Well, about six months ago the decided to affiliate with the UCC. They had been disfellowshipped from the local Baptist association 15 years ago and like UBC found refuge in the Rochester New York Region of the ABC—another long story for another time. They were warmly welcomed into the UCC and now have dual affiliation with the ABC and UCC. They love the fact that some official body in Central Ohio actually welcomes and affirms them and doesn’t find them icky. It’s a new day for them.
But there’s a problem. How do they identify themselves? They have been called the First Baptist Church of Granville since 1819. How do they claim their newfound congregational identity without sacrificing their history? They can’t call themselves First Church, because the Presbyterians got there first. They were probably the third Baptist Congregation in the area. Baptist churches multiply by dividing, you know. Maybe they should call themselves First United Church. But some people thought the acronym might become problematic. How about First Baptist Congregational Church? Too clunky. Then there is the argument about how keeping the name Baptist or even UCC might be a barrier to some who aren’t attracted to or are repelled by denominational labels. Someone suggested they should call themselves First Mongrel Church. Then someone said that maybe they shouldn’t use the word church at all—too off-putting. Maybe they should call themselves a community, but then that’s too generic. Maybe they could go trendy and call themselves Peace Church. Then their acronym could be PC.
It’s sparked quite a debate. And it’s all about their identity. And it’s also about how they define themselves. The old adage of getting two Baptists together and getting three opinions seems to have multiplied now that they are also UCC.
What is this thing called church?
For those of you keeping score at home, University Baptist is actually our third name. We were founded in 1850 as the First Baptist Church of St. Anthony. A few decades later we became Olivet Baptist Church. St. Anthony was annexed by Minneapolis in the late 1870’s and there was already a first Baptist Church of Minneapolis. A few decades and several buildings later we became University Baptist as we moved into our present building in 1922 and had the University as our focus. The sign “A Liberal Church” was put up over 50 years ago to indicate that we were not part of the Conservative Baptist Convention. We’ve kept it up there because it makes people do a double-take. Liberal-Baptist, really?
“What is this thing called church?” is in part about how other people perceive us. But it’s mostly about how we perceive us.
Today’s scripture reading has Paul trying to define what church is. Now, remember at the time of Paul’s writing, around 53 or 54 CE, the church was in its first generation. There were no bishops and hierarchy. There were no fancy shmancy buildings with big steeples. There were no big denominational meetings. There were no programs beyond the local church. The church was the people gathered. It was this movement of people who were captured by the message of Jesus and were so intrigued by it that they wanted to learn more about Jesus. They wanted to emulate his life. They wanted to be with others who emulated Jesus and who wanted to walk in the ways of discipleship. They wanted to be together so that they could figure out their salvation with fear and trembling.
So they met together in people’s homes. They met together and prayed and listened to each other. They shared their goods in common. They helped the poor. And when persecution came, they stood alongside each other and helped each other out. They always, always shared something to eat together. It was a practical thing to do, since they all had to eat and they shared their goods in common. But they also remembered that some of Jesus’ most radical teaching happened around food. As they ate, they ritually remembered the feeding of the 5000 and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
They remembered how Jesus went to Zaccheus’ house for lunch and how it confused the heck out of people who thought Jesus was only supposed to hang out with the most righteous.
They remembered how Jesus told the story of the prodigal son coming back and his parents making a great feast for him—remembering that God welcomes us all back and celebrates with us when we contritely seek forgiveness.
They remembered the night that Jesus was betrayed and that they were at one last supper when it happened.
The meals, all of them were meant to be a representation of paradise—of heaven on earth. They were moments when barriers were diminished and all were one. It was where everyone garnered strength for the journey, sustenance for the day and hope for tomorrow.
But the early church fell into the same traps of the rest of the society. They kept the same rules as the rest of society. They kept the same prejudices and biases of the rest of the society. And they ran the risk of just becoming an insular community, just like any other civic group or fraternal organization. That’s when Paul called them on their prejudices, their unconscious or maybe even conscious practice of excluding another based upon wealth. In today’s scripture passage, Paul talks about the practice of eating before everyone has arrived. Those who are more wealthy, we would imagine, can get to the gathering earlier. They have childcare taken care of. They have servants to tend to the laundry or the cleaning. They only have to work one job instead of three. They have decent transportation. Heck, they may even be hosting the church meeting in their home. And so they eat. They eat and at times there is not enough food left for the latecomers.
But Paul takes issue with this practice. It isn’t right that they can’t eat all at the same time. For the sake of the community, the church, you need to wait for everyone. In God’s church, everyone is equal. It can be no other way. Paul says in verse 29, “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon themselves.” That word “body” soma in Greek refers to one’s physical body but also to the body of believers. It is an anthropomorphism. The people are the body of Christ. If we ignore a part of the body of Christ, then we do not really get it. It’s not really the church. It’s just this thing we call church. The real church is the thing that calls us to remember all the people and do what we can to help them out. For everyone is a part of the body of Christ. That’s downright radical stuff if you think about it. It might make folk take to the streets.
On Tuesday morning, I joined 500 people at the State Capital who were lamenting the unallotment scheme cooked up by the governor. While this is a legal process, it would seem, there is something about it that just ain’t right. Especially when it takes health care away from the needy, and cuts millions of dollars away from the poor, while the rich continue to receive their tax breaks. As the preacher at the rally said, “It ain’t right.” There we were Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Native American people talking from the depth of our faith to say, echoing the words of Paul,
“It ain’t right to eat this meal without first discerning the body.”
It ain’t right to celebrate our worship without first recognizing the have-nots.
It ain’t right to have our fancy churches while others do not have homes.
It ain’t right that we ignore any part of the body.
For we are all part of the body of Christ. What is this thing called church?
It is this called out body that seeks to set the world back on track again.
It is this community of people so enamored by the message of Jesus that we are audacious enough to break with the status quo.
We are inspired enough to take to the streets when we need to.
We are enlivened enough to celebrate the joy of one’s recovery from this sin-sick world as much as or more so than the one who scores the winning shot.
We are the ones who discern the body and recognize that we are all part of Christ’s body and all of us need to recognize each other if we are to live and thrive in this world, let alone steer our way through the muck of our recession-delayed, deficit-laden, war-torn, cynical existence.
What is this thing called church? It is the community that comes together so that we are not conformed to this world but are transformed by the renewing of our minds.
What is this thing called church? It is a body of “believers in a better way” because we have been enraptured by the transforming vision of Jesus.
What is this thing called church? It is the community that began as a movement of people wanting to set things right. It has become an institution that sometimes gets a bit too big for itself. But when it remembers and reclaims its movement status, then things really start to take shape.
What is this thing called church? It is this body of believers who love each other in spite of their differences and idiosyncrasies. It is the body that lives to be the voice and the power of reconciliation.
What is this thing called church? It is the proving ground for radical and life-giving action and thought.
What is this thing called church? When we are at our best, we are a force inspired by Jesus that seeks the salvation if the world. I’m not talking simply about a salvation where we all have to bow down to the same god. I’m talking about the salvation that Jesus spoke about where we remember the poor and the outcast and the widow and the hungry, the thirsty, and we recognize that we are all part of the body.
The church at its best is the living pulse of God on earth for the good of the people and the planet.
I took my mom to her very first protest on Tuesday in order to show her a bit of how I do church in Minneapolis. She told me about how her church in Cleveland a month ago held a “Faith in Action” Sunday. The arrived at church on Sunday morning, but instead of having a traditional worship service, they donned matching t-shirts and took to the streets. They went to the racetrack to pray with those addicted to gambling and to be present amongst the stable-hands. They went to the local retirement community to sing and visit with the residents there. They cleaned the gounds of the church. They planted the community garden whose produce goes to feed the hungry. There were 17 options of things to do. One group went to tend the ayrd of some older members of the congregation. The problem is they got done too quickly. They decided to find the foreclosed homes on the street and did their lawns. Then they worked on others that looked like the needed a bit of help. People came out of their houses and saw the church in action and I imagine now have a pretty clear image when asked “what is this thing called First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland.”
What is this thing called church? It’s not a building. It’s not a name. It’s not a denomination. It’s a people, a body, a movement.
And it’s made all the better because you’re in it. Just remember to consider the body and remember that we are all in this together and we are all seeking after the way and the method and the blessing of God.
Come, holy Spirit, enliven and inspire us today and everyday as we seek to be the body of this thing called church.