Our theme today is ekklesia, a Greek word that has been translated as ‘church’. It has three meanings: a vocation, a community, and a building. The literal meaning of ekklesia is ‘called out’, referring to people who are given or take on a vocation. Which begs the question: what is the church’s vocation, or more specifically what is the calling of the Jesus followers who gather at 130 Remuera Road?
The second meaning of ekklesia/church is community. The primary metaphor for Christian community is ‘body’. Each of us is a part of the body – a hair, a nail, a finger, a cell... together we make up part of the ongoing living body of Jesus - which takes us back to the first meaning about vocation: how do we live out a calling to be Jesus for others?
For a body to work together we need to be connected, know and care for one another, and cooperate together.
The trap is that in our being together we can become like a club, with rules and doors and privileges. It’s an ongoing tension for an ekklesia: connected together but barrier-free for the unconnected.
Thirdly, and lastly, ekklesia/church refers to a building. Physical buildings matter. They are kind of like a billboard telling passerbys a variety of messages – like this is where a Jesus community meets, this is what a Jesus community values, teaches, etc. Churches without buildings tend not to last too long.
Over the centuries passerbys have come to expect two things from church buildings: a sacred space where anyone can say a prayer; and a place where anyone can find help. I think it’s very sad and theologically dangerous when churches overlook those two things. Remember God might be a passerby!
A couple of weeks back I talked about Marguerite Porete’s Little Church and Big Church. Little Church being us, a community of Jesus followers, and Big Church being the uncontainable and uncontrollable presence of God/the Sacred out and about, people loving without reward or punishment. The challenge of Marguerite is to be open to the breadth of God wherever found. How do we structure our church and signal to passersby our desire to do that?
So, if significant natural disasters happen, like the Christchurch earthquakes, and let’s say all the buildings in this neighbourhood were flattened, we would need to rethink these issues what is our calling, what is our community, and what buildings would we want to express and enable our calling and our community understandings. I suspect when we redesigned our property here in the early 80s and mid-90s a similar exercise was gone through.
Who owns the church building?
What’s the church building for?
What would you change about this building?
The Rich Farmer story (Luke 12:16-20) is one of the authentic Jesus parables,[i] set by Luke in the context of warning his community about the danger of possessions.
To understand this parable though we need to place alongside it the story of Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41:47-49):
47During the seven plenteous years the earth produced abundantly. 48He gathered up all the food of the seven years when there was plenty* in the land of Egypt, and stored up food in the cities; he stored up in every city the food from the fields around it. 49So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance—like the sand of the sea—that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure.
Joseph develops a strategy to solve an impending grain shortage in Egypt. After seven years of bountiful harvest there will be seven years of drought. The story reiterates over and over that Joseph stores up the surplus in storehouses, so that when the drought comes, Egypt will have plenty of food. We know how this story turns out: in the end Joseph’s farsightedness allows him to save his own family, which had sold him into slavery, from starvation. God apparently acts through conduct that on the surface does not appear just. Out of the brothers’ terrible action of selling Joseph into slavery came their salvation.
In the Jesus parable the farmer is blessed with a giant harvest and so he builds new barns to store up his fantastic bounty. But unlike Joseph he is storing up the bountiful harvest not for the good of the people, but for his own selfish ends. It is all stored up for his own good. “Take it easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself”. A philosophy attributed to Epicurus.
That night God (a character in this parable) demands his life of him. The rich farmer’s plan to enjoy his stored up goods for his own ends is terminated. He dies a fool, one whose very activity has denied the existence of God. The
parable here is referring to Psalm 14:1 “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”
God’s purpose (and here God is the vision-holder of a sacred and inclusive justice) is fulfilled. The harvest will be available for the good of all. It is not going to be divided between his next of kin, like in our day. It is going to all. For bad years will inevitably come. In a limited goods society where there is only so much of everything to go around, a good harvest means that a bad harvest is on the way.
In the future the villagers may well build a statue to honour the man who had the foresight to build such barns and store up the grain. After all they do not know that God demanded the life of this fool. For them he died in his sleep.
This parable makes the simple point that sometimes the good of all, namely that sacred and inclusive justice where everyone has enough, is accomplished in occurrences where it is hard to see any good at all, like a rich man hoarding his wealth while the peasants are in poverty.
One of the words from our tradition to describe the vocation of the community of Jesus was ‘peace’. As the Matthean beatitude says, “Blessed are the peace-makers.”
Peace though is a word with many shades of meaning. There is inner peace – sometimes referring to coming to terms with conflicts within oneself, or sometimes referring to effects of a meditative practice, or both. But such inner peace of course is affected by the presence or absence of outer peace – whether that be peace in our families, workplace, with friends, or in the wider community and world.
Sometimes peace is equated with personal contentment. But the biblical tradition, a bit like the parable of the Rich Farmer, scoffs at a personal contentment that does not take account of injustice and inequity in the wider community and world.
Peace is often equated with the absence of war. While the tragedy of war, and the deep wounds it creates, is not to be minimized, peace in the Christian sense has a wider meaning.
Similarly peace as reconciliation between conflicting parties. Again, without minimalizing the work of reconciliation, the role of mediators and others who work in the field, and honouring the understanding of reconciliation that many have, peace is broader.
The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, holds this wider meaning of peace I’m hinting at – namely a vision of equality, love, hospitality, justice, contentment, everyone having enough to participate in the community, inner and outer healing, absence of war, reconciliation, restoration – all of these being like interconnected blocks, dependent on one another.
This understanding of peace, of course, is quite different from the early Christian communities’ experience of Imperial peace. That was peace through obedience to the most powerful, peace through coercion.
When I talk about peace I prefer to put the word ‘transformative’ in front of it. This is to indicatel that I’m talking about an engaged peace; a peace that can change people’s lives; a peace that can bring hope to those existing on the margins of society; a peace that honours and includes all who mediate, reconcile, build bridges; a peace that welcomes and tells the different and difficult that they belong…
So what might transformative peace look like? Here’s some ideas:
open door hospitality that signals that all belong
building bridges with all people, genders, races, classes, and species
working to help and heal the injustices and hurts in our society and world, and the hurts of the world/planet
joy in being, a joy in living, a joy in connecting, a joy in engaging
[i] It’s also found in the Gospel of Thomas.