Throughout its 2,000 years of existence, the Church has been a lot of things, it’s parade of job descriptions spanning the spectrum from beautiful to cringe worthy. But from the 4th to the 17th centuries, the Church seemed to have gotten something right.
During those 13 centuries, churches in England were regarded as more than just a place to gather, worship and participate in the sacraments. Churches were also a place that provided legal refuge—a place where fugitives of the law could go and be safe from arrest within its walls.
It was a place to breathe.
A place to pause.
A place for outlaws to collect themselves, before bracing for the world outside and all they might encounter there.
It was, in the literal and symbolic sense, a sanctuary.
It didn’t make the problems, a fugitive on the run had, disappear.
But as long as those running sought the solace the Church had to offer, the Church did what only the Church was capable of doing at the time. It offered a place to just be. It was the metaphorical eye of a hurricane. It did not offer pardon, but a momentary reprieve. It did not extend an eternal escape, but a temporary relief. Soon enough, the storm had to be faced. But for a time, it was held at bay.
This past Sunday, after the events of Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, I felt like a fugitive. I was on the run from the fears, anxieties and complexities of a world that more and more seems to be operating off the rails. I think a lot of us were. And I, like a lot of people, went to church because of it. In light of the past week, in trepidation of the coming future, those of us who showed up needed a place to quell, if only temporarily, the feelings of uncertainty, the stirrings of dread, the rising hopelessness.
We were looking for a place like the Church used to be so many centuries ago, to take a deep breath—away from the barrage of the hurricane of happenings. We hoped the Church could rise to the occasion and be a safe place to process. We cautiously believed that if anything was going to change, the Church might be the place where the charge was issued. We imagined the Church, if even for one hour of one day, to be the place where the ball could be moved down the field, if even just a bit, in the quest for racial reconciliation, forgiveness, respect, and mutual understanding.
And I wonder if what we were hoping the Church would be, wasn’t at least partly what Jesus had in mind for her 2,000 years ago.
In Matthew 16, Jesus has a conversation with the disciples. ”Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” He asks them.
The answers are varied, and Jesus follows up, getting to the heart of what He’s really asking. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter, always the bold one, speaks up. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus responds saying, “…Upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.”
Sometimes it feels like the powers of hell are right outside our front doors. Like the powers of hell are on the news at night, the social media feed on our phones, and residing quite comfortably in the recesses of our mind. There are times, like last week, when the powers of hell feel very much like they might conquer us, and the situation feels helpless.
That’s why we go to church.
Because on the oppressive days of bad news and uncertain futures, who we say Jesus is, and who the Church is in light of it, matters. Because we need to believe that a living God is not phased by the terror we feel in our lives. Heartbroken, yes. But not helpless. We go to church, because we need a refuge. We need a reprieve. We need relief.
And when we believe Jesus is who He says He is, and the Church is capable of withstanding what He says she can, we find exactly what we need. A rock.
Because of that, though the tension in our world this past week was palpable, the peace in our church was too.
I had high hopes when I walked through doors of Buckhead Church last Sunday morning. I needed a breather. And also a reminder that nothing, not hell or the world that sometimes feels like hell, could defeat what Jesus has called His own. I left with both. Outside the doors I reentered the tension I sought to escape—and I found in my couple of hours away that the world outside was much like I had just left it.
But I was not. And that’s the wonder of the Church fulfilling her job description well and the crux of what she is. You enter her doors to escape. And you leave empowered by the safety you found, the acceptance you experienced, the quiet that ministered, and the dialogue that guided you—suddenly aware when you do, that the storms outside aren’t as loud as you once thought them to be.
I’ve always believed in the Church. But for a lot of my life, that’s been theory. This past Sunday, I experienced the Church. I listened to hard, honest and vulnerable conversations. I participated in a broken, but hopeful worship. I was challenged to examine my heart, and pursue unity within the Church body, at all costs. And in all of it, I knew, Jesus was right. The Church is a rock. Nothing can threaten who she is. No hell, internal or external, can conquer her. She is a strong refuge. She is a formidable harbor. She is a resilient shelter. And she is only as effective, helpful and valuable as those who make up her ranks allow her to be.
And thanks to Sundays like this past one, I got to see her doing exactly what Jesus imagined and immobilized her to be.
(To watch the message from Buckhead Church, go here.)