Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
The timing of our holiday comes from the date that Luther first nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. October 31st, 1517 was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, but it was not the end. Through the centuries, God has been continuing to reform the whole Church: Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox.
And we need it. The dawning of the Information Age has brought with it the need for a new way to understand the role of the Church in the world. Congregations are no longer the center of people’s communities that they used to be, and religious adherence no longer confers the social benefit it used to. The Church has increasingly become portrayed in the culture as out of step, anti-individual and anti-intellectual, a superstitious holdover from a more naïve time.
For decades, people have been asking that question. Libraries of books have been published, seas of ink spilled, terabytes of blog posts written about what the Church needs to be doing or saying or being in order to attract new people. It’s about the music we sing, or the words we use, or the programs we do, or the worship experience we offer. It’s about how we welcome guests, or treat children, or care for each other, or share invite our neighbors to worship.
In reality, it probably has to do with a lot of those things, but ultimately, it’s about none of them. None of those things are what we are here to do; they are just how we do it. The value of the Church is not in being “the Church,” but in doing what it was created to do, to fulfill its mission.
Let me tell you a little parable. Once upon a time, in a village situated upon a dangerous coastline, the hidden rocks and treacherous shoals wrecked ships and claimed the lives of hundreds of sailors every year. Being a kind-hearted and caring people, citizens of the village got together and formed a rescue society whose job it was to save the lives of sailors tossed in the waves and bring them to shore.
At first, they simply operated lookout stations to watch for people in the water and had boats at the ready to rescue them. Eventually, they began piloting ships through safe passages. They surveyed the submerged hazards, then printed and distributed charts to help captains navigate the waters. They even built and manned a lighthouse to assist in navigation.
They raised funds with spaghetti dinners and silent auctions; they went to neighboring towns and villages asking for donations; they hosted wonderful dances and carnivals and raffles that not only supported their work, they also brought the community together. They were able to build a lovely meeting hall to host these functions, elect a board of directors and a chairman to oversee the operations, and hire staff to manage the day-to-day business.
Over the years as charts improved and technology advanced, the efforts of the Rocky Shores Rescue Society were required less and less. Their energy turned toward putting on the social functions, and funds were increasingly used to maintain the social hall. Membership in the Rescue Society dropped off as people’s priorities and attentions turned elsewhere, and soon the building was crumbling, and the Society was losing its staff.
However, in spite of safer sea travel, ships were still occasionally lost off the coast. The Rescue Society no longer had the resources to help; they could barely stay afloat themselves. So, citizens of the village once again banded together to keep an eye on the rough waters and make sure there was always a boat ready to rescue any shipwrecked sailors.
In the parable, the Rescue Society lost sight of its mission. They became too wrapped up in how they did what they did—the spaghetti dinners and carnivals and dances—that they weren’t able to adapt so they could focus on what they were there to do: to keep sailors safe. This is just a parable, but stories like this are playing out in real life.
In 2013, a movement called the Sunday Assembly began over in the UK. It is aimed at folks who do not consider themselves religious, but who feel isolated and miss the community and sense of connection that comes from church attendance. Sunday Assemblies sprang up across Europe and the US. Attendees would sing songs together, hear readings from influential writers, and listen to motivational speakers. In recent years, however, attendance has been dropping. Without a central organizing principle—a mission—to hold them together, they’ve been falling apart.
What makes Sunday Assembly so interesting is that it was created to fill the hole that many people felt in their lives from the lack of church attendance; and yet, it couldn’t fill that hole. Church attendance is about more than finding community or becoming a better person; that’s not the mission of the Church. Sunday Assembly tried to address what it perceived as the mission of religion and basically found that it was competing with lots of other things that bring people together: things like SoulCycle or CrossFit or coffee shops or Sunday morning brunch. They found themselves having the same problems as the Church itself! It begs the question: what makes the Church different from the Sunday Assembly?
Jesus addresses this question when he speaks to the people in the temple today. "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;" he says, "and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." This is the one thing that the community of Jesus' disciples—the Church—is called to do: to continue in Jesus' word. This is not just about hanging out together or acting in a certain way or even really about believing certain things about God. Rather, it’s about continuing his work of sharing the good news of God’s promise of redemption with the world. Like the Rescue Society, we have a job to do, a mission to fulfill. If we aren’t doing that, it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves: we are not the Church.
Unlike the Rescue Society or the Sunday Assembly, the central thing that brings us together is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In him, God has given us life that is stronger than death. Even a “dying” Church bears witness to this life. Congregations and denominations and institutions die away, but they are not central to our mission. As they die, God is bringing new life to the Church as the Holy Spirit guides Christians into new ways of doing ministry and continuing in Jesus’ word. The Church is even now being raised to new life as people experience the truth of the gospel in new ways, and as new communities of believers gather in Jesus’ name. The Church is still being reformed; we are still the ecclesia semper reformanda.
This truth will set us free from our fear of death and decline; free from our worry for our institutions; free even from our devotion to those things about the Church that we have loved for so long but are no longer serving us well. When Jesus tells those folks in the temple that God’s truth will set them free, they respond with confusion. They can’t see what it is they need to be freed from. What Jesus wants to free them from is not something from which they want to be freed.
And yet, we do need to be freed. Thankfully, it is not our work to free ourselves. This is not a challenge we must face on our own. This is still Jesus' Church, and the Holy Spirit is still guiding us, renewing us, and reforming us, just as she always has been. We need not fear what we will lose, because we know that in Christ we have already gained everything. We can face the future with boldness because we know that though traditions and congregations and denominations come and go, the Church of Christ will continue until the day of his return because until that day, there will still be work for us to do.