05 February 2015

What is the Church For?

Acts 2: 43-47

Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany/ 1st February 2015

Years ago one of our young theologians asked, “Mommy, what is the church for?”  It’s a terrific question, one that we should continuously ask ourselves.  What is a church for?  Why does it exist?  Not just Catonsville Presbyterian Church, but any church?  What are we here to do?  What exactly is going on here?  What are we meant to be? Why does the Church exist?

It’s a good question to ask, especially today as we gather for the Annual Congregational Meeting, review the committee reports, receive the budget, discuss your pastors’ terms of call, elect new officers.  The reports reflect the institutional life of this congregation—what it takes to “run” a healthy, vital church.  But they also reflect something else, deeper than the budgets and graphs and all the words, words, words found in the reports. 

What is necessary for a church to be a church?  What if we whittled everything away, every committee or board and member of the staff, everything extraneous, what what’s essential? What’s the absolutely minimum requirement for a church to be a church?

We don’t need a building—at least not one that looks like ours.  Any room large enough to gather the community would do. Without a building like ours we wouldn’t need a sexton or a board of trustees.  We wouldn’t require the use of an office manager or bookkeeper.  It’s not essential that we have boards and committees.  We don’t have to have choirs or organs or pianos or music directors and organists. We don’t really need pastors.  I think they’re kind of important, but I’m biased.  Yet, I know, we, your pastors, know we’re not essential for the church to be the church.  Two weeks ago both of your pastors couldn’t get here for worship due to the ice storm, but worship carried on without us.   

Now, I’m not proposing that we let the staff go or sell the building—although I used to hear similar comments about our building, years ago, before our renovations.  This is simply the way we “do” the institutional these days—with buildings and staff and professional ministers.  It hasn’t always been so and neither will it always be so, because the Church is changing.  But this exercise is an interesting thought experiment to remind us why we’re here and to answer that question, what are we here for.

The answer to this question is found here in Acts 2, in this marvelously concise description of what it was like in the first century.  It’s ridiculously simple.  “Gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories.”[1]  This is at the heart of what we do.  Simple, yet radical and life changing because of the One who breaks bread with us and because of the stories we tell.  Gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories.

“All who believed were together” (Acts 2:44).  Believers gathered. From the very beginning, believers in Jesus gathered together in small groups, in what could be called
“circles of trust.”[2] Because the level of trust was high, they “had all things in common.”

Embedded within the English word “common” is the Greek word, koina, common.  It’s related to one of the most beautiful and profound Greek words in the New Testament, koinonia.  Rich in meaning, koinonia pulls this text together, pulls the disciples together and, by God's grace, pulls all of us together with them.

Actually, koinonia is just under the surface shaping most of what happens in the New Testament, and it emerges in English in many places, whenever we read words such as: fellowship, sharing, participation, contribution, community, and communion. Behind these words is the Greek word koinonia. It's tough to capture what this word means; maybe because it isn’t a concept to be understood, but an experience we undergo, encounter. Or, better, koinonia is a description of what it looks like and feels like when believers of Jesus Christ gather together, break bread, tell their stories—the old, old, stories about Jesus long ago, yes, but also the stories of how Jesus has changed and continues to change lives, now, today—stories shared, lives shared, resources shared with gladness and generosity, a people determined to live not apart but together.

Determined to live and believe together not apart.  It’s tough to be Christian by oneself.  Years ago someone called the church office and asked to speak with a pastor.  He had a question:  Does one have to be part of a church, go to worship to be a Christian?  Can I be a Christian home alone?  I was a little perturbed by the question, to be honest.  I was brief in my response.  “No.  You can’t be a Christian alone, by oneself, apart from the community.”[2]  He didn’t like my response.  For how can you share in communion if you’re by yourself, cut-off from community?

Believers are drawn together, drawn to the presence of Christ who meets us here and “shows up” when his people gather, break bread, and tell the stories of his love. What this text (and many like it in scripture) points to and reminds us is that from the beginning Christ was worshipped and experienced and served in and through community (koinonia), when believers shared (koinonia) their joys and their sorrows, when they shared (koinonia) their resources and contributed generously to the worshipping koinonia, and then shared (koinonia) with those in need, and through the rich, intimate fellowship (koinonia) that occurs when believers break bread in Jesus' name and see his face imprinted in the members of the community. When all of this happens, we can say Jesus “shows up.” His presence, real.  The early church knew, as we know, that we are participating (koinonia)—right now, right here, gathering, breaking, telling, sharing—in the very life of Christ! This is what the church is for.

All of this becomes the basis for our Reformed understanding of breaking bread and sharing a cup, of Communion (koinonia).  It's why what goes on at this Table is more than just a “memorial meal,” and why John Calvin (1509-1564)—blessed be his name—wanted Communion served on every Lord's Day. Why? Because when we do we participate in the very life of Christ found here in this community. Holy Communion is—co-union, a communing with Jesus; it is the mystical joining of Jesus Christ with the community of the faithful. Listen to Paul’s description of the meal: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (koinonia) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the koinonia of the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, is right when he says. “When we gather as God’s guests at God’s table, the Church becomes what it is meant to be.”[4] The people of God are formed and reformed when we break bread together with the Lord. This act—again and again—shapes who we are as a people and shapes the work of the church.

So let us break this bread, believers, share this cup knowing we participate in the presence of Christ alive within us and among us here—and then watch how Christ is formed in us and among us and through us, a congregation of widely diverse people gathered together in communion, in koinonia, formed into a community that embodies the presence of Christ. This is what the church is for.

[1] Cited by Larry Rasmussen, "Shaping Communities," in Dorothy C. Bass, ed. Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 119. He calls it "the perennial strategy."
[2] This is a phrase central to the thought of Parker J. Palmer, Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 25ff.
[3] Of course this response doesn’t apply to members unable to get to worship or be a part of the fellowship life of the church (for a variety of reasons). 
[4] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 58.