If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. - 1Corinthians 18:19
One of my first clergy mentors would tell a story about how he and his wife had taken a trip to England back in the early 80’s to visit a cousin. On a sightseeing trip one day, they walked by a parked car that had the fish symbol on it. Called an ‘ichthys,’ it is a symbol for Christ - the letters in the Greek word for fish are an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Upon seeing the fish symbol, the cousin said to her husband in a very surprised and excited voice, “Look dear! Christians!”
At the time, my mentor was taken aback at how his relatives found it so unusual to see a sign that another Christian might be nearby. England was becoming less and less religious as a nation at that point, and obvious signs of faith were becoming more rare. I think of his surprise sometimes, as I watch the way our own culture is becoming less religious, especially here in the northeast.
A growing number of Americans have not been raised in church, and being completely unfamiliar with it, it seems to them to be something either anachronistic or irrelevant. And of course, if all you knew about church was what you read in the paper or saw on the news, you’d certainly have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to be a part of such a small minded organization. Just this week two major stories about sex abuse scandals in two different denominations made the headlines repeatedly. Such stories certainly do nothing to endear people to the church.
For those who have been raised in churches, religion has also become a less prominent feature in our busy lives - and has often fallen off the radar altogether. Rather than being at the core of our identity, religion is now sometimes nothing more than another ‘like’ on one’s facebook page - or a kind of self help tool that you can pull out and use when needed - that can come in handy now and then when you need some familiar reassurance. Honk if you love Jesus!
But for Paul, Christ is about a whole lot more than what he can do for us and our self esteem. And faith is not about what we are doing, but about what God is doing. For Paul, God is on a mission of healing and reconciliation, and faith is about leaving our own selves behind to join in on God’s work. Church, for Paul, is not a place where individuals come to learn how to be better individuals or lead better individual lives. Church about joining together with others as Christ’s body in the world - in service to the world. For Paul, religious faith is way more than a bumper sticker.
If the stories in the news are any indication, our human institutions are clearly not always able to live up even to common decency, let alone Paul’s lofty vision of what the church is called to be. But that is Paul’s point, I think. When we reduce our faith to our own lives, it has become too small, and a faith that is small like that is to be pitied. Faith is about God, not about us. A small, pitiable faith respects neither God nor neighbor. We need the new life God offers in the resurrection to be delivered from our pitiable ways.
It’s really very counter cultural to come together as church - to be people of faith in these irreligious times. But nonetheless, I invite you to gather around the table in worship this Sunday to get yourself out of your own context and to connect with others in the presence of God.