What Makes a Church a Church?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 26, 2022

Galatians 5:1, 13–25

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.…

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen

Last Saturday, we had the Annual Meeting of our Conference – I mentioned it last week.  The worship was so not like what we have here.  It was more like what we did when we weren’t meeting together – one person or group after another, each videoed in their living rooms.  There was music – I particularly remember the organ and steel pan duet, the rock band….and other great music, though not what we hear in this place.  While there were songs, we were not able to sing together.  

You could almost think that the differences between that worship and this worship weren’t the same thing.  We struggled with that ourselves when COVID required us to let go of in-person worship.  We wondered, we worried, what could we be doing, was this anything like real worship. 

But we were, in fact, worshipping, different music, different settings.  We were united, not by our appearance, not by our economic status, our gender or orientation, not even our age or singing ability – we were united by what makes us a church.

To be church, you need four things:

  1. You need people.
  2. You need people who love Jesus.
  3. You need people who love one another.
  4. You need people who will reach out into their community.

Now there’s more to say about churches, but this is the core, the essential.  You can’t have church of any type without these things:  you can’t be a Catholic without people; you can’t be a Baptist if you don’t love one another, you can’t be Presbyterian without service, you can’t be a Congregationalist, or a Methodist, or anything at all, without people, Jesus, love and service.

Of course, there are different kinds of churches; some, like ours, are governed by the people, some by the pastor, some by the local bishop, or even some faraway headquarters.  Some insist the pastor wear special clothing – pulpit robes, and all kinds of fancy duds.  Some would rather the pastor wear ordinary street clothes.  Some begin by gathering in a circle, some dance, some have processions. 

And we differ in the details of what we believe.  But when you get right down to it, we all agree on the basic – people, Jesus, love, service.

Now, think about this – turn it around.  If you are a group of people who don’t like each other, can you be church?  If you don’t care about Jesus?  If you don’t serve your community?

This is the time of the year when I often attend mandolin camp; I’m not a very good classical mandolinist, but I really enjoy getting together with this group of about 40 people who all love to play the mandolin.  The first year I went, I remember our teachers were talking about how they began to learn to play our instrument.  Over and over we heard a variation on “I tried another instrument, but here I felt welcome”.  We had love, we had people…. and in many ways, we sounded like a church.  But we had no Jesus, we had no service…

I think of this whenever I hear people say “I worship God when I sail, or hike, or play golf… “ and think to myself (because arguing the proposition seems unwelcome) but you don’t have people, you don’t have Jesus, you don’t have service… and you don’t really have church.

Church is when we get together, not just to love one another, not just to be friendly, but to welcome the stranger, to serve the needy.

Our lessons for today make this clear.  They don’t talk about the right way to organize a church, or the right songs to sing, the right robes to wear.  They talk about how we make our commitments real in the eyes of all.  And that’s what makes a church a church.

In Galatians, Paul tells us that we are free people.  He says, Jesus has freed us from the dead hand of habits and expectations.  He tells us that we need no longer be the thoughtless victims of meanness, cheesiness, nastiness, greed, self-indulgence and so on.  He tells us that we are now the commissioned, empowered practitioners of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

Paul says we are not only all these things; he says we KNOW that we are free, we know we can put shoddiness aside, we know we are made and freed to be good.  And he expects that if we can do it, we will do it.

But, God bless him, Paul sometimes was more than a little optimistic.  Our Gospel lesson adds to Paul’s story by telling us about a couple of disciples and how they got it wrong, and about several would-be followers, who didn’t quite get the urgency of the whole endeavor.

You see, the time to be church is not tomorrow, it is not when it’ll be more convenient. The Samaritans were all in on following Jesus, until they knew what he actually intended.  It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as he didn’t try to upset what was really important, so long as he didn’t challenge what they’d always known was true.  

It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as it didn’t mean giving up any of the little luxuries that made life worthwhile. 

It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as we were given enough time to take care of other important things.

The time to be church, the time to follow Jesus, is right here, right now.  And it’s often a time that doesn’t see right in our eyes.  I might not feel ready to follow Jesus.  I might think it’s more important to have some time for myself; I might think my laundry needs to be done.  I might even not agree with what it seems Jesus is asking me to do.  It doesn’t matter, not one bit.  

What matters is that we are church.  

What matters is that we are people, people who follow Jesus, people who love one another, people who serve our world.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child