Believe it or not, today is an important day in the life of the church. It is not a day we celebrate as publically as Christmas or Easter, or even Pentecost. But it is important because today is the day we remember that a German monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of the chapel of the University at Wittenburg to protest practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his day. Luther (and others) objected most strongly to "indulgences," which were payments required to absolve one of one’s sins. No one, insisted Luther, based on the biblical narrative (of course), could absolve us of our sins but Christ, and requiring payment for such abused the people. Pope Leo X had recently announced a new indulgence in order to help build St. Peter’s Basilica, and this enraged Luther. In fact, Theses 86 asked, "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the greatest Crassus (a Roman general and politician and the richest man of the era), build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" Luther’s protest eventually resulted in his being excommunicated from the Catholic Church and starting a new church, along with other Reformers. We are here today in a Presbyterian Church because Martin Luther and other Reformers, including John Calvin, thought the church should look and act differently than the church of their day did.
So what should church look like?
The parable we read today, about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, appears, at first glance, to be about how to pray properly. But, like most of Jesus’ parables, it goes much deeper. It also appears to be very individual, about two people praying very differently to God, and how those prayers might be received by God. Yet Jesus’ teachings were for the whole church. With parables, he used everyday situations and characters to depict greater truths about the Kingdom of God. Though we do not think highly of Pharisees because Jesus always called them hypocrites in the Gospels, the Pharisees were rather well regarded in their time as those who interpreted and helped the Israelite community keep God’s laws even in times of exile and Roman rule. So those hearing this parable would not expect a Pharisee to act as this one does, strutting and showing off his so-called piety. Tax Collectors, on the other hand, were despised, because they collected taxes for the oppressive Roman government, and were known to demand extra so that they could support their own lavish lifestyles. No one in Jesus’ time would expect a Tax Collector to even be in the temple praying, much less mourning and praying so humbly for mercy. As he so often did, Jesus threw this scene of a reversal of fortunes in the face of the religious leaders of his time. He meant to shake them up, to make them rethink their approach to faithful living. He wanted them to envision living as a faithful community, or church, in a very different way.
So what should church look like?
From Jesus’ view in this parable, church does not strut its stuff, does not promote itself as the hottest thing in town. And church does not put others down, even if the "others’ appear to be worse sinners than the church sees themselves to be. After all, as we say each Sunday, quoting Scripture, we "all sin and fall short of the glory of God." No one is a worse sinner than another. It is not our place to judge others. That is God’s work, with Jesus as our mediator and savior. These are the truths that Jesus brings us. We need only to live them out.
According to Jesus, in this parable, the Body of Christ, like the Tax Collector, looks humbly to God, aware of our shortcomings, and reliant on God’s mercy and power to work through the church to do great things. It is not we ourselves who do great things, but God through us as members of the church. We depend on God to make the church the true Body of Christ in the world.
So what should church look like?
Brian McLaren, in his popular book A New Kind of Christianity, reminds us on this Reformation Day that the church started small, as a grassroots effort, meeting in homes, often secretly because of the oppression of the Roman government. As the church grew, some organization was needed. We see the seeds of organization in the New Testament letters, as they grapple with issues occurring in the early church communities. The hierarchy of power and separation from the common people that developed as the state church, the Catholic Church of that long ago time, was what the Reformers protested. They sought the church to look again like what they interpreted Jesus and the Bible as promoting – the Body of Christ in the world. Protestant churches developed so many denominations – Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and so many more, all seeking a right interpretation of how to be Christ’s church in the world, but each seeking it a differently. It is certainly hard for the church shopper to know which church is "right."
But, McLaren reminds us that diversity in churches is necessary because people are so diverse, but, he says that all churches need a common mission or quest. He defines that common quest as the effort "to form Christ-like people, people of Christ-like love." When this happens, he says, churches can become "agents of transformation." (McLaren, p.164 & 165)
McLaren reminds us of the vision of church that Paul gives us in I Corinthians 12 – a body with many parts, all necessary but all with different functions. Without one part of the body, the body is not whole. All parts are needed, all gifts are needed. And all work together, says Paul, "for the common good."
So what should the church look like? There are so many variations on churches today. We are a rather traditional looking and acting church, perhaps, in the modern era, with a sanctuary with pews and a majestic organ (beautifully played by Monica Rossman, by the way), with worship and Sunday School on Sunday morning, service in the community, all the boards and committees it takes to keep us organized and going. But church does not necessarily look like us anymore. There are churches that meet in homes (again) or in mall stores or even in coffee shops or bars. There are churches that concentrate mainly on their members and their buildings, as well as those who strictly do outreach or mission and have no buildings at all. Anyone trying to come up with THE picture of what a church looks like would be hard-pressed to find a perfect image. And perhaps that is as it should be.
Being church means, of course, being faithful to God and to God’s purpose for us on earth. The problem comes when we all interpret what God says so differently that we end up in disagreements, fights, even splits of churches.
In an interesting little book written in 2006, called Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species, Union Seminary Professor Douglas Ottati reminds us that the purpose of the church is to help people "interact with other persons, objects, situations, and realities in a manner that is faithfully responsive to the God disclosed in Jesus Christ. That is, the church has an interest in helping people interact with their families, their possessions, and their governments as well as with forests, fishes, and flowers, and to do so in a manner that is faithfully responsive to God." (Otttati, p.101) He says that theological reflection, such as we engage in at church and Bible studies and even in church meetings like the one after the 11:00 service today on gun violence, help us to determine how we live faithfully in today’s world, even though sometimes such theological reflection and discussion leads us to discover deep differences and disagreements.
BUT, when we, as church, can accept differences of interpretation and opinion and still find ways to continue to live and to serve together as fellow Christians in the one Body of Christ, we approach setting a model for the world around us – for our neighbors who cannot agree on putting up fences or holiday decorations, for governments and political parties battling one another rather than serving all the people, for people and nations that look first to war and violence as solutions for disagreements rather than to honest conversation and peacemaking.
Some of you may, as I do, receive a daily e-mail devotional. It is a good way to start the day reminding us who we are as members of the Body of Christ. One devotion from the Henri Nouwen Society this week talked about loving the church, and said this:
"Loving the church seems almost impossible. Still, we must keep reminding ourselves that all people in the Church – whether powerful or powerless, conservative or progressive, tolerant or fanatic – belong to that long line of witnesses moving through this valley of tears, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving, listening to the voice of their Lord, and eating together from the bread that keeps multiplying as it is shared. When we remember that, we may be able to say, ‘I love the Church, and I am glad to belong to it.’"
Jesus’ parables remind us that being church is about praying humbly before God every day. It is about looking for what is right and just in our world through God’s eyes rather than through the world’s eyes. Being church is about constantly seeking to interpret God’s Word for the circumstances of our day, and living out God’s commandments to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, not just in places like this building or on this church campus, but everywhere we go, every day of our lives. And we can do that best by being "a community, a covenant people" every day. So what does church look like? Only God really knows. But I think maybe it looks like each one of us and all of us, and like anyone else who strives to follow God’s loving commandments. We may come to church because we need what church gives us (quiet reflection, music, education, service). But the church, the Body of Christ, also needs us, in order to be the eyes and ears, the arms and legs of the Body of Christ in the world. And, for me, that is what stewardship is all about. We are on the steward or servant ship, moving the Body of Christ out into the world so that all might benefit from God’s love as we do. Together, we enable the church to "do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God" in today’s world.
All glory be to God! Amen.