3rd Sunday of Easter
Texts: Luke 24:36b-48;
1 John 3:1-7; Acts 3:12-19
DO WE HAVE TO GO TO CHURCH?
“Do we have to go to church?” Yes, 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, we simply answer our kids, “Yes!”, without giving them any reasons why. Finally, when they are confirmed, sometimes we start to give in a little.
[Addressing the confirmands:] We don’t want this day to be the last one for a while for you this morning. So the million dollar question for today is: Do we know why we have to go to church? Is it simply because God commands us to in the Third Commandment? What’s at stake in going to church? Can we get beyond having to go to church, to needing and wanting to go to church?
There’s a standard approach these days in saying that one doesn’t need to go to church. I know it’s a common line among the younger generations. When I taught a couple of religion classes at Carthage College several years ago, I was surprised at how often I heard the question: ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a good, religious person, do you?’ It implies the reasoning that one can be a spiritual person, one can be a good person, without going to church regularly.
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. Here’s what I think is at stake in the issue of coming to church: peace. We should need and want to come to church in search for the peace that only the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, can ultimately give us.
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. In our modern world, we 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 a real need. And we can get some measure of it through other disciplines, like meditation, or exercise, or certain leisure activities. Yet is that ultimately enough, if there is chaos all around us in our lives? The most pressing question 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 other people, 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? Do we need 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, I hope you’ve had a good glimpse of that as we have studied scripture together this year, especially in learning about Jesus. Like in this morning’s Gospel, he’s the one who can ‘open our minds to understand the scriptures.’ Through him, we learn that God has a different approach to the violence in this world. God didn’t send Jesus as the Messiah to stop our violence with a superior firepower. That’s our typical kind of answer, the kind we just used again in the war with Iraq. Our answer of war may help to bring some peace temporarily, but it will never be the ultimate answer. It wasn’t the answer that God uniquely gives us in Jesus the Messiah, who instead of coming with a superior firepower from God, came to suffer our violence. And God raised him up on the third day to show us how impotent our powers of violence really are in the end. It’s just as the Risen Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
Have we in the church done a good job of being witnesses to Jesus’ brand of peace? Definitely not. We Christians have sometimes been the worst offenders of the superior firepower sort of answer. We fail even in the little everyday things of living in forgiveness with one another and ourselves. 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. Let me just say to your parents and friends for a moment: We aren’t going to find Christ’s peace in that way, that’s for sure. When we do all that petty arguing, 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.
I say to you, and to all of us, that’s also why God’s gracious forgiveness is so amazing. God is so patient and forgiving with us, forever inviting us to get it right by learning to follow his Son Jesus. We are promised Jesus’ very Spirit of understanding. As we said with the children at Children’s time, each of us is promised at our baptisms, and again as we are confirmed, “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). Open yourselves to that Spirit as you continue in the church. It’s not only a matter of your needing to find the way of peace with other disciples here. But we also need you! We need you, the next generation of Christians, to do an even better job than we have done at finding and living that peace which God extends to us in Jesus Christ. God has promised to help you. God promises you again in just a few moments, as your baptisms are affirmed. So, in the words of St. Paul (I have a confirmation verse to share with you all), ‘May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 4, 2003