It seems we are living in an era when the choice to attend Church is understood as an individual “right”. I believe this is true and I bless our for-mothers and fathers who secured this “right” for each of us. This benefit of living in a free and democratic society is a “secular blessing,” that is, it is an advantage or perk-based on birth or migration. If, however, as a Christian, we try to say that attending Church is a “right” in which we have the freedom to choose without responsibility beyond ourselves. Well, that is just nonsense.
In truth, if we look at ourselves and our thoughts and our wrestling with sin, we are not living in a time very different than any other time in history. People have, in every era, postulated that they need not attend Church or gather with other Christians. It is the mantra of the defiant that they “find God” in the garden, on the boat back, or down the nature trail. And in truth, God is most certainly there—always, but in saying these things the person really means that “finding God” here or there replaces the need to go to Church.
In the New Testament, Jesus regularly talks about (part 1) the individual relationship with God (himself) which is both a blessing and a requirement for spiritual growth and human completeness. Jesus also talks about (Part 2) gathering as God’s people in the same manner and more emphatically still, as he requires certain actions to bring fullness to that gathering (i.e., “Take and eat this…”).
C. S. Lewis lived much of his early adult life as an atheist. He was not known to gather much with any group, as this may have been “part of his make-up.” When Lewis became a Christian and joined the Anglican Church he not only whole-heartedly took on the relationship, (part 1) but realized the necessity of the gathering (part 2). Lewis regularly attended Holy Trinity Church in Headington, Oxford, England, even when he did not want to. So devoted was he to the truth of part 2, that he chose to be buried in the graveyard outside this little village church, to remain part of the gathered community.
People wrote to Lewis throughout his life, and he always wrote back. In a letter written in 1950 to a Mrs. Arnold, he provided reflection and instructions “Regarding the Church.” Lewis spoke of the Holy Communion as the Sacramental rite we must emulate per Jesus’ instruction, but also as the symbol of the gathered body as a whole, the “Body of Christ.” It is for this reason that Communion cannot be celebrated alone. As Lewis notes, “The New Testament does not envisage solitary religion,” at all times “some kind of regular assembly for worship and instruction is everywhere taken for granted in the Epistles. So we must be regularly practicing members of the Church.”
Lewis acknowledges that people, “differ in temperament,” for instance being pre-disposed to avoid gatherings. Temperament, however, is not a reason to not attend Church, rather, knowing one’s temperament may just be the reason to run to Church. On more than one occasion Lewis mused about “wasted time” in Church but was always there anyhow. It does not matter if we are extraverted or introverted, grumpy or elated, we are called to Church. “For the Church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities,” Lewis says, “but the Body of Christ, in which all members, however different (and He rejoices in their differences and by no means wishes to iron them out) must share the common life, complementing and helping one another precisely by their differences.”
He instructs Mrs. Arnold to read 1 Corinthians 12: Verses 12-14, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”
We are called by God in Christ to be members of the body of Christ–the church and to be gathered as the Church. This might make us uncomfortable or give us feelings of vulnerability. We might have a childhood memory that repels us, that shows the Church to be less than perfect, but then again it is not a perfect place; it’s a redeemed one. We might also think we’re better and less needy than the people found in Church and therefore have an excuse to not go. Lewis continues, “If people like you and me find much that we don’t naturally like in the public and corporate side of Christianity all the better for us: it will teach us humility and charity towards simple lowbrow people who may be better Christians than ourselves. I naturally loathe nearly all hymns: the face and life of the charwoman in the next pew who revels in them teach me that good taste in poetry or music are not necessary to salvation.”
Church is not an easy place, but the world will be redeemed through the Church, for its people—you and me—are the witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—salvation, which Christ bought with his blood (Acts 20:28). Lewis ends his letter this way: “‘Regular but cool’ Church attendance is no bad symptom. Obedience is the key to all doors: feelings come (or don’t come) and go as God pleases. We can’t produce them at will, and mustn’t try.”
St Paul wrote, Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:19-25
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†