Imagine a church like the holy city: full of light, open to all peoples, rooted in the gospel, and overflowing with love. (Listen.)
A few years ago, I went to the Southwest Roadshow. There, LGBTIQA+ folk, allies and agencies listened to and learned from one another about the needs, resources and gaps in the region. I was there as an observer, at the invitation of friends. But to my surprise, one of those friends then introduced me to the gathering and told everyone about Sanctuary.
My friend is a person who has experienced a great deal of rejection, discrimination, and harm in ways often driven by Christians. Because her experiences of ‘godly’ people have been so damaging, she describes herself as an anti-theist: someone who is against God. But to the hundred or so people there, she said into the microphone, ‘You need to know about Sanctuary. It’s safe and welcoming for people like us. It’s a light in the darkness, and it gives me hope.’
As a pastor, I am often asked, Why church? What’s the point? Why bother turning up? Because quite frankly we can read better sermons and hear better music online; we can have better conversations with old friends than with the oddbods in any given congregation; we can be better resourced for place making and community development through secular organisations; and anyway other forms of spirituality are so much easier and so much more ‘spiritual’ than this awkward old beast we call church.
So, why church? It’s a great question, particularly in a fragmented post-lockdown post-church kind of age; and depending on the circumstances and my mood, you’ll get a different answer. But the story of my anti-theist lesbian friend tells you what I’m thinking today: and it reminds me of the book of Revelation.
Last week I introduced the idea of reading Revelation liturgically, that is, reading it as a letter addressed to a small fragile worshipping community which is bearing the pain of the world (here). I suggested that this way of reading places God at the centre, but leaves plenty for the church to do and be. This plenty is not about saving-the-world, nor is it about selling pie-in-the-sky-til-you-die. Instead, in this way of reading, the worshipping community is called to embody God’s new creation and be a sign of God’s future, a glimpse of the fullness that is yet to come for the whole world. We get a sense of that fullness in Revelation 22, as John describes his vision of the new Jerusalem.
‘I had a vision!’ he says, ‘The holy city came down from heaven and filled the earth! And this city is so bright, so radiant, that there are no dark corners, no dangerous alleyways. There are no monsters under the bed, and women walk safely alone at night: in fact, there is no night: for the city is always lit up with God’s glory!’
And so we as a worshipping community are invited to imagine a church like the holy city: so clear, so transparent, that there are no dark corners. There are no clandestine meetings and no weeping choirboys and no women keeping terrible secrets. There are no factions, no unacknowledged power, and no hidden wealth; no hypocrisy and no lies: for everything is clear and above-board. This church is so bright that every corner of the human heart, every human experience, is bathed in God’s light and integrated into God’s fullness. And the stories it tells and the love that it shares shine hope into other people’s lives, and draw them to the beautiful, radiant city.
‘I had a vision!’ says John, ‘The gates are never shut: instead, they’re flung wide open to welcome all peoples. Nothing unclean will enter the city, because God makes all things clean. So all people come to worship God, and they are all bearing gifts!’
And so we as a worshipping community are invited to imagine a church like the holy city: so open, so welcoming, that all who turn up find a red carpet rolled out for them. A place where everyone has a place to belong, a place they don’t have to earn; a place where everyone can share their gifts. Imagine a church which doesn’t preference men over women, European theologies over Indigenous theologies, intellect over other ways of knowing; a church which doesn’t elevate white people over brown, straight people over gay, adults over children. An open church, which no longer polices baptism or membership or sexuality or gender; a hospitable church, which doesn’t set fences around the communion table, but welcomes everyone in. ‘Come as you are!’ this church says, ‘God’s grace is enough!’ — so they pour in, bringing their gifts!
‘I had a vision!’ says John, ‘There’s a sparkling river: it flows from God right through the heart of the city. Fruit trees grow on both sides of the river, left and right. The trees provide good eating all year round, and the leaves are for healing the peoples.’
And so we as a worshipping community are invited to imagine: a church which is planted on the banks of the river of life. It doesn’t buy in cheap synthetic fertilizers of management theory or corporate models or the latest in pop psychology. Instead, it’s fed by the logos, the word, the eternal joyful conversation that is communion with the Lamb. Imagine: a church with deep roots in the gospel! It produces good fruit year-round, fruit which nourishes and sustains. Imagine a church so healthy, so actively engaged in feeding and loving and peace-making and bridge-building, that it is healing all peoples; even its leaves are balm.
‘I had a vision!’ says John, ‘In the holy city there’s no temple, no synagogue, no place of worship, no church: because Godself is the temple and Godself permeates all things. There is no longer any need for separate places to highlight the holy: because people have finally seen that the whole world is overflowing with the goodness and power of God.’
And so we as a worshipping community are invited to imagine: a church which is not an end in itself. A church which doesn’t squabble over buildings or committees or programs or succession planning; which isn’t interested in self-protection or self-perpetuation; which trusts God for its future and gives its life away. Instead of arguing over worship styles or theologies, it pours its energies into justice. Instead of policing who can eat at the communion table, it sets a place for everyone and works towards shalom. Instead of tearing people apart, it unites all people in love.
Instead of limiting faith to an hour on Sundays as presented by the priestly class, this church sanctifies all places, all work, all activities, and affirms all people as ministers.
Imagine: a church shining brightly with integrity, authenticity, and transparency. A church which welcomes all comers and sees them through the lens of grace. A church which feeds people with the goodness of gospel fruit. A church which models justice and peace, and builds love between diverse people. A church not known for words which harm, but for loving words which heal. A church which points to the holy in all things, and enables the ministry of all peoples.
Imagine a church which models the holy city so beautifully, so generously, so powerfully, so tenderly, that one day it will be unnecessary: because it shines with a light so bright that all peoples everywhere see the radiant face of God. Even the anti-theists and my hurting, wounded friend; even you, even me.
So in answer to the question, ‘why church?’: this is why: because we can imagine the radiant holy city. And in our embodiment as church, we have already caught glimpses of this city among us, and so have others who are watching: and it gives them life and light and hope. So by God’s grace, let us grow into this vision ever more fully, as a witness and a sign of God’s kingdom come. In the name of Christ, we pray: Amen. Ω
- When have you experienced church as holy city?
- Where are the ‘gates’ or entry points? How can they be opened more widely?
- Do we welcome the gifts of all people? How might we do this better?
- How does this vision shape your daily life?
Go now, and walk in the light of God’s glory. Drink deep from the river of the water of life. Let the holy city fill your imagination: and live into its culture. And may God be gracious to you and bless you, and make their face to shine upon you, as you discover the holy in all things and shape your life in joyful response. For the service of worship never ends: it must be lived. We go in peace to love and serve the Lord: in the name of Christ. Amen.
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 on 22 May 2022 © Sanctuary 2022 (Year C Pascha 6). Image shows Shin Maeng. I see the new garden (2018).
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