On Monday evening I was blessed to be present at St. Alban’s in Malden for a service of de-consecration. A beautiful little sanctuary in the midst of Essex County, this church building is no longer able to be maintained and keep going by the Christians who remain there. It was a touching liturgy that marked the importance of the occasion. Together, Anglicans from across our deanery gathered to say farewell to a building that another group of Anglicans welcomed into being over 100 years earlier. Our Bishop, Robert Bennett, proclaimed to the community gathered the importance of knowing that the space that we were secularizing on Monday was NOT the church. The church is no longer able to make good use of the space that it worshipped in. It is time now for those who have been faithful for so long, to lay down the heaviness of having to keep the worship space open and focus on being the church in the world today. Bishop Bennett quoted a well-known song that we used to sing when we were kids at church camps —
“I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together. All who follow Jesus all around the world, yes, we’re the Church together.”
I had not heard this in years. Hearing it again, I was taken by how ‘bang on’ this is. How often we reduce the church to the buildings in which we worship? How many times do we fall into the trap of worshipping the buildings that we gather in rather than worshipping our God, to whose glory that edifice was erected? The church is a community which is best expressed in the simplicity of that children’s song. I am the church. YOU are the church. WE are the church together. ALL WHO FOLLOW JESUS, all around the world – WE are the church together. The church was, is, and always will be, the expression of community. It is the people of God putting aside selfish attitudes to look after the needs of another. The church is at work when the people of God come together, in any place. Matthew 18:20 reads; “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” Isn’t that the message of the Christmas story? In Advent we prepare to re-tell the narrative of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Edward Hayes writes:
“We should tattoo those words (Matthew 18:20) on the back of our hands so that they might be constantly be before us. For taken in their fullness, without the dust of centuries or the cobwebs of spiritual slumber, they contain the most radical of truths. Where two or three are gathered in prayer, in love, in justice, hope, affection, and work, that place can be called Bethlehem. It is a place where once again the Divine Presence becomes a reality, the birth place of Emmanuel, God among-us.” (A Pilgrims’ Almanac)
So if we take seriously the notion that assembled together with other Christians we are birthing the presence of Jesus we must come to realize that the church buildings that we gather in are but one of the places that we call Bethlehem. We are called to be a community which is engaged in the work of sharing the love that the Child of Bethlehem brought into the world.
Acts 2:42-47 paints a picture for us of what ‘the church,’ that I am referring to, looks like:
“The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”
That expression of church is what I long for. All of our communities need to be challenged to understand that we are on a journey and our journey is not one we take on our own. We walk side by side with others. We are connected. When the people of God who worshipped in Malden came to a place where they have to walk away from their building, we all should celebrate the courage they have shown to do so, and mourn and grieve with them the loss that they feel as they say goodbye to their place of worship. When we do that, we invite God to be with us. I had the sense that as we were together on Monday night, God was with us. We were in Bethlehem. It is time for us as a church, to rise to the challenge of letting go of our old models of being, and grieve that which is no more, and embrace a new and diverse way of being church that is out there for us. That will require us understanding that WE are the church. WE have the responsibility to live out what God has promised to make real in Christmas. I think we have lost sight of that at times. We are often content for others to do things for us. We have even become a people who long for others to assemble together for us. That also spills over into thinking that our religious festivals – like Christmas – need to be observed by others in order to be legitimized. Wal-Mart cannot observe Christmas for us, nor can the secular and government institutions that live around us. People of other religions certainly should not have to observe our festivals for us. WE must be the ones who bring to life the love of the Christ Child in the world in which we live. We are the ones called to come together and bear witness to what God is doing.
I am writing this post at Lads Restaurant in Windsor [Where the breakfast is second to none and the Perogies and Cabbage Rolls are to die for]. The chalkboard at the end of the room bears a great image of the Christ Child in a Manger; my compliments to the artist. Above the crèche are the words – God’s Promise lives! It is a simple message written by a family that has been feeding people for over 50 years in this modest and beautiful place. This family is bearing witness to their faith in a simple and profound way. I am reminded as I sit here that I am with people who believe that God’s Promise lives! It lives every time we take opportunity to gather with others in the name of Jesus for love, for justice, for peace, for hope, for healing, for forgiveness, for sharing and breaking bread. Each time we do this the crèche scene is lived out again.
So, whether in the church sanctuary, the mall, a restaurant, at the dinner table, at work, or wherever else we might be let us remember that the church is brought alive when we come together – God’s Promise lives!