What is the Church?

These are my notes for Sunday, July 7th’s sermon at the Clarks Mills United Methodist Church (Clarks Mills, PA).

Please understand these are SPEAKING notes, which means they have commas, elipses, spacing, italics, and bold print to help me, the speaker, to remember to pause or emphasize certain areas. NO attempt has been made to properly punctuate or to use rules for proper grammar. 

ALSO, I refer to God in accordance with the rules of English which speak of masculine pronouns being used to denote masculine objects or objects which have no gender. (It is the same reason I use the Spanish la (the) with casa (house)… not that “the house” is a feminine object, but rather because that’s what the rules of Spanish specify.) I do NOT believe God is a man or male in substance, any more than I believe a house is feminine, even in Spanish.)

SERMON: “What is the Church?”

There is a story about a new pastor who is just out of seminary at his very first church.
First week…preaches about helping the poor and reaching out to the needy…


PEOPLE’S RESPONSE?     “GREAT sermon…”


2nd week… again, a great sermon… but it’s word for word the same thing as week one…


3rd week…SAME sermon again…


Emergency board meeting is called to address this problem!


When asked, the pastor’s response: I didn’t want to move on until we had done the stuff from the first sermon… Wanted to wait until people “got it” & “did it”


OBVIOUSLY, the pastor and the people had different ideas about what the church was supposed to be about…

The people wanted a nice “presentation” each week… The pastor wanted to see people reach out. Nobody had moved from their seats… the gospel didn’t really affect them…

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

One of the ongoing struggles between pastors and their people, between different denominations of churches, between the theologians and seminarians alike, is how exactly do you define “church.”

IN SOME PLACES, THE CHURCH IS SET APART BY A FAMOUS DEFINITION THAT SAYS THE CHURCH IS WHERE YOU GO TO RECEIVE THE SACRAMENTS… That’s pretty much the definition you hear from the I.R.S. as well… a “real” church has the administration of the sacraments and a “real” pastor is one who has those “sacerdotal” duties… he or she administers the sacraments. If that’s it, then why do we have YF groups and PrimeTimers or daycare or United Methodist Women or missions? And why bother with sermons and music? Just come and receive the sacraments…

And the church would never be outside these walls around us.

Thank God, there’s more to the church than just the sacramental duties… Those things happen, but it’s not the whole reason we’re here.

IN SOME PLACES, THE CHURCH HAS BECOME A SOCIAL GROUP… You go to church because that’s where you meet some good people that are fairly trustworthy and would make good friends… or future spouses… or potential customers for your business.

In reality, that’s not so much “church” but rather a group like the “Rotary” or the “Grange” or the “Lions Club” or any number of other very good, very respectable organizations organized for good friendships and community service…

Thank God, there’s more to the church than just friendships and community service projects… Those things happen, but it’s not the whole reason we’re here.

IN SOME PLACES, THE CHURCH SEEMS LIKE NOTHING MORE THAN A ‘PROPER GENTLEMEN’S CLUB’ … the members of their group felt like they were “above” those who weren’t members… you had to have the right credentials and the right skin color and the right status to become a member… and if you were a member of the right club then you were really something…. Prestige, honor, respect… and power… were yours…

In some places, it seems the church has become like that… If you belong to OUR church then you’re REALLY going to Heaven… If you are baptized the right way or do communion the way we like it, then you’re on your way…. If you line up with our doctrines in the right way and If you say the right prayer with all of the right words in the right order, and know exactly when to stand up or sit down, then you’re one of us…

…AND IF YOU DON’T, then you’re obviously going to Hell… and it serves you right!

Thank God, there’s more to the church than just doctrines and beliefs and prayers… Those things happen, but it’s not the whole reason we’re here.

IN SOME PLACES, THE CHURCH IS DISTINGUISHED BY WHETHER OR NOT THEY WORSHIP IN THE RIGHT WAY… Do you sing the old songs or new songs… (and the “old songs” might be hymns or for others the “old songs” are more like Gregorian chants out of the Middle Ages… and “new songs” might mean choruses written last week or a 500 year old hymn like “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”) Do we have the right rituals? DO we do things in the right order? Do we use the right version of the Bible…

Is worship led by the right people… maybe it’s led by a liturgist, or the organist, or the pianist, or a worship team, or maybe even the preacher himself…

But in that kind of church, it had better be done right!

Thank God, there’s more to the church than just pleasing people with our rituals and music… Those things happen, but it’s not the whole reason we’re here.

I’D LIKE YOU TO TURN WITH ME TO THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW to the record of one of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees… and I believe we’ll see one of the main reasons we’re here as a church… Listen and see if you can spot Jesus’ example for the church in this passage… FROM Matthew 9:9-13…

SCRIPTURE READING: MATTHEW 9: 9-13
Now understand, it’s the Pharisees that really get rankled by Jesus when he doesn’t do things the way they think they should be done… They spend their time at the synagogue, and later the Temple, watching to see what He’s going to do wrong next… They’re watching for mistakes… They’re focusing on form alone… and they find exactly what they’re looking for… Because Jesus couldn’t care less about the form of their worship… Or their rules… Because Jesus is concerned about the relationship with God the Father. That’s supposed to be the focus of worship… Experiencing God… connecting with Him as we praise HIM… and as we pray to Him… as we meet with Him and turn our thoughts to Him.

And if someone comes into worship with a need… spiritually or emotionally or even physically, then as they connect with God the Healer, Jesus sees it as perfectly acceptable to heal them…

And if they show up and have made a mess of their lives and are broken hearted or have had lives full of sin, then Jesus welcomes them into his presence… Because that’s his specialty… He is known as one who hangs out with sinners…

Jesus’ answer to those Pharisees, the religious leaders of His day, when they accused Him of eating and drinking with sinners is one of my favorite Biblical images of the church. The writer of Mark tells of Jesus’ answer this way: His answer simply was: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

I used to be an orderly in the Olean General Hospital and worked a few months between terms of school at the St. Vincent Health Center in Erie. When I get to this passage here in Matthew, and the corresponding spots in Mark 2 and Luke 5, the questions and concerns about “what is the church?“ start to fade away… BECAUSE THE CHURCH, AT LEAST IN PART, IS SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE A HOSPITAL!

In a hospital, there are supposed to be sick people and they are tended for by nursing staff and doctors who are subject to the very same maladies and destructive habits as the patients… and yet the sick can still go to a hospital to find healing and hope.

In a hospital, often the healing doesn’t come about in the same way the patient expected it to at their arrival, and sometimes, some people never are completely healed.

The church is like that….

The church is supposed to be a place to meet the Healer…. The one we call the Great Physician…. And those of us who man the stations and work the desk, are like those doctors and nursing staff at the hospital… we DON’T know everything that will cure or help and we may fall into the very same sins and addictions that you have come here to seek healing for… But together, like at the hospital, we the ones who are experiencing healing can help reach out to those who still need healing.

And that healing might come in the least expected ways, through some of the least expected people… but in the church… there’s hope for healing!

If the church is like a hospital, then we are called to be both a welcoming community and a healing community. We cannot help heal, if those in need of healing don’t feel welcomed to come in.

As a pastor, like a doctor in the hospital, I see my task to be to help the “patient” recognize the extent of their illness or injury and how they might begin to be healed. And just like in a hospital, I can help to facilitate that healing, but it will be God and the sick person that actually do the healing.

A COUPLE OF OTHER SIMILARITIES JUMP OUT AT ME AS WELL… You see, in order to be treated in a hospital, a patient has to actually physically show up at the hospital. ALSO, the patient has to actually recognize and admit that they really are sick or wounded and in need of healing.

A patient healing in the hospital also has to allow, and participate with, the life sustaining and restoring remedies doled out by the physicians and therapists.

In short, the one in need of healing must be willing to be healed.

Without that initial desire to be healed, to be made whole, no healing can happen, no matter how open and welcoming the hospital is.

I find the same to be true in the church. The church has opened its doors and welcomed all to come in.

For the one who suffers because of their own sin, repentance and a willingness to change will be the starting point for healing.

For one who has suffered a woundedness through the sins of others, the healing process will be more complicated, yet still possible, as issues of justice and forgiveness are sorted out and resolved.

Either way, healing can be painful, and still requires a willing participation by the ‘patient.’ But without a recognition of the need for healing and a willingness to participate in the healing process, there is little the church really has to offer that one.

That doesn’t limit anyone’s coming to the church, any more than not admitting illness or injury block’s one from visiting a hospital. There just simply is no way for the hospital to treat a visitor with its healing remedies, because the hospital visitor doesn’t allow themselves to become a patient.

To be healed, requires participation, not visitation or spectatorship.

Likewise, in order to receive all that the church has to offer, we must participate, in the remedies of repentance and forgiveness, (Ps. 51: 16-17).

As a pastor then, like that doctor, I must recognize that sin is a reality and not turn a blind eye when I am aware of sin, whether it is done by, or to, one of the “patients” or in our case, one of the parishioners.

Now understand, there’s a stark warning goes hand in hand with this view though: if you do not like being around people who are sick or wounded, then you really should never plan on going to a hospital for any reason… or to a church for that matter.

For these are places where the ill and injured are not only welcome, but they are the very ones who are expected.

The very existence of the church, like the hospital, is designed for the weak to become strong, the wounded to become well, and the sick to be restored.

Hospitals are not associations of whole people trying to keep from being injured, weak, or sick, although there are ways the hospital can help facilitate those very activities after healing has begun.

In the same way, the church is not designed to be a place where “good people” avoid sin, sickness, and woundedness, although once healing has begun, the church can assist each other in remaining free from inflicting or receiving the negative effects caused by sin.

But rather, a hospital, and a church, are both designed as places where sick people go.

A further comparison is possible between the church and a hospital. In a hospital, because virtually all are there have something wrong with them, it is almost always a place where you can accidentally be infected with someone else’s sickness, and where the wounded become even more susceptible to developing illness along with their injury.

Staff and patients alike must be on guard against the further transmission of disease. The church as well, being filled with sinners, runs the risk of “rubbing off on someone else” with their particular sinful tendency, thus creating more sickness, hurt, or injury from within the very midst of the healing community we call the Church.

So what does that mean for us today?

It means that we have to be very intentional about our ministry… Our focus can never be just about details of worship services or particular programs… Our focus must always be experiencing God ourselves and helping others come to that place too… For that, my friends, is a place of healing.

It also means that church is “messy” sometimes…. Things don’t go as planned… just ask an emergency room nurse about how often things go as planned in an E.R… but by their very flexibility to help each person wherever they are, in whatever situation they are in, they are agents of healing…

Can we as the church, be that flexible? Can we meet people where they are… or must they line up with the way we want to do things? Can they come “Just as I am” like we’re always singing?

Ultimately, there is more to the church than just being like a hospital, but one of our traditions I’m told is to not have three hour worship services… so this is enough for this day. But on and off, as the Holy Spirit leads, we’ll be talking throughout this next year about God’s leading and God’s expectations for us as a church… and for every church. I haven’t been here long enough to know what does and doesn’t apply to us yet, so be assured I’m not throwing darts at anyone…

But it just seems fair from the very beginning of our time together that you know and understand that part of the vision and burden that the Lord’s placed in my heart, is to see the church as a place of healing where people are accepted and where all can encounter this Healing God we serve.

For that is WHAT the church is… people worshipping God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And as we do that, we will also find healing.

How do we make sure people see us as a place to find healing… rather than just a place to play softball or eat great food or to take care of kids?

How can we reach out and make everyone feel welcome here?

I believe it is by doing all of those other things WITH A HEART OF DRAWING PEOPLE INTO THE CHURCH ASSEMBLED SO THEY TOO CAN FIND THE HEALER.

Jesus offered healing… and people who needed healing came to him because they knew him… and people who needed healing knew him because he hung out with those people… And hanging out with Jesus as one of his followers was like being in a hospital emergency room… never predictable, never boring, always surrounded by the injured and the sick… the really, really sick…

And that’s what I believe we the church are to do in order to really be the church.

And that’s not just a preacher thing… any more than a hospital is just about one doctor… Rather, we all together, open our hearts, and our minds, and our doors to those who need Jesus… and in so doing we find ourselves welcoming those who need help and there’s room there for you and me as well in that group isn’t there?

WHAT is the church?

The church is a lot like a hospital!

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