STILL GOING TO CHURCH?

June 23, 2019


I Corinthians 3:5-23

 I had a professor in seminary who was well known for using exaggerations, hyperboles, and overstatements in his lectures to prove his points.  In spite of what we knew about his reputation, one day he tossed out a one-liner that created quite a stir.  The professor said, "The biggest problem with Christians today is that we go to church.  The biggest problem with Christians today is that we go to church."

         As you might expect from an audience of aspiring pastors who had dreams of preaching to sizable and rapidly growing congregations, this statement raised a few eyebrows.  As far as we could see, the fact that Christians went to church was not a problem for us.  The problem as far as we were concerned was that not enough Christians went to church.

         The professor could clearly tell that he had our attention, so he proceeded to toss out another one-liner.  In addition to his contention that the biggest problem with Christians today is that we go to church, he added that in the era of the New Testament, the first generations of Christians never went to church.

         Now, he clearly had our attention and had provoked numerous questions.  "Well, if the original Christians didn't go to church, how did they worship?  Where did they meet?  When did they collect funds?  What did they do on Sunday morning?"

         We were aghast that this professor, who was supposedly training us for future ministry in local congregations, was actually undermining our vocational dreams.  Yet he seemed undisturbed by our reactions.  After waving off all the objections and questions, he made his third and major point.  "According to the Bible," he said, "Christians do not go to church; rather, Christians are the church.  Christians do not go to church; Christians are the church."

         Although some may shrug off my teacher's comments as mere hair-splitting, he had made a thoughtfully and Biblically accurate distinction.  We commonly say, "I'm going to church on Sunday morning."  I'll see you in church next week."  "Excuse me, I have to leave early during the church service."  In these casual and conventional ways we picture church either as a location, such as the church at 58 Church Street, or we picture church as a building, the Union Memorial Church, or as an event, such as coming to a worship service.  Although we are accustomed to using the word church in these ways, the original Christians never used the word church in any of these ways.

         When the Apostle Paul used the word church, he did not associate it with a street location, or a building or a once-a-week scheduled event.  He would never have confined church to one spot, one time, or within four walls.  His view of the church was much larger, much grander, much more challenging.

         For example, listen to some of the ways he described the Christians he knew who lived in Corinth:

         "...You are God's garden, [you are] God's building (I Corinthians 3:9)...Do you not know that you are God's temple, [God's sanctuary] and that God's spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person.  For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple, [that sanctuary]."  (I Corinthians 3:16-17)

         In the ancient world people assumed that a temple, any temple, was a place where someone could expect to find the deity.  If someone wanted to ask a deity a question, to request a favor, to give a thank-you gift, or to pay a visit, they went to that deity's temple.  Most deities did not make house calls, so if you wanted to consult with one, you had to go to their office, which also served as their residence.  If you dialed directory assistance and asked to speak with your deity, the operator would tell you that your deity's numbers were unlisted; one could only talk to them in person at their respective temples where they lived.  People lived in houses; deities lived in temples.

         The ancient Hebrews held a somewhat nuanced view about where their divine being resided. When the celebrated King Solomon built and dedicated the iconic temple in Jerusalem back some 900 years before Jesus lived, the King admitted that the Hebrew’s deity did not actually reside inside the grand temple. For, since not even the highest heavens could contain their Lord, even the great temple was not large enough to accommodate their Lord. Nonetheless, the temple did provide an agreed-upon meeting place, a place where the Lord conducted business while actually residing elsewhere.

         However Paul and the original Christians had a different perspective. A temple was still the customary place for meeting with the deity, but instead of living in a temple made of bricks and mortar, their Lord opted to live in temples made of flesh and bones. God's spirit lived in Christians.  Each Christian was a temple on legs.  God's spirit conducted business inside Christians.  God's spirit was not restricted to office hours between 10:00 and 11:00 on Sunday when the temple's front doors were open.  God's spirit was on the go 24 hours a day.

         Paul probably got the idea from Jesus. In John 2:18-22, Jesus had described his body as the Lord’s new version of a temple ­ the new place where people could connect with the deity.

         Nowadays people go to church buildings or so-called church services presumably to make a connection with God.  People expect that meeting within these four walls at the appointed times, they can expect or at least hope to get in touch with God, whether to ask God a favor, to get to know God, or simply to be close with God.  Since ancient times people have believed that they could meet with the deity in certain buildings at certain times by doing certain rituals. The ancients called such buildings temples; modern Christians call them churches.

         But if Paul was here, he would advise us differently.  He'd say that Christians are now God's building, God's residence, God's house, God's temple.  The church, that is the place where people expect to encounter God, is not chiefly a building, nor a place, but people.  You and every other Christian, you are God's house.

         God's address is not simply the church building at 58 Church Street, or at 358 Glenbrook Road, or 241 Courtland Avenue, or 301 Strawberry Hill Avenue.  God's current addresses also include Cove Road, Hope Street, West Avenue, Elmbrook Drive, Hollow Tree Ridge Road.  Wherever Christians live and work, God's spirit lives and works.

         Once we agree with Paul's revised definition of temple and church, at several inferences follow.  Given that temple or church is where people expect God to reside, and given that God's spirit now resides in Christians, then church is wherever Christians are.  Or as my professor said, we are the church, we do not simply go to church. For you cannot go to where you already are.

         Since God's spirit lives in you, since Christians are God's new residences, then you may be the nearest thing to God that some people will have the chance to meet.  That is a weighty challenge.  Since you are God's newest temple, then you ought to be a place where people are touched by God's spirit.  Since we collectively are God's new sanctuary, then we collectively ought to be a people wherein others sense God's spirit at home. 

         You are God's selected construction site. Wherever you go is zoned for God's spirit to take up residence.  People who look to see what God is like should have to look no further than you and me and other Christians.  They should be able to find God's spirit at home in us.  That persuasion leads me to ask the question: What would people know about God if they only had us to look at? Not our building, but our behavior. Not our sanctuary, but our lifestyles.

         Not chiefly in a building, not chiefly at one hour of the week, but wherever you and I go at anytime of the day, people should be able to sense God is present.  Pretty buildings do not turn people on to God; spirit-filled people turn people on to God.  Anyone looking for God ought to be able to look not to our building, or even to our worship service, but to us -- how we live, what we say, what we do. 

         If we agree with Paul's logic that we are God's building, a second consequence follows.  I occasionally hear parents admonishing their young children to behave in certain ways when they are in this building, because that is not the way to behave in “God's house."  I confess that I probably said the same thing to my children, so I am not finding fault with parents who, like me, look for all the help we can get to reinforce good habits in our offspring.

         It is correct to urge our children to treat God's house with respect and dignity.  But what happens when we expand the definition of God's house to denote Christians, not chiefly a building?  If we are upset that a child acts disrespectfully in "God's house," should we not be equally upset when anyone acts disrespectfully towards another Christian, who is, according to the Bible, a traveling house of God?  Maligning another Christian is not simply getting even or venting frustration, it is insulting to God's house.  If we are quick to tell our grandchildren and children that they should act a certain way because God lives in these walls, should we not also tell them to act in certain ways because God's spirit lives in you?  We are God's RV -- God's recreation vehicle.

         If we accept Paul's original definition of church, namely that Christians are God's building, God's sanctuary, then a third consequence follows.  When we leave this room, when we conclude this service, we do not cease to be the church.  We may cease to be together, but we don't cease to be the church.  Herein rests the crux of my professor's critical remark that the biggest problem with Christians is that they go to church.  His concern was that if we assume that we can go to church, then we can infer that we can go from the church.  If church is a place where we go, an event we attend, then church ceases when we conclude the service or walk out through the doors.

         But, if we are the church, then we never stop being the church.  We may leave a church building, but we do not leave being a church.   We may cease to be in a worship service, but we cannot cease to be God's church, a home for God's spirit.  We may cease being together as a church family, but in God's eyes we are as much as church out there as we are in here.

         I enjoy gathering with my larger family for special occasions.  It is refreshing and relaxing when we can get together.  But when we separate and go our respective ways, I do not cease being an Edele.  Wherever I go, I am an Edele.  We may enjoy, appreciate being together as a church family periodically, but when we leave here we do not cease to be the church.  In fact the most powerful moment of our weekly Christian worship services is the benediction, the dismissal, when people go out the door into the world to be the church, to be little temples on legs.

         I doubt that we will break the habit of saying that we are going to church. I have tried earnestly over the years to stop saying that I go to church, instead I say that I am going to worship. I have tried earnestly over the years to stop referring to this structure as a church, instead I refer to it as the church building.  

         You may sense that I am splitting hairs, as the seminarians thought our professor was splitting hairs when he said “The biggest problem with Christians today is that we go to church.” We may go to worship or we may come to this sanctuary, but we cannot go to what we are.  We don't go to church; we are the church, whether we meet at 59 Church Street or in the grocery aisle at the supermarket or chat on line or call on the phone. Wherever we go, we are the church.