The Essential Church Gathering
The world is a better place when selflessness is the badge of honour worn on someone’s sleeve. Movements like “pay it forward” are reminders of times when people chose to tap into their better selves. Making conscious decisions to put the needs of others first is a noble way of living. But it’s not easy. All too often we choose what we want first, justifying those needs as priority.
In its better moments throughout history, Christianity is marked by the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”(Mark 12:31) Other major world religions have expressed similar sentiments over the course of their varied histories. Unfortunately, religion is more often known for its commands, rather than its invitations. It has been used to control people, holding power and hoarding wealth. In its most impure form, it invades our politics exerting power and wielding influence in that arena. The brother of Jesus wrote that religion in its purest form is “looking after orphans and widows”(James 1:27) In other words it's a focus on the disenfranchised in our societies. A true model for loving your neighbour as yourself, or to put it another way, as you look after your needs, don’t forget about the needs around you. It could be your literal neighbour, a co-worker, a local business owner, a family member, or even anyone you encounter.
A political move was made on May 22nd as many nations are trying to emerge from the other side of this global pandemic. The president of the United States declared churches and other houses of worship to be essential services, adding in his statement that he would “override governors” if they didn’t allow churches to open in the upcoming weekend.
He then promptly left the podium without taking questions.
Oh how I long to not descend into the messy pit of political mud-slinging, but alas here I am. I promise not to stay long and to shower soon after.
Freedom of religion is an incredible privilege. I believe that it should be celebrated. People have died fighting so that we can now enjoy this right. But we must not forget that people from other countries around the world have also died expressing forms of religious practice without the political freedom to do so.
I’m wrestling with one word.
Especially given the context of 2020, “essential workers” is now something everyone talks about. We bang pots and ring bells at shift change, saluting our front-line health care workers. We wave at garbage truck drivers because many of us are home to see them do their work; some of us tip them and say thank you. We paint rocks to leave on trails (note that we suddenly have time for family walks); we put pictures in our windows (with no concern that they might look like clutter); and we write sidewalk chalk messages of inspiration emphasizing themes like “we’re all in this together” or “this too shall pass” (allowing children to create this art without scolding them for the spelling mistakes). We do all these things and more in hopes of bringing a smile to the face of anyone in need of an emotional boost.
From doctors, nurses, PSWs, technicians and volunteers, to grocery store staff and truck drivers, we say thank you. Thank you to first responders and our military. Thank you to the IT sector who because of their work, we can digitally connect while staying physically apart. I hesitate to make a list of all essential workers, because inevitably someone will be left out.
Somehow all these services have continued, but not without cost. According to a source in the medical field, as of June 3rd, 17% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases were health care workers. Nine have died in Ontario, many more across Canada; and the problem multiplies exponentially around the world especially as one expands the numbers to include all essential workers.
Their sacrifice should never be forgotten. Ironically, the message conveyed by health care workers was “Stay Home!” This request began trending on various social media platforms. “We stay at work for you, please stay home for us.”
We’re all antsy to return to a life that reminds us of normality. Our politicians, for the most part, and the medical experts are trying to guide us carefully in next steps.
Since the person in authority has left the podium…
and although he somehow found time a few days later to have peaceful protesters forcibly removed so he could hold up a Bible in front of a church (another blog for another day)
… I still have a question
Is church an “essential” service?
There’s emphasis to be noted not just on the word essential, but also service. In our Western culture within the Christian tradition, we tend to think of church as a place, and we also conflate our desire for worship with attending an event like a church service. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people gather in the same building to listen to teaching. Sitting in close proximity with one another, they sing, and greet each other with hugs and kisses all under the umbrella of authentic community, or a larger family of God as some call it.
During a global pandemic, gatherings of 5 people or more have been banned. Even funerals are being celebrated differently. Most of them have been cancelled altogether, only now being given the green light too slowly begin gathering up to 30% capacity.
So why now? Why does "church" for many seem to be an essential service?
Two reasons come to mind right away:
1.) Religious freedom is a right, and people should be seen gathering in mass to celebrate (otherwise, there is a conspiracy at play trying to strip us of our religious freedoms).
2.) People need a place to gather in mass with others to “worship”.
(otherwise, where will they go, and how will they worship?)
I shouldn’t have to waste time on #1. It seems obvious to me that it’s a political maneuver that is risking the infection of millions of people in the United States and even here in Canada, and it will inevitably lead to more deaths.
But I believe #2 is worth exploring further.
Maybe this is the time to re-think how we express our worship.
Is it also an opportunity to re-define our view of church, or perhaps uncover its original meaning.
The original invitation of Jesus was a simple one. “Follow me.”
But the religious elite during Jesus’ day had constructed a system to enforce a bunch of do's and don'ts from a group of laws that had been written to protect a group of people in an archaic world. And then Jesus came along and was questioned by a religious teacher, a protector of these laws:
“…which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied with what I imagine to have been a compassionate smile:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbour as yourself.”
The leaders probably thought they were doing pretty good at the first part (the love and worship of God), but I’m assuming there wasn’t much compassion for the latter (the selfless love for others).
Jesus cautioned against those who love to pray while standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. He had a strong word for these people; Hypocrites. The image of a modern-day leader standing in front of a church building holding a Bible for a photo opportunity after ordering the removal of a peacefully protesting crowd is an uncanny current example of what Jesus seems to be getting at in this portion of his sermon.
How did we move from “Follow me” (the initial invitation to Jesus’ disciples and the subsequent study of his teaching), to churches that gather in mass to listen to a clergy’s interpretation of Jesus teaching?
Maybe someone should also mention that we most often interpret worship as something that should be expressed through the singing of religious songs with large groups of people (medical experts are warning about further transmission through singing in close proximity with others).
Well, I wish the answer was simple. 2,000 years of church history is a difficult thing to condense within a few words in this post.
Andy Stanley has a great summary that is featured in one of his latest books entitled Irresistible
Here’s a condensed version in my words.
In the years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples gathered in each other’s homes daily, breaking bread together. They feared for their lives and were known as being followers of the Way. They weren’t called Christians or “Christ followers” until many years later.
It wasn’t until the second century, under the Roman Emperor Constantine where supposedly his conversion to Christianity took place. He made Christianity legal, and under his rule beautiful buildings were erected as safe spaces for Christians to gather. Behind their construction was the ego of the emperor, and his need to construct idols for his worship.
I wonder to this day how he came to interpret the teaching of Jesus in this way.
When the teachings of Jesus were translated from Hebrew and Aramaic into the Latin Vulgate, the German word for church was adopted into the Scriptures. Kirche was used instead of the Greek word ecclesia. Kirche can be translated as building (Church as a building). Ecclesia is more properly translated as those who follow the teachings of Jesus, the collective movement of the followers of the Way.
So instead of continued gatherings around open tables in homes, larger gatherings occurred in magnificent pagan temples which were converted to Christian places of worship to further expand the Empires endorsement of Christianity. But because the buildings had worth, their value began to dictate who could be in or out. The ecclesia became defined as those who were deemed worthy to enter into a kirche of significance. Many people were deemed unworthy, and over time it became about power and wealth, instead of faith alone.
In order to enjoy the rights of religious practice, you needed to be a person of privilege who could buy your literal seat.
Fast forward through the centuries and we arrive at this unique moment in 2020. In North America, we still enjoy religious freedom, but we have been told not to gather. Not because of religious persecution or fear for our lives, but instead because of a global pandemic and the risk that we could jeopardize other people’s lives.
Why would we return to a misrepresentation of ecclesia?
Forgive my bluntness with the following thought.
I wonder if we have used a traditional Sunday gathering with a typical church service as a crutch to express our faith.
Our whole country has been banned from church buildings for months, and only now do people have the opportunity to inch their way back to what it was before.
Do we need to go back? Do we pause and ask different questions that may lead us to encountering the essential good news of Jesus rather than a questionable essential service.
Could we use this time to re-examine the way we define church?
Could we also use this time to re-explore the ways in which we express our worship?
Restrictions are lifting and soon we will be able to gather in smaller groups and tables will first be open in the back yards of our neighbours, friends and extended family.
How will we choose to gather?
Talking about the life of Jesus with others in person will still be possible. But maybe it could look a little different. I see this as an opportunity to rediscover the movement of Jesus, one that is characterized by love, hope and faith and expressed in everyday ordinary life.
If we return to the answer that Jesus gave that teacher. “…Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) Maybe the best way to love our neighbour is by refusing to bend to the political pressure of the mandate “essentially gather”, and instead explore how we can love our neighbour by protecting them, staying physically distant, but socially connected and in this way learn to express the essential love which heals and restores the world.