During the course of this year in our sermons we are looking at some of the big questions of faith. Because today is a special day for Lexi and her family, as she is baptized and welcomed into the church family, I want us to explore the important question of ‘why bother with the church’ and in particular ‘is it possible to be a Christian & not go to church?
If you ask someone what they think of when you mention the word Church you find that they will come up with a variety of answers, and let’s be honest, not all of them are positive!
For example Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘If all the people who fell asleep in church on Sunday morning were laid out end to end . . . they would be a great deal more comfortable.’ Some people’s few of church can often be quite negative, although I often found this sort of few comes from people who themselves haven’t been to church for a long time.
Some associate the word ‘church’ with the clergy. Somebody who is entering the ordained ministry is said to be ‘going into the church’. There was an advert in the church press sometime ago which said: ‘Are you forty-five and getting nowhere? Why not consider the Christian ministry?’ Others associate the word ‘church’ with a particular denomination. While still others associate the word ‘church’ with church buildings. But for me the word church means something completely different. And this morning I want to share with you why the church is so important.
In the New Testament there are over 100 images or analogies of the church, and I want to look at just a few of these which are central to the understanding of the church.
The people of God
The church is the people of God. SHOW SLIDE 1 PETER 2:9-10 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
The Christian faith is all about relationships. The first part of that relationship is with God Himself, and the second part of that relationship is fellow Christians. We’re not just individuals, we’re a community – we are part of the vast universal church.
The universal church is all those who follow Jesus. Baptism is a visible mark of being a member of the church. It is also a visible sign of what it means to be a Christian. It signifies cleansing from sin, dying and rising with Christ to a new life, and the new life the Holy Spirit brings to our lives. Paul in his letter to the Romans says that if anyone is a Christian, you’re in Christ. Baptism is a picture of this. If you’re in Christ, whatever happened to Christ happened to you. So when Jesus died on the cross, you were there, you died. When Jesus was buried, you were buried with him. When Jesus rose from the dead, you rose with him to a new life. That’s what baptism signifies.
It is in the church that relationships are built, where friendships are made, and where people get to know one another. This happens particularly in small groups, where people gather together in homes to study the Bible together, pray, and support one another. As these relationships are built, trust develops, so that we can start to share what really matters in our lives, where we can ask people to pray for us, and where we can encourage and support one another.
It is within the church also that gifts and ministries can be exercised in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, where people are free to risk making mistakes.
It is also the place where we encounter God’s love and presence in a very real and profound way. There is something very special about worshipping God with other Christians. Some of my most powerful encounters with God have been whilst worshipping with other Christians in church.
The church isn’t a building, it is wherever the people of God get together - that’s the church.
The family of God
The church is also a family. When you become a Christian you join God’s family, the church. In John’s Gospel, the Apostle John writes “Yet to all who received him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
And being part of a larger family, means that we are called to fellowship with one another. Christian fellowship cuts across race, colour, education, background and every other cultural barrier. What I particularly love about the church, and St Martin’s in particularly, is that there is a level of friendship, love and support which is found here, and which I have not experienced outside the church.
Fellowship with other Christians is not an optional extra John Wesley said, ‘There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.’ The writer of Hebrews urges his readers, ‘Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing’ (Hebrews 10:24-25). The reason he said this is because we need each other. There are two things we simply cannot do alone. We cannot marry alone and we cannot be a Christian alone. Often Christians lose their love for the Lord and their enthusiasm for their faith because they neglect fellowship.
One man who found himself in this position was visited by a wise old Christian. They sat in front of the coal fire in the sitting room. The old man never spoke, but went to the coal fire and picked out a red-hot coal with some tongs and put it on the hearth. He still said nothing. In a few minutes the coal had lost its glow. Then he picked it up and put it back in the fire. After a short time it began to glow again. The old man still said nothing at all but, as he got up to leave, the other man knew exactly why he had lost his fervor – a Christian out of fellowship is like a coal out of the fire.
The body of Christ
Thirdly the church is the body of Christ. SHOW SLIDE 1 CORINTHIANS 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
The church is the body of Christ, you are the body of Christ. That means there is a unity, we’re all part of the same body. But it also means that there is diversity. Just as the human body has many different parts, hands, feet, ears, etc., so the body of Christ, the church, also has ‘many parts’ and they are all different with ‘different kinds of gifts’. There is great diversity within the church; but we are mutually dependent. For example, just as the eye can’t survive on it’s own, or the hand can’t survive on its own, all of us need each other.
Every Christian is a part of the church. John Wimber was once approached by a member of his congregation who had met somebody in great need. After the Sunday service this man told John Wimber of his frustration in trying to get help. ‘This man needed a place to stay, food and support while he gets on his feet and looks for a job,’ he said. ‘I am really frustrated. I tried telephoning the church office, but no one could see me and they couldn’t help me. I finally ended up having to let him stay with me for the week! Don’t you think the church should take care of people like this?’ John Wimber says he thought for a moment and then said, ‘It looks like the church did.’
People will make up their minds about Jesus through what they see of his body on earth. That’s why we have an important responsibility to represent Christ to the world. This is a major responsibility, as the prayer by Teresa of Avila reminds us:
Lord Christ, you have no body on earth but ours,
No hands but ours,
No feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which your compassion
Must look out on the world.
Ours are the feet by which you may still
Go about doing good.
Ours are the hands with which
You bless people now.
Bless our minds and bodies,
That we may be a blessing to others.
Bill Hybels, an influential American Church leader and author said this about the church. “I believe that the local church is the hope of the world. I believe to the core of my being that local churches have the potential to be the most influential force on planet earth. If they get it and get on with it, churches can become the redemptive centres that Jesus intended them to be. Dynamic teaching, creative worship, deep community, effective evangelism, and joyful service will combine to …strengthen families, transform communities and change the world”
So to go back to my original question, is it possible to be a Christian and not go to church? The answer is we don’t go to church, we are the church, and today as Lexi is baptized, my prayer is that she will come to know fully what it means to be part of God’s family the church.