March 19, 2014

What's the Church?

At Southside Abbey, we handle sermons a little differently. They are more like conversations born from questions posed to the community at worship. People break into small groups, discussing the readings and responding to these questions. The groups share that work and I (or whoever else is preaching) add a capstone “homilette,” often jettisoning what I have prepared for the week in favor of what the groups have lifted up.

This last week's readings contained perhaps the most well-known verse from the entirety of Holy Scripture: John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But neither Jesus, nor the lectionary stop there. We also get John 3:17, the “two” of the “one, two punch” of these verses. Jesus continues, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In the South, we hear and see (on t-shirts, bumper-stickers, etc.) much attention paid to John 3:16 – particularly the phrase “eternal life” – with virtually no attention paid to Jesus' non-condemnation bit. The question that spurred our Friday night discussion in light of these two verses was: “What does God saving the world through Jesus look like?”

Our Friday evening community at worship is wonderfully diverse – across most demographics one might imagine. We worship with believers, [as-of-now] non-believers, homeless, multi-millionaires, those in transitional housing, those with ancestral homes, gay, straight, those who don't want to label themselves, immigrants from Sudan, Ethiopia, the West Indies, Guatemala, El Salvador, Russia, and some I'm still not entirely sure about, those of African descent, those of Indo-European descent, those with Cherokee ancestry (despite Chattanooga's bloody history), the illiterate, students, PhDs, babies, children, youth, young adults, families of all types, retirees, octogenarians, those differently-abled, and the list could go on. Friday nights approach what Tutu calls, the “Rainbow People of God.” With all this diversity, we never know what we are going to hear when we open the discussion. It is often astonishing, as it was last Friday.

What does God saving the world through Jesus look like? This was our question. After a few self-congratulatory remarks (which don't get us very deep or helpful places), an African American homeless man raised his hand and said something like this: “We're the body of Christ, right? Doesn't that mean that God is saving the world through us? I mean, look at this gathering. I'm a black, homeless cook – and what do you do ma'am? You're a zookeeper, right? How would a black, homeless cook and a zookeeper ever meet each other. We come around this table to share a meal and talk about Jesus? That's it. That's the Church.”

That's it. That's the Church.