“The Perfect Church”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, June 25, 2023
Readings: Exodus 18:13-26 and Matthew 16:13-19
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist but others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
“The trouble with the church is: it’s too worldly. Too many of its members drink, violate the Sabbath and don’t believe in the Bible;” or: “It’s too worldly. It’s guilty of the same discrimination as any organization or club, and its members think they’re better than everyone else.”
“The trouble with the church is: the preacher’s sermons are boring. They’re nothing but vague, unrealistic generalities that give me no help in my day-to-day living;” or: “The preacher’s sermons meddle too much in personal matters that are none of her business.”
“The problem with the church is: it’s compromising the truth of the gospel with all this ecumenical dialogue;” or: “It is too narrow-minded and intolerant. Every denomination thinks it has a monopoly on the truth.”
“It’s too inclusive. As long as you make a pledge of financial support, it doesn’t matter what you believe or how you live.” “It’s too exclusive. If you don’t wear the right clothes or have the right political views, you are not welcome.”
It’s too old fashioned and conservative. It’s too modernistic and liberal.
Too much hellfire and damnation. Not enough hellfire and damnation.
Too chummy. Too cold.
Too intellectual. Too superficial.
The point is, almost everyone – whether they attend or not – has some beef about the church!
As we saw in the reading from Exodus, God has always intended for His people to be at least somewhat of a structured and orderly unit. People not meant to have an individualistic faith life. Within that structure in Exodus there were leaders, but the leaders were not the be-all and end-all. Others played a vital role in supporting the leadership and serving the entire body. And that’s what the church is today: not a building, but a body. A body of believers. The church is not the physical structure, it’s you and it’s me. Wherever we go, the church goes with us. And as much as we may mutter and gripe about it, the church is the body of Christ, and therefore we must love it.
Everybody these days is saying that the church is in trouble:
Declining attendance; fewer young people; struggles to remain financially viable; too much work and too few volunteers: do any of these things sound familiar? People point to these as the main problems facing the church today. If you ask me, though, these are not the real problems, but symptoms of a much deeper and more serious question that is plaguing almost all denominations of the Christian church, and that question is: how are we to be a faithful and relevant Christian body in an increasingly multi-faith or secular or even hostile society?
The challenge for the church today is fundamentally a struggle to keep in balance two different dimensions: one dimension is its particularly Christian “identity” –that which sets us apart and makes us salt and light in the world; and the other is its “relevance” to the world around us.
I’ll explain this, but first, a question: What distinguishes Christianity from all other movements, philosophies or programs? Answer: What gives us our identity as “Christian,” is nothing other than Jesus and the Bible (this is where we get to know Jesus). That is our only foundation for our identity as a Christian church. As we heard in the gospel reading, it is when Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah that Jesus declares that the church will be built upon him. Peter was the first of a great multitude of people throughout history who would come confess Jesus to be the Saviour of the world.
But Christianity also has an important dimension of relevance; that is: how do we make the particular Christian identity comprehensible to each new generation? How do we continue preaching the gospel and making disciples in our time and context?
Trouble begins in the church when one of these dimensions – identity or relevance – is overemphasized at the expense of the other. For example, when the church gets stuck in the dimension of Christian identity it can become single-minded in its defence of revealed, scriptural truth and orthodox theology, but ignore the development of an application of that truth for our current context. The result is an inability to dialogue with the world; a kind of fortress mentality that shuts out the world and doesn’t equip its members to live in the world and deal with realities of life in this day and time. You can probably bring to mind some churches that fit this description.
On the other hand, the danger of overemphasizing the dimension of relevance of the faith at the expense of our identity is found in those churches that are willing to sacrifice or downplay the specifically Christian message in their effort to appeal to the world. They want to be relevant, which is good, but this often comes at the expense of the inconvenient truth of the gospel. These churches will lose focus of biblical truth, often allowing the winds of cultural changes and preferences to determine the criteria for truth in the church.
One of the signs of a church that is unbalanced on the side of relevance is a lack of respect for authority. Since context is the only criteria for truth, then truth is whatever I decide is true for me in this moment, and is open to revision depending on my personal circumstances or emotional state.
In this case, there will no longer be respect for the work of the great theologians, and the Bible also loses authority for our lives, and is considered nothing more than a quaint book of stories, and we use what we like and ignore the parts we don’t like. Sadly, in many churches that err on the side of relevance there will no longer even be respect for the authority of Jesus. Jesus is my buddy, my comforter, there when I need him and tucked away on a shelf when he’s inconvenient. He is not the Lord of my life, who rules in all of the spheres of my existence.
So what does it mean to be a particularly Christian and relevant church in the 21st century?
Well, let’s think about what the church actually IS. One colleague of mine defines the church in this way: The Church is a community of people called out of the world by Jesus to follow Him, and to be his people. I think this is a solid definition. I think it’s also fitting to mention that the protestant reformers (from whom we are descended) determined that there were three signs that you could look for in a church to determine if it is truly a Christian community.
The first sign of the true Christian church is that it faithfully proclaims the Word of God. A church where Jesus is not the absolute authority has lost its Christian identity. Throughout history, the church has had its ups and downs, it has grown, and it has diminished. I’m sure that in 110-plus years this congregation has had its own ups and downs. But historically, church renewal and rejuvenation has always been sparked by a radical return to the source of our Christian identity: Jesus and the Bible. (Think of the great revivals, the Protestant Reformation.) Without Jesus and the Bible, we are just any other political, social, or activist group. So, one of the signs of the true church is faithfulness to proclaiming God’s Word.
The second sign of the true church identified by the Reformers is the faithful and responsible administration of the sacraments. If a group, for example, celebrates what they call “communion,” but their focus in doing so is not on the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, and the hope we have for His return, then they are not celebrating a Christian sacrament. The same is true of baptism: a group who celebrates a water ritual but does not do so in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, is just giving a poor child a shower with cold water. For sacraments to be Christian they must be rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ.
In the Lutheran wing of the Reformation, with regards to the signs of the true church they left things there – just Word and Sacrament. But the Presbyterians – which are one of the founding churches of our United Church of Canada – added one more sign: church discipline. The Calvinists recalled the Apostle Paul’s emphasis on church discipline, that one of the faithful functions of the church is to call people to live out their faith in Christian discipleship.
Church discipline is administered in love and according to biblical standards, but it is a deeper love, one that is willing to take the risk of confronting a sister or brother who is damaging their lives and/or disgracing the name of Jesus through their behaviour or attitudes. The purpose of Christian discipline, according to the Calvinists, is not to shame or punish, but to restore a brother or sister to fullness of life and dignity.
So that’s our task as members of the Christian church: to make disciples by interpreting the particularly Christian message for each generation through faithful proclamation of the Word and responsible administration of the sacraments; and by encouraging lives of discipleship.
While no church is perfect (despite my sermon title) and no church carries out that task perfectly all the time, the church, and all of its members, are to be loved generously and selflessly, just as Jesus loved His church, and gave His life for her. I think this poem sums it up nicely.
An anonymous poet wrote:
I think that I shall never see, a church that’s all it ought to be;
A church whose members never stray, beyond the straight and narrow way;
A church that has no empty pews, whose pastor never has the blues;
A church whose elders always speak, and none is proud and all are meek.
Such perfect churches there may be, but none of them are known to me.
But still we’ll work and pray and plan, to make our own the best we can.