Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014:

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 12:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 149

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20

The Gospel readings from the last several weeks have shown us Jesus trying to prepare his disciples to take over his mission, once he's no longer physically there to lead them. Here we see him address issues of conflict management, and his advice seems to hold true, even centuries later: try to work out the conflict privately and go through increasingly public discourse.

The last verse is one of the more famous Gospel verses, the one that tells us that we only need two or three to gather in the name of Christ, and he'll be there. But what does this verse mean for the larger church?

This morning, I'm thinking of the modern church, which seems focused on numbers and growing large.  This morning, I'm thinking of this passage and wondering if Christ calls us to be small.

I think of all the articles I've read that talk about the declining numbers of people who affiliate with a church.  I think of all the people who remember the glory days of the U.S. church, back in the middle of the 20th century, back when stores were closed on Sundays, and it seemed that everyone went to church.  When church leaders talked, communities listened.

Of course, the sociologist and historian in me also knows that many vulnerable members of the community were not heard in those days.  I would not go back to 1959, even if more people went to church on Sundays. Too many people led restricted lives--no thanks.

Still, those of us who have inherited the churches that were built during those glory days might be spending a lot of time wondering how to support those buildings with our smaller memberships.  We look for ways that the building can be a blessing to many groups, not just ours.

I understand the attraction of the big church--but we know that megachurches also look for ways to create the small groups that we found in the earliest church.  Some modern groups have decided to simplify, to emulate the early church, which was often small enough to meet in people's houses and to share a real meal, not a symbol of a meal. Some modern groups go even further and actually pool their resources, and some even go so far as to live together. There's an exciting stream of the Emergent church which finds inspiration in earlier monastic movements and other intentional Christian communities.

Although here in the U.S., the modern mainstream churches face challenges, we also live in a very exciting time of reformation.  Churches are experimenting with all sorts of worship:  cross-generational, worship plus a meal, contemplative groups that meet on times outside of Sundays, and all sorts of worship that involves the arts.  We see groups of Christians experimenting with all sorts of ways of living our faith more fully. 

Reformation brings challenges, but also opportunities that we might not have explored during times of comfort and ease.  As we face those challenges, we should take comfort in the fact that we don't have to be huge to be effective.  Although our church buildings were designed to hold 500 worshippers, we don't have to expend all our energies in seeking new ways to fill those pews.  Instead, we can look for ways to knit together our smaller groups; we've got opportunities for connection in small groups that larger groups work very hard to replicate.

And it's good to remember that church doesn't mean the building.  Jesus promises that the presence of God will be with us when only two or three gather.  And we've seen from the lives of the earliest Christians, the transforming power of what happens when groups of two or three go out into the world together in the company of the Holy Spirit.

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