This article first appeared in the Pentecost 2018 issue of The Lion’s Tale, the seasonal magazine of my church, St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.
This article starts way back. I mean waaaay back – over three thousand years ago, when two people left their home city and journeyed off into the wilderness. Their names were Abram and Sarai (soon to be Abraham and Sarah), and we read their story in the book of Genesis. The reason I need to start so far back is that Abram and Sarai discovered something that no one else in their land had discovered. They realized (a) there was only one true God and (b) God was already present wherever they went.
These were revolutionary ideas in their day. Most people in their neck of the woods assumed that each mountain and each river and each city had their own gods. Those gods stayed put: they were tied to particular places. Then Abram and Sarai ventured into the wilderness to find a new home, and they found God out in the wilderness. They set up altars to worship God wherever they found God, and soon the desert was littered with their shrines. God was everywhere! How amazing!
The revolutionary idea that God was everywhere became a bedrock element of the faith that sprang from Sarah’s womb. When her descendants were enslaved in Egypt, they cried out to God, and God heard their pleas. Yes, God was in Egpyt with them and on the mountain with Moses and in Aaron’s proclamation and Miriam’s song. During the Israelites’ forty-year wander through the wilderness, they created a special tent to remind them that God’s presence went wherever they did. Like any good tent, it was portable, and a certain family of Israelites was tasked with setting it up and carrying it from place to place.
Then something happened. The Israelites settled in their new land, and several generations later, they built the temple in Jerusalem. And suddenly, God had a home, and people of differing views began arguing that God’s presence filled one place and not another. When the people of Israel were taken into exile, they longed to return home and worship in the temple; indeed, rebuilding it was one of their first orders of business when they were freed to return. Gone were the days of God’s presence unshackled to any specific venue.
Fast forward to the early days of the movement that became Christianity. The original apostles – those “sent out” by Jesus – fostered a movement called the “People of the Way.” They could not worship in the temple, so they met wherever they could – in private homes, in cities far and wide. Over the first few decades, outposts of the Way kept popping up all over the place, despite several concerted attempts to snuff it out. Once again, it seemed like these followers of God would return to Abram’s original revelation – a rediscovery of God unfettered, unbounded, ready and able to appear anywhere, anytime.
But no. The church and the empire intertwined too much, and the trappings of empire soon trapped the church with their power and prestige. Again, in the eyes of people, God was constrained to a particular place, this time the church, and more specifically a little box in the church called the tabernacle. While there were still some visionaries like Sts. Francis and Clare, who still found God everywhere they went, the Church taught that God was to be met in and through the Church. Period.
For hundreds of years, the Church and the Empire (whichever empire was currently in power) were enmeshed. The seat of power in the empire came from their buildings, so why not the church too? But after World War II, a great unraveling of church and empire began, as the former lamented its complicity with the latter, which had led to such devastation and loss of life. This unraveling continues today, and what looks like a shrinking church is really a church on the move – from the developed West to the developing Global South.
In the West, we have entered a time reminiscent of those heady days of Jesus’ first apostles, back when there was no church yet, and their participation in God’s mission was unfettered by concepts like “impossible” and “we’ve always done it that way.” In this “new missional age,” the church’s link to empire has unraveled and so has the expectation that God’s seat of power and presence is in the buildings we call “churches.” We are rediscovering again what Abram and Sarai originally discovered all those centuries ago – that God is already present wherever we go. How could we have lost such a fundamental element of faith? I don’t know. But we did.
And now we are reclaiming it as God’s new apostles, sent forth in God’s mission, joining God in what God is already up to in our neighborhoods. The church building still has a place in all of this, of course, but it is no longer the locus of our understanding of God’s presence. For truly, God’s presence has no locus. But God’s mission does have focus. God’s mission is one of healing, restoration, and reconciliation. God’s mission is one of promoting love, truth, peace and justice in all relationships, both personal and societal. Ours is a God of mission, and God will be about God’s mission whether or not the church climbs aboard.
I’m climbing aboard, and I hope you will join me. Don’t think you’re cut out to be an apostle? Neither was St. Paul until the Spirit of Christ intervened in his life. That same Spirit is present in all our lives, catalyzing us to go out into the world and bear witness to what God is up to. Abram and Sarai found God out there in the world. So did the first apostles of the Way. And so will we.