One Sunday a mother shook her son awake, telling him it was time to go to church. No effect. Ten minutes later she was back: “Get out of bed immediately and go to church.” “Mother, I don’t want to. It’s so boring! Why should I bother?’ “For two reasons: You know you must go to church on Sunday, and secondly, you are the bishop of the diocese.”
Stop and consider for a moment why we come to church. What are we here for? Our life as a church is centered around the Eucharist, but what does it mean? The word “Eucharist” derives from the Greek eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving”; we come to church to express our thanks to God. But the Eucharist is much more than a corporate expression of gratitude.
The Eucharist is Christ’s gift to us, instituted at the Last Supper before his crucifixion, which we receive as a memorial of his life, death and resurrection. Every Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. We celebrate joyfully, with music and psalms, the great promise of eternal life, and life in the Spirit of God.
The Eucharist service comprises two halves: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament. In the first half we hear scripture readings from both the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible – and New Testament – the story of Jesus Christ. The holy scriptures are the story of our salvation. One of the reasons we come to church is to hear and learn this story and allow it be woven into our own personal and collective history. Through the scriptures we hear the voice of God, whose words of life inspire and guide us. You need to know it if you believe there is an after-life, because central to the story of salvation is the liberation of our souls from death. (Even if you don’t believe in life after death, scripture still contains wisdom which will benefit you.)
The most precious words of scripture are (for a Christian) those of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus often speaks to us in parables – in little stories which at first perplex us – we have to work at understanding them; but hearing them more than once has the effect of allowing the words to sink in, like rain sinking into the ground and nourishing the roots of a plant. Eventually the words and sentences we have heard many times over may suddenly touch our hearts at a deep level. In our dawning realisation of what Jesus is saying, the Holy Spirit is also active in conveying God’s message to us.
The second half of the Eucharist is the Liturgy of the Sacrament. According to our catechism, a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.” (BCP p. 857) “The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion [Eucharist] is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, and received by faith.” (BCP p. 859). The Eucharist is our holy meal, the heavenly food which nourishes us for our daily lives and work and relationships. In the Eucharist we become one body, united in one Savior, Jesus Christ. While it is possible to explain and describe what happens in great detail, the Eucharist remains a mysterious and profound manifestation of God’s presence among us, in simple bread and wine.
If going to church is about receiving from God, what do we give in return? We give our selves, our time and our attention. In church we are being built into a community of faith – praising and thanking God – and service. Our Christian faith is a dynamic element of our personal lives, which are nurtured and sustained through faithful attendance at church. The relationships we form at church with one another are blessed by God, which means that God is among us in our friendships and work, and in the many different ministries we willingly undertake together. When we speak of God’s love, we may have a direct experience of it, but we are more likely to experience this in small acts of kindness done to us by a neighbor. This is because, in the words of St Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.”
Being a Christian means coming to church – we all need the gentle rain of Christ’s words and his holy food to sustain us. To stay away from church is like being a flower in the desert: without water and nourishment, the flower wilts and dies under the heat of the sun. Of course, this doesn’t apply to those who are unable to leave home – through home visits and by partaking in home communion brought by the church’s eucharistic visitors, they fully belong to the church.
We expect God to be always available and faithful to us, so why not be faithful to him in return? Consider church going to be a good habit which will bring you closer to God. Or think of it this way: You don’t go to church; you are the church.
I haven’t yet mentioned reasons why not to come to church. One is the mistaken belief that to come to church you need to be a good person. Actually, it’s the exact opposite, as Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Another reason people cite for non-attendance is that they “don’t get anything out of church.” Sometimes you need to come to church more than once to get something out of it. Eventually, you will discover that, as the Christian blogger Katherine Harms puts it, “a worship service is not about what the congregation gets. A Christian worship service is about what the congregation gives to God.”
For the casual visitor, standing outside the door and wondering whether to take the first step, what more can I tell you? Church is the place of encounter with the living God. Church will cause you to re-think your relationships, especially your relationship with God. You will be challenged, hear things you won’t agree with, hear things that will cause you to say, “that’s exactly right!” In church you will discover what freedom really means, and it will surprise you. A church is a school for love, and our teacher is Jesus Christ. A church is a place of sanctuary and of peace, and in church you will be welcomed for who you are, not for who you aren’t.
Whenever I write about the Church I always write more than I intend, and at the same time I feel I have written not enough. If we had a church bell then my words would be like the first ringing of the bell, calling you to worship. Ultimately, each person must discover for themselves the significance of regular and faithful worship, and know the love of God in Jesus Christ which we experience in Church. Pastor Carey Nieuwhof says that “The church gives the world a front row seat to the grace of God.” Come and experience Christ in the joyful and life-giving church community of St Barnabas.
With peace and joy this Advent