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What is church?

I had a conversation with my daughter the other day when we were stopping by the IHS parish hall to drop off some things. She asked me, "why is it called a parish hall?" To which I answered by explaining to her what parish means. She ended up asking me, "Dad, why is it called church? What is church?"

That's a very good question. What is church?

You probably already have some ideas immediately in your head, right? Worship services on Sunday mornings, a particular building, or iconography, or religious art, coffee hours, pancake suppers, etc. Unfortunately none of that is the right answer, but don't feel bad. For years and years - in fact for almost as long as Christianity has been around - we've been giving bad answers to that question: what is church?

In the New Testament the word we translate to church is ekklesia, which is like a gathered assembly, or "congregation" but not in the strictly churchy way in which we use the word congregation. In fact, at the time in Greek it would have been used to talk about a political gathering to do business in the city-state. The ekklesia is like when the citizens of the city-state get together to make important decisions together, plan, and then I would assume, go out and do it.

I'm not an expert on the Greek origins of the word ekklesia but I think we're getting closer to the theological meaning for us. The Sunday morning Church assembly is a local gathering of the citizens of heaven, gathered to do God's work in Jesus' name and then go out and do it.

My answer to my daughter's question - what is Church? - was that the Church is all baptized people everywhere, alive and dead. The Church is the household of God, it is all of God's people. The Church is the Body of Jesus, the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus in the world.

Unfortunately the Church has come to look basically nothing like the ministry of Jesus we see in the New Testament. If we actually follow Jesus, why aren't we doing much following? My daughter was actually pretty upset with my answer, but for a reason that caught me off guard. She didn't understand why only baptized people were the Church. She didn't understand why someone would have to be baptized. What if they didn't want to? What if they had a really good reason for not wanting to?

The truth is that you can't follow someone unless you actually are willing to do what they teach and the example they give. The thing about following someone else's will is that you have to sacrifice some of your own, or in another way of looking at it, transform your will so that it matches theirs.

Mark gives us a frightening example of what the ministry of the Gospel looks like in this week's reading, the story of John the Baptizer's death. Mark places the story at a significant moment. The author has just told us about Jesus sending the disciples out on their own to spread his ministry and movement of exorcism, healing, and declaring the coming of God's reign. Then Mark flashes back to tell us what happened to John. John's ministry was very similar to that of Jesus, and it terrified a political leader of their day, Herod, a king. He arrested John, but couldn't bring himself to put him to death because, at least in Mark's account, he genuinely seemed to enjoy their conversations. But ultimately, the machinations of political power would necessitate John's death.

All of this foreshadows Jesus' own death, when his ministry of healing, reconciling, freeing love would come into conflict with the religious and political powers of his day, and for that he would be put to death. But the important lesson of both stories is that God does not compete with the power of the world. God's power doesn't look like the world's power. They aren't the same. God's power isn't in being big and strong, or sitting on a throne commanding like a King. God's power is seen in John the Baptist's arrest and death. God's power is most clearly seen in Jesus' victory: when he was lifted up on the Cross. God's power and victory do not look like the power and strength we come to know in the world. And it's that power and example we are all called to follow.

So, what is the Church? We are the Church, and most visibly so when we give up our own will to follow the way of sacrificial love, the way of the cross.

What does a parish look like that follows that way? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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