What makes a church a church?
It’s more than a building. For months we did not worship in this building and yet we are still a church, though physical location, is significant for many.
The psalm with which we began our service today says, ‘I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name, (138:1-2). Today, the site of that temple and the city of Jerusalem, is a significant place for three religions: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.
So maybe it’s ok that this listed building, with its John Dobson façade, and lovely interior, is part of what makes us a church.
But there’s more. Our Bible readings touch on two other aspects of being a church. First: being a people with a shared story.
The prophet, Isaiah, writing when Jews were without a temple building, exhorted them to remember their shared story: ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and Sarah who bore you.’ (51:1, 2)
Being people made of shared substance – “chips of the old rock”! – also features in our Gospel reading. Jesus inquires who people think he is, and hears that they are identifying him with characters in their shared Jewish story – Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. (16:14)
When Peter identifies Jesus as ‘the Messiah [or ‘the Christ’], as the Son of the living God’ (16:16), then Jesus declares, ‘I tell you, you are Peter [which means ‘stone’ or ‘rock’] and on this rock I will build my church … and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (16:18, 19)
As well as being a people with a building, we are people with a shared story. Churches are chips of the old block, or rock, along with Peter; those who share in the story of following Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Being a church can be about a building. It’s certainly about being a people sharing in the ongoing story of Jesus. Then, thirdly, we’re not only a church with a building, and a church with a story, we’re a church which is a spiritual fellowship.
Writing to Christians in Rome – who shared in a story, but didn’t have a church building – Saint Paul described them as ‘one body in Christ’ (12:5); a living, breathing entity of many parts, so wrapped up in the story of Jesus they were his body here on earth. But they didn’t just share a story from the past. They were gifted by God’s Holy Spirit today, for ministry in the here and now.
I used to live near the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, on the edge of Oxford. It contains a stained-glass window with a picture of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. There are seven rays of light descending from dove, a reference to seven gifts of the Spirit. In the history (or shared story) of the Church there are different schemes that suggest different combinations of gifts to reach this magic number.
Writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul says, ‘we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness’ (12:6-8).
Prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generous giving, diligent leadership, compassion: spiritual gifts for the life of the church.
So, what makes a church a church?
First, perhaps place makes a church – it’s often part of the deal, though not essential.
Second, our shared story makes us a church – chips of the old rock of Abraham and Sarah; chips of the old rock of Peter and all who have followed and proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Third, being a spiritual fellowship makes us a church, generously equipped by God with all sorts of gifts for being God’s people in God’s world today.
These are the things that make this church a church.
O God, pour out your gifts upon this fellowship, as we follow and tell of the story of your Son, Jesus Christ, both today and in the future, in this place and every place. Amen.