What’s Church for?

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

A Sermon Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 25, 2014

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church Greenwich, CT

Texts: I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Americans lie about how much they go to church.” So read a headline in this week’s Washington Post. The New York Times was a bit more circumspect: their headline simply stated “Americans Claim to Attend Church Much More Than They Do.” But both those stories—and many others in newspapers around the country—pointed to the same study, released last week, that noted something very interesting about the way Americans talk about their church attendance. In a survey conducted through live telephone conversations and self-administered online questionnaires, researchers found that Americans significantly exaggerated their level of religious participation when talking to another person than they did when answering a survey anonymously. This tendency was consistent across social, ethnic, and denominational boundaries, and was even true for the “nones”—that growing group of the American populace who claim no religious affiliation at all.

Now we all know what Mark Twain said about lies and statistics, and I’m not at all interested in spending the morning dissecting with you the most recent results of religious research. What I am interested in, however, is asking the question, “Why?” Why would people lie to complete strangers about the frequency of their church attendance? Why would folks exaggerate the regularity of their religious participation? Why, in our age of diminished denominations and increasingly irreligious popular culture, would people fib about their Sunday morning habits?

The answer, I think, lies in the meaning we attach to going to church. Even in a society rapidly shedding the trappings of Christendom, churchgoing remains a mark of a good, upstanding, decent, moral person. Now I say this neither to flatter all of you who are here in church on a Sunday morning nor to congratulate myself for choosing a career in the Church. Rather, what I mean to say is that even in a time when so many Americans are skeptical about the purpose and value of organized religion, the idea of going to church remains one of the markers of the kind of person most of us aspire to be. Church attendance is another box to check off on our long mental list of good behavior and respectability. And who among us doesn’t want to be considered decent and respectable? Who among us doesn’t want to win the admiration of our peers, the trust of our colleagues, and the love of our families? Who among us doesn’t want to be counted  a good man or woman? So if going to church is one of the ways to “get good,” well then why not go—or at least claim to go?

That desire to be counted good is so strong and so pervasive that it colors not only our perception of going to church, but even our reading of Scripture. Our lessons this morning are, in fact, very often interpreted along the same lines of the perceived benefits of churchgoing: as exhortations to goodness; as instruction manuals for earning the love of God. The drive to be counted good leaps at the words from First Peter as the Apostle urges his hearers to “Keep [their] conscience clear,” and to rejoice when they suffer for their “good conduct in Christ.” The desire to be counted good seizes upon our passage from John’s Gospel, and leads us to read Jesus’ words as if they were the procedure for a transaction: “If you love me”—and that “if” lands on our eager-to-justify ears with all the force of a loophole or a limited-time offer—“If you love me, keep my commandments.” “If you want to prove you’re mine,” Jesus seems to say, “then follow my rules.” It’s as if we hear our Scripture today affirming what some deep whisper in our world has already taught us: “Come to church, be a good person, and God will love you.” Our drive to be thought of as good—our desire to be counted decent, moral, and upstanding by other people—is so strong that this formula has enormous appeal. And why not? For who among us doesn’t want to be counted good?

But the problem with all this way of thinking, beloved, is that it doesn’t work. After all, consider that the respondents to the church attendance study weren’t actually going to church: the desire to be counted good was strong enough to make them lie to strangers, but not strong enough to make them go on a Sunday morning. But what if they had gone? Consider what we know of the Church’s own checkered history: the pervasive sins of pride and arrogance, of uncharity and the love of this world and its trappings, that show their firm grip in every corner of the Christian world, and have caused thousands to turn away in disgust from an institution so profoundly incapable of keeping the commandments we claim. Or consider, dear people, ourselves. Here we are all assembled: the people who actually do come to church on a Sunday morning. Do we dare count ourselves better than our friends and neighbors driving by those doors on the Post Road? Do we presume to commend ourselves for our righteous behavior and our abundant generosity? Do we honestly think that whatever goodness that may accrue to us in the eyes of other people because of our churchgoing is something true and authentic and deep in our being?

Perhaps some of you can answer “yes” to those questions. I confess that I cannot. Coming to church week in and week out does not confirm me in my goodness: it convicts me in my hypocrisy. To stand in this pulpit when it is my privilege to preach to you does not inspire me with morality and authority; it fills me with trepidation and anxiety that I shall be exposed, and revealed, and shown to be what I really am: a poor sinner, whose own human desire to be counted good is constantly and continually overwhelmed by appetites and passions, by rash words and unguarded thoughts, by gloomy doubts and faithless fears. To preside at that altar as we offer our thanks to Almighty God and receive the transforming gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood at his hands does not sate and satisfy my deep hunger for goodness: it reminds me, each and every time, how far my own weak love is from the deep love that is here remembered, enacted, and shared.

But what if, all along, we have been operating under a false notion of what churchgoing is all about? What if the point of coming to church is not, in fact, to be counted good in the eyes of other people? What if the purpose of gathering on a Sunday morning were not, indeed, one ceaseless effort to earn the love of God?

Beloved, hear again the words of the Apostle Peter this morning: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is no exhortation to goodness—no appeal to a squeaky clean conscience. This is the announcement that Christ Jesus our Lord—the One who was counted good not simply in the eyes of fellow humans but in the eternal reckoning of God the Father—suffered and died not for the sake of the decent, and the moral, and the upstanding, and the good people of this world, but for the unrighteous: for the folks who don’t come to church each week, and the folks who do come, but who come with fear and trembling, knowing the depth of their lowliness and the gnawing power of their need: for you, and for me.

That astonishing announcement flashes out of the waters of baptism, to which we will come shortly. This little baby does not know what will soon befall him. He has not come here seeking it, and there is nothing he can do to earn it. But what we see at work at this font today is not the human drive to achieve goodness, but God’s unending purpose to draw us to himself. What we see in this font today is not the pretension of perfection but the grace of transformation; not the love of God earned but the love of God poured out abundantly, freely, prodigally, graciously.

And this is the true meaning of the love proclaimed to us by Jesus in John’s Gospel this morning. Banish from your minds and hearts any effort to turn our Lord’s words into a checklist or a condition for earning God’s favor. For what is the new commandment that he has given to us his people? We hear it in the chapter immediately preceding today’s reading: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

“As I have loved you.” This is the key. For how has he loved us? Behold, dear people, the Cross! Jesus’ new commandment and the words he speaks this morning echo down to us from the night before he suffered and died. The Cross is our measuring stick and our signpost for the love of God. The Cross is the supreme and eternal answer to the question, “How has he loved us?” The Cross is our banner and our marching orders.

And in the light of the Cross, we see that Jesus’ words to us today are not a condition for earning his love, but a description of the transforming power of his love poured out for us on Calvary. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says, knowing that whatever love we bear for him come from him and carries us back to him, the source and summit of all love. For not only does the Cross announce to us God’s great love for the ungodly—God’s willingness that the righteous should die to save the unrighteous—but this day we learn that in and through that love, you and I are being caught up into the very life of God: lifted by the gift of the Holy Spirit into the abiding love of the Father and the Son, for “on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

This, at last, is what Church is for, beloved. We come, not as upstanding people confirmed in our decency, but as wandering sinners transformed by his love. We come, not that friends and neighbors may extol our goodness, but that we might sing our grateful praise of the righteous One who died for the unrighteous. We come, not because we are seeking God, or even because we have found him, but because we were sought out and found by Christ Jesus. We come, because he calls.