“Ordinary Church: First Church of the Individual”

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear,[b] and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence.[c] Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered[d] for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you[e] to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for[f] a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

“There was a famous religious shrine in the ancient world at a place called Eleusis. For a thousand years, from around 600 B.C.E until 395 C.E., countless people visited this shrine hoping to obtain salvation, inner transformation, renewed strength, increased happiness, and even the promise of a happy afterlife. These benefits were promised to each individual who visited the shrine – that is, the blessings were offered and received entirely individually. There were no social elements or social consequences attached to these spiritual gifts.” Joseph Beach wrote these words in a chapter entitled “First Church of the Individual.”

Beach compares the current state of religion to this ancient civilization that was a pagan shrine. He writes, “the individual alone receives salvation. Eleusis knew absolutely nothing of the building up of congregations or churches. The person who experienced the mysteries of Eleusis and participated in the ceremony of personal salvation immediately returned to their daily lives without any new ties or restrictions. If you’re familiar with American Christianity, this should sound quite familiar to you.”

“• Salvation with “no strings attached.”

  • Salvation with no social consequences.
  • Salvation without any necessary creeds or beliefs.
  • Salvation with no congregation or church.
  • Salvation without any social or relational expectations or requirements of any kind.
  • Salvation without any guilt-trips or pressure.
  • Salvation without any accountability.
  • Salvation that is completely personal and individual.
  • Salvation through a person’s own personal spiritual experience.
  • Salvation that is private and nobody else’s business.”

The modern culture has adopted the same basic ideals. Beach calls it “Eleusis 2.0.” We have created an Americanized religion that anyone can find on TV or podcasts. Put a fish on the back of your car and carry the American flag. Christians get more fired up about not standing for the national anthem than church attendance. Christians are more concerned with skipping the national anthem than skipping church on Sunday. When was the last time you heard someone say, sorry can’t make it I have church first? We have boats, ball games, in Colorado mountains to visit, kids activities especially club sports, you think of the activity and it happens before church.

It does not matter what you do in America to increase church attendance, every denomination and non-denomination has seen a decline in attendance. You can offer more programs, different music, longer sermons, shorter sermons, bands, liturgy, liturgy-free, coffee shops, gymnasiums; it just doesn’t matter. Church attendance is in free-fall and there does not seem to be a quick fix.

However, there is a way to make church relevant again and it starts right here with us. Knowing that we are a family and that we are willing to invest in one another. I do not mean just financially but with sweat equity, tears, and laughs, tough decisions and compromises. It does not come from church-hopping. It does not come from getting angry and staying home or back-biting. It come from living our lives as faithfully as we can through the sacraments, liturgy and prayer. We have to be willing to move away from Eleusis 2.0 and return to the family that we were intended to be. We have to move our minds from the church being a building and a place to the church being the body of believers.

It begins in remembering our baptism and living a new life in Christ that is truly not of our Americanized world. If we look at the passage from 1 Peter we see that we have a hope in the future of the church. This passage gives us a rich understanding of the power of baptism. Today when we witness baptism, we will see the power and presence of God with us, among us and moving through us, because we are sharing responsibilities with new members to our family. Yes, the waters are symbolic but there is also power in the water. The writer reminds us that the water was powerful in the flood to destroy but that there is also power to save the righteous. It does not work superficially like washing your hands but it works to bring all of us into a lasting relationship with God.

Baptism requires a conscience or intention or pledge based on age to be baptized. It is our response to taking hold of the claim that God has already made on our lives by choosing to share the kingdom with us. This can seem like a very individualistic thing and you might be thinking, is this not Eleusis 2.0? The act of responding to baptism is the answer to being called to something bigger and greater. In good Presbyterian language it is accepting our election into the church or body of Christ. Remember that church is not a place or building but a body of living, moving and breathing people.

According to David Bartlett the author of many Bible commentaries, “…baptism enacts the power of Jesus Christ, who, in his resurrection, ascension, and power over all lesser authorities, also has the power that baptism requires; he has the ability to bring us to God.” It is a mystery of faith that this occurs. There are no reasonable scientific laws that tells us how this occurs. We learn by growing together with one another and seeing the sacrament lived out in our family of believers. Bartlett write, “…the mystery of faith conjoined with the mystery of Christ [are] gifts that lie too deep for words.”

Maren Morris the country artist sings a song that’s called “My Church.” She recounts how she knows the words to all the songs on the radio and she sings along. A portion of one verse goes like this “When I play the highway FM I find my soul revival singing every single verse, Yeah I guess that’s my church.”  We hear every day where someone says their church is. It’s the mountains or the golf course, the gym or the game, the job or the TV, but its not really a church.

The church is the where the elect are, gathered to celebrate and to worship God. Not the other way around. You can feel close to God in many of the other settings and we can appreciate the beauty that God has created. However, the family of God is called to celebrate the sacraments and to pray and to hear the scriptures proclaimed. Christianity is not in danger of being attacked from the outside. Christianity is fading away because of apathy from Christians within.

We don’t get to decide what and where my church is. We are called to gather with people. Some are like us and some are not. Some get angry and some cry. Some complain about everything and some are happy about being alive. Some get uptight about the trivial things and some appreciate the mundane, yet through it all we are family. Called to gather, to worship to witness the sacraments and to partake. We are the people of God incorporated into a church that has been around for a thousand years. The church is where the Holy Spirit has placed us to add the gifts of the parts together for the good of the whole. You and I are called here for a very specific reason that the Holy Spirit knows will make the church complete.

Beach writes, “me. If you avoid going to a church, for instance, because there are too many conservatives in that congregation (or too many liberals or too many rich folk, poor folk, rednecks, extroverts, introverts or just too many people of a different race or culture…) then you’re missing the whole point of church. Remember, the church is by design a community of “differents” (to quote Scot McKnight again). Remember, the church is not about you and is intended by design to bring together people who would not normally associate with each other.”

Today, we remember our baptism and celebrate our call to serve the Lord. In all of its beauty and stress the church has stood for thousands of years because God ordained and blessed God’s people. Let us live into that blessing, cherishing those around. Let us worship the God who brings us all together to share in that hope and promise of salvation and love. Amen

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