Religion Beyond The Church Walls
What do you do as the scripture is being read during Sunday morning worship? Some people follow along in their own Bibles. Some people quickly tune out and let their minds wander. Some people try to pay attention but get bored or lost along the way. Others ask themselves: I wonder what kind of sermon the preacher is going to get out of this scripture text?
Ideally, of course, the reading of the scripture should be a high point in any service of worship. If you have ever attended worship in a temple or synagogue, you know that for Jews, the reading of scripture is regarded as a holy event. The scrolls containing the scriptures are priceless treasures. They are kept in expensively appointed protective cases, and then are brought out to the lecturn as part of the worship service. Some in the congregation will step forward and ritually kiss the scrolls during this time.
Why all the fuss? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, is the conviction that the scrolls contain the word of God and are therefore to be cherished, revered. In addition, the history of the Jewish people, an often violent and tragic history, contributed to the importance of the scriptures. Jews were forced to leave their homeland by the Romans, an exile that ended only after nearly 1,900 years had passed, with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947. During that exile, Jews were persecuted for their religion in nearly every country they went to, culminating in the holocaust unleashed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Because they had no homeland, because their places of worship were often desecrated or destroyed, Jews clung to the one thing that they could carry with them wherever they went: the holy books. Small wonder that the reading from the scriptures is such an important part of Jewish worship.
By contrast, we Christians often assume a "ho hum" attitude when the scriptures are read in worship. Most of us have heard the words so often, we assume they contain nothing more of interest. We are respectful, of course; we don't talk out loud when they are read; we may even try to pay attention. We know that reading from the Bible is something that must be done in worship (at least the preachers seem to think so), so we tolerate it. But mostly, I think, people are eager for the scripture reading to get out of the way so we can get on with the rest of the service.
Maybe that's the way it was on that momentous day when Jesus came back to his home town Nazareth and went to the synagogue to worship. It was his first time home after his baptism by John and after his temptation in the wilderness. The word had started getting out about what he was up to. He had begun teaching in the synagogues of neighboring towns, and people were excited by what they heard. He was making a name for himself. Now he was back in the synagogue he had always attended as a boy and as a young man.
Synagogue worship in the time of Jesus was a somewhat informal affair. The service consisted of prayers, reading of scripture, comments by one or more adult males of the congregation, and alms for the poor. There were no official "ministers"; an invitation to read and speak could be extended by the elders to anyone they chose. It was customary for the reader to stand when he read the scripture and to sit when he gave his commentary or sermon.
Luke's Gospel tells us that when Jesus stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where these words are written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Lk 4:18-19)
I don't know what the people in the synagogue were doing when Jesus read those words. Maybe some of them quickly tuned out. Their eyes glazed over and their minds wandered; they had heard these words from Isaiah many times before. Maybe some of the listeners tried to pay attention, but got bored or lost along the way. Maybe some of them wondered what Jesus was going to say about them during his sermon.
But regardless of how the congregation listened to the scripture, it was what happened next that got everyone's attention. Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down. Then, as Luke tells it, "the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him." It was that hush, that pregnant pause, that silent shiver of excitement, which comes when the orchestra conductor raises the baton, when the batter stands waiting for the first pitch of the big game, when the renowned speaker snaps on the light at the lectern. You can almost sense the people leaning forward in expectancy.
Jesus looked out at the waiting congregation, no doubt waited a beat or two, and then said what none of them could ever have guessed he would say: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
These days a lot of time and energy is spent in church life dealing with questions, questions like: what is the nature of the church? How should the church be organized? How shall the church train its leaders? what is an appropriate way for the church to support itself financially?
Questions about the church. They are legitimate questions, appropriate questions for those of us in the church to keep raising and struggling to answer. But did you notice that all these questions about the church are institutional questions? That is, they focus our attention on the existence of an organization. They aren't really questions of faith as much as they are questions about an institution, about its well-being, its survival.
What I'm about to say could get me in trouble with some Christian believers, especially those in high places. But, as I see it, Jesus never set out to be the founder of an institution, much less the founder of a religion. Anyone who claims to know exactly what Jesus intended is a charlatan, of course. But as I read the evidence in the gospels, it seems clear to me that Jesus understood himself as called by the Spirit of God to initiate what he himself called the kingdom of God, the reign of God.
That's what he meant when he announced to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth that the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled "today." It is coming to pass now, said Jesus. As the Gospel writer Mark records it, the essence of Jesus' preaching was contained in short statement. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mk 1:15).
The mission that Jesus set out upon was an active, dynamic, disturbing mission defined by Isaiah: to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. Jesus did not say: what I want to do is establish an institution that will elect bishops, erect buildings to worship in, hold conferences, and have meetings where people squabble about the budget. Instead he outlined his understanding of a holy movement of justice and freedom, called the kingdom of God.
I like what Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff offers as a description of the church. The church, he says, is that part of the world that, in the strength of the Spirit, has accepted God's kingdom made explicit in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of the church, in service to the world, is to preserve the constant memory of the kingdom, to celebrate the kingdom's presence in the world, and to shape the way the kingdom is proclaimed.1
In this definition, the emphasis is on action, not on organization. The church is a movement rather than an institution. By this definition, when the church gathers for worship and for fellowship, the aim is not to make its members feel good but to equip them for putting into visible form the kingdom of God in their daily lives.
I have spent nearly all my working life in the church, bearing at least some responsibility for the way it is organized, helping it grow and remain strong, training its members to work together on committees and boards, helping to raise funds, doing many other things that have to do with institutional life. There have been lots of joys and frustrations in the nearly 25 years I've been doing this work. I have loved the church, and I have been committed to it, and I believe in it.
But sometimes, I confess, I've been guilty of thinking that the church is the essence of the whole thing. Because so much of my time and energy have gone into the church, I sometimes forget that what really matters is the gospel itself, the good news of God's kingdom made explicit in Jesus the Christ, the one who said, "the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me."
The church does not exist for itself. Whenever we in the church get so caught up in maintaining, preserving, or expanding the church for its own sake, we betray the Christ whom we say we love and serve. This is especially dangerous because many people, even church people, think of religion and the church as a leisure time activity. Religion and church are something you do in your spare time, your personal, private time. Most church activities, for example, take place on the weekend, which for most Americans is leisure time.
In some ways the early Christians had an advantage over us. They met for worship on a work day, on the first day of the week, at sunrise, before they headed off to their jobs. It was on the first day of the week that their Lord had risen from the tomb, not on a holy day, but on an ordinary day of earning daily bread. The first Christians understood that faith must inform every part of life, not just what they said and did when they enjoyed worship and fellowship with other Christian believers.
In the same way, you and I must understand God's kingdom is not limited to our private lives. And we must understand as well that true religion goes beyond the walls of this building. God is at work in the church, yes; but God is also at work in the world. When Jesus declared his mission in that synagogue at Nazareth, he was addressing all the ills that plague humanity. When we pledge our lives to him and his way, we commit ourselves to confronting the great issues of our time: poverty, disease, war, political freedom, racial and ethnic hatreds, the survival of the planet.
At its best, the church helps us recognize that all of life is holy, not just what happens when we gather to sing hymns, to pray, to hear the scriptures read. In fact, worship should prepare us to carry out faith out into the marketplace, the world of work and commerce and education and family life. Yes, it is appropriate to come to Sunday school and worship to have your spirits lifted and strengthened. But not lifted and strengthened for your own sake, but for the sake of the world God so loved that God sent Jesus the Christ.
What comes at the close of worship? It's a blessing; we call it the benediction. In some ways it's the most important moment in worship, as the people are sent forth to the world with God's blessing granted to them. Frequently, the benediction is phrased in terms of a charge, an order: "Go!"; and then a blessing is given: "and God's peace go with you."
An old story is told about a man who came to a Quaker meeting and was puzzled because everyone was just sitting there in silence. After waiting patiently for a long time for something to happen, he finally whispered to the person sitting next to him: "When does the service begin?" The answer came back: "When we leave."
It's still true. Our service begins when we leave these walls and take with us the reality of God's Kingdom as Jesus taught it and lived it. We go, and his spirit goes with us.
Kenneth Gibble Arlington, VA
1. Cited in Alfred Krass, "Marketplace or Mission? The Church as a Sign of the Kingdom," The Other Side, April, 1986, p. 62.
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