The Church: What does it mean to be Essential?

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, our policy makers have had to make a number of tough calls; among them, which services ought to remain available to the public and which services ought to be, for the time being, closed down.  In short, they’ve had to come up with a list of essential and non-essential services.   

Needless to say, weekly church worship ended up on the non-essential list, thereby resulting in the closing of buildings and a proliferation of online, virtual services.  As far as I can tell, the vast majority of churches in my local area have complied with these policies.  In fact, even if there were no official policy to speak of, I’d like to think that most churches would still refrain from gathering out of a concern for, not only the health of their own members, but the health of the broader community.  In short, I think there’s a good reason why I’m delivering this sermon to a phone today, instead of a live congregation.

However, all of this has forced me to ask a tough question— a question which, perhaps, you’ve had to ask yourself as well: Is the church— the community of Jesus followers to which we belong— essential?  Are we essential to the broader society?  Are we essential to the world?  Long before this pandemic broke out, there were those who would have responded to that question with a resounding “No.”  In fact, some have argued that, not only are we non-essential, but we are irrelevant.  In the eyes of many, the church is a relic left over from an era of superstition and ignorance that, thankfully, our civilization has outgrown. 

I’ll admit that in times of doubt, I can’t help but brood over the fear that I’ve devoted my life to a dying and irrelevant institution.   But, having reflected on it a bit I must conclude that perhaps the reason why I focus on the apparent irrelevancy of the church is because I’m too frightened to acknowledge the more disturbing reality; namely, that far from being irrelevant, we are, in Christ, the most important community of people the world has ever seen.  No doubt, you may find that statement to be rather pompous and grandiose.  So do I!   But, if you hear what the Bible has to say about us, it sounds even more troubling. For example, in today’s reading from Peter’s first letter  (I Peter 2:1-10), he writes: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”  What could Peter possibly mean by all of this? 

I’ll get into that.  But first, a little bit of context.  When Saint Peter wrote this letter to the church, the Christians were by no means running the Roman Empire.  Far from it.  They were seen as a bizarre sect within Judaism— one of a thousand little mystery cults that, at the time, were a dime a dozen in the ancient world.  No credible observer would have looked at the church and described it as an essential institution. When they weren’t being persecuted the first Christians were being laughed at.  When they weren’t being laughed at they were being completely ignored.  They had no great houses of worship in capital cities; no cathedrals; no basilicas; no Vatican. They were, for the most part, a poor and illiterate people, meeting secretly in their living rooms, scattered in small pockets all throughout the cities of the Roman Empire. That is the church to whom Peter writes in his first general epistle: a little sect of believers who were, for the most part, irrelevant and certainly not essential.  

But, not only was the church a rejected people.  Its founder was himself a rejected man.  He was rejected by his very own nation’s religious establishment; rejected by his friends in his hour of greatest need; rejected by the Roman political authorities; rejected, as Peter says, by men. He was, in the words of the scriptures, “the stone that the builders refused.”  But, in the strange outworking of God’s master plan, that “stone that the builders refused” (I Peter 2:7)— that man whom all humanity chose to cast away as non-essential and irrelevant— is chosen. He is chosen to be the very cornerstone of this incredible edifice that God is building.  That edifice— that house— is the church.  And if that’s true then we— each and every one of us— are bricks in that awesome structure.  We are, to quote Saint Peter in today’s passage, “living stones…” (I Peter 2:5).

But let’s be honest.  A brick isn’t much to look at:  Roughly hewn, jagged in places, a chip here and a crack there, worn by the weather, perhaps even marred by the odd vandal. That describes us, pretty well, doesn’t it?  We’re ordinary.  Just  listen to what Paul writes to the Church in Corinth: “Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians. 1:26). But, insofar as we have been aligned with the cornerstone that is Christ— insofar as we have all been built around him— we collectively become the very house of God.  We are, in the words of Saint Peter from today’s reading, “a Spiritual house” (I Peter 2:5).

In using the word “spiritual” Peter doesn’t mean “non-material” or “non-physical.”  What he means is this: We are a house that God’s Spirit indwells.  Just as the ancient temple in Jerusalem was said to be filled with the divine presence of God so, too, is the church community filled with the very Spirit of God.  God’s  Spirit empowers us and animates us.  But that raises the question: animates us to do what?

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit— each and everyone of us who are members of the church community— to serve as priests.  We are, in the words of Saint Peter, a “royal priesthood” (I Peter 2:9). Now, when you hear the word priest, don’t think about those guys who wear plastic collars around their necks.  Think, rather, about the priests of ancient Israel.  What was their job?  Their job was to offer sacrifices to God and serve him in the Temple. That, in a manner of speaking, is your job; namely, to serve God and to minister to him day-by-day— to use the gifts that God has given you in a spirit of self-sacrificial love, offering them over to God.  For some of you, that might mean funding organizations like Inner City Youth Ministry (which, by the way, is feeding dozens of families in the Saint John area, right now).  For others, it might mean running our laundry program, helping out at the drop-in, teaching Sunday school or leading in music ministry.     

None of these things, on the surface, seem all that important.  Chatting with a homeless man who has come into our church to do his laundry doesn’t seem, on the surface, like a big deal.  Hugging a kid who has come to our Messy Church program isn’t exactly saving the world.  Calling somebody in pandemic time and praying with her over the phone isn’t something that will make you a canonized Saint. Individually, these little acts of service are like bricks—small, ordinary and prosaic. But consider this: Everyone in our little church community, serving God in such a manner— day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, for decades. These small, humble acts of self-sacrificial service when collectively offered in the name of Jesus over time become something  great enough to awe even the archangels in heaven. Why?  Because the deeds of the Saints— the sacrificial offerings of the Royal Priesthood— bear witness to the saving love of God himself— a love that is vast and infinite enough to contain the universe and still have infinite room left over for more. 

My prayer for the church during this time of pandemic is this: That when this is over we would emerge stronger— more committed to Christ, more committed to his word, more committed to prayer, more committed to good works than we ever were before.  We are together now in Spirit.  Soon, we will come together again physically.  And, when we do so, let’s get to work, being about our Father’s business.  As it turns out, we have a job to do.  And that job is essential.  

– Rev. Terence Chandra

5th Sunday of Easter

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