The church is a many-layered concept; each containing its own special qualities. Each is a fundamental piece of God's great plan to help us find our way to a relationship with Him.
When used in common parlance, "I'm going to church", "turn left at the church" we picture a building. It can be a modest little country church with an offset fellowship hall and a three room parsonage; a gothic, multi-spired cathedral with stunning statuary and thrilling acoustics; or an imposing "mega-church" that looks like a cross between a football stadium and the Mall of America. No matter the size or architecture, this church is a place where saints and sinners alike can come together to offer worship, seek understanding, and grow in community.
Every Sunday in our building, the congregation at Jacksonville First United Methodist professes its belief in "the holy catholic church". This church is a foundational idea that is a key to the development of our faith. We believe the teaching of the Book of Romans that, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:3), and we believe that everyone means everyone. It doesn't matter if they are in Methodist buildings, Presbyterian buildings, Eastern Orthodox buildings, or buildings that don't even have a formal affiliation. The catholic church-the church universal-is what binds all believers through Christ and in the Holy Spirit to all other believers in the great salvation that is at the heart of Christianity.
This brings us to the third church, the people. They gather in the buildings, they share a common belief. Being human, they may disagree about lots of silly things (that they refuse to believe are silly). But, at the core, they believe that God is the Creator of all things; that Jesus was God made flesh who offered Himself up as a perfect sacrifice to atone for our miserable human bent to sin; that this sacrifice allows us an opportunity to live in communion with God through the Holy Spirit. And, if we accept the amazing grace offered us, we can be a part of the life everlasting. The people that believe this, then, become unified in a Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). We have the opportunity (actually the responsibility) to share with each other and with people who don't know how great our God is; and that He is working in us and in the world to bring about a new world-a perfect world-that we can live in with Him forever.
This Sunday, we celebrate this third church. We celebrate that we are all part of the Royal Priesthood. We thank God for Pastor Nathan and Bishop Mueller; we're grateful that they have accepted the responsibility that comes with joining the clergy, but we understand that all of us-ALL of us-are called to be active members of this incredible thing we call the church.
As part of my morning devotions, I was reading an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian in the 20th Century most well-known for his book entitled, The Cost of Discipleship. He has a number of other writings including the one I read during the devotion. In the passage, he was reflecting on Psalm 63, particularly 63:3. The Psalmist writes, "Your steadfast love is better than life." It's a beautiful passage. But to some who experience the deepest woes of life, or are in the midst of difficulty, might find these words to be glib or trite.
However, as Bonhoeffer reflects, these words were not written on a day when the weather was nice and all is well. Rather, these words were penned when the "pillars of life had crumbled away. Where the [Psalmist's] hand thought it had firm support it reached out into an empty nothingness." In other words, the author finds himself looking for support only to discover all the things he had counted on are gone. The author's enemies stood at his doorstep lying in wait for him to fall, and he felt alone and helpless. And yet, from the depths of his soul comes the phrase, "Your steadfast love is better than life." Bonhoeffer states, "That is one of the words that does not let you go once you have understood it, a word that seems to shine gently...from the world of the Bible not from our own." All the other pillars on which he had hoped had disappeared, except for those words. Those words held the Psalmist in hope of a new day. And they were words based on God's faithfulness in the past which uphold one in the present.
I'm often reminded of life's difficulties. Life certainly has its many bright spots. It is full of wonder and love. But we are also met in this life with heartache, pain, and difficulty. Such can feel like a lonely endeavor. We may even purposely distance ourselves from the ones we love and cherish. Even God at times may seem at a distance. However, God's steadfast love is better than life. God's love isn't dependent upon us. Rather God's love is dependent upon God. And God remains steadfast and faithful to us. And because of this, God's love is truly better than life. Such a love comes not from our willpower to make it happen, or our ability to earn it; it comes from God's willingness to give it. And God in Jesus Christ throughout history has proven God's faithfulness toward us.
Today you may be struggling in some manner. You may feel alone. You may feel overwhelmed. Or you may know someone who is. Know God's love is better than life. God is indeed faithful. You or they may not feel it. But it's not based on our ability to feel it. It is based on God.