Paper on the Universal Church
19 January 2017
Scripture: Ephesians 2:11-22
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth,[a] called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body[b] through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.[c] 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.[d] 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually[e] into a dwelling place for God.”
We are the Church and Christ is our Peace
I heard the sound of rushing water and gave out a sigh of relief. I had made it to my planned resting place. A bicyclist was rummaging through his bag. There was not much space so I plopped my backpack down next to his. We acknowledged each other with a nod but nothing else. I was too exhausted. The last five miles had been longer than I expected.
First things first. I took my boots off and slipped into my sandals. Ahh, relief. I grabbed my blue water filter dipped it into the stream and hooked the bag to the limb of a nearby tree and filled my water bottle, camel pak, and cooking pot.
Now for food! So hungry! I looked around a little bit and settled for a spot a little ways from the stream, in the sun, and with several rocks to sit on while I cooked. I set up my stove and got it lit and then waited for the water to boil.
The bicyclist was still there resting and we struck up a conversation. I had not yet been able to talk to a bicyclist on the Colorado Trail about their experience so it was fun to compare notes on experiences and different gear.
The water came to a boil. I poured in my macaroni and waited impatiently for it to get slightly cooked then I poured in dried coconut milk, nutritional yeast and stirred. I then added pinches of pepper, dried onions, sun-dried tomatoes and dried mushrooms. The whole time getting more and more excited. Food! (In case you are wondering this is a feast on the backpack trail). I poured in some more water and had my chai ready to stir when it is boiled. I saw that I probably had enough to offer a cup and I asked,
“Would you like some chai tea?”
His eyes widened, “yes, that would be wonderful.”
As I mixed the tea he asked, “What do you do?”
“I study theology and I am training to be a minister.”
…some silence….“So are you really religious?”
I looked at him. Having just told him I was hoping to be a minister I knew that he knew I was really religious. So what was he really asking? With my head cocked I replied, “I guess it depends on what you mean by really religious.” We went on to talk about other topics and drink our chai before he needed (wasn’t ready but needed) to begin bicycling again and we said farewell wishing one another happy trails.
What does it mean to be religious? What does it mean to be a part of the church?
Holding my tray I scanned the crowded high school cafeteria looking for familiar faces and an empty seat. I saw Cara and with no other option I decided to go for it. It is not that I didn’t like Cara, but she confused me. I used to look up to her. She was smart, strong willed and had her way of being that didn’t need to conform. But lately her strong willed opinions she spoke with flare and intelligence confused me. The opinions seemed to contradict the very strong will I had always admired. I don’t remember how our conversation began or how it evolved, but I do remember how it ended. She exclaimed with no doubt, “It is wrong for women to be ministers. Only men can be ministers because they must be married to the church as it says in the Bible.”
With my eyes furrowed, lips pursed, and head tilted I leaned forward ready to respond, but then I stammered. I had no concrete response, no bible verse up my sleeve to respond to her defiant eyes. I had nothing, but experience. And I turned bright red, lowered my head and gazed into my food. I began to eat again and finished lunch as quickly as possible as the conversation at the table turned to other subjects.
And I knew that Cara and I were very religious. And I knew we were a part of the church.
A friend and I were walking through the hall toward the vast room where we would eat and worship that evening. A young adult greeted my friend. He seemed to be in a bit of a hurry and slightly anxious, but happy as well. He asked my friend, “Would you be willing to give the communion prayer, the person who was planning to give it is no longer coming and we need a seminarian.” My friend responded a bit apologetically but still with no hesitancy, “right now I am not sure how I feel about Christianity so I am just refraining from praying in public at the moment.” Disappointed he replied, “Well, do you know of another seminarian who would be willing because we really wanted one minister retiring and another person entering ministry around the table tonight.” And my friend smiled and pointed to me. And Mason introduced himself and then leaned in smiling expectantly, “So, would you?” I laughed and said I would be happy to pray over the cup. He led me through the logistics and introduced me to the man who would also be at the table. And Mason hurried off to complete the other last minute tasks.
And I knew the three of us and all who were gathered that night were very religious. And I knew we were part of the church.
I walked into the Burgoo, the fast food café at Eureka College, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a table full of cupcakes and someone passing them out. Stacy asked me if I wanted one. I replied with a huge excited smile, “Of course I want a cupcake!” After it was in my hand Stacy told me, “These cupcakes are to celebrate all the birthdays of the unborn children in the last year.” The smile never left her face as she mentioned how many children were aborted and how many children of God were murdered this year before we could even celebrate one birthday. I walked out of the common room with my uneaten birthday cupcake for all the unborn children and threw it away.
And I knew that Stacy and I were very religious. And I knew we were a part of the church.
Six of us gather in a low lit room that is at the back of a law firm. We unrolled our mats, and took off our socks. Our teacher, Jennifer lit a candle in front of her mat and a vial of essential oil was passed around the room. We all sat down. Some of us were in half lotus position and some cross-legged, none of us had graduated to full lotus position. Jennifer led us in a prayer asking God to be present with us as we breathed, paid attention to our bodies, and entered a time of prayer. We began stretching. We inhaled as we brought our hands and arms out in a big circle, joining our hands above our heads and exhaled as we brought them down to our hearts. And we did it again. The stretches got more difficult, but Abigail’s voice continued to be soothing and encouraging. In the middle we entered into a semi-fetal position but with our arms stretched out in front of us and we stayed in that position. Abigail read a passage from Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison. And then she walked slowly around all of us and touched and pressed down in certain areas on our backs to help each of us deepen the stretch. And she reminded us, “All I want you to do is just breathe.”
And I knew we were very religious. And I knew we were a part of the church.
A man returns to the place of worship he had known well as a child. He is given scripture to read. And he proclaims,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And I know he is very religious. And I know he is the cornerstone of the church.
So what does it mean to be religious? What does it mean to be a part of the church?
I don’t get to choose who is a part of the church and neither do you.
I know, frustrating isn’t it?
But true and for me at least when I am real with myself it’s a relief.
Here is another thing,
You and I didn’t choose to be part of the church. Yet we are here and we are related to each other, connected to each other through Christ.
I have painted scenes for you of Christians; of me relating to Christians. But these scenes are just that, scenes. The scenes contained neither the past nor the future of the people I related to nor for that matter the whole present.
I am more and more convinced that we don’t show our full selves in our actions or show our full selves to one another.
At least I don’t. See I am really good at saying what I believe, but not so great at living that out all the time.
I watch television when I am tired, stressed and just want to get away from reality even though I know and often say that going for a run, hanging out with friends, or writing would in the end help me more.
I vote and barely skim the New York Times daily and that is the extent of my involvement in politics yet I claim to care about politics and I really do. Yet my actions don’t seem to speak to that.
And as the stories I have shared show I am not always quick to respond and engage with people I disagree with even though I believe that engagement, even in disagreement, is the way to better relationships.
This is not to shame myself. It is only to acknowledge that we don’t always do what we want to do and what we do do isn’t always what we want. No matter how much we want our actions and beliefs to align they don’t always. Remember Paul.
And this is why the church is vital. Because as the church we acknowledge that we are not only the minimal part that people see or the part of ourselves we show. We are more.
And just as I give thanks to God that I am more than what I do and I give thanks for the grace that I feel as I start a new day and begin again, we as a church recognize this grace and the moreness in others.
That is why when I think back to my interactions with Cara, with other Disciples, with Stacy and with those practicing yoga I can say we are the church. Even when it seems that nothing connects us, when it seems we are all pulling in different directions, even in the midst of anger, we promise to each other to see more than what we do; we promise to acknowledge that there is more than what we see and to remember that it is who we are that makes us the church.
And we are the living, breathing children of God. We are one humanity in Christ.
Christ is the peace within and Christ is the peace between. Through Christ we see more than what we do; we see who we are. Through Christ our walls are broken down because there is more, there is being and becoming, there is life.
We don’t get to see beyond what is presented often, but occasionally we do.
When we gather around the communion table, when we forgive and accept one another, when we welcome others and when we share resources. In these moments we see the more and we give thanks for this grace.
And the times when we don’t see the more, when we experience tunnel vision and cynicism, we must continue to trust in the presence of Christ and trust in who we are and how we are connected to one another by Christ.
For we are the church.
We are the living, breathing children of God.
We are one humanity in Christ, who is our peace.