What is the Church?
That’s the kind of question that you find yourself answering a lot during theological training – but not often afterwards. Fom then on you’re usually far too busy working at being a public face for the Church, contending with her oddities, screaming (whether publicly or internally) at some of the institutional baggage she has collected through the centuries, worrying about her future, or quite simply living with her. For her clergy, the Church is simply the non-negotiable reality that shapes every single day...but that can make it hard to remember what she is really called to do and to be.
Today’s readings might help us reflect a little though...with their emphasis on relationship -for one thing is certain – you can’t be “the Church” on your own. So let’s start with the gospel – which makes it very clear that the Church is a community gathered around Jesus. That community might be large and impressive – a Cathedral crammed to the gunwhales for an ordination perhaps – or small and intimate – a handful offriends meeting in a former shop – but the fundamental point is that what brings these people together is their longing to get close to Jesus. And Jesus honours that longing with his promise
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.
Such very familiar words – I wonder if you really heard them as Sarah read them just now.
Jesus promises that when we gather in his name – he is among us.
Right here and right now.
THAT’S what makes us Church.
Not our building (though it is, confusingly, what makes us a Cathedral)…
Not our entrance requirements – whether you see those in terms of baptismal status or of adherence to each and every clause of the Nicene Creed.
Not our success or failure in obeying his commandments
What makes us Church is that we meet around Jesus – and it his presence with us, - in his Word, in one another, and in the beaking of bread, that enables us to do and to be whatever else worthwhile we might attain.
It really IS all about him – so whatever your view of the tapestry, its presence in this building calls us back again and again to the reason we are here.
Though the NRSV translation which we heard this morning begins “If another member of the church sins...” the original Greek phrase is “If your brother...”. So, when we speak of the Church as family – we’re not saying anything new. The members of this community will share a family resemblance with one another. Leaving aside the optimistic use of the hypothetical “IF” (for we know full well that as the fallible people we are, we surely WILL hurt and distress one another along the way) Jesus encourages us to be honest about those hurts...Familes do not agree 24/7 – but if there is a healthy, trust-based relationship, its members can admit when they’ve hurt or been hurt by one another and seek healing together.
So – we need to be a community that reflects this. A community where we will not always agree with one another, but where damage and difference is acknowledged and reconciliation sought. The Church must never be a place where integrity is sacrificed to a superficial niceness: Jesus is very clear indeed about this – but it should, always, non-negotiably, be a place where love is practised. Again, and again and again.
And that’s where Paul comes in...distilling all the complexities of human relationships, all the duties and joys, into that fundamental
“Owe no one anything except to love one another…” “Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law”
Put like that it sounds so simple, - deceptively so, of course, because this thing called love is the work of both a moment and a lifetime, both a feeling and a decision...And that is as true for a church as it is for any other family.
But there’s a fair amount of confusion about that little word, love. We use it flippantly to describe a feeling of admiration and desire “I love those shoes”. “I love the carrot cake in Rising Cafe”..We use it to describe things that make us feel better “I love Bach...And poetry...and sunsets”...We use it romantically, when what we really mean is “I’m hoping that in connecting with you, my own needs may be met”…
Love, then, might seem to be all about warm and fuzzy feelings.
But I’m reasonably confident that this is NOT what either Paul, or Jesus, is getting at.
The kind of love that we’re called to is of a different order.
It doesn’t even mean giving others what we ourselves would value, even though we’re told to love our neighbours as ourselves...just this week, I watched a really well-meaning attempt at love lead to near disaster in another community of which I’m part, thanks to an assumption that what would make one person feel better would have the same effect on another. Let me tell you, there were some very wobbly moments, with hurt experienced on both sides before that was resolved. Good intentions just aren’t enough, and we are so bad at setting aside self-interest, even when we try.
I suspect Desmond Tutu may have a better grasp of this than many.
“Perfect love is not an emotion; it is not how we feel. It is what we do. Perfect love is action that is not wrapped up in self-regard, and it has no concern with deserving. Instead, perfect love is love poured out. It is self-offering made out of the joy of giving. It requires no prompting. It seeks no response and no reward...”
Action not wrapped up in self regard...Love poured out….That self-less drive to serve the other person, to care for them, to seek their best...sounds impossibly, immeasurably costly...the kind of love that leads to the cross, indeed.
And that’s what we owe one another.
I’m beginning to wish we could find another way to define and to be Church. This feels way too demanding – but Paul says that this must be the only transaction between us as disciples of Christ
“Owe no one anything except to love one another”
That language brought me up short, for debts are rarely something to celebrate...and even if you consult a thesaurus and substitute “obligation” there’s a sense of being weighed down by duty. Is that what Paul is about? Are we asked to pay our debt to Christ by our love for one another? That surely cannot be.
God’s love is unconditional, asking nothing in return...though God’s love for me stirs up my love for God, and inspires me to WANT to love other people…
But which other people?
Those sitting around us this morning?
Those whose company we cherish day by day?
That might be manageable….but I’m afraid it’s not enough.
If love is a way of paying our neighbours their dues, of offering what they are owed – then, actually, ALL are due love. Jesus is very clear about that, casting the net wide, reminding us to love our enemies, to bless and pray for those who persecute us. Those with whom we have nothing in common. Those whom we struggle to like.. Those whom we are afraid of.
Yes, even those world leaders whose actions terrify us...those groups and individuals whom we suspect are bent on our own destruction…
We owe a debt of love even to them.
Goodness, this business of living as Church is hard. I’m not sure if I’d have joined if I had really understood it. I’m absolutely certain that I can’t actually manage it, because I’m small and human and fallible and badly, oh so badly, in need of God’s grace.
I can’t pay my debt of love – and so I will never fulfill the law.
Which takes me, thankfully, back to where I started.
The Church is a group of people gathered around the person of Jesus Christ.
He is here, in the midst of us. In the midst of our longings to love and our failure to do so.
Jesus Christ, Love alive in human form...love calling us onward to be more than we had ever imagined possible...love giving of love’s self again and again and again, and helping us to learn to do the same.
Can we, dare we, try and be Church together?