Celebrating God’s Presence
Based on 2 Samuel 5:1-6, 6:1-5
I’ve been wondering how to define the word “church.” The dictionary definition is “a building used for Christian worship.” Or “a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrine.”
And the Urban Dictionary, my favorite, says that church means, “to strongly agree, as if it is law.” As in, “Wake Forest Baptist Church is awesome!” to which the reply is “Church!”
The Bible defines an ecclesia, or assembly, first, as the body of Christ, and it is often defined as a local assembly or group of believers. It is also referred to as the body of individual living believers and as the universal group of all people who have trusted Christ through the ages.
I don’t disagree with those definitions, but they leave me wanting. Frankly, it’s not enough to get me up every Sunday morning… It’s not enough to make me wake up everyday and be excited about coming to work. It’s not enough to put up with the difficult pieces of being church together. It’s not enough to drive me to do, give, and serve better.
In the days of my youth, church would have been defined as a community of people who share the same belief. But seriously. if that’s the definition, we’re in trouble. We’re Baptist, who by definition, have two sacraments: believers’ baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper. Who among us agrees on these two things? None of us!
Let’s look at our Bible text this week. It’s the story of David moving to Jerusalem, and ultimately, moving in the direction of building the Temple. Why not just stay in Hebron? Is God any more present in Jerusalem? Why build a building? Is God any less present in the trees and the sky and the Jordan River? Why battle the others for this move? This kingdom? This community?
Although the kingdom of David was impressive, it is the definition of messy. Throughout the entire narrative, you have a bad thing happen, then a good thing happen. David’s activities in 6:1-6 reflect David’s obedience and leadership, and yet, they are marred by battles against the Philistines, and a reminder of the constant military and religious threat that will plague Israel for years to come. The movement of the Ark of the Covenant is triumphant and yet in the next verses, we see the story of Uzzah, who reaches out to save the Ark and is struck dead.
It’s messy. As is the kingdom all through its life. Which makes it a perfect analogy for the life of church, because all of life in community is messy. But without community, life is ineffective, at best, and desolate at worst.
As I work towards defining church, I’d like to define it first, by what it provides.
Church provides healing:
Laurie Brock says:
We all have wounds on our souls. The metaphor of burns works for me. Life burns us. Our relationships burn us. Events burn us. Some of the burns are painful for a while, then heal fairly shortly. Some burns are deeper, those second degree fires that need more time and care to heal well, and the memory of the pain stays around for a bit.
Then we have the deep, scarring third degree burns from our encounters with others. Most of these soul burns occur on our young skin that hasn’t been exposed to life enough to have much of a defense to the scorching behavior of others. We carry these deep, traumatic soul burns with us until we find places or circumstances in our lives where we are called to face the uncomfortable healing process.
Healing comes through community, through sharing our hurts with others, though loving each other in spite of our aches.
Rozella Haydee White on twitter said, “church continues to love me back to life when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death with depression.”
Church transforms strangers into friends:
Ruth Everhart tells a story of visitors in her dwindling church, and how they impacted worship. She writes:
But for an hour, that Body of Christ was able to receive and give the peculiar kind of energy that comes when believers pause to consider scripture, and let the Spirit move between them. It’s the peculiar energy that transforms strangers into friends in Christ. Such a moment is not everything. It is maybe not enough. But it is something. It is worth pausing to notice. It reminds us why the church began in the first place. We are not just individual Christians trying to make it on our own. We are knit together by a peculiar energy into a larger Body, which has a power that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Church supports spirituality:
Jared Byas says on twitter, “Often, the church believes on my behalf. So, from the church I get belief when I can’t believe alone.”
Mihee Kim-Cort, a Presbyterian pastor, writes, “The church was given to us as a way to care for each other, a way to be a glimmering of heaven-on-earth and God’s kingdom-come, the church is meant to be food, meant to be breath, meant to be song.”
Church is not just about us, it’s about THEM.
You know, for me, the definition of church encompasses these things as we care for one another. But it also encompasses another thing as we care for the community around us. If you look really closely at the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, you find that God’s purpose for Israel was never about taking care of the people of Israel. Over and over again, Israel is meant to be a light unto the nations, a blessing to others, people who take care of the poor and needy.
And that is the image for church, too. When I think about the role of church in the world, the only thing that I know is that we’re to be working for justice, expanding the idea of the image of God in humanity, curing loneliness, helping others heal from trauma, loving our neighbors and our enemies.
God intends us to be a church for others. Did you hear that? God intends us to be a church for others. Yes, it’s important how we are with one another, but may be more important how we treat people in our community.
Because the church is not anything if it is not vital to the community around it.
So that’s my definition of church. Church is a group of people who are bound together by faith in God, as different as those faiths may be, who gather together to heal their hearts, transform their relationships with God and others, and care for the communities in which they live.
And from what I’ve been seeing, we certainly are a church together.
The best analogy I can find for church is our marching in the PRIDE parade. Walking down the street, holding a sign that says, “Wake Forest Baptist Church,” at that moment, I could see the vision of the Kingdom of God. Standing up for people who have been oppressed. Saying to others, “God loves you—all of you!” Making sure that LGBTQ people have equal rights and have a place at the Communion Table.
But not stopping with LGBTQ folks. Making sure that there are equal rights for all people. And especially, all of us who feel those first, second and third degree burns.
But I see it here, too, in our successes in the last year. Look at all we have accomplished. We have gotten through another time of defining our relationship with the University, we have moved our offices, successfully, across the road. We have changed some of the behaviors that were leading to conflict, the way we communicate and make decisions. We have celebrated new marriages. We have laid dear friends to rest. We have welcomed visitors, inviting them to the Table through the bread from the outreach committee. We have shared worship together, and watched as our worship volunteers have blossomed in their service. We’ve begun anew with our children, and they’re engaging with the Gospel in new ways. We have endured staff changes, and office changes. And we have increased our giving, both financially and service-wise, and we are meeting and exceeding our financial challenges.
It is now our time to “celebrate in the Lord’s presence with all our strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.” If you haven’t done it yet, please reach around and pat yourself on the back. You deserve it.
And let us take time to thank God, too, who has made it all possible.
But we’re not done yet. There is still much to do. David’s years in Israel as king were only the foundation for what was to come—new life through Jesus Christ. It was all ordained by God, carried by God, loved by God, fulfilled by God, and gathered by God. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We’ve only just begun.