unus Christianus, nullus Christianus
Some years ago I started a sermon with this question:
"What's the most common heresy most Christians ever hear?" After a few guesses were offered, I showed my folded hands and continued:
"Here is the church,
here is the steeple,
open the doors
and see all the people."
The congregation laughed and agreed that the people are NOT inside the church, bur rather, they ARE the church.
Some churches own buildings, some churches rent or borrow buildings, some churches have no buildings at all. So when the news media reports that "Arson suspected after First Community Church burns to the ground," they are quite mistaken. The church did not burn at all. A shelter that the church had built for itself may have been destroyed, but the church itself was quite unharmed.
Recently, I have reconsidered this idea, that the most common heresy most Christians ever hear is the heresy of imagining the church as though it were a building. I have begun to think that it is not merely the most common heresy we hear. I'm starting to think of it not just as one heresy among many, but perhaps also the worse, most destructive of heresies. It is the very opposite of Christianity... the heresy that destroys who we are, what we are about, and our hope of gaining what we most deeply (but perhaps unknowingly) long for.
I've been reflecting on how difficult it is to get people to connect with one another deeply, honestly, authentically, and spiritually. I don't know about other cultures, but I have been closely observing the American church for decades. From sea to shining sea, across the fruited plains, we vigorously and rigidly resist knowing one another and being known.
We resist communion. We resist mutuality. We want to come to a worship service and sit alone, by ourselves, or with a family member. We want to think alone, pray alone, sing alone, and go home alone. We want to keep our distance. We hold our longings and our pains to ourselves. We want to keep our secrets.
We want to touch God and to be touched by God, but we don't want to touch and be touched too closely, deeply, intimately, or honestly by others.
And we think that this is Christianity, because we believe the destructive heresy that a church is a building that we enter. We don't know that a church is a religious community of interconnected people. And without that religious interconnection, we can sit in a religious building, hear religious talk, sing religious music, and do religious things, while never becoming church.
The ancient Christians said it like this: unus Christianus, nullus Christianus. One Christian - No Christian.
When we "go to church" alone, we don't go to church at all. We are confused, because we came inside a building, and so we think we're inside a church. Because we bought the heresy, we don't realize that we only came inside a building but sadly, we're still outside the church.
God has invited us to a great banquet. "Come, all who hunger... all who thirst." But it's not primarily about my hunger and my thirst, but our eating and drinking together in a great festive banquet.
That's the Gospel: that no matter who we are, where we have been, what we have done, or what we have failed to do, God in Jesus Christ has prepared, created, delivered a banquet with more than we can ever eat or drink, and invited EVERYONE to come.
Where once they ran out of wine, there is now too much wine, too much to drink, even though it's the best wine. Where once there were only 5 loaves and 2 fish for thousands, there are now baskets of leftovers, more than we could eat.
The more than we can drink wine was offered at only a wedding feast, the more than we eat loaves and fishes were offered in a huge crowd seated in groups. God offers nothing at the drive through window -- which leaves one eating and drinking alone in the privacy of their car, the windows rolled up, the stereo playing for our ears alone.
There is a time and a place for practicing silence and solitide. But not a party. I've found myself forced to go to a party when I was tired and cranky, and tried to practice silence and solitude. People wondered what was wrong with me, why was I so standoffish, so rude? Why didn't I just stay home? Why, indeed?
When we come to a place and time at which the church gathers, but we enter alone, sit alone, and depart alone, we never actually come into church no matter how far into a building we've come. We spent an hour sitting outside, seeing from the distance what could be but isn't. And as long as we remain alone, it never will be.
As long as we remain alone, it just isn't church, no matter what we call it. As long as we remain alone, we aren't really Christian. We're just alone.
That is why "the Episcopal Church welcomes you." Jesus has invited EVERYONE. You, me, him, her, the stranger, the friend, the down-and-outer, the up-and-outer, the good, the bad, the ugly. That's what evangelism is: Not an attempt to persuade another to believe what you believe, but the warm, open, gracious invitation to become an intimate part of a gracious, spiritual community with you. We invite our friends in the name of Jesus. And if they aren't our friends, we invite them to become our friends, in the name of Jesus. And we find that when two or three gather in his name -- there Jesus is, right in our midst.
There's no way to be with Jesus without being with the friends of Jesus. He's never alone, he's always with his friends. And he calls us to join him and his friends, never to be alone again, even if, not knowing any better, remaining alone is what we prefer.
unus Christianus, nullus Christianus
The Lord be with you.