Going Out with Indescribable and Glorious Joy!

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Easter 2A (March 30, 2008)

Diana Butler Bass, a Senior Fellow at the Cathedral College of the Washington National Cathedral in DC published a book in 2004 called The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church. In it, Butler Bass builds on the work of Brooks Holifield and provides a description, in broad strokes, of the history of American congregations from 1607 to the present. So, for example, from 1607-1789 the American religions landscape and the American civic landscape were largely synonymous. One entered the church by virtue of being born. In other words, you were, by birth, both a citizen of the town and a member of the town-square church. After the Revolutionary War, the landscape changed a bit as the church became viewed as a Voluntary Association – multiple denominational churches competed for members by focusing on personal salvation and personal piety. In the late 19th century, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the church was viewed largely as a civic organization with the parish hall replacing the sanctuary as the focal point for the gathered community. These “social congregations” as they are dubbed by Holifield and Butler Bass, remained the norm until the post-World War II period when churches began to market their programs and worship services to specific groups of individuals. This is the period in which the non-denominational and mega-churches began to emerge and to flourish. It is also the first time that religious persons – in large numbers –could meaningfully be described as “shopping for a church” as they left the denomination of their birth in search of a better fit for their interests or needs. Congregations of this period are referred to as “participatory congregations.”

Holifield’s description of congregations stops here, but Butler Bass contends that today’s church – the church which has been emerging since the 1990s - is entering a new age –an age that is and will continue to be shaped by the postmodern replacement of the enlightenment’s notion of verifiable truths with an embrace of diversity, ambiguity, and contradiction. Unfortunately, those churches, writes Butler Bass, that “continue to be controlled by the worldviews of either social or participatory churchgoing . . . will experience conflict and decline” because the worldviews which support these structures “are passing and becoming increasingly less culturally tenable.”[1]

I wanted to quote just a bit of today’s reading from I Peter here, but I have to confess, I simply couldn’t find a piece to leave out. This is amazing stuff:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith - being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”[2]

Does this sound like a social club? Like an invitation to join what Butler Bass refers to as “the religious equivalent of Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce”? Hardly! This is an invitation to experience new birth – a new birth “into a living hope, an inheritance, that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.”[3] And isn’t that what our celebration of Easter is all about? It is not about celebrating our acceptance into a club whose only requirements for membership are an ability to pledge 10% of our income and a willingness to show up on Sunday mornings for an hour of worship that requires little from us beyond an occasional amen and a nod in the middle of the pastor’s sermon to make him or her think you are listening! Indescribable and glorious Easter joy begs for intentional participation and authentic practice.

In today’s gospel we hear that the disciples have locked the door for fear of the Jews. And yet, despite this locked door, Jesus enters the room, stands with his disciples, and greets them: “Peace be with you.” Though the disciples wanted to protect themselves – to close their doors against those outside – Jesus came in, passing through the locked door, breaking down the physical boundary. Throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated his willingness to break through boundaries – boundaries of purity and of righteousness, boundaries of gender roles and status – and now, even after his resurrection, Jesus continues to demonstrate the importance of breaking through boundaries – this time, by passing through a locked door.

When being religious means little more than going to church on Sundays, we have become like those early disciples. We have locked the doors of our faith. The world continues to change outside the doors – but we are afraid to go out because we are no longer confident that our religious claims are relevant outside these four walls. Or maybe we are afraid to go out because we fear that doing so will somehow change what we do on this side of the door. But the bottom line is this. Jesus came to go out into the world. After greeting the disciples, he tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He sends them out – out of the locked room, out into the world filled with their fears. In the same way, Jesus calls us out. We are a sent people. We are called to do more than provide the best worship experiences inside these doors. We are called to do more than provide the best Sunday School for our children inside these doors. And we are called to do more than invite people into our building to participate in our programs. No! We are called to move outside of these walls – to march out these doors – and engage the community and the world that exist just on the other side.

People in our community are asking questions, seeking deep meaning; but the church has become only one of the myriad places they go in search of the answers. More and more people tell us they are “spiritual not religious” – a clear sign that something the church is offering is no longer relevant to the lives of many people. For these persons, self-help books, the latest health trends, or another mocha latte offer a quick spiritual fix. But, what these quick fixes do not offer – and those of us inside the doors of the church know this to be true – is the permanence and depth of the Gospel. What these quick fixes cannot do is provide new birth into a living hope, into an inheritance, that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.

You and I have already received the promise of new birth, the promise of the Gospel. But for those outside who are seeking, those who are out there asking questions, who will bring them within sight of this Good News? This is a question for us all. Who will bring them within sight of this Good News? Let us open wide the doors of this church and accept Christ’s invitation to go outside rejoicing with an indescribable and glorious joy!

[1] Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining A New Old Church, (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2004), pp. 15-20.
[2] I Peter 1:3-9.
[3] Butler Bass, pp. 61-2.