Over the past few months, as we’ve been preparing to become a house church, the question that has been rattling around in my mind is . . . how can you be a church without a building?
Sure, we’ve never had our own building, but we had space that for the better part of 10 years we were able to call home; a place where we made memories and where lives were changed because of the mission, vision, and ministries of Logos Dei Church.
And so, the question is . . . what now? How can we be church when we don’t have space of our own?
I think this was one of the pressing questions of the early church.
What started out as a small group of disciples, hiding in the shadows in fear for their lives, exploded to over 3,000 people after Peter preached what must have been the best revival sermon ever and the Spirit of God was poured out over them.
In the aftermath of the Spirit’s arrival, and as the message of the gospel spread throughout Jerusalem, Judea, and the entire world, just as Jesus said it would . . . those new believers must have been asking themselves the same question . . . what now?
They didn’t have buildings, and they didn’t have sacred places with tax exempt status . . . but what they had was one another.
With the coming of God’s Spirit, no longer was God contained in a building, or a single location. God’s Spirit took his dwelling within his people. This was the church. You are the church.
This is why the words, “one another” are used 59 times in the New Testament; “Love one another.” “Forgive one another.” “Regard one another as more important than yourselves.” And the list goes on.
You see, those early church leaders understood that the church is not defined by a building, it’s defined by how you live as “one another’s” for the sake of Christ.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to explore what it means to be the church and how to live and do life with “One another”. But I warn you, understanding the church as “one another” is not easy. There are many challenges that come with being “one another”.
Not to mention that it completely goes against what our culture has defined as the church.
“Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and there’s all the people.” But what if you don’t have a church or a steeple. Being “one another” can be challenging. Jesus knew this and that’s why 2,000 years ago he prayed specifically for us, sitting in this home.
Let’s listen to our text: John 17:20-13
Our scripture reading this morning is from John but before we jump in, I want us to go back into history and look at the book of Daniel.
The book of Daniel is a story about exile, when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Israelites were carted off to Babylon where they struggled to maintain their culture and identity as the people of God.
But it wasn’t just a struggle for the Israelites . . . it was tough on the King of Babylon too as he tried to figure out what to do with these people who were clinging on so tightly to their heritage.
So the king decided that it would make him feel a little better about all the different people he’d captured and was trying to integrate into society if everybody, uniformly, practiced and believed the exact same thing.
So he built a shiny statue and made a rule that everybody had to bow down to his statue as soon as they heard the trumpet blast.
And I suppose that it calmed King Nebuchadnezzar’s fears about different opinions and any potential dissention in the ranks when he gave the command for the trumpets to blow and then looked out of his palace windows and saw all the people—everybody—bowing down in unison before the statue.
Now, really, even if you hadn’t heard this little piece of the story of Daniel before today, this narrative from ancient Babylon shouldn’t sound too unfamiliar. In every human society ever there have been movements (some more successful than others) to insure conformity.
We human beings seem to feel more comfortable when we all know the score, when everybody is on the same page, when we don’t ever need to worry about any kind of challenge to the status quo.
But just read the book of Daniel . . . or, head down to the National Holocaust Museum . . . and you’ll quickly remember that imposed conformity like this has horrific results.
This might lead you to scratch your head when you hear this prayer of Jesus that occurs immediately before he and his disciples head out to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed and the events of Holy Week begin to unfold.
This is a beautiful prayer in which Jesus, who knows the risks that are ahead for his disciples, prays for them and even prays for those who would come after them . . . us.
He prays for protection and comfort and he prays for unity. Listen again: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one . . . I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one3 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
Now, remember that the Gospel accounts were written well into the establishment of the first church. And there was anything BUT “one-ness” in the first church.
Squabbles over how to do just about everything were dominating the church as they were desperately trying to figure out how to create communities that reflected the unity Jesus was talking about.
Because as it stood, they were communicating to the world around them that they were, if not completely crazy, then at least not very much fun to be around. They were judgmental, hypocritical, condemning, out of touch, uneducated, extreme, conservative, rigid, and intolerant.
In other words, the church’s internal conflicts were not doing much to advance the message of Jesus; which is a message of healing and hope and love and reconciliation.
And I would imagine that as they were navigating these new waters, there were some who read these words of John and said, “See what Jesus says right here?!? We HAVE to believe the same things. We HAVE to practice our faith in the same way. We HAVE to understand God through a uniform rubric. We HAVE to value conformity in order to live the message of Jesus. He says it right here!!”
Well, I’m not so sure. I do feel sure that when Jesus prayed that they and we might be one, he was praying for unity…but unity is far different from conformity.
Think for a minute about the group for whom Jesus was praying that night . . .
- Some were rough-hewn fishers who’d spent their lives in manual labor.
- Some were educated tax collectors and government leaders.
- Some were women, oppressed by a society that would never accept them as equals.
- Some had only the desire for power and prestige;
- Some had a desperate longing for affirmation and relationship.
Like any collected group of people, the disciples came to the task of following Jesus from different life experiences, diverse perspectives, and even radically varying convictions about their faith.
There was no conformity there, and Jesus was not about the business of imposing a value of conformity on the first disciples.
Notice he didn’t pray, “Father, silence the questions among them, and grant that they may always agree”.
No, he prayed for them . . . and he prayed for us . . . that we would do the hard work of relationship, of messy engagement with each other, so that the world would know that DESPITE our differences, we come together in unity to proclaim a Gospel of love and reconciliation to the world around us.
It’s not conformity . . . it’s a unity with integrity.
What does this mean? What does this mean for a community like ours?
Well, it means that we welcome and nurture diversity among us. We don’t have to be alarmed if we hold differing opinions, if we don’t understand each other, even if we offend one other.
It means when we encounter conflict or discord, we listen to one another and we prioritize the health of our relationships and our community over our own preferences and even our own comfort.
It means that the Gospel message of love and peace, of justice and reconciliation is always our first priority, its communication an endeavor we undertake with our whole lives joined together in all our diversity for a larger purpose.
You recall in the sequence of events that night Jesus said this prayer. The disciples had celebrated the Passover together. They’d gathered around a table.
- Some in the group sat at opposite ends of the table, just to keep the peace.
- Nobody really wanted to talk to Judas, who’d begun to act a little suspicious by then.
- Peter was (predictably) the loudmouth at the table, telling stories everybody had heard about a million times.
- John, the teacher’s pet, of course grabbed the seat right next to Jesus and watched everything he did, trying (as ever) to get on his good side.
- And all of them argued about which one of them was the greatest.
And as the evening came to a close, Jesus picked up a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and invited them to remember why they were there.
They didn’t know exactly what he meant when he said the words, “This is my body broken for you, this cup is the new covenant in my blood” but you know that they felt something strong and true as they offered the bread and wine to each another.
In that moment, in spite of all their differences, together they ate and remembered the unity of conviction that drew them together and held them connected.
And for that moment, anyway, they changed from a rag tag group of individuals staring confused at the task and risks ahead of them . . . to a band of disciples, focused with purpose and unified in conviction.
John wanted the first church to remember and relive the first disciples’ experience.
And in the memory of that meal, we too can know what Jesus meant when he prayed for our unity. For the life of a Christ-follower in the community is not about conformity. But it is a unity, a beautiful unity that seeks to be part of God’s biggest hopes and dreams for our world.
And we, you and me, together in this place, are not tasked with creating a standard to which we must each conform. Rather, we’re invited to gather around the table, to take the bread and the wine together, to join our voices in worship, to put our hands to the task of healing our world . . . all of this, even in our diversity . . . especially in our diversity . . . participating in God’s work in our world.
Together . . . Jesus calls us, as his followers, to wear the label of unity.