“Around the year 1510, a delegation of Christians from Sudan, which had been recently overrun by Muslim conquest, went to the Christian Ethiopian court and begged the emperor to send them bishops and priests. The Christians remaining in Sudan needed clergy to lead worship, administer the sacraments, and teach the people. But the emperor refused, sending them away empty-handed.
With no Christian worship, within 100 years Christianity in Sudan became extinct and forgotten until the twentieth century.”1
Stories like that make you wonder about the focus of the broader Church right now, the focus on what has been called “mission”, but in real life makes the Church look a bit more like a faith-based good-works society. The proponents of such a mission-based Church think that we should give up our buildings and move to the streets; one such proponent, a writer named Tom Ehrich, one of his latest commentaries is titled “Why Christians Should Ditch Monuments in Favor of Messages.”2 To this and to other like commentaries, Jesus says no.
In fact, God and his people have been saying no to that since the beginning of time. God has given His people landmarks, physical monuments, or physical reminders of His interactions with us all along. How did God remind Noah and his family that he loved them? A rainbow, a physical sign. When God spoke with Jacob, what did Jacob do? He set up a pillar, an altar, really, and he sanctified it, set it apart, pouring wine and oil over it. God gave the Israelites a place to meet Him even in the wilderness, making the Ark of the Covenant their spiritual home. On the flip side, losing a home like St. Matthias reminds us again that a church building is not something to be tossed aside; losing a church like that brings profound loss, pain, something akin to death.
Jesus, being Himself the Son of God, knew that His Father, though filling all things, liked to be found in certain places. Jesus went regularly to the synagogue to teach, yes, but also to pray, to rest, to be in His Father’s presence. Today we hear about Jesus doing what Moses did to commune with God, going up on a mountain, and who did He meet there? Surprise, Moses! And it was on that mountain that Peter, James, and John saw Jesus most fully for who He is. After the Resurrection we see Christians building monuments, often churches, on the spots where awesome stuff happened; Celtic Christians like to call these spots “thin places”, places where God is somehow more accessible, or perhaps where we are more accessible to God.
That doesn’t mean that mission-based Christianity is foolish or totally wrong. They’re just going about things in the wrong way – cart before the horse kinda stuff. Should we be out in the world doing the work of God? Of course we should, Jesus Himself separated the sheep from the goats based on the works of their hands or lack thereof. At the Church of the Advent in Boston, one of the best parishes, I think, in the country, on the inside of the front door, pointing to the outside, a sign reads The Mission Field Begins Here – Now. It’s a powerful statement, but again, where does that statement hang? In a monument to the faith, where God can be found.
You see, Jesus knew that without worship, without meeting God where He wills to be found, without being strengthened and grounded by the physical, we are useless in the mission field. That’s why you won’t see me doing the new popular thing, Ashes to Go, where clergy spend hours at transit hubs on Ash Wednesday attempting to smear ashes on people’s foreheads. They mean well and it’s an honest attempt at evangelism, but it lacks what? A sense of space. On top of not wanting people’s perhaps only interaction with a priest to be the priest reminding them that they are going to die and turn to dust, I think that it’s the lack of physical grounding in a church that takes a wonderful sacramental like ashes and turns them to mere superstition.
Here in Bordentown we have been blessed to have the inheritance of Christ Church – an inheritance of being in a community that takes worship seriously and with joy, and an inheritance of taking the joy and strength found at the altar and bringing it out into the world in service to our neighbours. My prayer today is that just as our Lord was transfigured on that mountaintop, that we might be transformed into His likeness in this place, so that His mission of reconciling all mankind with His Father might be accomplished right here.
1. Kazamiers Bem, http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2015/01/23/christianity-cannot-survive-the-decline-in-worship/35932
2. Ehrich, Tom, http://www.religionnews.com/2015/01/20/christians-ditch-monuments-favor-messages-commentary/