Sunday, August 21, 2011

Church, yesterday and today

Texts: Romans 12:1-8 (the Church as the Body of Christ); Matthew 16:13-20 ( the foundation of the Church)

The Gospel passage we just heard is one of the only times in the Bible where Jesus uses the word "church." And Jesus' statement -- "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" -- is a central one to the Roman Catholic Church in particular.

Church legend has it that Peter, in the decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, eventually makes it from Galilee to Rome where he becomes the first Bishop or Pope of Rome. All Catholic popes since then trace their authority in a direct line from Jesus' encounter with Peter in our Gospel passage today.

Jesus calls Peter blessed, the recipient of divine revelation, and the person to whom he gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

And yet this is the same Peter who continually misunderstands Jesus' message; who denies Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest; and who is strongly rebuked by Jesus in the very next passage in Matthew. In that text, which we will hear next Sunday, Jesus goes as far as to say to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" So while Peter may be the rock on which Jesus founds the church, sometimes he seems more like a rolling stone than a firm foundation!

Given the rare mention of church by Jesus here, I have decided to talk today about the nature of our church -- how it differs from the church of the past, and what this might suggest about our current mission.

Church gatherings these days in Borderlands, as in many parts of Canada, are usually modest in size. And I am quite fine with that. I enjoy our gatherings. I appreciate each and everyone who comes through our doors. And I hope that everyone who does so gains even a little of what I gain from leading worship services here in Coronach, Rockglen and Fife Lake.

But sometimes our services are not small. Twice last week, we had large gatherings. The first was a wedding on August 13th in Coronach between Amanda Vancuren and Jerrod Bartlett. 130 people squeezed into the sanctuary and about 20 more spilled down the steps and onto the sidewalk.

Later in the week, I ran into a woman at the Post Office who had been at the ceremony, and she said that I must have enjoyed having a full church for a change. She added that she herself didn't attend church anymore nor did any of her family or friends.

The second large service was the funeral of Norman Travland on Wednesday. More than 250 people came to the Elks Hall in Coronach. I was impressed by the turnout not least because of the small size of the town.

So, large numbers of us sometimes do still come to worship services, especially when they include a baptism, wedding, or funeral -- the famous trio of "hatching, matching, and dispatching." But where have the days gone when our Sunday schools, choirs, evening classes, and social groups burst at the seams each week and when most respectable people attended Sunday worship at least 40 times a year?

These thoughts sometimes come to my mind as I walk by the bordered-up church building around the corner from the manse in Coronach or drive by an abandoned church in Rockglen. It also feels strange to me to know that I am the only paid minister living in Coronach. In the last few years, both the Lutheran and Alliance church have lost their pastors and have not yet replaced them.

I am glad that there is one other paid clergy person in the region -- Father Andrew, who returned last weekend to Rockglen from Poland. Jane Clark introduced me to Father Andrew when we were all at the Burning Hills restaurant on Thursday and I look forward to getting to know him better and to joint work with the Catholic and other churches in the area.

While we were having lunch, Jane also told me that when she was growing up, there used to be seven active churches in Coronach each with a paid minister. This fact helps to underline that the role of the Christian church has changed a lot within our lifetimes.

Of course, it is not just church that keeps changing. Coronach, Rockglen and Fife Lake have not yet reached 100 years of age, but there have already been several phases in our history. One of the key changes has been the depopulation of the countryside since WWII. There used to be a farm house every quarter. But now farms are huge and the towns that serve the farming communities have shrunk, or perhaps disappeared altogether. The same thing might have happened to our three towns except for the construction of the coal mine and power plant in the 1970s. Without them, would Coronach and Rockglen now be the size of Big Beaver or Killdeer and would Fife Lake have gone the way of Buffalo Gap?

Change in the church has been a constant. In broad outline, I see three phases to church history. The first was the 300 years after Jesus. His first few followers were Jewish. But when the Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground in the year 70, more and more followers of Jesus were Greek-speaking gentiles scattered across the Mediterranean.

Then in the fourth century, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion. This marks the beginning of the second phase of church history. With imperial power, the church spread far and wide. This spread was especially dramatic between 1500 and the 1900 as the European empires conquered most of the rest of the world. All of these empires, which succeeded the Roman one,  had a Christian church as the official religion of their state.

The third phase of church history is the period from World War One until now. In this period, the church is once again no longer bound hand and foot to the state.

When Canada become independent from Britain in 1867, it decided not to have an official state church. But during our country's first 100 years, the Protestant churches in English Canada and the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec continued to play the unofficial role of state religion. And now over the last 50 years, this status has quickly withered away. So while Christian churches are growing rapidly in poor countries in the Global South, in rich countries like Canada, the church has moved to the sidelines.

Anyone who grew up in the church in Canada before 1965 lived in the afterglow of 1500 years of the church's imperial power. But for the last 50 years, the shift in our culture away from church has been unmistakeable.

Now this shift might be unsettling for many of us, but I also see it as a positive development. Church is now a choice instead of an obligation. Churches no longer have to bow down to state authority. And since churches are no longer at the centre of culture, we can more easily follow the advice found in our reading from St. Paul today.

Paul writes, "do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." Because the church no longer has to support King and Empire (whether that empire is centered in London, Paris, Rome, St Petersburg, or Berlin) it no longer has to be conformist. I believe that this gives us greater space in which to receive the grace of God in worship and mission and so renew our minds and be transformed.

Today the situation of our church is more like the small and fledgling church when Matthew wrote his gospel than during those centuries when church leaders stood at the right hand of power. Now that church is on the sidelines, I believe we can better hear the strange, joyous and liberating good news of God in Christ.

Our churches are smaller than they were 50 years ago, but that doesn't mean we don't still value church. For me, worship is a passion and a joy. I come to worship because it feeds me and connects me to God through the power of the Spirit, not because it is the expected thing to do or because it is a way of getting ahead in this crazy world.

When large numbers come through the church doors, as they probably will next Saturday afternoon in Rockglen at the wedding of Patrick Disney and Sarah Corcoran, I am happy. But when smaller numbers come to a regular Sunday service, I can be just as happy. Celebrating the good news works just as well for me with a few faithful friends and neighbours as it does in a crowd of hundreds or thousands.

Those of us in the church today are similar to Peter in many ways, I believe. We are blessed by Jesus who gives us the keys to the kingdom. But like Peter, we sometimes misunderstand the will of God. Like Peter, we sometimes react with fear instead of faith. And like Peter in his disputes with St. Paul, we sometimes realize that we have been on the wrong side of a church discussion.

But despite our inevitable shortcomings, we can relish our role as members of the Body of Christ. We support each other in moments of crisis and loss like a funeral. We celebrate with each other in joyous moments like a wedding or baptism. And if we feel so moved, we also come together each week to remember life's sacred values, to reflect on our utter dependence on God, and to renew our spirits and souls through Word and Sacrament.

We are no longer burdened by obligations to the state or mainstream culture. So we can joyously stumble along God's path of faith, hope and love. As we do so, let us give thanks for the small or large number of our fellow pilgrims who help remind us that God's grace is freely given to us in each and every moment.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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