1 Peter 2:4-5. 9-10
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 30, 2022
They’ve doubled in number the last 14 years, and now include 30% of Americans. They’re the “None’s”: people who, when asked about religious affiliation, say they have “none”. Most aren’t un-spiritual. But they are unchurched – and prefer it that way. We who appreciate the value of church have to give them reason to give church a second look and a second chance.
Making the case for church to a None who is an atheist or an agnostic is quite different than making it to a None who has spiritual convictions but no commitment to a specific religious tradition. We’d do well today just to figure how to make church appealing to a subset of that second group: Those who are drawn to Jesus but see no need for church.
Now, if someone is drawn to Jesus as an example of how to live we might point out how Jesus regularly attended church (synagogue in His day). But we’d still also need to give them a sense of why following His model would amount to doing themselves a favor.
These days “institution” is to many a bad word; and the church is, whatever else it might be, an institution.
But institutions aren’t all bad. Partnerships with institutions can expand an individual’s capacity to make a difference. They can make happen what no one person or small group of people can. For example, this church’s free after-school program for young people of every kind wouldn’t be possible without the facilities, financial support and volunteers this church-institution provides.
Along with its institutional value, church brings spiritual value to those involved in it. The Bible describes that value and the faithful demonstrate it.
Last Sunday’s scripture describes church as a God-inhabited “structure” “built” of people “joined together” in Christ. Today’s scripture describes church as a “spiritual house” built of human “living stones” held together by Christ, the “living” “cornerstone”.
Church has value by God’s making it a) a home for Himself in which He entertains and engages with people and b) a launching pad for His faithful from which He sends them forth in service of the whole world. Church constitutes a social context in which folks can meet up with the Savior who’s promised to show up wherever two or more are gathered in His name. Of course, community is not the only context in which folks meet up with Jesus – for they meet Him in solitude as well – but the church community is the one context God’s made the most effort to set up and endow with His grace.
Thus, we miss out on the full range of Christ’s grace if we miss out on getting to church.
To go to church is to serve our self-interest. Yes, we can praise God, pray to God, study the Bible and the like all by ourselves; but we do it more consistently together. We are more likely to follow up on good intentions when we know there are people waiting for us to join them in fulfilling them. It’s like having a workout partner to insure we exercise regularly. When we don’t feel like going to the gym, we get there because we know someone else is looking for us to be there with them. Thinking of them gives us extra motivation in keeping the promises we’ve made to ourselves, and holds us accountable to the commitments we’ve made to ourselves. That works for spiritual health as well as for physical!
Church is of value because it helps us to be faithful in doing what, if we did it more consistently, would benefit us more extensively. Church is also of value because it forces us to overcome attitudes that fight against our becoming more like Christ.
If a church is large enough, there’s always going to be people in it with whom we’d just as soon not deal but with whom church keeps throwing us together. That turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For such folks are, as Rick Warren puts it, the sandpaper people who rub us the wrong way but who thereby polish up our character. Loving like Jesus is, after all, a resolute commitment to action more than a following of feelings. So, when we act graciously toward those who annoy or disappoint us, we develop the strength of our determination to do others good regardless of our natural inclinations.
So, God blesses us at church by people we’d otherwise avoid. God also blesses at church by people we can’t help but admire and be inspired by. While every church has its share of hypocrites, almost every church has more than its share of saints who are truly loving, compassionate, just and godly; and just being around them can call forth the best out of us. And the more time we spend with them the more their good qualities rub off on us. For example, as we worship regularly with them, we catch some of their fervor; and our passion to glorify God is set afire by the spiritual sparks flying off of them.
In these ways and others, church is of great value to those who seek to become all Christ made them to be: members of, our scripture says, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”.
Please note, this scripture defines the core identity of a Christian entirely in communal terms. We each become more fully Christian, not as isolated individuals, but as members of a community. We become ourselves by belonging to something bigger than ourselves. That’s why, when Christ calls us to Himself, He simultaneously calls us to one another, in what the Bible calls church.
We each come into our own by coming to Christ that living stone and letting Him build us like living stones into God’s house – and God’s household. As we keep connected in the community Christ created, we fulfill our calling to proclaim as a chorus of witnesses the mighty acts of Him who calls us all out of our darkness into His marvelous light. That’s the value of church!