What’s the church, you say? Who’s a member? We can get hung up on that. But Jesus intends no confusion, and no anxiety about this. Pastor Evan attempts some answers in this sermon. Warning: you do have to listen to him sing in the recording….just saying…
3rd Sunday after Epiphany (Year B) – January 25, 2015 – Mark 1:14-20
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“We Are The Church” – Pastor Evan Davis
Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken a bit about church membership. I’m in the process of tabulating and reporting our membership numbers for the year. I’ve mentioned that we hope to welcome new members in this congregation twice a year – once during Lent, receiving members at Easter just like the earliest Christians did, and then once in the fall, receiving members on Reformation Sunday. I’m excited about this – who doesn’t love adding new members to the church family? And Lord knows, although we’re doing well right now, we’ll need more members in the future to keep this church going….to maintain this church institution……
The problem is, if someone comes up to you on the street and says, “hey, guess what? I’m part of this institution that’s over 100 years old. We’ve got a budget to support, a building to maintain, and man, we sure do need people to show up to our gatherings and give us money – won’t you join us?” That’s compelling, isn’t it? I’m sure you have extra time and energy and money just lying around, ready to give to an institution that will die without it. Because all of us see our life mission as keeping as many institutions going as possible…. 🙂
I wrote you an article in the newsletter/bulletin about ways the society and culture is changing, and what that means for the church. One thing that is really crystal clear is that people of my generation just aren’t that interested in maintaining institutions….like this one….just for the sake of maintaining them. And that makes our whole idea of “church membership” a little problematic. It starts with how we’ve traditionally interpreted this very Bible passage we’ve heard here this morning. Jesus says, “follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Of course, to 20th century American church-going ears, to people who grew up in church institutions that were humming along, clicking on all cylinders, doing an excellent job of raising up dozens and dozens of little Baby Boomer children in the faith, that meant – GO GET MORE CHURCH MEMBERS! But this reading of the text has issues, for a bunch of reasons:
- First, the idea of a “new members class,” long a staple of our tradition, makes it seem like somehow there is something you have to do or say or agree with in order to be a full “member” of this community…in order to matter as much as everyone else. That might make sense to us, but Jesus seems to be up to something different….
- Second, the idea of church membership perpetuates the very “us and them,” insiders-and-outsiders dynamic that Jesus wants us to abolish! Jesus dines with sinners, touches lepers, converses with prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus is tearing down the wall here! We’re building it up.
- Third, isn’t it a little presumptuous for us to assume that “we” – meaning those of us who are church members – are the fisher-men and -women, and “they” – meaning those other people out there – are the fish? That they are just passive fish that we heroically “catch,” pointing with pride to our nets full of caught fish? My wife, Brett, pointed out this week – who wants to be caught? Who wants to be just another person to pack the pews, pad the budget, and passively receive a pre-packaged religious product that other people think they need? No. People want to explore their own faith, their own questions. They want to enter into community as an equal, on their own terms, recognized and respected as a person with something to contribute, something in fact that we might need. Perhaps we, the insiders, are the fish, and they’re catching us.
- Fourth, we’re all fish and Jesus is the only real fisherman. If we catch at all, we’re fish “catching” other fish. As Luther said, we’re beggars showing other beggars where to find bread. We’re opening wide the net to other fish, a net that doesn’t kill, but gives life.
For these reasons, today I am taking an executive action. I’m sorry, I haven’t consulted the church council. I haven’t spoken with Bishop Mauney. Sometimes you just have to act. As of right now, today, I abolish “church membership” in this congregation. You know why?
Because all of you who have been members of this church for years or decades, and all of you who are newcomers here, or haven’t taken that official step, or haven’t gone through the process we prescribe, and all those people out there who aren’t interested in worshiping here, don’t know about us, or don’t care about the faith we preach, all of us are beloved children of God.
Why? Because when Simon and Andrew, James and John knew nothing about Jesus…didn’t know who he was, when the Apostles’ Creed wouldn’t be written for decades, when there were no sacraments, when they had done no deeds of faith, Jesus said “follow me” and they followed him…meaning, they walked where he walked. They were together. They were community. Immediately. Jesus accepted them into his new family. They were…church. Because the word church, in Greek ekklesia, means “called out people.” They were literally, called out by Jesus, called to him, called into his family. So if you walk in that door looking for Jesus, looking to follow Jesus, looking for something you don’t even have a name for yet, Jesus is calling to you and you are a member of his Body.
An important Christian thinker reminds us: “Jesus did not begin with questions of belief.” He didn’t begin with a new member’s class. The Church “began when Jesus called out, ‘follow me,’ and his friends and neighbors left their old lives and started a new community. A dozen men and a band of women joined Jesus and one another in a journey of faith and sharing and compassion. Christianity did not begin with a confession [of faith]. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.”1
Jesus calls out, and immediately they follow. And immediately, they are church, the beloved community of Jesus – not perfect, not finished, but with Jesus on a journey of faith. In the same way, everyone who walks in that door already holds the only membership that matters – membership in the Body of Christ. Everyone here today has equal grace and an equal calling to follow Jesus with one another in this life. That’s what we’re doing today, it’s what we’re doing in Lent on Wednesday evenings, helping people follow Jesus in their lives, giving them tools, experiences and wisdom to do that. When we “receive new members,” we’re just throwing a party to celebrate and recognize what God has already done, which is to bring us together to live this life all our days.
Because it takes your whole life to be a member of the Body of Christ, of the called out people. It’s not a status or achievement or accomplishment. Being Church is living our lives in friendship and love, together walking in Jesus’ footsteps, hearing his stories, doing what he did (feeding people, building sheds, cleaning cemeteries, and much more), learning from him as he lives in each of us, and over time, we pray, coming to a deep and abiding trust in Jesus and in his Father and their Spirit, journeying toward faith in God…what I like to call, “Walking the Way of Jesus.”
You might be thinking, yes Pastor Evan, but we still need members, committed people, on a list, you know, to keep all this church stuff going, to pay the bills, to staff all the committees. What if we can’t keep the church open? But this is when we need to hear and sing a song:
[sing the church song…]
You know, we the Church do need a sacred space to gather and worship and learn and prepare to out and BE THE CHURCH together in our homes, workplaces, schools, and communities. We want a space where people can come together for weddings and funerals and parties and meetings and classes, and just to pray. We’re going to be talking about that, and building/improving it. But in the future we may need to share it with other worshiping communities and with partners like schools or day care centers. We do need to be organized to serve people, and create meaningful worship, and manage all this. But all of that is secondary. It’s not who we are. A lot of the ways we do things will die or change and be transformed in my lifetime into something more flexible, more nimble, less professional, more inclusive.
But what won’t change is that you, all of you, and everyone out there, are children of God. And Jesus says, follow me, you are my people, you are my church, I love you and you are mine. Amen.
1Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 204-5.