Did you ever stop to think about what Church is for? On one level that may seem like an odd question, particularly for a church like All Saints’ which has been here, on this spot, for more than a hundred years. There is no one, now living in our parish, who remembers a time when All Saints’ was not; in this age of rapid growth and turn over and change, that is a noteworthy achievement. But if all a church was for was to be a beautiful building, a lasting tribute to architectural vision and fine craftsmanship, we’d be a museum, where people could come and learn something about the past. A museum is a good thing to be, but it’s not what Church is for.
A Church, any church – whether the grandest medieval cathedral or the congregation that meets in a rented storefront in Newark’s Central Ward – is a place and a group of people that worships God as God has been made known in the ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Church is for connecting to God in a way that involves other people in the process, and then sends us out – strengthened and renewed in faith – to serve Christ in our daily lives, where ever life may take us.
I hope you have actually thought about what Church is for, what faith is for. I know that for some of you this question has come to mind easily, and your answer has seemed very natural and clear. For others the question has been more of a struggle. We live in a time and society where there are over-lapping realities: on the one hand, we are awash in a multiplicity of religious faiths, traditions, and spiritualities – a whole smorgasbord of religion to choose from; on the other hand, our Western, developed world is becoming increasingly secular, increasingly stressed, increasingly indifferent to the patterns and discipline of faith and Christian community. So for a person to make a commitment to God and Jesus and Church is much more difficult now than it used to be. But the benefit to that is when a person decides that life is richer and fuller and more true lived as a follower of Jesus and as part of the Body of Christ, then it is not just checking the Church box – yup, got that covered.
What we do as Christians, and as a Christian community, really goes against the grain of our individualistic society. Our culture wants us to believe that a person’s highest good is their happiness, their satisfaction, their fulfillment, their ability to do what they deem best for themselves no matter how it affects anyone else. None of those things are bad or evil, but if we out them first, make them primary, they skew our souls toward being selfish and ultimately isolate us from those around us. Church asks us to make God our highest priority, and then order the rest of our lives accordingly.
In this Easter season we hear and read about the Church in its earliest days; the first reading is always from the Acts of the Apostles, its author Luke relating to us how the life of the Risen Christ was preached and taught and lived and spread from Jerusalem to Rome – to the epicenter of imperial power. And this morning is no exception. We heard the story of Saul’s encounter with the Risen Lord – Saul, in his zeal for the traditions and faith of his ancestors, persecuted Jesus’ followers. Until the day that the Lord finally got his attention – you might almost say, smacked him upside the head – temporarily struck blind. This is the man who, after some time of study and prayer with the Christians in Damascus, became the apostle Paul, the great missionary to the Gentile world. Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ changed his life, re-oriented his priorities and perspective. And it led him to people and places and trust in God he could never have imagined when he was trapped in his anger and self-satisfaction.
Also in this Easter season our Gospel readings are from John, rather than Matthew, Mark or Luke – it’s always John for Easter. At the end of Chapter 20, just before this morning’s passage starts, John tells us his reason for compiling his Gospel: “…these [signs that Jesus did in the presence of his disciples] are written so that you believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is none other than Jesus; and that, with this faith, you may have life in his name.” So that you may have life – full, abundant, glorious life through the power and presence of Jesus.
And then John goes on to give us another experience of the disciples and the Risen Lord, showing us what life in Jesus’ name looks like. The disciples are back in Galilee, having returned home after the resurrection. Peter, ever the brash and impetuous leader, announces he’s going fishing – back to the job he had before he ever met Jesus. Some of the others go with him; they push the boat off-shore, cast the large commercial nets into the lake. They worked all night, but caught nothing. Finally, as dawn was breaking, Jesus appeared on the shore and told them to cast their nets out again – in a different direction this time. The nets came up full – almost more than they could handle. And when Peter realized that it was Jesus who was directing them, he jumped out of the boat and waded ashore.
Then over a breakfast of grilled fish and bread with the others, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. After all of Peter’s boasting about his faithfulness and loyalty to Jesus during their ministry travels, and then Peter’s three-time denial of even knowing Jesus while he was being tried before the high priest on his way to death by crucifixion, Jesus now asks him: “Do you really love me more than anyone else does?” And Peter’s answer is, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Even with all his failings and imperfections, Peter loves his Lord. And Jesus gives him a new task, a new role: “Feed my sheep” – tend and take care of the flock, this new community of people who have found life in my name. Jesus is calling on the image of the Messiah as the Shepherd of Israel, a picture of God’s role amongst his people that goes back to the time of King David. And Jesus invites Peter to take a share in the role, in that image. Feed my sheep; be one who keeps the people together; guide, direct and protect them.
In these two readings – from Acts, and from John – we see the two leading figures of the Church in the earliest days: Peter and Paul, each with a different role, each with a different portfolio, but both sharing the same mission – to share the Good News of the love and life that God gives in and through Jesus. The Church as the Holy Spirit was creating it at the time of these apostles, was for worship; for learning – learning to live as Jesus’ followers, according to his teachings and according to the will of God revealed through prayer and patience; and for serving God and his people in such a way that goodness, healing, joy and the abundance of life would become a reality. The Church, the People of the Way, the Body of Christ, were to be the beach head of this abundant life in the midst of all the conflicting and clamoring claims of society in the Roman Empire, where Caesar had designated himself as a divine lord. The Church spoke another truth, a more real truth, offered a true alternative, a bigger and better story.
And that is still what Church is for today – to be a people who live according to the story of Jesus, to be a beach head for abundant and joyous life and love, as described by the words of the Gospels, as experienced in prayer and worship, as lived out in our community life and in our everyday work, family and personal lives. We are Church because Christ has called us, each one of us – just like Peter, just like Paul – each in our own way, and yet together. We are Church because together we can learn and reflect the love and nature of God far better than we ever can do by ourselves. We are Church because God knows it is not good for us to be alone. We are Church because God has given each one of us a role, a job, a relationship, a community to tend and care for. We are Church because God in his wisdom knows that not one of us can do the whole job. We are Church because the world needs what we have to share, whether it can see it or not.
The disciples encountered the Risen Christ and their lives were changed; they became more together than they ever could have been separately. Throughout the year – and in this Easter season especially – we encounter the Risen Lord and our lives are changed, so that we, in turn, may change the world for Christ. That’s what Church is for. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday of Easter
April 13, 2013