What makes a church?
Ten or so years ago I was a member of a group that met one Friday evening each month for worship, a meal, and a program. I was excited to attend one particular program, which was to be by a young artist and lay theologian who was acclaimed in both fields. The man had just painted his dream, his vision, of the Archangel Raphael. For those who might not know, in both the Judaic and Christian traditions, Raphael is God’s angel—God’s agent—of healing.
Apparently a lot of other people were excited, too. The worship service and parish hall were jammed with folks, all quite eager to hear about and see God’s angel of healing. I’ll never forget what happened: The man stood up, read the same passage from Isaiah 61 that Jesus read in our gospel lesson for today. Like Jesus, this man then sat down and announced that this scripture had been fulfilled in our presence, that very day.
There was a stunned silence in the room. We waited for the man to stand up and present his program. But he didn’t get up. I understood that we each were to be the Archangel Raphael, but I was miffed. Who did HE think HE was, Jesus?
I have told you this story because I admit that I was tempted to read today’s gospel, sit down, and declare that Jesus’ mission statement has been fulfilled today, in your presence. ALL that we have to do to be a church, according to our gospel lesson, is to adopt Jesus’ mission statement by instituting a whole new economic system for our country and our planet, an economic system that liberates the poor from the bondage of our own personal socio-economic oppression.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t know quite how to tackle this topic, not without getting run out of town. So I turned to our Old Testament lesson to discover what Nehemiah has to tell us. I want to warn you now that when all is said and done, you may wish I had stuck with the gospel lesson. Because Nehemiah tells us is what is really important about worship, tells us what makes a church. I’ll give you some hints now: what makes a church is NOT the building, is NOT the form of the liturgy, is NOT the music, and is NOT (I’m very sorry to add) the sermon.
Just before our Nehemiah passage begins today, the third—the last—batch of Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon to Judea. What they found was not at all the home that they had remembered during their long captivity. This wasn’t the “good old days.” What they found was a place still pretty much in ruins; poverty abounded. The people in the old homeland had intermarried, and their cultural and spiritual identity was not well evident. In fact, the “new” Temple wasn’t at all the “old” Temple, and their physical safety was in jeopardy because the wall around the city was still in ruins.
However, the people who had returned from exile had some triumphs that they brought home with them, some triumphs on which they could draw—some triumphs which could be helpful for us to note. These people had continued to worship God in Babylon. They had become closer to God during their exile, and had managed to keep intact their identity as a people. In fact, the Israelites would draw on this capacity over and over throughout their history, with the trial of exile having further forged into steel their identity as God’s people. The people knew how to worship God—even had learned how to worship God outside of a Temple, outside of a church building, even without having the Torah available to them. And somehow—we don’t know how—Ezra, the scribe, had a copy of the Torah with him when he returned from Babylon.
So what happened when these people arrived in Judea? With Ezra’s help, Nehemiah got them to rebuild the city wall. This was a monumental task but, working together, the people accomplished this feat in just 52 days. Fifty-two days from today, in case you are wondering, in case we need to do something as monumental, is March 20.
After the wall had been completed, Nehemiah called the people together—and this is where our lesson for today begins. Nehemiah called the people together, not to impose his judgment upon them, or even to praise them for their hard work. Instead, he came to serve their will. Now this part is interesting, because Nehemiah had been a “cup bearer” in Babylon, a functionary who tested the king’s drink for poison. So what did Nehemiah know about leading? And yet, Nehemiah was now the emperor’s administrator in the region, and Nehemiah asked the people what they would have him do for them. Surely it was God who led Nehemiah to ask the people what was their will and taught him how to lead.
God must have been working on the people, as well. What the people requested was a worship service. The people asked that God’s Word, the Torah, be read and interpreted for them. This wouldn’t be yet another house meeting, another cell-group worship service A LA BABYLON. No, this gathering would be the first we know of for three generations where the whole community of God’s people came together as a people—in Zion, God’s city—to worship God. But not like they had done before; something new was at work here.
Did you notice that this worship service was not in the Temple? This is important, because not everyone was ritually clean enough to enter the Temple. So Nehemiah and Ezra gathered the people together outside the temple, every last man, woman, and child who was old enough to understand. This was a huge miracle back then, long before inclusion was a church byword. Nehemiah tells us that monumental tasks take the whole community to accomplish.
Did you notice that the impoverished newly-returned exiles had everything that they needed to complete the task that God had given them to do? Maybe the people themselves didn’t realize that they had everything they needed, but we can see this to be the case. This is because, when God calls someone to do something, he gives those he calls every single thing they need to do what God has called them to do. In this case, the people had their leaders (Ezra the scribe-now-turned-priest and Nehemiah the cupbearer-now-turned leader). The people had had the will to complete that wall in only 52 days—biblical historians tell us that those who worked on the wall held tools in one hand, and a weapon in their other. Those people had the resources among them to build that wall and, eventually, to restore their identity as people who worshiped God in the world. As Ezra opened the Torah above the people, the people rose as one and stood for the whole six hours that was required to read and explain the history of God at work in our world.
This was a God-moment. When the people heard God’s Word read, they were reminded of their identity as God’s people. When they heard how God had saved them in the past, they began to weep. This was the Spirit of contrition, the Spirit of repentance, the Spirit of solidarity with each other and with God.
In the end, we can see that what happened on that day so long ago, in the square inside the newly-restored Water Gate, the people made a new Covenant with God. Well, they didn’t actually make a NEW Covenant, so much as renew the old one, the one that they had all-but-forgotten. Ezra told the people, “…do not mourn or weep … go your way [and give of what you have to those in need].”
Nehemiah is suggesting that what makes a church is this covenant we have with each other and with God, to be God’s people together. But Nehemiah also tells us that we do not exist as a people of God just to meet our own spiritual needs, but to meet the needs of others. Another way of saying this is that what makes a church is the collective will to be a church, and the willingness to give of what we have to others.
We have this passage from Nehemiah TODAY, on this the first Sunday after our congregational Re-Visioning effort has begun. I do not believe that this is mere coincidence.
- Could God have given us our Old Testament lesson so that we would ask ourselves how WE are like those Judeans long ago who were searching anew for their identity as a people of God?
- Could God have given us this passage to remind us that, despite what we see when we look at our budget, God gives his people every single thing they need to do what God calls them to do?
- And could God have given us our GOSPEL lesson today to reinforce Ezra’s point that, when all is said and done, worship that makes us feel good is simply not enough, unless that worship also impels us to carry out Jesus’ messianic mission in our world?