Sunday, April 13, 2008

April 13, 2008, Sermon: The Church is the Body of Christ

Sermon for the third Sunday after Easter, April 13, 2008, by the Reverend Ernestein Flemister.

Last week, an article appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer entitled “Church closes after 139 years.” It went on to say, “Say a prayer for St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church. But not inside the 139-year-old landmark. The church closed Easter Sunday.”

The article quotes the Sr. Warden and Deacon who were obviously very hurt and angry; their remarks reflected their anger. The deacon is quoted as saying, “We should have been smiling and rejoicing and exclaiming, ‘He hath risen!” Instead, the service was as solemn as the funeral of a child.”

The article then says, “Officials with the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio attribute the closing to declining attendance. “That’s the main reason,” said the Rt. Rev. Thomas Breidenthal, diocesan bishop. Only 16 households regularly put money in the offering plate.”

It then states that closing churches runs counter to a policy established by the late Rt. Rev. Herbert Thompson, who said in a 1996 speech, “To the suggestion of closing churches, we must ask: is there no more work to do for Christ here?”

A quote from Bishop Breidenthal follows. “This is not my policy. Parishes will be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”

Even though the church no longer holds services, the soup kitchen and the nurse will remain active to minister to the needs of the people of Avondale. The nurse is quoted as saying that “The closing is an abuse of power.” The head of the soup kitchen says, “Closing a church is a sin, god calls us to serve. He calls us to pray, too, but where? I don’t want to go anywhere else to worship. The sanctuary light over the altar was extinguished – that candle’s flames stands for the life of Christ, but when you close a church, the Lord’s light goes out.”

Bishop Breidenthal in an op-ed article later in the week said, “As some know, the Parish of St. Michael & All Angels has been closed, owing to dwindling numbers. This is understandably a sad time for those who are losing their accustomed weekly gathering for worship in a place they love. But this is not the whole story. The Episcopal Church is not leaving Avondale. On the contrary, we are convinced that now, more than ever, we are called to stand with those who seek peace and justice and the possibility of common life in the inner city. God has provided us in St. Michael’s with a strategic location for such a ministry, and we intend to move forward as quickly as possible to make this a reality.”

I have quoted extensively from parishioners of St. Michael and All Angels to give a sense of their hurt and anger.

This morning, I want to talk about their remarks within the context of our Gospel reading, the familiar story of the road to Emmaus.

Two of the disciples were talking about the events of the past week, when Jesus joins them on the trip. Our gospel says, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

Jesus asks them what they’re talking about and they respond by saying to him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

In other words, "What rock have you been hiding under that you don’t know what happened with the arrest, trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth!" They describe Jesus as, “A prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”  They go on further to say that they had hoped that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel.”

They then tell him their version of the story of the women’s visit to the tomb on the morning after: “They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.”

After they tell their story, Jesus chides and teaches them by saying, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

After all this, the two disciples still do not recognize him. As they came near to Emmaus, Jesus is about to leave them when they invite him to spend the evening with them. They sit down at the table and Jesus “Took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

Finally, finally, they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

The Book of Common Prayer describes the Holy Eucharist, the breaking of the bread as the principal act of Christian worship. In this act of worship, we are all welcome to the table of the lord as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where we will all be received regardless of race, creed, color and economic status. This bread that we break every Sunday is meant to encourage and strengthen us to go out into the world and serve. In the breaking of the break, barriers and walls are destroyed. The bread that we break can be broken in churches big and small, in villages, in hospitals, in prisons--it can be broken anywhere.

So why do we get so attached to our buildings, the physical structures where we worship? The actual mission and work of the church often happens outside the four walls.

The good people of St. Michael and All Angels are understandably angry and hurt, but the opinion of the one person that the light of Christ goes out when a church is closed is incorrect. While I understand their anger at having to leave their familiar, comfortable and secure worship space, we can in actually worship anywhere. God is not attached to a building or structure. We choose to worship at “our” church. We suffer from building lust when we make worship and church all about the building. The physical structure is not the Church, we are the Church. The light of Christ never goes out when a church is closed; the body of Christ never closes.

The word translated “church” in the English bible is ekklesia. This word is the Greek words kaleo (to call), with the prefix ek (out). Thus, the word means “the called-out ones.” A more accurate translation would be “assembly” because the term ekklesia was used to refer to a group of people who had been called out to a meeting. It was also used as a synonym for the word synagogue, which also means to “come together,” i.e. a gathering.

Since believers have been united with Christ through spiritual baptism, they are sometimes corporately referred to as the Body of Christ.” (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:11,13,18,27; Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:30) The idea seems to be that the group of Christians in the world constitute the physical representation of Christ on earth. It is also a metaphor which demonstrates the interdependence of members in the Church, while at the same time demonstrating their diversity from one another. (Rom. 12:4; 1 Cor. 12:14-17)

When the anger and hurt subside, and the air clears I hope that the former members of St. Michael and All Angels and we will recognize that the mission and work of God still goes on at St. Michael and All Angels; that the bread is still being broken and can be broken anywhere. The care and feeding of those in need breaks down barriers--all are welcome to God’s table.

Sometimes we have to sacrifice our comfort to do God’s work. We need to recognize that God is moving and working even in our hurt and anger; remolding and reshaping the light within us, calling us out to break bread in the world. We sometimes need to be reminded that it is God’s mission, not ours.

We all travel the road to Emmaus. When do we recognize Jesus? Do we recognize Jesus only at our table?

Our collect for the day says, “O god, whose blessed son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.”

God’s mission and redeeming work can be carried out anywhere. Let us not limit God’s mission to the four walls of churches. I ask that we keep the people of St. Michael and All Angels in our prayers at this time when they are angry and hurting. I also ask that we reach out to and minister to them; inviting them to be open to god’s voice in the chaos that they are experiencing.


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