Hebrews 10:19-25; Acts 2:44-47
When I first became friends with a fellow who had only minimal church background he was asking me about the colours he saw in the church. He noticed there was a lot of purple (it was the beginning of Lent, I believe). I explained about the seasons of the church year and how a different colour is associated with each season. It became a standing joke after that that I wore purple a lot because it was a “Christian” colour. So, after the sermon last Sunday when I talked about the colour of redemption, I thought –what colour would fit with the theology I’m going to talk about today? “Purple” was what came to mind. Purple has been considered the colour of royalty since the time of the Persian empire, perhaps even earlier. The dye for “royal purple” was made from a small mollusk found in what is now Lebanon. It was exceedingly rare and expensive – thus the association with royalty. Of course nowadays, anyone can wear purple – and most people, I think, look good in it! It is also the colour of penitence and fasting; in Egypt, it is the colour of faith. So purple will be our colour of the day: Purple for the hangings in the church, the wine of communion, the robes of Christ the King and the robes of Christ the Crucified. Purple could be the colour of the church, the Body of Christ.
When you think of the word church, what comes to mind?
Is it this building? Is it the people we find in this building?
Is it what we do in this building? Is it what we do outside this building?
There isn’t one right answer to any one of those questions. Depending on your theology – the way you live your faith and what you think about it – your answers would be different. Today I want to talk to you about those of us who make what happens within these four walls –any day of the week – the centre of our lives of faith. For us, purple is the colour of redemption, for our life of faith is centred right here. There are things that happen between these four walls and in other structures like this that seldom or never happen anywhere else in our community:
1. We gather as self-identified followers of Jesus our Messiah, the One who shows us the true face of God. Through our gathering we build ties with each other that strengthen our faith and enrich our lives, as well as deepening our relationship with God. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. “ – in other words, the worse things in the world get, the more important it is for us to gather – to be the church together, not just solitary Christians doing our own thing.
2. We learn together, from the youngest age to the oldest, how to live according to his teachings and his example.
3. We worship. Within worship we sing hymns of praise and offer prayers to the One God, Creator, Christ and Spirit. Occasionally, we even keep silence, and let the Spirit move in us in the silence! These too, enrich our relationship with God.
4. We also share the two sacraments that the Protestant church recognizes as instituted by Christ. We baptise both children and adults, welcoming them into the community of Christ’ s followers and symbolically washing away all that might keep them from faithful living. We share in communion, which we also call the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. What began as a simple communal meal became for the early church a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and a remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his followers. Through those Sacraments we experience the Holy Spirit moving in our lives. The church has called them “the outward and visible signs of inward invisible grace”. For human beings, ritual affirms and enacts our spiritual realities. (If you don’t think modern humans care about ritual, watch a bunch of people at a sports event sometime – you can bet they know what they’re supposed to do and when they’re supposed to do it, and they’ll all do it together!)
5. We serve within and on behalf of the church, in ministries of hospitality, outreach, education, administration, finance, leadership, and more. Serving one another and sharing our resources, our time and our energy are hallmarks of Christian community –and have been since the very beginning. (Acts 2)
These are practices we don’t do just anywhere – though of course, we could if we chose to. But most of these activities are peculiar to the life of a Christian church. When people ask, “What do you do in church?”, these would likely be the key things you would mention.
But so what? That’s always the question, isn’t it? So what? Why bother? Lots of people have nothing to do with church, and can’t imagine why we would give so much of our time and our energy to something that seems odd or even incomprehensible!
The answer is Jesus – and his message of love and redemption. The answer is that our world is full of anxiety, fear, apathy, despair; even worse, it is full of hate and bitterness and hostility. The world desperately needs communities of love and redemption – communities where forgiveness is spoken and lived, where reconciliation is not just a word but a reality, where peace between people is rooted in peace with God. For those of us who value such community, this is where we come not just to be reminded of what it is to live a good life but to be fed and nurtured through communion with God and with each other, so that we can more fully embody Jesus’ love and mercy. This is where we come to learn, to be challenged, to be comforted, to be empowered to be witnesses to that beautiful gift of Christ in the world.
So it matters to us, whether or not we have a building – because that building is a visible sign that Christ is present in the community and that there is a place of welcome for all who are seeking his light and life. It matters to us that people can find us, because we want other people to experience what we have experienced in this place. It matters to us that we can, not just pay our bills and keep a roof over our heads, but offer attractive, safe, comfortable accessible space for community groups and programs for all ages because we know that church is more than Sunday worship – it is being Christ’s body in and for the world – and Christ’s body always exists for others, more than for itself.
Years ago a former Moderator of the United Church, Marion Best, hosted a conversation and published a book called, “Will Our Church Disappear?”. We’re still asking that question as individual congregations and as a denomination. Some within the church would say, “Who cares? Let it all go up in flames, and God will bring something new from the ashes”. Others would say, “The church has endured from generation to generation. It is changing, but it will continue to endure in some form not that different from the one we have now. People will still want to gather, people will still want to learn and grow in faith, people will still want to know Jesus, they will want to be baptized and share in communion, they will want to work together in Jesus’ name. ” The difference between those two positions is one of degree. We all recognize, though perhaps reluctantly, that as society changes the church changes with it – it always has. In a way, the difference may be between those who are eager to see what comes next and those who still see value in what they have known for decades – and for those with some knowledge of church history, we see value in the long arc of the church’s evolution to this point through 2000 plus years.
The danger for those of us who make the life of the church – this worshipping and serving community – the centre of our faith, is that we can get reactive when it feels like the church as we know it is threatened. We can react by shutting down and refusing to deal with the reality of our situations, pretending as if nothing around has changed; or we can react by desperately trying to come up with the person, program or praise band that will put people in the pews and money in the offering plate. Neither of those responses is faithful, because they are not based on truly being the Body of Christ in the world. Though perfectly understandable reactions, they are fear-based, not faith-based. They become about our felt needs, rather than the need for the Gospel to be experienced here the Westshore. We need to be aware of our own reactions to the church’s diminishing role in society – and check those reactions against what we know about God and God’s dreams for our world.
The GIFT of this particular approach to faith within the United Church of Canada is that congregations with a strong sense of themselves as communities of love and redemption provide a safe and welcoming place for those who have often been marginalized within other organizations in society. The GIFT is that we recognize that the building serves the ministry of the whole people of God, and not the other way around – and so if the building stops serving the needs then the building can be changed. The GIFT is that by investing in a space for worship and work we can offer it as a hub for a whole variety of types of ministry as well as community groups whose mission and values align with our own. The GIFT is that because we have a visible presence in the community we have the potential to get the word out about a form of Christianity that is not well-known these days. 60 plus years in a community and 2000+ years of history comes with a little bit of what used to be called “Gravitas” – it puts some weight behind our witness. We’re no fly-by-night operation – which might not do us much good with the group for whom anything older than a year old is out-dated, but certainly helps us out with those who have a few decades behind them and know that time is a good testing ground for authenticity and integrity.
That brings me full circle to that colour purple: with its richness, its depth, its interesting history – even the changes in how it has been perceived and recreated over the centuries. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think purple is a really good colour for this church-centred understanding of what Christ is doing in the world. I’ve given my life to it, and the church has poured itself out for me in unbelievable generosity, over and over and over again.. The church is a tremendous gift to those who gather within its community – and whether they know it or not, it is also a tremendous gift to those who may never think of it at all.
We give thanks for the church of Jesus Christ, the United Church of Canada, and Gordon United Church, in this time, and in this place. May the Body of Christ in this place, be blessed, always, to be a blessing. Amen.