Calvary Unplugged: What Is the Church?
As many of you know, I am not so interested in sports. That’s probably the biggest understatement of the morning. So it may seem strange to you that I want to begin this morning talking about sports. To my credit, I do live with a few individuals who eat, sleep, and breathe sports, so I know a little bit. And while I think in general it’s a bad idea to talk about things you are largely ignorant of, I’m afraid that’s where we begin this morning.
See, as I was contemplating the question, “What is the church?” this week, I read articles and chapters and books that describe the essentials of the church using metaphors. One metaphor that kept surfacing was the metaphor of a sports team.
Given my own general ignorance of the subject (and also the fact that Sam is away at camp at the moment), I turned to one of Calvary’s own—our own professional athlete—to help me understand this metaphor. That would be Grady Renfrow, son of Nancy and Phil Renfrow. Grady is a soccer player who plays in a league in Puerto Rico. According to Grady, professional sports teams are formed through the sale of a franchise license within a certain league. To start forming a team, the owners will assemble a technical staff—coaches, assistant coaches, administrators. This leadership team will then select players to play on the team. Members of the team are hand selected by the leadership staff, assembled carefully into a group that will work well with the coach’s style and with each other. Players’ statistics, apparently, are the key to staying in on the team. Once a player’s stats start to drop, they are not helping the team anymore and they need to be replaced.
I guess I can kind of see how a church might be modeled after a professional sports organization. Churches are founded within a certain “league”—denomination, that is, and very often “franchised” from other churches, either by church planting of a big church fight. One key to running a church is a leadership team, a coach and staff you could say. And church planting experts will tell you that the best way to grow a church is to target members who have a lot in common with each other—who are homogeneous, in other words. And one key to keeping a church healthy, many would say, is to keep a lid on anybody who causes trouble or weighs the organization down without contributing appropriately (that would be the folks with the slipping stats). There are a lot of churches that are, in fact, organized like this. It seems to be a tried and true metaphor for a successful church
However…as I mentioned, I’m not that interested in sports, and even though I love Grady Renfrow, I am just not too sure that a professional sports team is exactly the metaphor to answer the question: “What is the church?”—and definitely not this church.
The first Christians spent the whole first century trying to answer the question “What is the church?” for themselves and everybody around them. Early leaders like the Apostles and Paul had done a fine job spreading the word, planting churches all overAsia Minor, but remember that this idea of a church was really a new thing for everybody. Nobody knew exactly how to set a church up, what the rules should be in a church organization, or what the purpose of even having a church might be. Many of the first Christians were Jews, and when church plants started popping up all over, all kinds of people got into the mix. There were people trying to be the church who were wildly and vastly different from each other—they had very little in common other than a shared belief in Jesus Christ. And the society in which the church was born—that First Century Middle East Society—was deeply suspicious of this new sect of Christians.
A lot of people think that the first century was all about the persecution of Christians, but that really didn’t start until later. When John wrote the book of Revelation to the first church, they were all still in a period of tenuous uncertainty. They didn’t quite know who they were or what they were meant to be, and tension in society was mounting. The main issue was not persecution…it was assimilation.
The book of Revelation is the last book in your Bible—who knows what kind of biblical literature it is? Right, apocalyptic literature. That’s, literature written in response to a crisis, to offer hope and comfort, to undergird a protest.
(Carol Blythe and Rick Goodman should love it, in other words!)
Revelation is a strange book, as you probably know…it is written with lofty language full of metaphors and symbolism, and it has been misused by many in the church to try to predict the future, to scare people, to write best selling novels….
But here’s what I want you to know about Revelation. Revelation is a letter to 7 First Century churches, addressing the growing tension between the life of faith these Christians were trying to live and the culture all around them. The pressure was on to assimilate—the urban, pagan society all around them was totally game for a new god, but folks didn’t understand this whole monotheism idea; they didn’t know why the Christians just wouldn’t worship all the other gods, too, and most especially, the Emperor. Emperor worship was a big deal back then, and you could get in a lot of trouble if you didn’t regard the Emperor as a god.
The first Christians might not have been too clear on what the church was exactly, but they certainly knew they were not going to be worshipping pagan gods, or the Emperor, for that matter—they were followers of Jesus Christ. So as the push to assimilate got stronger and the tension mounted, the Christians began to be viewed with suspicion. Some people heard rumors that they did this ritual with bread and wine and said it was Christ’s body—were they cannibals??!? And, they had this weird tradition of calling each other “brother” and “sister”—smacked of incest to some. Anyway, things were getting tense, and the writer of Revelation wrote to the seven churches to encourage them to hang on…to remember who they were…to remember what the church was supposed to be.In the first few chapters of the book, the author addresses his message to “the angel of the church.” In other words, “To the angel of the church inSardisI write…” or, “To the angel of the church inEphesus…”. Scholars have long debated exactly who “the angel of the church” would have been (the pastor, surely?)
Even back then, the nature of the first church was diverse—each community had its own challenges and opportunities, its own calling and character. Of course it did! Because communities are like people—they have personalities, gifts, strengths, weaknesses…they are diverse. And with the unique qualities of each community comes a special calling and opportunity to be the church in the context where each one finds itself. In fact, I think when the writer of Revelation was talking about “the angel of the church,” maybe he meant the core, the character, the essence of that community of faith. Yes, you are followers of Jesus Christ. And, in what way are you called to live out that calling here and now? Do you remember who you are and what you are called to be? When you do…when you live in community as followers of Jesus Christ, responding faithfully to his call, then, my friends, you are being the church.
We have a joke in the office here at Calvary. It started a couple of years ago when I had a lunch meeting with a colleague who had originally contacted me because he had heard some of the interesting things going on here at Calvary; he wanted to visit. After we visited over lunch, I invited him to come into our offices to meet our staff. He very gamely did come into the church office and walked up and down the hallway, nodding to different staff members as I explained who they were.
For those of you who have not been in our offices, we have big windows down the hallway—a DC requirement for inside office space. Because of those windows, the visitor that day peered in at various staff members as if they were on display—something strange and unusual, carefully kept safely behind glass. After our visitor left that day we were discussing among ourselves how strange the experience was—that we felt like we were displays in a zoo.
And that’s where it was born. Call it what you will, but the zoo became a metaphor, all of the sudden, for our experience of church—of Christian community—here at Calvary. Not a sports team around here, oh no, the zoo…and we meant it in a really good way.
Just think about your experience in this community of faith. In what ways could you identify the metaphor of a zoo as your experience here at Calvary? Take a minute and talk to each other—in what ways would you say that Calvary is like a zoo? (diverse, interesting, a place that takes care of people, unique, interesting to those outside, different from other places, designed to promote an important message, always welcome to visitors, sometimes full of tension, etc.)
So, what if being the zoo is our metaphor…instead of, say, being a professional sports team or even something else? If we know who we are and who God has called us to be, then we better be busy living our calling in this place.
Maybe those who are better at interpreting symbolism and metaphor will disagree with me, but I think the author of Revelation was talking about just this sort of idea when he wrote to “the angel of the church.” Who are you? What has God called you to do and to be? If you know it, then do it! And, when you do, then you will be answering that question: what is the church?
See, being the church is not a systematic, cookie cutter list of rules in every time and everyplace—even the first Christians must have known that, because wherever they went the expression of the Gospel took on different personalities and flavors. Being the church, you see, has less to do with discovering and following a list of hard and fast rules and so much more to do with listening for the voice and calling of God, tending faithfully to relationship with those in your community, and constantly striving to live as a whole in such a way that Jesus Christ is evident to all around you.
You know, there are several different churches within less than a block radius here. I’ve heard people criticize over and over the inability or unwillingness of churches to be uniform—why should we need Calvary, Grace DC, Greater New Hope, and Calvary Burmese Congregation when we could just get together and have one worship service and be done with it?
It has to do with the angel of the church…with what it is that God is specifically calling us as a whole and you and me as individuals to do and be in this place.
Are we responsive to God’s direction for our community?
Then we are being the church.
Do we listen to the voices among us, suggesting new opportunities and possibilities for living our faith together?
Then we are being the church.
Do we continually call each other to commitment, service, and participation, because the hope we have found and of which we speak is too important not to tell others?
Then we are being the church.
Are we creating a space for folks to experience God?
Then we are being the church.
Do our lives reflect mercy, justice, and hope in ways that transform the broken places in our lives and in our world?
Then we are being the church.
We won’t look like every other church on the block, and they don’t look like us, but that’s okay: we each have a holy calling to live out as followers of Jesus Christ. When we gather together to worship, to love, and to serve, then we are being the church.
And, whatever metaphor you choose, being part of a community that reflects the love of Jesus is one of the highest callings of life. It’s: being the church, together.