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What is Church For?

What is church for? In Australia hardly anyone goes, even when it’s livestreamed and there’s not much else to do. Is it important? And if so, why? What does Jesus’ interpretation of the law have to do with it? And what’s with the picture of the suspension bridge?

A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 21/10/20 for Proper 25(30) 21st Week after Pentecost Year A, on Matthew 22:34-46

I don’t have a lot of contact with the mega-church world. It is pretty distant from my lived experience of ministry, and the whole vibe is a long way from my world. But I do follow one thinker, named Carey Nieuwhof. There are a lot of things to like about him, but one particular thing grabbed me recently. He was asking an uncomfortable question of ministers: Who is your real competition? It isn’t the mega-church down the road. It isn’t the growing church in the next suburb. It isn’t even online worship versus face-to-face[1]. It is, he says, indifference.

Why would people bother going to church when there are so many other things they could do? When they have spiritual questions, spiritual yearnings, why on earth would they look to the church?

Carey is writing from a North American context, which is, in terms of religious indifference, several decades behind Australia. But if indifference is having a big impact even in that much more religious culture, where does that leave us?

Our world seems so indifferent to spiritual matters. Big issues seem a million miles away from our gathering together. And even when attending a religious service is as easy as logging onto the internet, in a time when there is very little else to distract us, people still don’t want church.

It makes us ask this difficult question: What is the church actually for? And, more difficult still, does it matter?

It may not seem obvious, but I think a good way of answering that question lies in today’s text. So let’s step back and take a look at it.

It’s in two parts, which, at first glance, seem unrelated. In the first section Jesus provides a key to understanding God’s will for the world. In the second we find the culmination of a long argument with the religious authorities.

The first section is very familiar. Jesus outlines the core of the Torah, saying that at the heart of the 613 commandments in the Torah[2], one finds these two commands. The first is to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. And the second, he says, is like it: to love our neighbours as ourselves. Everything else hangs off this: they are two pillars supporting a great suspension bridge where the traffic of our daily lives can pass in safety.

One important clue here though is the idea of the second command being “like” the first. It doesn’t mean “similar”. He isn’t comparing the two commandments. Rather he is saying that you cannot tear the two apart. They are inseparable, like the pillars on our suspension bridge. You need both of them.[3]  We might think we can get away with one or the other – with loving God, or loving our neighbour. But Jesus tells us that we need both.

This is important, and we’ll come back to it.

The second part is a bit more mysterious to a modern audience. The broad context is that this is part of a long running dispute between Jesus and the religious leaders. This is the last time he talks directly with the Pharisees,[4] so we can see this interaction as a summing up of Jesus’ position. Jesus asks the Pharisees a question which they can’t answer[5]. Which isn’t to say that “I don’t know” isn’t a perfectly reasonable answer for religious leaders: in fact I wish that people in general and faith leaders in particular felt freer to say it more often. But here, it is the way into a vitally important question.

Who is the Son of David? What does it mean to be the Son of David? The Pharisees, along with many of the people, seem to have a pretty clear understanding: The Son of David will be, like David, someone in whom God delights, and who will, like David, kill Goliath and free the Children of Israel from their oppressors.  He will, in short, sweep the Romans into the sea, along with their filthy Herodian collaborators, and Israel will be free again, and truly returned from its long exile. Hence the promise that God will “place his enemies under his feet.”

Which is, it turns out, precisely wrong.

God enthrones the true Son of David: but it is an ironic enthronement on a cross of wood rather than a throne of gold. God does place Jesus’ enemies under his feet, but the enemies are sin, death, and all that separates us from God. God vindicates Jesus, and wins the victory, raising him from death on the third day.

The real problem, it turns out, isn’t the Romans, or even Herod and his ghastly supporters, dire as they are. It isn’t a matter of getting rid of some evil “them.” The problem, it turns out, is within us.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, writing about the astonishing system of oppression at the heart of the Soviet Union:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[6]

The Son of David, it turns out, washes the feet of his friends, and commands us to love even our enemies; this is the true meaning of Torah. In the first section of the reading, Torah is explained in two commandments. In the second section, the true meaning of Torah is revealed as a person.

We might say the first section asks a question: What would the Torah look like if it were a person? And the answer is: Jesus.

So this is all very interesting of course. But, on behalf of the millions of Australians who won’t darken a church live-feed from one year to next, I have to ask again: So what? What does this have to do with what church is for, and why it might matter?

It is simply[7] that the Church is the place where we try to hold together the competing demands of transcendence and ethics. We live in a world where these two columns of the suspension bridge of our lives are pulled apart, and either one or the other is seen as the only thing necessary.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the first pillar, that of loving God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, is not much noticed in contemporary culture. But the desire for transcendence, for a pure, unadulterated perfection in culture is rampant. The immense power of the idea that society could be radically reshaped along particular ideological lines is the contemporary descendent of this ancient belief. It’s a heresy, not because it isn’t true, not because it doesn’t speak to something important, but because it only grasps half of the paradox that both commands need to belong together.

The command to love our neighbour as ourselves seems safer in a way: no one in our contemporary scene in Australia seriously wants to unwind the welfare state for instance. There are huge numbers of people toiling away to help people, to put into practice this command to love our neighbours as ourselves. But it, too, is only one side of the paradox. When we help our neighbour without any concern for the first commandment, it inevitably seems to turn into care for the body and the neglect of the soul. We end up with a society where everyone is fed[8], and, with luck, COVID-19 is defeated[9], but people will be no closer than before to a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

The church is the place where both sides of the paradox are brought together. The restless drive for purity, which so quickly discovers that its “them” who has the problem, as opposed to an innocent “us”, is brought face to face with actual love for our neighbour. Not an idea about our neighbour, not some general intention around voting in some particular way, but in actual encounter.

Church is the place where we bear witness to the knowledge that the revelation of God – the absolute centre of the universe, the centre of all meaning, the one who holds all of creation in the palm of her hand – is in fact a person. Not an idea.

And we bear witness to it not just through our ideas, but from the manner of our life together. Our belief, after all, is that truth is a person, not an idea. We place our trust in God’s work in and for the world, with which we collaborate.

The Scriptural image for this is the Kingdom of God, where God’s desires for the world are made real. The blind see, the captives are released, and the poor receive Good News.[10]

Mike Moynagh, a contemporary missional thinker from the UK has this to say about church and kingdom:

The church is the foretaste of the kingdom – of something far more expansive and wonderful than exists in the church (or world) now. As a foretaste, the church mediates the future to the world.[11]

God is at work in the world, and God is at work in and through the church. Through our life, work, and worship together, we are being transformed into Kingdom shaped people. People who know in their gut, in their deepest self, that they are loved by God. People who, thus rooted and grounded in God’s love[12], have the existential safety to be able to take the risk of actually loving other human beings. Not ideas about them, not in the generality, but in their struggling, messy, often infuriating individuality. To love people in a way which reflects God’s love for us.

That is what church is for, and that is why it is important – even today, in the midst of widespread indifference. The basic problem of the human condition is not going anywhere, and we preach, and collaborate with God’s answer: Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today, and forever.[13]

[1] He’s writing from a North American context, where that sort of thing is possible. Unlike here in Melbourne where we can’t meet in groups of more than 5 + 1 faith leader.

[2] 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of parts of the body, and 365 negative commands, corresponding to the days of the year. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreters Bible Vol VII Matthew, Mark, Luke (Abdingdon Press, Nashville, 1994) p.424

[3] Yes, I know you can have single pillar suspension bridges. But, to push the analogy a bit, the terrain here requires two.

[4] He talks about them later (Matt 23:10-39) but not too them, until his trial, in which he is almost completely silent.

[5] The psalm they are talking about is Psalm 110

[6] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

[7] Well, not simply – it’s a very complex question of course. But bear with me.

[8] And, obviously, that’s a good thing. It’s just not the whole story.

[9] Whatever that means.

[10] Luke 4:18, quoting Isaiah 61:1,2

[11] Michael Moynagh, A Church for Every Context, Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition. Location 3015.

[12] Ephesians 3:17

[13] Hebrews 13:8

Photo by Simon Moore on Unsplash

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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