A Church Beyond Belief

??????????Two men are on vacation in the Emerald Isle.  It’s Sunday evening and they decide to find a local pub in Dublin and grab a pint.  When they walk in, they find a dark rustic space with wooden exposed rafters, lit candles all around, and a screen with an icon projected on it.  There is folky, yet soothing music playing and people are sitting down on an assortment of different couches and chairs in a semicircle.  A 40-something man with wild curly hair comes up to the men and invites them to grab a pint and have a seat.  A sudden calm passes over them as they enter this contemplative space and they realize that they have just stumbled upon church.

It’s Saturday afternoon.  A young husband and wife in downtown Philly are jogging when they see about 40 people working in a garden on an abandoned city block.  They stop and watch as the people laugh and pick weeds out of the garden occasionally throwing clumps of dirt at each other.  A young man with a pony tail and a bandana on his head walks up to the couple with hand extended and asks if they want to help.  They do.  The couple realizes that they have happened upon something special.  Something sacred.  Something like worship with hands and feet.  They have discovered church.

It’s Sunday morning.  Two women – neighborhood friends – walk into a church building.  Perhaps it has a high steeple and a cathedral-like interior.  Maybe it has nice carpeting and looks more like a mall with a little coffee shop in the entry area.  A band is playing praise and worship music as people wave their hands in the air and sway.  Perhaps a Bach organ tune is flowing from the pipe organ. The women find their way to a couple of comfortable chairs toward the back of the sanctuary and sit down.  Nobody greets them.  Nobody says hello.  The women realize that this place looks like a church, but doesn’t feel like one.

All three of these churches exist.  The first is Peter Rollins’s church in Ireland.  The second is Shane Claiborne’s church in Philadelphia.  The last, well, we’ve all seen that church somewhere or another.  There are a lot of churches these days that don’t look like what we imagine when we think of church, but they sure feel like it.  We know the opposite is also true.  I often wonder if Jesus were to come upon a modern church if he would even recognize it.

I think it’s worth considering that Jesus did not even invent the concept of church.  In his day, he had synagogues and he attended them.  It was likely earlier, but certainly by the time of Constantine that Christianity even became a separate religion from Judaism.  We know that Jesus had no intention of starting a religion and that his focus was not so much on belief as on action.  If I am looking for a church to attend, certainly doctrine is important, but I’m more interested in what they do than what they believe.

Jesus preached about the “kin-dom” or Kingdom of God.  He showed the disciples how they were to bring such a place into existence and entrusted them with doing so after his death.  Jesus was content with the synagogues for worship, but he wanted his disciples to teach that we are to go out and do what God has put on our hearts.  Looking at the New Testament, we can see that the disciples failed time and time again both before and after Jesus’ death.  When Jesus was alive he told the disciples that they still didn’t grasp what he was trying to teach them.  How many times did he rebuke them for not doing something that he taught them to do?  I can’t say that I recall any times when he got upset with them for not teaching the right doctrine . . . .  Nonetheless, James and Paul, Paul and Peter, Thomas and the rest of the disciples, so on and so on, we find them at odds with one another over doctrine completely missing the point of the message and being paralyzed by their inability to look beyond their beliefs.

Two disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus.  Emmaus was a safe place to return to and try to regroup.  They had a hard time making sense of what happened.  When a stranger comes along and asks what they’re all worked up about they act like the stranger has been living under a rock.  “Haven’t you heard!?  The one they called the messiah was killed and we were hoping that he would redeem Israel.  Now we don’t know what we’re supposed to do!”  The stranger tells them that they are fools for interpreting the prophets in such a way as to understand that the messiah would do everything for them.  He launches into a discourse about the prophets and teaches them a new understanding of scripture.  Despite the teachings the disciples still do not recognize him.

The stranger is about to move on when the disciples invite him to stay with them because it is getting late.  He sits with them and without a word breaks the bread and hands it to them.  Suddenly they understand that this is Jesus.  It wasn’t because of his speech.  It wasn’t because of anything that he said.  In doing the disciples’ eyes were opened and they were able to see the stranger for who he was.

How is it that through such a simple act the disciples came to realize something that they hadn’t through words?  What was so significant about such a mundane task as breaking bread?  I look at breaking bread as something sacred – when we make it that way.  The act of gathering with people from different backgrounds, different understandings of how the cosmos works, different races and socioeconomic statuses – all of these people are unique.  Yet, when gathered together focused on the simple act of sharing a table and food together being fed in the same way regardless of creed or color, gender or orientation, something miraculous happens.  Ideologies are transcended and our eyes are opened to the realization that we have gathered to fulfill common needs that we all can relate to – the need for sustenance, the need for community, the need to belong to something greater than ourselves.

When the disciples realized who Jesus was and he was satisfied that they understood, or well enough at least, Jesus disappeared.  Just like at the tomb when he told Mary to let go of him, he just vanished.  His action spoke louder than any sermon or discourse could have – you have work to do, now get to it.

Regardless of what shape a church is or what kind of space we “do” church in, I’m hopeful that we can create something through the power that God has given us that will look like what Jesus envisioned.  I’m optimistic that we can create a church that does and is more concerned about our actions than our beliefs.  I am confident that somehow we can create a space, no matter where it is, that Jesus could happen upon and say, “This is what I was talking about.  Now you see that I never left.”  Am I against belief?  Nope.  Because I believe that such a thing is possible and to me, that’s what faith is all about.

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3 Responses to “A Church Beyond Belief”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    A man walks into a church, with his wife and two sons. A church he has heard of, through good friends — friends he has grown to know and love, admire and respect.

    He had previously heard their church described as “small but mighty”. He had previously heard his good friends talk about their new Pastor – his sermons, his approach, his friendliness, his teaching. His older son was enticed by the light-hearted: “You’ll like him too because he’s buff!”

    For his entire adult life, he was the big-event-only church attendee: Easter and Christmas, baptisms and funerals. Sensing that he was not a religious person, he did not feel comfortable attending, or that he fit in, or belonged. A pagan among parishioners; an agnostic among believers.

    Recently he had attended the local church only because his older son, now 16, had admonished he and his wife for their infrequent attendance. When there, he paid attention, and listened intently to the sermon. There was parts of the creed that everyone recited that he could not bring himself in good faith to join. He wondered to himself how there could be only one holy and apostolic church?

    He prayed silently during communion and recounted the names of his many loved ones: his wife and sons, parents and siblings, grandparents and cousins, and then close friends. That was meaningful. Query whether he would have done so otherwise.

    But generally he otherwise felt that he had as though he had checked off a religious to-do-item on a figurative box of obligatory commitments. He put money in the offering plate, but not from the heart, and he did not give generously. He was not inspired; he was not moved; he was not eager to return.

    And then he stepped into his friends’ church. It was different, and affecting, and he sensed it immediately. He dipped his toe in inspirational waters that day. For whatever reason he was not quite ready to dive all the way in.

    Considerable time passed before he returned, but when he did — again with his wife and 2 sons — he was greeted warmly by that same Pastor, with a great smile and a friendly and well-placed jab hoping to be see more again before “another 9 months passed!”

    It was a wonderfully light-hearted (and guilt-less) way of letting him know that (a) the Pastor had remembered the man’s one and only attendance many months before, and (b) he wanted to see him in church — this church — more often. The man was touched by that, and spiritually moved during the service. He felt it; it was real, almost tangible. He was inspired to return.

    He attended a book study after service that Sunday, the first of six total, and grew to appreciate both the intellect and the heart of the Pastor during those sessions. He realized that there was a Man of God who seemed exceedingly well-versed not only in Christianity, but in the other great religions and philosophies throughout human history, and who explained historical contexts that the man found comprehensible and reassuring.

    He announced to his wife and boys that week that for the first time in his life he was eager to attend church, this church, and shared that he felt inspired by this Pastor, this teacher. He was struck by the teacher’s authenticity and genuineness — how he, like a great coach or educational teacher, could affect people in ways others cannot, a rare gift.

    He read the book that had been chosen, and re-read it, and studied it, and looked forward to the advent book study discussions.

    He returned to that church the next week, and the Sunday after, and again the following week. He found the people to be so welcoming and inviting, just like his friends whom had led him to their church in the first place.

    Their church … now his church too. Our church. Amen.

    • And to this day, this man and his family continue to be a welcome blessing in our congregation. I’m glad you’re here and for all that you and the crew bring to Tri-C. Whether you’re cutting trees, reading scripture, or doing stand-up, I’m glad the Shimas (and God) brought you to us!

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