By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
In him the whole structure is joined together
and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
in whom you also are built together spiritually
into a dwelling-place for God.
Every now and then it’s worth reminding ourselves that faith and spirituality are not individual pursuits, they are communal enterprises. Paul tells the church at Ephesus that they are joined together, built together, grow together. So on a day when we think of what we do together as a congregation it’s worth remembering that it is when we congregate, when we come together, that we develop in the faith.
When Nicodemus goes in secret to meet with Jesus there is much he fails to understand – and, over the years, there has been much we have failed to understand about their meeting. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about a new birth, a second birth, about being born ‘from above’ or ‘of the Spirit’ – and Nicodemus suffers from the same stultifying literalism that many followers of Jesus have displayed since. So Nicodemus speaks about being put back in the womb, and says it is impossible – well, of course it is. This birth from above, this birth of the Spirit, is about a new existence, ‘a new creation’ Paul called it.
This new existence, this new creation, this birth from above, is about being born into an existence that is lived in the Spirit, lived in congregation, lived for others. This birth is about giving up on the life that thinks only of myself, and instead is lived in a way that really doesn’t worry about myself.
Just think of the phrases used in the New Testament to describe this life: ‘take no thought for tomorrow’, ‘keep no score of wrongs’, ‘do not be quick to take offence’, ‘think of others more highly than yourself’. The list could go on, and each of us could add our own favourite to the catalogue. These are all clues, insights, into the life of the second birth that Jesus talks about. They are pointers along the way, signposts on the road.
And they are what enable us to congregate; they are what make it possible for us to be more than a collection of individuals – and they are what has always seemed to me obstacles in the way of an understanding that sees this being born from above as a ‘one-off’ event, a moment in time. Much better, I think, to understand what Jesus is talking about as a process, a way, a life. So ‘congregational life’ is not to be thought of simply as the life of the congregation, but as a life of congregation. It’s not about an entity; it’s about a way of being – we congregate, we gather – or, probably better, we are gathered, we are congregated.
Paul explains to the Ephesians how this process is what Jesus is all about; he explains to them how they have been brought together by the work of God in Christ, so that they may live in a spirit of unity. He explains to them how it is only in that unity that they can grow and develop and understand. In particular he is speaking to them of a context in which some are Jews and some are not – a context in which some had seen themselves as God’s chosen people, to the exclusion of others. And that way of thinking had, Paul says, created a dividing wall of hostility.
If you are constantly worried, he says, about how you differ from others, how is that going to achieve anything? No, Paul tells them, all that has gone – Jesus has abolished the dividing walls so that in this new life, this new creation, we can grow not only into one, but as one. Paul is probably aware of some among those to whom he is addressing himself who still hanker after the old ways, the days when you knew who was in and who was out; you knew who was acceptable and who was not; you knew that everyone there thought like you did, behaved like you did, looked like you did.
And Paul tells the church at Ephesus that it is no accident that those days and those ways have gone; they have gone because it was the will of God, and the work of Jesus Christ, to get rid of them. They have been congregated, they have been gathered – because only when that happens can growth happen.
So when we think about or talk about congregational life we need to be careful not to think of it simply as a way of looking after ‘our own’, or creating a communal life among ourselves to suit ourselves. We need always to think of the word ‘congregation’ not as a noun, but as a verb. We are congregated, gathered together, built together – built not so that our building can erect walls that will keep others out, but rather so that we are constantly striving to build, to gather, to congregate.
There was a time in Scotland when people congregated in church as a matter of course; it was simply what you did – and, in a city, your only ‘choice’ was about which congregation you joined. Those days are gone – and went some time ago. Today the ability to draw easy and distinct lines around who have congregated and who have not is a thing of the past. So we have a choice: we can either mourn the passing of those days as a curse, or we can embrace the new life into which we have been gathered – and see the blurred lines of congregational life as a blessing.
It seems to me that we have a tremendous opportunity to rejoice in the many ways in which people are brought together in this place, in the new life this congregating allows for those who have been here for a long time, and those who have been here for a relatively short time. We can rejoice in the new ways of being the church that an emphasis on congregating can enable. We can rejoice in the work of the God who does away with every barrier humanity tries to create, in the work of Christ whose work is to bring humanity together in forever new ways, and in the work of the Spirit who builds us together, grows us together – and creates in us a life of congregation.