Pastor Paul’s Column
“Do We Have to Go to Church?”
Dear Disciples of Emmaus,
Our children have no doubt asked us this many times: “Do we have to go to church?” And what is our answer to them? If “Yes,” do we have a reason for them, too? Do we know why we have to go to church? Is it simply because God commands us in the Third Commandment? Does that answer satisfy either them or us?
Surprisingly, this seems a pressing question to my college students. It has popped up a lot in their papers and class discussions, most generally in the form of, ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a good, religious person, do you?’
In this week after Easter, traditionally one of the lowest attended Sunday worship services, after the previous week’s high, it might be a good time to ask this question. And I believe that the traditional Gospel lesson has an answer for us, at least in the form of what’s at stake.
On that first Easter evening, the disciples are huddled together for fear of their leaders and suddenly the risen Jesus is in their midst. “Peace be with you,” he says, and not just once. He also talks to them about be bound together or loosed from one another around forgiveness of sin.
Here’s what I think is at stake in the issue of coming to church: peace. But we need to ask ourselves, “What kind of peace?” In this age of individualism, our first answer to this question seems to be, inner peace. That each of us individually might find some measure of inner peace in the midst of chaotic lives.
I believe this is the kind of idea about religion that is behind my students’ question. They see religion as primarily a personal choice one makes to find some personal measure of peace. You don’t need to go to church all the time if you can find the spiritual things that work for you in giving you inner peace.
I don’t want to challenge our need for inner peace. It’s real. Yet how can we ultimately attain it? For me the most pressing question, challenging the individualism behind it, is, “Can one ultimately have inner peace without having peace in one’s relationships, too?” In other words, if one’s ability to live in community has broken down, and there’s little or no peace with others, can you find peace as an individual? I think lots of people try, but I would challenge their ability in the end to succeed.
So let’s get back to our original question and at least see if we can answer that: “Do we have to go to church?” We might answer, “Yes, if we want to truly have peace.” And by peace we don’t just mean inner peace. No, our inner peace depends on our being able to live in peace with others. That’s the kind of full and gracious peace that Christ brings into our midst ever since that first Easter evening! We come to church, gathered with other people, so that Jesus can teach us, can bestow on us, his brand of ultimate peace. We aren’t going to learn this kind of peace, or receive this kind of peace, sitting at home by ourselves.
Why is Christ’s peace more ultimate and lasting? The short answer is: God’s unconditional forgiveness, that binds us together in lasting ways. The longer answer, well, that’s a question for another day … and a question we’re likely to discover the answer to only by going to church and gathering with Jesus’ disciples.
In the Spirit’s love,