Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Why Church?

I once heard someone say something along the line that "anyone with a brain doesn’t need a church to tell them how to live, they can figure it out for themselves." I will concede that there is some truth to a statement like that. There are plenty of people in our community and our world who live a decent life, even a good life, helping others, doing good, loving their families, and they never go to a church.

So why church? What’s a church for? Why should anyone go to church if you can be a good person without it? Well, different churches might give different answers to these questions. Even within a particular church you’ll get different answers from the people there. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about these questions.

I’m a Lutheran pastor and in the Lutheran church we talk a lot about grace. In fact one of the Lutheran church’s famous slogans is "Grace Alone!" What grace or "Grace Alone!" boils down to is that God loves us. Not just "us" Lutherans, not just "us" Christians. God loves the whole world and demonstrated that love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And God calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and sends the church out so that the Word of God’s unconditional love and promise can be heard clearly in the world.

That Word of God’s unconditional love and promise is a word of forgiveness and life. God knows, and so do we, that we’re less than perfect, that we mess up, that we don’t live the kind of life that God intended for us. So what does God do when we mess up? God forgives! And the Word of God’s unconditional love and promise is life giving. God’s love makes a difference for people. Not the law. Not a list of rules you better follow or else. Not whacking people upside the head with a Bible. The thing that changes people, the thing that makes a difference for your life, the thing that gives life is God’s love.

So why do people think the church is about telling them how to live? Well, I think it’s because so often the church forgets about its reason for being, forgets that it’s really about spreading the news of God’s unconditional grace. We’re not here to list conditions that people need to fulfill before they can receive God’s grace. We’re not here to reform people’s morals. We’re not here to tell people how to live.

It’s tempting to tell people that if they’d just shape up and turn their lives around, if they’d just do this and this and if they’d stop doing that and that, then God will surely reward them. But that’s not now and never can be the good news. Every time we tell people, "If you would just change, then God will love you," then the church is betraying the message it’s been sent to share.

That’s not what God created the church to be and do. The church has been put into this world to spread the radical news of the unconditional grace of God. The church is not a "check your brain at the door" kind of operation. We believe that when we hear the good news of God’s grace and experience the good news in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper then God awakens faith in us and then strengthens that faith as we live in a Christian community.
So why church? I don’t think the church is here to tell us how to live. But I do think the church is here to help us to live a life of faith. And as we live a life of faith with other Christians in the church God changes us so that we can live for others and share the faith and the good news of God’s love for the whole world.


Alisa said...

Hi Tom. My name is Alisa. I love blogging on God Stuff too, and know what you mean about not having the time to write all you really want to and then feeling guilty about time spent when you do, etc.

You appear to be an easy guy to talk to and a Lutheran pastor to boot, so I'm gonna throw something out here that has bothered me for years and ask you if you have an interpretation of what could have been meant that I may have missed, ok?

Years ago, when I was a new believer, I attended a Lutheran church with friends. I believe it was a wedding ceremony. During the course of the ceremony the clergy person (who was wearing a long white robe with "scarves" and what looked like fat, round, drapery tie-backs around the waist said several things, that (even as a fairly new christian) I "knew" just weren't right. One of these things has stuck in my head until this very day.

While speaking of Jesus feeding the multitude he said, and this is a fairly accurate quote, maybe even ver batem, "Look, everybody brought something. This was a giant pot-luck and ever body brought something. Jesus wasn't a magician. He had nothing up His sleeves. There was no slight of hand."

Till this day, I wish that I had called him on it. There were believers there of all different faiths. I know for a fact that there were Baptists, Catholics and Reformers, and only God knows who else. But more importantly, there were soo many that were (and still are) unsaved and in no relationship with Christ.

So, I ask you, purely as a Lutheran, is this a common belief in your denomination, or, was he indeed out of line to carry on as he did? Is there a similar teaching that you are familiar with that I may have misunderstood? (I doubt that)

I have never had the opportunity to ask this question to a Lutheran and am genuinely interested in your response. It was a local church, about 12 years ago or more and every time I drive by it I am reminded of the comment and wonder what other misrepresentations of Christ have occurred there.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Blessings, Alisa

Tom in Ontario said...

I responded to alisa personally in an email because my response was pretty long so please don't think that I ignore peoples' comments, not that I get many comments. But I read them all and if they ask for a response I'll give one.

Alisa said...

Yes, you did Tom, and I should have come here and said so and thanked you here in addition to my e-mail. Although I do not arrive at the same conclusion re: these verses, it was....... a different way of thinking. And I always welcome that. Following is an excerpt, and the main point of your reply to me:

Perhaps the point isn’t whether or not the people were miraculously or magically fed. Perhaps the point is that the people were fed. Period. Exactly how it happened? That remains a mystery. Were there more people with food? Were they shamed into sharing their food when they saw a young boy offer his meager rations to Jesus? Maybe. Does it matter? What’s the point of the story? Is it simply to demonstrate that Jesus is a miracle worker or is there more behind it? Maybe there’s a lesson about a boy’s willingness to share. Maybe there’s a lesson about the disciples’ lack of faith that God will provide for the needs of the people. I think the problem with what that pastor was saying when you heard him, was that his statement about the feeding not being miraculous overshadowed the point he was trying to make. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t just trying to say that Jesus didn’t work miracles but by making that kind of statement that’s what stuck in people’s minds and the point he really wanted to get across got lost. That’s a common problem with preaching. You tell a story or a joke to try to illustrate a point and the people end up remembering the story or the joke and they forget the point you were trying to illustrate.

The psalms speak of God as the one who feeds humanity: You open wide your hand, O God, and give us food in every season. The psalmist implies that humans have physical and spiritual hungers, hungers that will be satisfied only by God. In Christ, God satisfies our thirst with living waters and feeds us with living bread. These images speak of our desire for communion with the one who is greater than our frailty and fears. They are biblical images of Christ’s presence among us in the waters of baptism and the bread and cup of the eucharist.

One Lutheran pastor has written this about the passage:

Ours is a hungry world. More people do not have any bread for their stomachs than those who do. Chances are you would not have to look far to find someone who is truly hungry. They may be lingering near the door of the local convenience store, or by the bus station. It is easier for us, of course, to think about hunger in more metaphorical terms. We all know someone who hungers for meaning or truth or justice. Most likely that person looking back at you in the mirror is hungry for something.

The crowds who come to hear Jesus overstay their welcome. It is suppertime and the disciples are nervous at the prospect that the crowd will be hungry and, based on Near Eastern hospitality customs, expect a meal. It is Jesus who asks the question first, "Where are we to buy bread for this gathering?" There is a boy with five loaves and two fish. "But what are they among so many people?" Andrew observes. Jesus takes the loaves and fish, gives thanks and distributes them among the crowd. In the end, the baskets hold leftovers.

Yes, ours is a hungry world. Jesus comes to satisfy that hunger: the hunger for purpose and meaning and yes, the hunger in one’s belly. Jesus feeds us in the holy eucharist with bread and wine, body and blood that we may be satisfied even to eternal life. Jesus gives us himself.

As we are fed so also we are invited to feed one another. Jesus, in John’s account, later charges the disciples with the feeding of the sheep. "Feed my lambs" (Jn 20:15). A people whose hunger is satisfied know about sharing from their abundance.


Thanks again Tom,