Sunday, February 9, 2020. Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching.
Scripture Readings: 1 Peter 2:4-10; Hebrews 10:19-25
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Today, we enter into the final chapter of our four part series on the intersection between heaven and earth. For the past four weeks, we have been learning and discussing how God’s space, heaven, and our space, earth, interconnect. Heaven and earth once started together and people could feel God’s presence always, but because of sin, we have become separate. But not all hope is lost to feel God’s presence. We still feel God’s presence in “thin places.” The “thin places” are where heaven and earth overlap. These thin places can be different for everyone. Some people find “thin places” in nature like the beach or ocean. Some people experience “thin places” in moments of life like at the moment of birth or the moment of death.
There have been several places in history that many people would describe as “thin places.” Several weeks ago, Pastor Scott told us about the Tabernacle — the mobile tent that was the place of worship for the Israelites when they were in the wilderness. And then, Pastor Jen told us about the Temple and the Holy of Holies — and how the people of Israel, including Jesus, worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Western Wall of the Temple is still a “thin place” to this day in Jerusalem for many people. And last week, Pastor Scott told us about Jesus Christ and how he became God’s presence in this world. Today, we’ve finally made it to the end of this series where we will talk about our final intersection between heaven and earth: the church.
Our two passages for today are very different in content, style, and function. 1 Peter is a letter written to a group of churches in Asia Minor. Most of the members of these churches were gentiles. On the other hand, Hebrews, which happens to be one of my favorite books of the New Testament, isn’t a letter at all. Hebrews is a sermon given to a church that is being persecuted for their faith in Christ. While passages that we read today are very different, they agree on one thing. The church’s identity is based on Jesus Christ. It’s hard to talk about a community without first talking about its leader.
Hebrews describes Jesus as opening the curtain in the Temple which separated the Holy of Holies from the people. Through Jesus sacrifice, Jesus allows everyone to experience the presence of God. First Peter uses a different and possibly more familiar image for Jesus and his relationship to the church. The author of First Peter calls Jesus the cornerstone on which all other stones of the house are built. Jesus is the basis for the church and its intersection between heaven and earth.
Continuing with the theme of stones, the author of First Peter states that each one of us needs to be a living stone. Yesterday, I visited the Museum of Natural History and looked at a lot of stones and rocks. I realized I didn’t think of any them as being alive. They can’t really move on their own, they don’t breathe, they don’t have a heart. So, I asked my big brother, who works as a geologist for the Airforce, if stones are actually alive. My brother stated that while stones don’t breathe they are always changing. This change could be from erosion, sedimentation, or being uplifted.
If we are to be like living stones, we need to open ourselves up to being changed and transformed. We must not be stagnant and unchanging. We must instead be life-giving.
I want you to notice that First Peter doesn’t command us to build for ourselves a spiritual house. First Peter asks us to “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” By being living stones, we allow ourselves to be built, shaped, and changed by God on the cornerstone of Christ. The church is a special community that is built by God and allows us to feel God’s transformative power in our lives.
Our community is a special community built by God on the foundation of Christ. In this sense, we realize that the church is not a building, it’s a people. People that God has chosen to be a part of this special, loving community. In this community, we have the freedom to be shaped and called to where God wants us each to be.
The church is a thin place because it is a place where we feel God’s transformative power. It also becomes a place of belonging. A little bit of heaven in a world that is full of pain, hate, and anger. In a world where the climate is changing, conflicts rage around the world, and people experience overwhelming crises in their lives, we all yearn for a place of peace and belonging.
At the end of First Peter, the author says, “once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” This was so significant in a community of believers that were Gentiles. They were promised that God was bringing them into God’s family and making them a special part of God’s people which originally just included Israel. Each and every person in that community was a special part of that community.
Recently, people have been asking me if I would attend church if I wasn’t a pastor. It doesn’t take me long to answer: “yes.” From a young age, I always loved going to church. I always loved learning Bible stories in Sunday school and then theology in catechism class. I realized that I lived for Sunday and Sunday became one of my favorite days of the week. I realize now that one of the reasons I always loved church and will always love the church is that I feel like it’s a place in this world where I truly feel like I belong. I feel like I’m seen and heard and loved by God and by the community. It’s a place where we all help each other use and grow our spiritual gifts. The church can be a place of not only acceptance, but true belonging. A place where you feel worthy and like you are meant to be there.
The church is a community where we can feel God’s transformative power and a place where we feel true belonging. The church is also a place where we can feel God’s love. Hebrews invites us to do three things: to approach God, to hold fast, and to help one another. We approach God in this space together and feel God’s presence. Then we hold fast to the faith that we have in God and each other. We persevere together. Finally, we help each other.
Our passage uses an interesting word regarding love in the church. The author tells us to “provoke each other to love.” The words provoke and love are usually not used together. The Greek word used here is paroxysmos which means to provoke, irritate, or pester. This word, while often used with negative emotions, can also be used with positive emotions. To provoke is an action word and in this case prompts people to share God’s love with others. It stops us from getting stuck in our regular ways of working and helps us to continue growing and trying new things. The author is imploring the church to find new ways of showing and bringing about God’s love.
The church is a place of intersection of heaven and earth because it a place where we feel God’s presence and a true sense of belonging and love in a world where hope and love and belonging are often lost. But, as Hebrews says, in order to get to this intersection, we need to gather together. We need to actually show up. Notice, that the author doesn’t say worship together, the author says meet together. While all of the pastors would love to see you here every Sunday worshipping with us, we understand that life gets in the way. But other meetings like choir practice, youth fellowship, Christian Education, and committee meetings can all be places of intersection. They can all be places where we feel a sense of belonging and places where we provoke each other to love.
Over the past year, anticipation of our new renovation has been building. We’ve been through a capital campaign, we’ve seen updated sketches at the annual meeting, and had countless meetings about preparations. But, nothing will quite prepare any of us for the upcoming year of construction. The next year and several months will be difficult. It will be hard to find places to meet. Obviously, the author of Hebrews didn’t know what it was like to go through a big church renovation where most of our building will be closed off and unusable.
But during this time of change and stress, it is important to remember that the church is not a building. The building is important and helps us accomplish ministry better, but the church itself is not a building. The church is a people. The special people of God. We could be meeting on the lawn outside of this sanctuary and not even use the building and still be the church.
The staff had a meeting with several people from the building task-force about plans for when we shut down Heritage Hall. We decided that we would be entering a time of “tabernacling.” A time when we experience having to move from one place to another. A time when we have to be willing to meet where we can even if there isn’t enough space or the meeting room is at LRR. Just as the people of Israel had to be flexible and movable, we also enter a time in our lives when we must embrace the frustration, change, and uncomfortable feelings that come with flexibility and moving.
God created the church to be a place where God can transform us. That transformation is never easy or comfortable. Over the next year, God will transform each one of us and this building in so many different ways. God created the church to be a place of belonging. And we will discover what it means to belong to a church in transition and movement. God created the church to be a place of love. And we will have the opportunity that many churches don’t have as we are pushed to find new ways to provoke each other to love. Many things will change, but Lewinsville will always be God’s people. Thanks be to God. Amen.