology,  in a way we need more of.

Yes, another response to Donald Miller’s recent posts on “church” and “not going to church.”

Each Sunday, in the community of faith I lead, we gather together to sing, pray, study, listen, confess, receive bread and wine (juice too), and give of our money and possessions. Some Sundays we laugh. Some, we cry. Some, we leave confused. Some, we are upset. Some, we leave bored and sad. Some Sundays, we are inspired to turn the world upside down with resurrection power. One really knows what will happen.

Ritual, as is often reported, has two effects on us: Some of us dread it. Others live for it. Ritual takes life, smothers, bores, deadens. And. Ritual gives life, beauty, frees, and resurrects. It’s the reason that on the same Sunday someone will walk up to me with disgust saying “This church does nothing for me” and later that night I’ll get an e-mail, “This church is changing my soul.” Ritual has two effects on people. Death. Resurrection. And honestly, I know this is the case but I have no idea why.

I have been moved towards a more sacramental understanding of the church. By sacramental, a too-fancy-of-a-word I still use, I mean that heaven interrupts earth. There’s ordinary, but there’s also something divine. There’s something mundane and yet, something eternal. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. But it’s there, it’s here. It’s as real as the letters I’m constructing into words for this very sentence. It’s Spirit. It’s God. It’s Heaven. And it is painfully ordinary.

I don’t think the church is magic. It isn’t some secret pill I take each week. But, I also don’t think it’s impotent, powerless, or boring.When I say sacramental, I mean that earth is touching heaven. In the people. I don’t mean the building. I don’t mean the programs. I don’t mean the theology. And I most certainly am not talking about the preacher. I am talking about the people. The people are where it’s at.

I am envisioning our church’s sanctuary as I write. I’ve learned this from my spiritual heroes: Mother Teresa, Barbara Brown Taylor, Henri Nouwen, MLK, and Dorothy Day. More important than doing (praxis) and knowing (theology) is the art of imagination. What Miroslav Volf calls “the art of seeing double; looking twice,” (e.g. Lk. 10:23-42).

Yolanda is in the third row, clean from a haunting drug addiction, now a top student at a local liberal arts university, the one who brings friends every Sunday, telling them how Jesus and her church pulled her out of darkness.

Brad has a beat in his head but doesn’t quite have the lyrics to match. He’s got a deadline. He’s a top-notch songwriter, his music is what connects him to God. Words move mountains in his soul. He’s in the house.I can see Jacob. Fresh from a military tour in Afghanistan. Holding his two boys as he sings, “Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see, only thou art holy; there is none beside thee, perfect in power, in love and purity.”Joan is on her, I can’t even count that high, umpteenth bout with cancer, planning her week around her excruciating trips to Vanderbilt for treatments that might not even work. Yet, she’s probably the most positive person in our entire church community some sociologists label “mega church.” I see others . . . James, the father of a young growing son and a baby daughter who died her first week of life. His wife is carrying their third child. So, there’s hope and dread running through him. He’s looking for more hope in the depths of one of his favorite hymns.

There’s Tyler too. The whole world before him. A great athlete and better communicator. He might be a CEO or President. I don’t know. He’s right on the cusp of something.

Sandy is also gathered in this sacred space. She is the best preacher in our church even though she rarely gets to exercise that gift. Sandy has been reading Bonhoeffer before Bonhoeffer was “cool to read.” She also helped build a school in inner city Nashville with the money and work of her fellow brothers and sisters. She’s there almost every week, bringing her poems, stories, and keen insights. I’m the preacher in this community. But she’s my preacher. “After 76 years of being a part of church,” she recently said, “though much smaller, my thinking has evolved from the little girl eager for a time when I too could participate in communion to the young woman weeping over my sins which sent Christ to the cross, to envisioning a young, long-haired Jew in a robe and sandals at the table with arms outstretched. These days I look for Jesus not in a robe but in all of you, and I find him . . . in this inclusive and outrageously generous congregation.”

All of these saints and sinners gathered in one room, receiving the script that will determine (hopefully) the ethics we employ the other six days God has given us.I’m about to turn 35 and this is what I know: I want to live a better story. I don’t trust living my life according to one story (mine or my family’s). I need more stories, other versions of what God is doing in the world beyond the confines of my tiny little piece of Planet Earth. There’s a danger of limiting my life to my story. Church does not allow me to pick and choose which stories I encounter. That’s mostly what keeps me intoxicated with Jesus. And I know I can’t do this alone. I know that each Sunday, as I walk to the front of our large church, I have been called to speak a word from God. But, according to Scripture, the word always wants to move to flesh. Word becomes flesh. Not the other way around.

Yep. I’m the preacher. Most Sundays. It is technically accurate to surmise that I’m there because I get paid to show up. But that’s not why I’m there. Yes, I get a paycheck. But that’s not why I’m really there. I’m there because these are my people. This is my family. I belong to them and they belong to me. C.S. Lewis, who changed his mind later in life about the relevance of the gathered church, aptly captured this when he wrote: “Next to the blessed sacrament (Communion) itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

I know all about the church’s skeletons. But why can’t we also talk of her roses?

Most Sundays, right before I stand to utter a foolish word (i.e. preach), I close my eyes and see my other family members worshipping in a gym in The Bronx, under a huge tree in Nairobi, under the overpass of I-94 in downtown Detroit, in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or in the school houses in the mountains of Ulpan Valley Guatemala. My friend Sandy (my preacher) calls this sacramental awareness “…She (the church) is a community of believers that stretches around the world and back through centuries–universal and timeless.” The basic theology of the NT supports this sacramental view: church is an ekklesia (used 102 times in the NT according to my most recent count); a gathered and intentional community who listens, teaches, prays, sings, receives, blesses, and gives away.  In Jesus’ name.

Brothers and sisters in the faith have been doing this gathering thing for a long time. As far back as most of us can even know. Ancient. Universal. I need more of that, not less. So I put up with the songs that don’t always fly, the sermons that don’t raise people from the dead, the prayers that come off as shallow and sentimental. Because, if just for an hour, we are gathered to do something foolish. To believe that our hearts and words and prayers move heaven and earth. To move into the world of surgery, painting, art, stories, healing knowing that what just happened in here (sacred space) is intrinsically connected to what is happening everywhere else (all the other sacred spaces). I don’t “go to church” to escape the world or appease God, I “go to church” because I have not yet learned how to love the world with the totality and creativity I see in Jesus. That’s why I get up every Sunday morning before sunrise and pour over my naive and simple sermon notes. It’s not because I want to be a great preacher. It’s because I can’t wait to be with my brothers and sisters. Because something, I mean someone, might happen.

And that someone is usually Jesus.

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