We make a lot of assumptions. I’m not sure if we are always aware of how many assumptions we make on a regular basis.
We assume people know what we are talking about when we share about something we are interested in. We believe everyone is aware of the background when we talk about a past moment or a reality that defines who we are or, even, our connections with one another. We believe everyone is on the same page, so we don’t take the time to define the background or to give the information that people need to truly make people aware of what we are talking about.
If we do this in our conversations with one another, imagine how much we do this within the church? Have you ever noticed how many assumptions we make about our shared life with one another. We drop more acronyms than I care to admit and assume everyone knows that UMCOM is United Methodist Communications or SPRC means Staff-Parish Relations Committee.
More than that, we’ll assume that people understand what different areas of the church mean or represent. We put out a green cloth on the altar and expect everyone to know what the color signifies. Quick question: Do you know why we have a green color on the altar table? It’s not a trick question. The green symbolizes creation and recognizes how we are called to live for Christ in the ordinary moments of life.
We don’t give a lot of attention to these things in our shared connection. Perhaps we should focus time on explaining these things. Maybe, though, that just scratches the surface of a deeper conversation about assumptions in our shared connection that we need to have with one another. How much time do we really spend talking about what the church is all about?
Don’t get me wrong, we spend plenty of time talking about the church in different context. We’ll talk about the church as a mission. We’ll talk about the church as a family. We’ll talk about the church as a place of discipleship. In many of our expressions about church, we veer upon an understanding that could be, at best, described as a voluntary organization of like-minded Christians who have gathered together.
Is that really what church is all about? To be frank, this is how I often have heard church described in conversations and in actions. We see church as a come-or-go thing or an event. Maybe this is why we have spent a lot of energy during this pandemic arguing over whether the church has been closed or not. Obviously, as you can see, the church building is closed. We’re outside and online. But, has the church been closed during these last five months? We’ll shout off a slogan that the church is open or, even, deployed, but even then that doesn’t really get to the heart of what the church is all about.
Maybe, just maybe, we need to reset our conversation about the church. As we prepare to resume in person activities in a few weeks, perhaps in this time we need to wrestle with the very nature of what the church is all about. Perhaps even do so through the lens of the conversation Jesus has with the disciples at Caesarea Philippi.
It is there where Jesus talks about the church for one of only two times in the gospels. Matthew is the only gospel writer who uses the Greek word ekklesia, which is where we get our understanding of church as an assembly of Christ followers. Two places, this passage and Matthew 18:17, cast a vision for what Christ is preparing to usher in and Paul will expound upon as the living expression of the resurrection and ascension.
This all takes place among a rocky area that was believed to be the gates of hell. That was what some Jews believed was this place that had a cave once used for the worship of Pan and other false gods. It had even been a place that was established as a temple for Caesar Augustus. This place, north of the Sea of Galilee and close to where Jesus would be transfigured in front of his inner circle of disciples, became a place where Jesus would not only seek to discern what the disciples understood of him, but also to lay the foundation for what was to come through the resurrection and ascension.
It begins as Jesus asks the disciples some questions. Who do the people say the Son of Man is? Now, the phrase Son of Man is one Jesus uses to describe himself. In a way, Jesus is asking the disciples what the crowds are saying about him. Through all their answers, it is clear the disciples believe the crowds see Jesus as a prophet sent by God.
But, who do you think I am? That next question is not one Jesus poses about the crowd’s response, but gets to the heart of who the disciples understand that he is. It is Peter, the spokesperson for the group, who utters that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter makes a foundational faith statement about who Jesus is, and says he is God. The long-expected anointed one who had come to redeem the people and usher in God’s kingdom. We could get into a longer discussion about what Peter may or may not have thought about this expectation, but he is clear that he believes Jesus is the One.
This is what Jesus was looking for out of the disciples. For them to see, and us as well, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the long-expected lord of all. He uses this moment to express what this means. It becomes the foundational statement that will lead to the establishment of the church. The church as the ongoing witness of Jesus Christ built upon the foundation of and centered upon Christ as the Son of God. Jesus will build his church — his family — upon the foundation Peter makes and others who follow after him will make of Jesus is the Lord God.
Everything about the church will be built upon the rock foundation of this statement. The church is not established as a social club or a volunteer organization that becomes something like an optional aspect of our life. The church is not established as a political entity to give voice and power to the partisan whims of our time. The church is not established to be a business venture or an institutional structure. The church is established as the living, breathing, life-giving witness of Jesus Christ.
When we make the affirmation of who Jesus is as the Son of God, we become part of Christ’s holy universal church. This is not optional. Church is not optional. Church is who we are as a connection into Christ’s name and life. Church is what we are and what we become not as an institution, but as a connection into the very nature of Christ.
The church, then, as the living breathing witness of Christ will never falter. Jesus, standing at the rock that the people believed was gates of hell, used it as the symbolic launching point to express how nothing — not even hell and death — can topple the church. That is because the church is the witness of Christ, and Christ is victorious and powerful over death and anything that would seek to limit the witness.
Nothing can stop the church. The pandemic has never closed us. The church has never been closed in this time. Maybe our idea of what the church is, and, perhaps, that is a good thing that can come out of this time. If the church is built upon Christ and is the living expression of Christ, then it can never be closed. It is ongoing, through pandemics, through injustice, through difficult season, and all other obstacles. What we think closes the church, only seeks to show how Christ’s witness perseveres.
Yet, perhaps that perseverance of Christ’s witness should remind us that what we do here and say here matters eternally. Christ gives Peter, and all who would follow him, the authority to set into practice what would be expected of those who make the foundational statement about Christ. It is our responsibility, and we must take it seriously, to discern what it means to live for Christ and to be part of the Church. Those actions and beliefs can never be in violation of God’s law and love or outside the interpretation of Jesus. It must be within those guideposts.
Everything we do, then, as the church must be based in Christ. The actions we take, as a community, must be guided in prayer and a desire to follow the Lord. The missions we undertake must be based in a desire to give witness to Christ. We raise the bar, not lower it, on what is expected of one another, because we desire all to take this life seriously and to live as the church not just when it is convenient or the time is right, but in every moment of our lives. Because if we claim Christ as Lord, then we are the church and part of the church in everything that we do and everywhere we go.
Maybe as we continue to be outside our church building waiting for the moment to resume in-person worship — and it is coming soon — we need to spend this time contemplating what it means for us to be part of the church.
How are we living out our foundational statement of Jesus is Lord?
Is everything that we do seeking to give witness and expression to the fact that in all things there is Christ?
Does every decision, action, and word we speak as a church seek to give honor and glory to Christ?
Are we being the church as Christ desires?
My hope is that we will live with the principle that our foundation is in Christ, and in Christ alone.