The Church Is So Much More Than That
St. Philip Lutheran Church
13 November 2022 + Lectionary 33c
Rev. Josh Evans
295. That’s the number of photos I took of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City just over five years ago.
0. That’s the number of photos of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine I ever looked at again, edited on my computer, posted to social media, or had any prints made of.
Whenever I’m on vacation or visiting a new city or town, I have a reputation for being drawn to cathedrals and churches. I also have a reputation for taking far too many photos of said cathedrals and churches that end up living the rest of their digital lives in the isolation of my computer or memory card.
But who could blame me? Standing in the presence of these holy places is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Of course I want to capture these moments: their magnificent architecture, brilliant stained glass windows, towering ceilings, and, of course, their rich history.
I have stood near the pew where George Washington once worshiped in King’s Chapel in Boston, and I have prayed in San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe, the oldest church in the continental United States. I’ve toured religious landmarks from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston to historic Spanish missions in southern California.
In 2019, I also watched in horror with the rest of the world as the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was engulfed in flames. While that particular cathedral is one I had never been to myself, I still grieved the loss of history – a structure dating back to the 12th century when construction began. As local authorities struggled to control the blaze, the rest of us looked on helplessly.
That’s the thing about buildings: Despite our best preservation efforts, they won’t last forever. And, sometimes, fire or natural disaster tragically cuts their lifespan short.
St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fort Myers Beach, a worshiping community in the Florida-Bahamas Synod, a companion synod for those of us in Metro Chicago, is one such example. St. Peter’s building suffered devastating damage in the wake of Hurricane Ian, just over a month ago.
All of which, I think, helps us to better understand the disciples’ shock at Jesus’s words that their temple – their grand and holy place “adorned with beautiful stones,” and the epicenter of God’s presence for the Jewish people – would be destroyed: “Not one stone will be left upon another.”
For Luke and his hearers, though, these words were not exactly a foretelling of things to come. For those who wrote and heard these words, the temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed, and those who saw it happen were living not with fearful anticipation but with heavy grief, looking at the rubble around them. What now?
Do not be terrified. Yes, you will be betrayed by relatives and friends. Yes, people might even hate you. But: not a hair of your head will perish.
Jesus speaks a word of promise.
The people will endure.
Amid war and violence, earthquakes and famines and plagues, betrayal and persecution, destruction and devastation – amid all these things – the people will endure. Because God’s presence and faithfulness is so much bigger than any one holy place.
Our buildings are beautiful and filled with great meaning and memory. They are really good and useful places for gathering for worship, for distributing clothes to our neighbors in need, and for providing space for our siblings in recovery to meet.
But our buildings are never the most important thing. The church is so much more than that.
The church is not a building. The church is the people: “the assembly of all believers and saints,” as the Lutheran reformers put it (AC, VIII).
The church is the people who assemble for worship, whether in sanctuaries, in parking lots, or on Zoom.
The church is the people who sign up to give rides or deliver home-cooked meals to members who are in need.
The church is the people who pray with and for one another and console each other in times of grief.
The church is the people who come together across four congregations in a local park to assemble nearly one thousand personal care kits for the Night Ministry.
The church at its best goes beyond the walls of its buildings because the church is so much more than even four buildings.
The church is so much more.
The church is people caring for people, St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians.
It’s important that we don’t misread Paul’s words as a lack of concern or blatant disregard for those who cannot work or struggle to support themselves or their families with the work they do have. Those are not the circumstances Paul is addressing – and that’s another sermon entirely.
Instead, Paul is writing to a church community that so deeply believed Christ’s return was imminent that they had given up working altogether. The problem with that, though, is that the whole community suffered.
We know from descriptions of the early church that the believers “had all things in common” and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2.44-45). There was a sense of common purpose for the common good that required the whole community to be on board.
The church, as young as it was, had always existed from its inception as a community that worked together for the common welfare and mutual care of all its members.
This, Paul urges the Thessalonians (and us) to remember, is more important than worrying about things over which they had no control, like Christ’s return. And, in case we missed it, there is also not a single mention of a building – or a property committee!
The church is so much bigger than any building or place because the church is so much more than that.
To be clear, this is not meant to minimize the very real grief felt by congregations whose buildings are lost to fire or storm damage. It’s also not meant to minimize the grief experienced by congregations that make the hard but faithful decision to sell their historic buildings in order to continue embodying their gospel mission in new ways and places. And it’s certainly not meant to diminish the good and important ministry of those of us with buildings, full of meaning and memory.
But this does remind us that we are, ultimately, more than these things – and that if or when these things come to an end, there is hope beyond the loss … new life beyond death, promise beyond despair, joy beyond mourning.
For the faithful people of God, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and God’s faithful people will go out leaping like calves from the stall.
The church will outlast any building, no matter how grand or historic – and no matter how many photos we take of it.
The church will endure
because it is God’s church,
and because God,
and loving mercy endure,
has promised that
God’s people will endure.
Thanks be to God.