What is a Church? Thoughts on Practicing our Faith and living in Community

Ephesians 4: 17-32

17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20That is not the way you learned Christ! 21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

I read an article this week about Max Moroff, a minor league player in the Pirates organization.

He rose through the minor leagues quickly because he could hit.

High average and good power.

Then he got to the Pirates.

He stopped hitting.

They sent him down to AAA.

He still didn’t hit.

Then he decided to look at films of himself when he hit well and compared them to later films of when he stopped hitting.

He spent many, many hours watching films.

And then he noticed a small change in his stance.

It changed when he played in Pittsburgh.

It changed everything about his hitting.

Now he is trying to get that old stance back so he can be the hitter he wants to be.

I found this interesting and wondered why he was not watching his films on a regular basis.

Checking his practice and procedure.

Making sure that everything is the way it should be.

As he wants it to be.

Maybe he thought that once he go to the majors, he did not need to pay attention any more.

So he didn’t.

And it showed.

I think a lot of folks think like that.

I know I did.

When I passed the bar in 1983 and got a job in a law firm, I thought my education was over.

What more did I need to learn?

To pay attention to?

They I found out I needed to learn and pay attention to quite a bit.

I found out lawyers had to attend 12 hours of continuing legal education every year.

I found out we were to be mentored by more mature lawyers.

Why?

Because the world changes and we need to keep up.

And we had to maintain the characteristic that the firm desired and that got us the job.

There is always something we need to learn about in order to be good at what we do.

There is always something we need to make a good habit.

Moroff had to learn how to hit in the big leagues.

I had to learn how to practice law in a big firm.

And Paul says we need to learn to live the Jesus way in a world that is not a “Jesus way” kind of place.

What is Paul’s suggestion?

We see it in verse 23 of today’s text.

to be renewed in the spirit of your minds …

Paul says we were taught to live the Jesus way but have to be renewed from time to time.

To be reminded what living the Jesus way means.

And to apply it to our lives.

Moroff has to review films.

Lawyers have to go to CLEs.

Disciples of Jesus have to go to church.

Church is a place where we can get reminded what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Look at how we did the previous week, hear a lesson on how we might do better, and then plan to put that lesson into place.

But a church is much more than a weekly continuing education.

It is a place where one can find “true north”.

An orienting point fixed in a chaotic world that gives you direction, and keeps you on the right path when there are many, many distractions and temptations to leave that path.

It is what you believe, what you value and the way you want to live.

It is an internal compass.

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott shares a story she was told by her minister that describes how the church should be a landmark in our lives:

When [my minister] was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”

And that is why I have stayed so close to [my church]—because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home.

I love that image.

Whenever we are lost, we need to look for our church.

Once we see it, we know the way to go.

True north.

A church is also a spiritual health care center.

It is a place where people of faith, whether it is a lot of faith, a little faith, or a desire for faith, come together for some spiritual and emotional wellness therapy.

In the movie “A Knight’s Tale”, Heath Ledger masquerades as a knight so he can win jousting matches and earn money.

Jousting is a brutal sport.

After each match, his armor is battered and dented and broken.

He is bruised and cut.

So he goes to his blacksmith who removes the dents and re-rivets the connections.

She also stitches his cuts.

His small circle of friends surrounds him and gives him support.

They help him to recuperate between contests.

They learn and strategize.

Once done, he is ready to do battle again.

That is what a church does.

Our brutal sport is living in a world that is essentially a place to enjoy, but also attacks us with chaos, temptation, conflict and pain.

We need to gather for community encouragement and care often, and at least once a week.

Because we need it.

Our world does not treat those who do not fit into its values well.

This is how Paul describes his, and our, world.

[We] live as the [faithless] live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.

The culture of our world can infect us with a willingness to accept a way of living that is not what we want.

We forget how to swing the bat, practice law, live the Jesus way.

How does Paul say we treat others badly?

We lie.

We rage.

We steal.

We malign.

We fight.

We refuse to forgive.

We lose our sensitivity to the badness.

We accept it as the “new normal”.

Paul’s treatment plan?

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

And in order to do that, we need to be part of an encouraging community.

The church.

After a week of living in our broken world, we come together battered and dented and bruised.

We need our armor tuned up.

We need our cuts stitched.

We need to see friendly faces.

We need to be supported and inspired.

We need to learn about God.

We need to hear how we are loved and healed by Jesus.

We need to feel the movement of the Holy Spirit.

We need to give ourselves and our children faith and hope.

In that community we can also learn and strategize.

We learn to:

Tell the truth.

Resolve anger immediately.

Give to others.

Use your words only to lift people up.

Live in peace, not conflict.

Forgive.

Be kind to each other.

And that requires practice.

And help from the collective wisdom of everyone else in the church.

Then we are ready to go out – there – again.

That is what a church is.

That is what Paul is talking about.

If you try to go it alone, there is much risk.

I had a friend who had a back injury in college.

He had back pain that became chronic.

He refused to see a doctor because he figured he could manage the problem on his own.

He rejected any treatment because he knew how to control the pain easily.

He took ibuprofen.

The pain went away at first.

But it came back.

He took more ibuprofen.

But the more he took, the less it worked.

Soon, he was taking it by the handful.

When he finally went to the hospital, it was not because his back hurt, though it still did.

It was because he started to lose weight and had severe stomach pain.

It turned out he was in end stage liver failure because of all that ibuprofen he took.

He died a week later.

His treatment plan not only did not resolve his back pain, it killed him.

We cannot make the same mistake.

We need the collective wisdom of a community that can advise us and restore us.

That cares about us.

That cares for us.

Because we need it to go back out into the great epidemic of inhumanity every day and still survive and remain faithful.

That is what a church does.

Pastor Porter Taylor says this:

As part of this [church] we encourage one another and help one another to live out our baptismal promises [which we renew each Sunday]. Paul says, “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are [part] of one another.” That is, we are all in this enterprise of being church together. Therefore, we are to learn from each other and help each other.

That is what the church is for.

And this is how we can sustain each other.

Christine Pohl is professor of Christian social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary.

She wrote a book titled Living Into Community; Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us.

She describes the practices that best allow us to live together in community.

Pohl says this:

Practices are at the heart of human communities; they are things “people do together over time to address fundamental human needs.” Every community has practices that hold it together; for Christians, practices can also be understood as responses to the grace we have already experienced in Christ, in light of the word and work of God, and for the sake of one another in the world. Our practices include hospitality, making and keeping promises, truthfulness, gratitude, Sabbath-keeping, testimony, discernment, forgiveness, worship, healing and many others.

Wisdom and experience teach us that what is noticed and celebrated is usually always repeated. To build stronger congregations and communities we’ll need to get in the habit recognizing the practices that undergird our relationships and our life together. … Our testimony to the truth of the Gospel and the life-giving power of the resurrection of Jesus stands or falls with the character and practices of our congregations.

When folks enjoy being together, share celebrations, and walk through hard times with grace and love, the beauty of their shared life is deeply compelling. Human beings were made to live in community. And it is in community that we flourish and become most fully human.

That’s a church.

Looking at it another way, whenever we are beaten down, oppressed, sinful, sick …

We look for our church.

Once we see it, we know our true north.

Where we can go to re-boot our batting stance.

To learn about living the Jesus way.

To be cared for.

And to care for others.

That is what this church is.

That is what we are called to be.

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