Reading: I Peter 2:4-12
Some parts of the Bible are more difficult for me to understand because of my cultural background. In the United States, we focus on the individual. When a group of people accomplishes something, we choose somebody to give credit to. Of course, there are places where individualism causes problems, and we are reminded things such as “there is no “I” in team — but, at the end of the day, if the team is successful, there is an effort to give credit to an individual.
As an example of our culture, a couple years ago National Geographic put out a documentary series called American Genius. I love documentaries, so I had to watch — and, the series started with “Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates;” which, not surprisingly was about the development of micro-computers between 1977 and the mid 1980’s.
I can say the show was fun, but I can also say that the line that they showed on the screen described the show perfectly: “This program included dramatizations inspired by history. Some events have been altered for dramatic purposes.” In the case of the first episode, I could see exactly where they changed history — but, instead of listing the details they changed, I’ll give the big picture. Every one of the shows was one personality vs another personality — every industry was reduced to two people — and in the case of Jobs vs Gates, they chose two people who were not directly competing with each other.
We all tell stories in a way that “alters events for dramatic purposes”, even when we don’t intend to do so; and one way we do this is that we exaggerate the role of a single individual — we give one person credit for everybody’s work, or we cast blame on one person for the community’s failure. We really don’t know how to think about a community. Do we know what it means to be living bricks?
When we look at a building, we don’t think of the individual bricks, but instead, we think of the whole that it represents. If we really think about what it means to be living stones, making up a great temple, we have to remember that if people are seeing stones instead of the building, something is wrong. For this metaphor to work, we have to see community clearly.
When I was a child in Sunday school, we were taught a little song written by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh: (Song copyright by Hope Publishing. The copyright holders graciously provide words and music on their website.)
I’m glad that I had this little bit of theological training as a child; the song is quite simple, but it gives a great overview of ecclesiology:
- The church is not a building, but people
- The church is not localized but worldwide
- The church is not limited to people like me
- The church transcends time
- The church remains the church, even when its not at its best
- The church is about praying in community
- The church brings the good news of Christ to the whole world
We are living stones; we are part of the great structure that is the church; You and I share this role with Peter and Paul, with names that everybody remembers such as C.S. Lewis, or Augustine; and we share this role with billions of names that only God remembers; but if we focus too much on one brick, we fail to see the structure!
The church is the community that Jesus gathered — and it is much greater than we are able to see. Every one of us is very limited; we can only be one place at at time. We are also limited in that we can only travel one direction in time, and we can only go a little ways. Even people who travel for a living do not have the opportunity to obverse all people; and no matter how long our memory, our memory neither stretches back to the first generation of Christians, nor can we remember what will happen in the future. We are bricks, and as bricks we are far too small to see the whole building, the most we can see is those bricks that are closest to us.
Sometimes people talk as if there was the early church, and there is the church now — as if there is nothing in between. Usually, when people do that, it is because these two moments of time are easier to deal with than all of history. I recall at Barclay college, we did learn a competing view of the church that taught that he church became apostate, and thus was no longer the church, and at some point, God raised somebody up to re-establish the church — our professor Mark Kelly referred to this as the blink off, blink on theory.
This theory has a couple of problems, the first of which is that I am in no place to judge when the church was no longer the church. There are parts of the world where the church is aware of its history all the way until the days of the apostles. I learned that in the middle east, there are families who have been Christian since the 1st century. It is rather impressive to realize that there are Syrian Christians who’s families claim that their ancestors were in the church that Peter served. These families cannot remember a time when the church was not — it is the same as if they were asked to remember when their family was not.
Another problem is that if we want to set a time when the church became “apostate” the best time I can think of was when the apostles were still alive. When I read the New Testament, I can see that the early church was full of terrible problems, and that the apostles dealt with issues that I would not imagine in our churches today. I also can see that the early church dealt with putting faith in humans instead of God, and it dealt with personality conflicts and with cults of personality. Was the church already apostate when Paul was writing his epistles? If it was, how can we trust an apostate church to have preserved Holy scripture?
The truth is that I cannot really point to a time when the church truly lived up to its ideal. Us living stones are not always content to take our place in the structure. Sometimes we want to stand out — sometimes we want to be something much more than a stone; and sometimes we really rebel against the whole idea of holiness and community. The more I read Church History, the more I realize there is no golden age; but, the more I read, the more I realize that there are bright lights in even the darkest of ages. It seems like the church is always in need of repair, and there is always somebody there doing repairs.
To paraphrase the Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, people go to church to pray together; they don’t go to hear a lecture. Peterson wrote about receiving this epiphany in The Contemplative Pastor, along with several other things that he learned in during his lengthy ministry. Now, the American church model often seems to act as if people are gathering together to hear a lecture — and Peterson, being a Presbyterian, belongs to a faith tradition where preaching is a sacrament; perhaps even the primary means of grace — yet, even in the tradition that has the highest view of preaching, one of the most famously skilled preachers observes people come to pray together, not to hear a sermon.
Ultimately, I believe that the church is a community of the Kingdom of heaven on the Earth — and that it is more than a community, it is a colony. Jesus tells us that we are to be salt and light. The church might not be of the world, but it is very much in the world — and one reason the church is here is to improve the world.
We are a community that eats and prays together. We are a community with a shared belief in God, as revealed to us through Jesus Christ. We are a community with a long tradition of helping each other and caring for those who have needs. We are the church; that is the identity Christ gave us — and with God’s help, we can live up to the high calling that we be the Church.