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You can't go to church because you are the church

Our neighbor George recently commented that those who follow Jesus must make sure they understand the difference between "going to church" and the biblical concept of "being the church." Do you?

There is a radical distinction. The word "church" is generally seen even by believers as a noun.

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"Are you going to church this morning?" For them "church" simply becomes a building where faithful followers gather.

Rather, we need to see the word "church" as a verb. The religious definition of the Latin word "Ekklesia" refers to people as in "the people of God." In the Christian Scriptures it is recorded "once you were not a people but now you are God's people." (I Peter 2.9). Hymn writers Avery & Marsh said it well: "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people."

Before Jesus' followers built a building or established a denomination the church already existed. It existed in worship, ministry and mission. The followers of Jesus received many spiritual gifts and "Christians were expected to be endowed with them and to use them to benefit the whole church." (Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary).

In this Lenten season each one of us must ask and answer a serious question. Have we (I) watered down Jesus and his message to the point that his radical and rebel nature has vanished into a comfortable nonthreatening body of the faithful that we have redefined as "church"? In his Carroll County Times religion column last week, Jeffrey Peters wrote, "We must be careful to have true faith and not merely a decorative faith."

We need to ask ourselves, "Have I become too comfortable" in understanding the meaning of "church"? Author Mike Slaughter adds, "In the comfort of our well-appointed sanctuaries and the security of our doctrines we all too often forget that Jesus was a member of a marginalized and persecuted minority."

If Jesus had simply been a nice guy uttering the platitudes that people wanted to hear to make them feel good (comfortable) he could have avoided the cross. The religious professionals of his day considered him a threat because he had the authority they did not possess and the Roman government saw him and his movement as subversive because he did not accept the status quo.

He irritated those with possessions and money with his emphasis on the poor and outcasts and also those with social standing by associating and eating and drinking with the wrong people. He called his disciples to love and pray for their enemies (you have got to be kidding!) and reach out to the marginalized and the forgotten, which irritated many of the "good people" of his day (and our day as well).

He took exception to the "self-help" books on the market today which remind us to look out for ourselves first by clearly stating that he had come not to be served but to serve. And then he went a step further by inviting us to take up the basin and the towel and wash feet. He didn't promise his followers (disciples) a good retirement, only that they were to "take up their cross and follow him." Rather than turning to hateful and vengeful words when he was on the cross, he asked for forgiveness for those who were mocking and killing him.

We need to ask ourselves which Jesus do you follow? Do you follow the real Jesus who freely admitted to his disciples, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9.58) while at the same time he says, "Come, follow me!" This invitation comes from this often rebel Jesus and offers us a life that is full of God's joy and love that the world can never take away.

For many of us who are still simply "going to church," we are the ones who are in charge, not God. We decide whether we are going or not. Instead of truly offering worship, we want to know what we will get out of it. We are the ones who put something in the offering plate, evaluate the choir or the message and then leave to return to our normal life and proudly proclaim, "We went to church today."

In contrast if "I am the church," then I am responding not to my own desires but to the constant call of Jesus to come and follow me, maybe even risk myself in the process. Even more than simply following, we are invited to be disciples. Invited to sit around the bonfire with Jesus and other disciples having daily conversation with the living Lord. Invited to share a meal of bread and wine with him. Invited to pour out our frustrations and our hopes in the assurance that someone really cares. Invited to feel the power of the Spirit that energizes our lives and allows us to reach out to others.

Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis "Lou" Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.

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