Last year we had a wonderful opportunity to travel through Germany and Norway. I have always been interested in architecture and history, so whenever I travel I am always keen to visit ancient buildings, and especially churches. In Norway we took the postal boat down the Norwegian coast that stopped off at many little ports along the way. At one of those ports we went to see one of the oldest churches in Norway that is still being used for Christian worship. The early medieval frescoes on the walls, the large stone font in which to immerse a baby, the decorated rood screen and altar screen wonderfully painted was a sight to behold. But what impressed me more was that we were able to participate in a simple morning prayer led by the Lutheran Pastor. The building itself spoke volumes about the intention of the medieval King who built the church to spread the transforming message of the gospel across his realm, and the centuries of faithful Christian witness and worship lived out in that area, but the opportunity to join in a service of worship made it all real and present.
I admire the grandeur of the great Cathedrals of Europe, the sheer magnificence of their architectural achievement, the stunning stained glass and carved word and stone, but without the gathering of the people who worship in that space something vital is missing. One of the very first things that Jesus does at the beginning of his ministry is to gather a community around him. It has been said that Jesus never wrote a book, never left us a creed or rule of life to follow, nor a philosophy of life. But he did leave something. He left a visible community of faith, who did write, and preach, baptise and teach.
In the New Testament there are many different metaphors that are used to speak about this community we call the church. Each one of these metaphors gives us more to think about and embody. Jesus describes his disciples as ‘Salt of the Earth, and Light of the World’. He speaks of himself and the Vine, and the disciples as the branches that receive life and bear fruit only because they are part of the Vine.
Paul speaks about the ‘Household of God’ and ‘The Body of Christ’. Peter says, ‘You are a Chosen race, a Royal Priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’, and the writer of Ephesians speaks about the church as a building where Christ is the Cornerstone from which the foundations and levels of the building are made true, but also speaks about the church as a ‘New Humanity’ called to model to our divided world the harmony of God’s mercy and justice. The church is also called ‘a letter from Christ’ that makes it clear that we have something important to say to our divided world that is vital to its renewal and future.
These are but a few of the images given to us of the church, and over the next two weeks I have invited different members of the church to reflect on one of those images as a way of helping us to reflect on what it means for us to be the Church of Jesus Christ in this place.
Years ago when I taught in a high school in Fiji, I said to my students, the church is not a building; it’s people who make up the church. And all of them shook their heads and pointed to the Church – by far the biggest and most impressive structure in the village – saying, ‘No Sir, that’s the church!’ Yes, I said that’s the church and it only comes alive when its filled with people. Without the people its empty. You and I together make the church come alive and sing, and become a place where people learn to love God and their neighbour.