“Thank God that a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd” (Martin Luther).
I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of the church lately. What exactly is the church? The New Testament Greek word for church is ‘ekklesia’. Its basic meaning is an assembly or congregation or community of people that has been called together for a particular purpose. Throughout the New Testament it refers to the early communities of people who came together regularly to worship Jesus. They began gathering together after they heard the story of Jesus and placed their trust in him and what he had done for them on the cross.
The word ‘church’, for many centuries, also came to be used for the buildings that Christians gathered in. Of course, that’s increasingly no longer the case. Church buildings are being sold and turned into all kinds of things, including restaurants and homes. Whenever I see a repurposed church building, I’m reminded of the fact that the ‘church’ is actually the people of God. Called by God, to gather together, so that communities of witness and service can emerge – doing all that they do in the name of Jesus.
Recently, a friend of mine who is a theologian, shared with me another characteristic of the church. The church is a particular kind of community – it’s ‘open’ and it’s ‘centred’. Let me explain. When the church (the people of God) meets, its religious services are public services. They are genuinely open to all. The church is also ‘centred’ because it has a focus, a central organizing principle. The church meets together to focus on God, who has revealed himself as the man Jesus Christ (Luther once said: “I know of no other God than the man Jesus Christ”).
This central focus is the reason the church is open to the world. We want to be an open, inviting community to all people, because we believe all people are loved by God and that God sent Jesus on a saving mission to all people. God’s desire for every person is that they would be drawn into a life-giving relationship with him (John 10:10, 1 Timothy 2:4).
In my first parish (in Mackay North Queensland) the church building has glass windows as ‘walls’. I used to love the fact that the building was wide open to the community. Especially at the weekly Saturday night service (one of the reasons for a Saturday night service was the high proportion of shift workers in town) the church would be light filled. Its light would blaze out through the glass walls into the night, so that you could clearly see that the church was open and that a group of people were gathered inside the building.
Opposite the church building was Mackay’s central city park. Sometimes people who ‘lived rough’ in the park would come into the church during our Saturday night services (they were open to the public after all). This happened more often in the winter when people would come in to escape the cold. The congregational members were inspirational in how they ‘got alongside’ those folks. One of the challenges was that sometimes people would turn up who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The congregation devised ways to still be open and inviting, but also keep everyone safe. Every visitor was, of course, always invited to the post service coffee fellowship.
I often had lively exchanges during the sermon with unexpected visitors. On occasion the presentation of the gospel would turn into a dialogue. So, Mackay Community Lutheran Church modelled for me what it is to be the people of God, open to the world, centred on Christ, shining Christ’s light outward. The centre of that community was Christ. Its focus was his altar, the table at the front of the church building where he invited (and continues to invite) the hungry and needy to come and be filled with his grace, forgiveness, and life.
Each Christian, each individual member of the church, is also a ‘light bearer’. In a sense, each of us, as a Christian, is invited to be a ‘window’ through which people can see Jesus. We are the windows of the church. And people see Jesus most clearly through us when we act justly, forgive freely, and walk humbly with our God – in Jesus name.
Pr. Brett Kennett
District Pastor for Congregational Support