Just mention the word “church”, and people do not think of auditoriums with coffee shops, but the classic one-room, steepled church set in a snowy, foothills environment. A red door stands ready to greet visitors and large windows provide light even on the darkest of days. Perhaps there is a bell tower, chiming people to worship on the Sabbath.
Although I grew up in a congregation that met in a renovated library, this was always my picture of the stereotypical church. There is something beautiful about it, something naïve. It’s like a Thomas Kinkade painting, an escapist perspective that makes us feel that all is well in the world.
I enjoy seeing churches like this on our family trips across the South. We even purchased Christmas cards this year with a picture of one on the front. “Christmas blessings,” it reads, anticipating a snowy Christmas in an otherwise mild-weathered year.
These churches also remind me of a song my children used to sing with clasped hands in front of them: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple; open it up, and here are the people.”
Their fingers, waving in the air, represented the people of course. It is not the building, but the people who make the church what it is.
The only problem is that the people who make up the church are imperfect, flawed individuals. Get into the life of the congregation and remove the building, and issues arise in our perception for what it means to be Christian.
No wonder there are those who call Christians hypocrites. Ask any churchgoer why he attends church, however, and he will be the first to tell you that he attends precisely because of his sins.
Like St. Paul, we Christians want to do what the Spirit tells us, but we mess things up instead:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” Paul wrote to churches in Rome (Romans 7:15).
You can keep your perfect people; I’ll take the misfits, thank you very much, because the very meaning of being a church is of being the people of God gathered together to bear witness to salvation that comes with grace and grace alone.
Several weeks ago, our church ordained our associate pastor, Karen Woods, to the gospel ministry. Somewhere along the way, we read passages from Romans 12 and 1 Peter 3. Both scripture lessons affirmed the gifts that God gives us, the gifts of the Spirit, and the gifts that empower us to do the work of the church and be the church in the world.
The passages also encourage us to give God the gift of our very life:
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
Christmas is a time of gift-giving and receiving, and though our perspectives of church become a little more serene and nostalgic during this time of year (how many people return to church after being absent all year long?), we are reminded of the great gifts we exchange with God in time for Jesus’ birthday.
We give God the gift of our life as a response to the great gift that God has given us in spite of our weaknesses and sin. We acknowledge God’s grace although we are undeserving. We celebrate our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to live for us, lead the way, die for us, and rise from the dead in order to give us eternal life.
What better time to come back to church than during Christmas? Our churches may not look the same, but the feelings of entering the sacred space of what is historically called “God’s womb” remains constant. It is there that we receive the singular mandate to repent, believe, and then share the good news of the Gospel with others.