Be the Church

© Photo by Josh Hosler
Published by Josh Hosler on Thu, Apr 18, 2019 9:30 PM

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019
Exodus 12:1-14a; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-15

When I teach people about the promises we make in baptism, I like to ask them about a specific vow:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

I ask them: what does this mean? To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship … in the breaking of bread … and in the prayers? What might it mean?

That’s right! First and foremost, it means, “Go to church.” When you are baptized, you are promising that you won’t just disappear. When you have a child baptized, you are promising that you’ll help the child also to develop the habit of going to church. Because baptism isn’t a box to check off, but the beginning of life in and with the Church, even when it’s not easy.

You know what, though? To put it this way can be rather guilt-inducing. I know this because whenever I’m in my collar and interact with people who haven’t been coming to church, I can feel all their misplaced guilt. Dang it, I wish this weren’t the case, because sometimes it kills the conversation. But I can’t take away the guilt that has been imposed on them by a church full of “shoulds.” Who am I to convince them that “going to church” is not a requirement for salvation, but an invitation to a party?

After all, “going to church” doesn’t always look like a party. To many, it looks more like a chore, maybe even to some of you here tonight. What’s so exciting about “going to church”? We might as well say, “Go to the gym.” Everyone knows it’s supposed to be good for you, but that doesn’t make people actually want to do it!

So now, when I teach about baptism, I no longer leave it at, “Go to church.” Now I take it to the next level, which is much more compelling.

But before we can go there, I need to make an observation. When the time came for the Hebrews to leave Egypt, God didn’t say to them, “Here’s what you need to believe about me.” Instead, God gave them chores to do, very specific chores: Slaughter a lamb, and put its blood on your doorposts. Cook the lamb precisely this way and eat it hurriedly. Then gather up your families and your possessions and go. This was the beginning of the Hebrews’ exodus from slavery into freedom and into a much larger world. God forced a crisis and made a path out of their comfort zone and into the wilderness … by giving them chores.

Likewise, when the time came for Jesus to leave this world, he didn’t say to his apostles, “Here’s what you need to believe about me.” He gave them specific chores to do: Take this bread. Eat it. Drink this wine, all of you. Do this in remembrance of me. And in John’s gospel, it’s something different, but no less symbolic: Wash each other’s feet. This is how you are to be, as servants to one another. If you truly trust me, then do these things, as I have done them to you. It is in doing that you will come to believe … that you will trust beyond the scope of your ability to understand … that you will find the path I have made for you in the wilderness.

It’s not only in the gospels that we find these instructions. We just heard from Paul, writing to the conflicted church in Corinth, reminding them: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.” Paul was late to the party, but he came to understand that Jesus’ instructions were also for him to keep and to teach. This has been the case for all Christians ever since.

But Paul also warned the congregation sternly: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

This warning has unfortunately caused much mischief throughout the history of the church—and have you noticed, incidentally, that whenever the Bible gives us an explicit warning, certain people line up to level that warning at people who are not themselves? Through the centuries, this passage has been used to prove specific dogma, to deny the sacrament to children, and even to treat Holy Communion as a hazardous enterprise to be avoided altogether. After all … what if you don’t know how to do the chores the right way? What if you have sinned and don’t know it and haven’t repented for it? Lurking behind these questions is a sinister God who can’t wait to catch us in wrongdoing and punish us for it—not a God who waits longingly for us to accept the invitation to a party.

The actual context for Paul’s warning is very different. Paul has just observed that the rich Corinthians, who have the luxury of time and energy, are the first ones to show up at the community meal, and they eat all the food before the working-class Christians get off their swing shift and join the assembly. Paul goes on from here to say, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.”

Preparing for a party involves certain chores. Are you doing them so you can share the party with others, or just so you can build a tiny little party for yourself?

Just as Jesus did, Paul also reserves condemnation for those self-assured people who think they don’t need anyone else—not for the persecuted and victimized who know how cruel life can truly be. These are the people on whose behalf we make our party preparations—so we can invite them into this celebration and show them love.

The world is desperately in need of love. But the church has historically shunned and excluded all sorts of people, and it’s no different today. Is it any wonder that two generations of Americans now have little to no experience of church outside of shallow platitudes and media-savvy bigots?

Meanwhile, in our thousands of tiny congregations we get together once a week, share some bread and wine, visit with each other at coffee hour, and hopefully even welcome newcomers into our midst. But William Temple, an early 20th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, famously said, “The church is the only institution that exists for the sake of those who are not its members.” Our party must not be exclusive. And so we serve breakfast on a Tuesday morning, but we also sit with a listening ear as people share with us the many ways the church has hurt and despised them. This can be much messier than just washing one another’s feet—but if the chore of washing feet tonight will get us a little bit outside our comfort zone, then God will call us into an even deeper adventure.

This adventure starts with our baptism. The call to baptism—and through it, the call to get together weekly to share Holy Communion—is a call not to an individual salvation, but to the lifelong, worldwide Good News party. And if it’s not good news for everyone, it’s actually bad news.

The heart of our call is to be with those who have heard bad news, people who hurt and who are scared, people with cancer, people with an uncertain prognosis, addicted people, recovering people, relapsing people, people who are dying, people who are mourning.

But that’s not all. So many have been told, “God’s love will be yours the minute you change who you are.” Or even, “You’re welcome here as you are, but our silent agenda is to change you. We will tell you what improvements we expect of you, and once you have fulfilled our unspoken standards, only then can you be welcomed to the celebration.” But our call is to welcome those who in the past have only heard such bad news from the church—and to sit patiently with them and give them every reason to trust again. Our call is also to understand that most people, once effectively expelled, will never deign to join our party again. Our call is to know them too, and be with them on their own terms, and love them as they are, and make a party for them wherever they’ll allow us.

Our call is to vulnerability. Our call is to wash their feet, and to let them wash ours, too.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

What does this mean? It doesn’t just mean “go to church,” though it certainly starts there. Rather, it means, “Be the church.” Be the Body of Christ. When you receive the bread in your hands and hear the words, “The Body of Christ,” don’t just look at the bread in your hands. Look to your left, and to your right, and look all around the room, and discern the Body of Christ! We receive the Bread of Heaven so that we can be the Body of Christ for the world.

The Body of Christ is not a list of the saved, but a mission from the saved to the saved—to seek out all those who haven’t heard the Good News and to share it, not by demanding their compliance, but simply by loving them, and then being ready to tell our own story of having been loved into the Body. Some of them will get excited to join our party—most won’t. Even so … this is how the world changes. This is how the Kingdom of God slips in the back door.

So now, let us follow Jesus’ parting commands. Let us wash one another’s feet, not because it’s comfortable, but because this chore is part of our party preparations. And let us share in the Body and Blood of Christ, not for the benefit of ourselves alone, but for the benefit of all those who are not at this table tonight. May this ritual act of service and this ritual feast become, for you, fuel for your actual service in the world and your invitation to others to join the eternal party. Amen.

Image credits: