The Rev. Frank
Why Are We Here?
Why are we here? I’m not asking the more existential, “What is human life for?” question. Instead, I want to dare to ask, “Why bother going to church?”
Why are we here in church on a fine spring morning? There was a time when church attendance was accepted thing to do. No, that’s wrong. Not strong enough. Church attendance was the socially required thing to do. Anyone who wanted to do well in business in small town south Georgia would be seen with their whole family in church every Sunday.
When I was growing up, this was more easily accomplished. No, we weren’t more docile children who effortlessly slipped into our Sunday clothes and never complained during the whole vast effort it took to get the five of us kids to church. Some of y’all may have forgotten what the parents of young children you worship with went through to get here this morning. It’s a miracle that some families didn’t lose their religion on the way to church.
Back in the day, it was easier in a different way. Going to church was easier as there was no competition for your Sunday morning. Almost none anyway. There were always those sleep-oriented churches calling your name on a Sunday morning. You know the ones, right? Box Springs Baptist, Mattress Methodist, Pillow Presbyterian and my personal favorite, the Church of the Holy Comforter.
But other than the ideal of sleeping in, there was nothing else to tempt the otherwise faithful away from church on a Sunday morning. No stores were open. No tee times were available. No soccer matches were scheduled. Nothing.
Just 30 years later, there is a lot of competition for your time and energy. So much competition all week long that the Church of the Holy Comforter is even more tempting than ever. As an aside, I know that sometimes churches don’t work together, seeing each other as competition. I can tell you, our fellow churches are not our competition. Those churches are our teammates. The competition is a culture ever increasingly oriented away from a godly life.
Even with all the competition, God is still a major property owner in Camden County. In more than 100 churches around the county, Christians will gather this morning for worship. They will read scripture and hear those biblical passages expounded in sermons. In many churches, they will also join together at table, partaking in the bread and wine of communion. And through all of it, our fellow worshippers around the county will join us this morning as we pause to make more room for God in our lives.
If we don’t watch it, church attendance can seem like a bargain. Come do God the favor of showing up in church and surely the big guy will take care of you during the week. But we don’t come to church for God’s sake. We come for ourselves.
Sure, you can be a Christian without going to church. But you can just barely be a Christian, and not very well. I know that sounds harsh, but Christianity is not about loving God alone. Jesus simplified all his teaching to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” God and neighbor. They go together. And so there is no better way to worship than with your neighbor. We need each other. We need each other to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys. We need each other, because it is so difficult to make any progress on your spiritual journey when you are out there on your own.
Of course, churches do a lot to chase people away. Churches are meant to be the most loving and caring groups of people you can find, but instead churches can be the narrowest, harshest, least forgiving groups of people you will meet. That genuinely breaks my heart to say it, and it must break the heart of God, but it’s true. Churches hurt people. We are not supposed to be a fortress for the saints, but a hospital for sinners. Yet, churches often do more harm than good and turn people away rather than drawing them in.
Look back at Jesus’ ministry and see how he had a knack for putting himself alongside people who were lost and hurting. Then Jesus gave them love and drew them into a closer relationship with God. That’s what a church is supposed to be like. We are supposed to welcome everyone. Everyone. And welcome them right where they are, not where we want them to be. And in so doing, bring them into the life of a community in which everyone knows we are not perfect, but everyone is trying to draw closer to God, closer to becoming the person God created us to be.
Look at the marvelous story from Luke’s Gospel we read this morning. It is the Sunday we remember as the first Easter. Jesus rose from the grave that morning. He appeared to the women in the garden and news of the resurrection reached the disciples before these two slipped out of town. The two disciples on the Road to Emmaus were about to be the two that got away, the ones who slipped out before Jesus appeared to the whole group. But as a shepherd bringing the strays back to the flock, Jesus goes after the two.
It is an odd episode. They do not recognize Jesus. That alone is common to other resurrection appearances. But, how odd is it that Jesus pretends not to know them either. Jesus asks what has been going on in Jerusalem. And then they proceed to tell the one person who truly knows all about it what has happened, from their perspective anyway.
Cleopas and the other disciple tell Jesus about how Jesus was put to death and then add,
“Some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Jesus then lets the mask slip a little here and chides the disciples saying,
Jesus then begins the best Bible study ever undertaken, or the sermon to put all other sermons to shame. As they continue to walk away from Jerusalem, Jesus patiently explains how everything he has done was predicted by the prophets. The ministry of Jesus in what we now call the New Testament dovetails perfectly into the Old Testament.
Jesus paints a perfect picture of who the Messiah is. The funny thing is. The two disciples still don’t understand that they are walking with Jesus. When he scolds them gently for a lack of understanding, he is not Jesus. Even when he expounds the scripture to them with godly accuracy, he is not Jesus.
At last the three reach Emmaus and Jesus pretends to walk on. The Greek word translated here “as if he were going on” means "pretending to go on." But the disciples prove themselves to be Christ followers, offering the stranger hospitality. Then at the meal that evening, the stranger who is the guest becomes the host. Jesus takes the bread, blesses the bread, breaks the bread and gives the bread to those gathered for the meal. Bingo!
How very Jesus. This is exactly what Jesus did when he fed the thousands on a hillside with two weensy fish and five barley loaves. In all these accounts of the feeding of thousands, Jesus takes the bread, blesses the bread, breaks the bread and gives the bread. More recently, Jesus did the same at The Last Supper, just a few nights earlier. On that night, Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread. Jesus also explained that he was the bread. The one taken, blessed, broken and given was to be the Son of God. Jesus who had already been taken and blessed by God, was broken by man on Good Friday and now on Easter, this same Jesus was being given back to the world. And the two, seemingly slow, disciples caught up. They then recognized Jesus.
Then, quick as a flash, Jesus is gone. Vanished. But the two who had been slipping out of town alone are no longer alone. They had experienced the risen Jesus. At once they got up and retraced their steps back to Jerusalem. The slow, seven mile slog out from town was now a quick trot back. Cleopas and the unnamed disciple were back with the rest and they learned that Peter too had seen the risen Jesus. Then they added their own experience on the Road to Emmaus to the stories of the resurrected Lord, telling what had happened on the road and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
This is where my two sermons for today converge. First I asked, “Why are we here? Why bother going to church?” Then I retold the story of the Gospel. The two sermons are one sermon, because the why bother question is exactly what plagued the two disciples as they slipped out of Jerusalem. Why bother gathering with fellow Christ followers anymore. What was the point. It seemed like time to get back to all those other demands pressing for their time.
Then Jesus came to round up his stray sheep. He came to the two disciples through the scripture he expounded on the road, and through the breaking of bread at the home in Emmaus. Scripture and Bread. Word and Sacrament. That is our exact pattern for worship this morning. We gather to hear the word of God in our scripture readings, in the songs we sing (which are scriptural as well) and hopefully through the words of this sermon. Next, we will move to the table and on behalf of our risen Lord, I will take, bless, break and give the bread—the bread that is Christ’s presence among us.
This is no new idea. The church has seen this pattern of word and sacrament in the Emmaus story from its earliest days. Not only that, but the church relived the Emmaus Road experience every time they gathered for worship.
Why we are here this morning is to encounter the risen Jesus in scripture and bread, in Word and Sacrament, in a way that we can’t capture without gathering for communal worship. We need each other for this and we need this to make sense of our lives. Coming to church is not something we do to check God off our To-Do List for the week. We come to church for that communal experience of worship. The chance to gather with fellow sinners in need of a healing word and touch from God. We come to get a taste of that Emmaus Road experience of the risen Jesus.
We may worship God any way we choose all week long. We pray privately, perhaps randomly. We read the Bible and other Christian books occasionally, or maybe even religiously. But we bother to gather here on Sunday in order that we may walk together down that Road to Emmaus. We come to walk this road, because we know that Jesus walks it too. And as we gather in this place, Jesus comes alongside and in spite of the words of the preacher, he manages to whisper in our ear those words we long to here, “I am with you” and “I love you.” Jesus walks along this road with us, he is made known to us in word and sacrament and then the same things happens to us as to those first two travelers on the Road to Emmaus. We are charged with going out into a world that has yet to experience the risen Jesus to let them know that this experience is real. He is risen.
As tempting as Box Springs Baptist, Mattress Methodist, Pillow Presbyterian and even the Church of the Holy Comforter are, they are no competition for an experience of the risen Jesus.
Haven’t felt God's presence yet? Stick around. God is here. Open up your heart. Give him a chance and God will let you know and feel his presence too.
For Alleluia, Christ is risen!