It is hard to be a church right now. It’s hard to be an anything right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard to be a church right now.
Worship doesn’t always feel like worship right now. There are no vestments to put on, there’s no pulpit to preach from, there’s no altar to pray at. We aren’t singing together and I don’t have a few minutes to talk to the children. There are no hands to shake. There are no snacks after the service. Worship doesn’t always feel like worship right now.
And the truth is that meetings don’t always feel like meetings, and office hours don’t always feel like office hours, and Bible studies don’t always feel like Bible studies right now. So much of what we do is not about the content, it’s about being together. And while we can deliver content over the internet, we can’t really be together.
Not in the way that we’re used to.
And so being the church doesn’t always feel like being the church right now. We’re asking each other to use new—and, sometimes, frustrating—technology. We’re pushing each other to reach out more than we’re used to. We’re overwhelmed with news and worry and wonder. We’re trying to hold things together with both hands and a roll of duct tape.
And it’s hard. It’s hard to be a church right now. It’s hard to be an anything right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard to be a church right now.
Last week, we met Paul in Thessalonica. He went to the synagogue and argued with the people. And some of those people were persuaded; some of them were convinced. And those people created a church—they created a community—where they preached the impossible and worked on turning the world upside-down.
And later, Paul wrote a letter to the believers in Thessalonica. He wrote that he had heard about all of the things that they had been doing, and how they imitated Christ, and how they loved. And he told them to do more of that. He told them to double down on love.
This week, we meet Paul in Corinth. And he’s doing the same sort of thing.
Every week, he goes to the synagogue and argues with people. And some of those people are persuaded; some of them are convinced. And, as usual, some of them are not. But every sabbath day, he goes and he argues. And during the week, he stays with Priscilla and Aquila and makes tents.
After a year-and-a-half of this, Paul and Priscilla and Aquila leave Corinth. And the people in Corinth who were persuaded create a church—they create a community—where they preach the impossible and work on turning the world upside-down.
Paul goes to Jerusalem and Antioch and all over. And Priscilla and Aquila go to Ephesus, where they meet a man named Apollos. Now, Apollos is a fervent believer. He preaches boldly and with a burning enthusiasm. And Priscilla and Aquila teach him a little. And then they send him to Corinth. And Priscilla and Aquila go on their way.
We don’t know exactly what happened, but we can guess.
The believers in Corinth created a church… they created a community. But churches in those days didn’t meet in big buildings with sanctuaries and classrooms and fellowship halls. They met in houses.
A few people would gather here—at Priscilla and Aquila’s old house—to read scripture and pray and sing songs and break bread. And a few people would gather a few streets over—at Chloe’s house—to read scripture and pray and sing songs and break bread. And a few people would gather in that neighborhood… and that one… and way over on the other side of town.
And in the beginning, they were probably pretty similar. Everyone knew Paul and Priscilla and Aquila. They knew the gospel that Paul had preached. They knew the way that the trio had said to do things. So that’s how they did them.
But then Apollos shows up. And he is good… and the gospel he preaches is true… and he does things differently… and he says things differently. And some people start saying, “I’m with him.”
And then some folks hear about this guy named Peter. And he is good… and the gospel he preaches is true… and he does things differently… and he says things differently. And some people start saying, “I’m with him.”
And then the folks who like the old way—the gospel that Paul preached, the way that Paul and Priscilla and Aquila did things—start saying, “We’re with them.”
And what was one church—one community preaching the impossible and working on turning the world upside-down—becomes several churches. And each one is good. And the gospel that each one preaches is true.
No one knows who Chloe is, but I suspect she’s someone who’s trying to hold things together with both hands and a roll of duct tape.
You see, some of Chloe’s people had gone to Ephesus and found Paul and told him:
“We are fractured. We are a broken community. We have some people who say, ‘I follow Paul.’ And we have other people who say, ‘I follow Apollos.’ And we have some people who are saying, ‘I follow Peter.’ And we have some people who are like, ‘Oh, I’m above the whole Paul-Apollos-Peter thing… I just follow Christ.’ And we don’t know what to do. What do we do?”
And it’s a fair question. ‘Cause when Chloe and her friends saw this problem, the church was young, and maybe it was the first time that some people in the church were in one faction and some people in the church were in another faction. Maybe it was the first time that the church started breaking open and breaking apart.
And so Paul sends a letter to Corinth. And he writes, more-or-less,
“For the love of God! Some of y’all are going around telling people that you’re mine? I’m not Christ. I wasn’t crucified for you. You were not baptized in my name… into my death… into my resurrection. In fact, I barely even baptized any of you! And the same thing goes for Apollos and Peter. We are messengers. We are not the message. We are just here to preach the impossible… to proclaim the gospel… to turn the world upside-down.”
And what Paul writes is true. Christ lived for us. Christ died for us. Christ rose for us and brought us new life. We worship as Christ’s body. We eat at Christ’s table. We share Christ’s baptism. Christ is the head of our congregation and of the whole church. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. And it is all centered on Christ.
And Paul’s words have a beautiful simplicity: you don’t belong to Paul or Apollos or Peter. You belong to Christ. You belong to God.
The church is older now. It’s been almost 2000 years since Chloe sent some people to find Paul and tell him about the believers in Corinth and ask for help. And I don’t know if you’ve ever… met people. But we’re really good at dividing ourselves up. We’re pretty good at saying, “I’m on this side. And you’re on that side.” Even the church has gotten pretty good at being divided.
And one of the things that’s hard about being a church right now is how easy it is to see that. All of these churches—churches that used to be separated by streets and neighborhoods, by county lines and state lines, in different cities and different time zones—are all right next to each other… on the internet.
I could leave this online sanctuary and go to one where a big church has a whole production team putting on a show in the sanctuary… with vestments and a pulpit and an altar. Or I could go to the little church putting up recordings made at a kitchen table… with some time to sing together and a few minutes with the children. Or I could go almost anywhere else.
And I know that you could, too.
And, I’ll be honest, there’s part of me that wants to tell you not to do that. There’s part of me that wants to tell you that… well… that you belong to me. And that you belong to me even when things are hard… even when being a church doesn’t feel like being a church. And going to St. Paul’s or St. Apollos’s or St. Peter’s—where worship feels more like worship—is wrong. There is part of me that is possessive and proud. It’s true.
But there is also part of me that knows better. You don’t belong to Paul… or Apollos… or Peter… or me. You belong to Christ. You belong to God.
And we all belong to each other.
There is a tension here, in this time when worship doesn’t always feel like worship and being the church doesn’t always feel like being the church.
Sometimes, we need to go where the content feels familiar. We need to go to St. Paul’s or St. Apollos’s or St. Peter’s or wherever, where there is a production team or a kitchen table, where there is a pulpit or where there are a few minutes with the children. And if you need permission to do that, you have it.
(And if you need permission to help us do that here, in this virtual sanctuary, you have it.)
And sometimes, we need to go where the people are familiar, where the community is familiar, where we have been before, preaching the impossible and working on turning the world upside-down. Sometimes, we need to be home. Even if home is a little weird at the moment. Even if home is a little hard. Even if we know that there are other homes across the street, or across town, or across the world.
Even if we know that no matter who we are right now, and no matter where we are on life’s journey right now, we belong to Christ… we belong to God.
And we all belong to each other. And, together, we can make even this virtual space—and even this strange time—a home. With both hands… and maybe a little bit of duct tape.
Thanks be to God!