Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem of rite festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
I would like everyone to close your eyes for a moment, find a comfortable posture, and I would like you to imagine the perfect church…
What does it look like?
What kind of people are in it?
What are some of the things the church does?
It’s a little terrifying how easy it is to imagine “the perfect church” only to open our eyes and be stuck here with each other. It’s so easy to picture a particular church in our minds because that’s what life has conditioned us to do. We usually curate everything we can to benefit our own tastes, and leanings, and hopes, and dreams.
If we don’t agree with someone else on Facebook, we can just block and unfollow them.
If we start watching a movie and within ten minutes it’s boring we can push a few buttons and watch something else.
If we’re hungry for a particular meal, we need only open an app on our phones to have it delivered right to our door, despite all the food we might already have in the pantry.
Basically, we are consumers living in a consumable world. We choose exactly what we want, take what we want, and move on with unlimited choices and unlimited speed.
And, frankly, we bring this understanding of reality to the church as well. That’s why there’s every flavor of Christian denominationalism on Grandin Road. If you encounter a church that doesn’t give you what you want, there’s always another one to try.
The only problem with that is the fact that what we want is not often what we need.
An example: We are blessed in this church to have visitors nearly every Sunday. That is something worthy celebrating, but a very strange phenomenon when taking in the scope of Christian history. Up until the last 100 years, you went to church where you could. Now we go to church where we want.
Anyway, we get a fair number of visitors here, those church shopping for a new church home. And, every once in a while, visitors come back again and again and I will meet with them to talk about what it might mean for them to join or become more involved. During that conversation I always ask about where they were attending church before.
And, more often than not, someone will describe their last church, usually somewhat local, and how they attended for years until something particular happened. A too-political sermon. A unfortunate song choice on a Sunday morning. A stinging stewardship season. And that was enough to say goodbye.
According to the world this is a normal thing that happens. We can move on over and over again.
But in the realm of the church this is downright strange.
Charles Spurgeon, 19th century preacher, put it this way:
“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.”
Strangely enough, the church is where we discover the comforting gospel of Jesus Christ that leads us to live uncomfortable lives for him. Uncomfortable because, living for Jesus means living for the people in the church around us too.
When someone joins a United Methodist Church they covenant to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. To support the church by presence is literally that, it means being present.
Part of our discipleship is a willingness to be present with God and with one another. We gather week after week to remember the stories of God and to be re-membered into the body of Christ. We break bread with one another in worship, and during the Garden, as a recognition that the Christian life is one that is meant to be shared. We show up for Bible studies, and outreach programs, and all sorts of other things because, on some level, we understand that being present together is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.
Luke’s Gospel has all the best stories. Mark is short and brief, Matthew is theological, John is all over the place, and Luke’s got the stories. And the story of Jesus at the temple is just so good.
It’s got drama and intrigue, family strife, and youthful rebellion.
And when we read it we tend to fixate on Jesus teaching the elders. He’s a 12 year old boy and everyone is amazed at his teaching. And so people like me stand up in a place like this and say things like, “Our youth are not the future of the church, they are the church right now.” And a 3.5 minute story will usually be shared about a youth and how they understand the kingdom better than we do. And so on.
And that’s all good and fine.
Jesus does say that if we want to get into the kingdom of heaven we have to act like children.
And yet, I fear we miss something else in the story when we emphasize Jesus’ teaching in the temple alone. What we miss is the fact that this is also a story about horrible parenting!
Listen to it again: They traveled all the way to Jerusalem for Passover, a six days journey by foot, and when they were done they returned home Mary and Joseph did not know that they left their son behind.
What? How does that happen? It’s one thing to lose track of a wayward child in the grocery store, but leaving them behind in a foreign city? C’mon!
And that would be bad enough. But then it says they traveled a whole day before they noticed. AND THEN once they turned back it took them another 3 days to find him!
Jesus was in the Temple teaching and his parents were astonished and Mary said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
Which is the Bible’s version of, “Boy, you had us worried sick! You are grounded from now until eternity!”
And how does Jesus respond? “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Must is a strong word. In life all of our must and shoulds don’t muster up to much in the kingdom of God, but Jesus’ response is notable.
It is good and right to be in the house of God. Honor and keep the sabbath, that’s 1 of the 10 commandments.
The psalmist writes, “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.”
To be in the house of God was as necessary to Jesus as it is to breathe.
And yet, there are a few more staggering details in this story that really bring it all home. The Holy Family went to Jerusalem for Passover. Some 21 years later, on Passover in the same city, Jesus will take a loaf of bread and a glass of wine and share it with his friends. He will become the Passover Lamb for the them, the exodus for the rest of us.
Mary and Joseph abandon Jesus in the city, much like the aforementioned disciples will abandon him to the cross the day after Passover.
It take Mary and Joseph three days to find their son, much like Jesus sat in the tomb for three days before the resurrection.
And notably, after the family’s confrontation in the Temple, scripture says that Jesus returned home and was obedient to his parents and Mary treasured it in her heart. Which is another way of saying that Jesus forgave his parents for what they did to him, much like Jesus returns to his abandoning and denying disciples on the other side of Easter.
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the claim that salvation does not come to us by natural inclination, by birthright, by earning, or deserving. Salvation is a gift from God. And because it is a gift it can only be received on God’s terms, not ours. The church is the witness to the gift of salvation, reminding us time and time again what we have been given even though we deserve absolutely nothing.
That’s a hard truth to swallow, the “we deserve nothing.” But it’s true. We all do things we shouldn’t, we all avoid doing things we should. We are imperfect people. We might not be the type of people who forget our children back in Jerusalem and wander around for a few days before we find them, but we do have a lot more in common with Mary and Joseph than we let on. What’s more, even though we fail to be an obedient church, even though we fail to love God and one another, God offers us grace anyway.
Therefore, the perfect church is actually an imperfect one, constantly reminding us of our imperfections and the great Good News that someone has come to help us. And that someone has a name: Jesus
Without the church how can we know that grace is given to us, how can we discover that we are caught up in Jesus’ story, how can we receive the sacraments?
We need one another, because you can’t baptize yourself no more than you can give communion to yourself. We need someone to give those gifts to us. We need the church to tell us again and again, “The world will only ever see you through your faults and failures, but God loves you.”
We need the church because it holds us together even when it feels like everything else is falling apart.
Rich Mullins once said, “Nobody goes to church because they’re perfect. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go. You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning. Every time we go to church we’re confessing again to ourselves, our families, to the person in the pew next to us, that we don’t have it all together. That we need direction, we need accountability, we need help.”
The reason for being present in church is the strange fact that this is the only community that is consciously formed, criticized, and sustained by the truth. Which is Good News for a world that runs by lies.
Church is the last vestige of place where we willfully gather with those who are not like us, this is the fellowship of differents. And though we are different, the truth that is Jesus Christ, somehow makes us one.
I often wonder why I kept going to church throughout my life. At first I was present in church because my parents made me – they couldn’t leave me home alone as a child even though Mary and Joseph clearly would have.
But then, around my teenage years, I started running the sound system so I had to be present in church. And then I left for college, and there was a church that needed a drummer so I was still present in church. On and on and on.
And when I look back now, I know the answer to why I kept showing up for church: Jesus.
Jesus churched me. The church is how God dealt with me. I am who I am because of the church. Through sermons and sacraments, through friends and even foes, I was shaped into who I am.
God is in the business of remembering us. That is, God re-members us, puts us together, like pieces from a puzzle. And yet, have you ever pulled out a puzzle and worked away on a rainy day only to realize that one or two of the puzzle pieces we missing?
The picture isn’t complete.
The church is complete, the body of Christ is complete, when we are together. Your presence here makes the church the church. When we are present before God’s presence, we live God’s future in our present and it actually changes things.
So welcome to the perfect church! It’s perfect because God does God’s best work with imperfect people like us. Amen.