2nd Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 20:19-31;
1 John 1; Acts 4:32-35
DO WE HAVE TO GO TO CHURCH?
“Do we have to go to church?” Yes, believe it or not, even the pastor’s kids ask this question a lot. It’s a question most of our children ask at some time or another, isn’t it? And what is our answer to them? Most of the time, I simply answer my kids, “Yes!”, without giving them any reasons why. Do you give any reasons? If so, what do you tell them? The million dollar question for today is: 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? What’s at stake in going to church?
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 the other hand, this might seem an odd time to ask this question, because here you are! You’re the folks who come to church even the week after Easter! If ever there was a “preaching to the choir,” this would seem to be it! Yet I’m asking this question not as much for us, perhaps, but precisely for those folks who aren’t here today, and especially for those folks who are never, or almost never, here. It’s for the unchurched folks that we are called to witness to. If we are to witness to them, as to why it’s important to go to church, can we tell them why?
I’d have to say that one of the biggest surprises for me so far in teaching at Carthage is the frequency with which the students address this question. 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?’ It’s like, knowing that I’m a pastor, they’re looking for me to affirm their non-involvement in church as being O.K. It’s one of the hazards of being a pastor, I guess, that non-church goers often feel the need around us to justify their not going to church. And the most common reason seems to be that one can be a spiritual person, one can be a good person, without going to church regularly.
But pastors aren’t the only ones confronted with such unsolicited responses, are we? When you — the ones who even go to church the week after Easter — when you mention to unchurched friends your going to church, do you get a similar response? How often do you hear a line similar to, “Well, you can still be a good person without going to church. I have my own spirituality.” Do you hear that from time to time? What do we say to them? Do you have to go to church? Why?
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. It was interesting in class on Thursday. Spirituality came up as something different from religion….
I don’t want to challenge our need for inner peace. It’s a real need. 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. And, even to the extent that they do succeed at having an inner peace, what about the rest of the world? Do we just let it ‘go to hell in a handbasket’? Or does anyone have responsibility to help make the world a more peaceful place?
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 through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, 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. It’s a question that, open to the work of Jesus’ Holy Spirit, the Spirit he continues to breath on us, we can work out in our lives together. Church in recent years, for example, has been somewhat infamous for things like having a huge fight over what color the new carpeting in the sanctuary should be. We aren’t going to find Christ’s peace in that way, that’s for sure. When we do that sort of thing, it’s clear that we’ve lost our focus on Jesus’ call to receive the Holy Spirit of forgiveness and to be peacemakers in this world. And it’s the times that we do that kind of petty bickering which is the main reason, I think, that a lot of people have quit coming to church. If we can’t stay focused on our main reason for being, on sharing the peace of Jesus in real, meaningful ways, then folks are going to stay home and try to find their inner peace on their own.
The picture in Acts this morning, now that’s more like it! It’s short and worth reading again to marvel at this picture of people living together in peace:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Isn’t that incredible? I think it’s much more what Jesus had in mind when he came his disciples that first Easter evening, breathed on them his Holy Spirit, and said, “Peace be with you!” May the Spirit continue to lead us in living that peace. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 29-30, 2000