Victor Hugo once said: “A church is God between four walls.” Churches attempt to capture God’s essence and carry out His work here on earth. Churches are good things, and I am blessed to serve one in which people’s lives are enhanced and their journey of faith is strengthened. I personally believe that the world would be a better place if each of us was attached to a church. Yet, as we all know, God cannot be contained between walls.
When Jesus established His church upon the rock foundation of His chief apostle, Peter, He probably did not intend to establish a structured hierarchy, a preferred ritual for worship, a list of laws, procedures, or rubrics, nor a million basilicas, cathedrals, chanceries, or other buildings that seek to house Him. As best we can tell from the word He used, “ecclesia,” Jesus was establishing a way of living and way of loving that mirrors God’s life and love. Father Richard Rohr put it this way: “Christianity is a lifestyle, a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. But we turned it into an established religion and all that goes with that while avoiding the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history and still believe that Jesus is one’s ‘personal Lord and Savior.’ The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The sufferings on earth are too great.” Rohr urges us to realize that our church should be a vessel in which its members encounter the world in a manner that shapes it in Christ’s image.
Jesus tangled with religious leaders of His time, especially Pharisees, challenging them to reflect upon the ways in which church misrepresents God and misguides people by elevating things not divine to a divine status. He confronted them because they didn’t understand God’s ways, nor did they grasp the ramifications of misleading others. He admitted that they carried authority as teachers and religious leaders, so they should be obeyed—but He also indicated that they should not be imitated. Perhaps it is not unlike parents who possess teaching authority over their children but do not always teach good, healthy, wholesome, or holy things. Church leaders now, as in Jesus’ time, are given authority to teach and admonish. Often, we get it right; but sometimes we don’t—kind of like parents. When we fail, it is usually when we try to contain God between four walls. Hugo is right: our four walls create beautiful structures in which we find sanctuary and can assemble to worship God and encourage one another. Yet, at the same time, God will not be contained there. From mountains to beaches to forests, and from majestic sunrises to starry night skies and the magnificent cathedral of creation, we know that God does not fit into the structures we build. Nor does He adhere to the laws, guidelines, language, or rituals we design. During the past year we saw religion and church lived out primarily in virtual ways—rarely between four walls. Although we are blessed to be given instruction from inside the walls, our task is to go out into the world through a culture of encounter and a lifestyle that brings Christ’s message to those we meet.
Let us clothe ourselves in the Christian lifestyle to help shape our world for the good. Let us return faithfully to the four walls where we stand shoulder to shoulder with other sinners who want to become saints. Let us end the silliness of proclaiming Christianity where we don’t propagate the lifestyle. And let us pray that our ecclesial leaders do not become modern-day Pharisees but rather will guide and serve according to Jesus’ example beyond the walls.