Church: An Embassy of Heaven
Updated: Jan 8
I was once a young hippie turned Jesus Freak bohemian-ing my way around the middle east for just about a year when I found myself at the guard station of the American Embassy in Jerusalem.
It had been a wild year. I had spent most of my time farming cotton, hitchhiking around the Israel and Sinai, going to soccer games with Palestinians, and drinking tea with Israelis in the heart of the Old City. I also had been infected with hepatitis and quarantined in solitary confinement (which was a real bummer).
All that to say is that, by the end of the year, I had morphed into somewhat of an international bedouin, a kid without a country and pretty much disattatched from who I was, where I had come from, or where I was going.
In short, I was rootless.
All that changed when I approached the guard station to the embassy. Rising to greet me was a young, blue-eyed, corn-fed, midwestern man who greeted me with a million dollar smile.
"Howdy!" he said. "Lovely day isn't it?"
His welcome drenched me like a bucket of cold water. I nodded, curiously. Something about his demeanor gave me a subtle sense of deja vü.
Within a few minutes I had been escorted through the gardens was up the steps to the embassy itself. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and heard.
On the walls, beginning at one end and circling around the entire room were pictures of US Presidents.
Oh yeah, I thought to myself, moving from one picture to the next like an old rediscovered photo album. I forgot about these guys.
There was a boom box in the corner playing country-western music at a civilized volume. It had a familiar feel to it which I liked. I tapped my fingers on the side of my leg and continued to look around the place. People all around me were laughing, speaking in English, and welcoming me as if I was ... well, as if I was one of them.
It was as I was standing silently before the American flag when everything began to make sense to me. Again. There were smells, music, conversations with southern accents. Everything about it stirred something very deep within my wandering soul. Feelings of familiarity, remembrance, and of reconnection solidified in my brain.
I had been away so long that I had forgotten something essential to who I was. I had forgotten where I was born, what a great country I had, my heritage of citizenship, its history, and the super-powers that backed the flag (both military and democratic) which stood proudly before me in the center of the room. Just being in that place brought everything home to me.
Having done my business, I left a couple of hours later with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, ready to reenter the multi-national streets of Jerusalem with a new sense of identity and, in a strange way, empowerment.
Welcome to the church!
The local church is an embassy, an embassy of heaven. It is a place to remember, to reconnect, to get in touch with who we are and where we've come from and where we're going. It reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven, and that we are a part of a much bigger Body with a Mothership Country that for exceeds all other countries.
In short, the local church - in it's most ideal state - is a postage-stamp sized piece of heaven right here on earth. It carries the tongues, the smells, the glory, the power, and the very essence of heaven. The local church is where, the atmosphere is thin. Heaven intersects with with earth. It is a place where we, if only for a few hours a week, become reconnected with who we are as a people, united in our faith, and empowered for our task in the world around us. Without it it would be easy to forget who we are, where we've been, and where we're going.
The writer of Hebrews says,
"Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." (Hebrews 10:23-25, emphasis mine)
The local church is essential for many things. And the avoidance of the local church could be one of the most harmful behaviors a Christian can engage in. The longer we stay out of fellowship, away from worshipping in our branch of the Body of Christ, the more apt we will be to get lazy in the faith, make continuous compromises in our personal integrity, and grow lukewarm, good for nothing. Before we know it we'll be like I was the day I entered that American Embassy - drifting, without a sure identity, and completely disjointed, uprooted from my very heritage.
People tell me, "I'm done with organized religion. When I need church I go to church on TV. It's the same thing as being there. I sing on my sofa. I read Scripture on the telepromter. I see lovely waterfalls. I "amen" with the preacher. And I feel great. Who needs church anyway?"
Don't kid yourself.
Church is so much deeper than a TV screen. When followers of Jesus gather there is an organic interchange with your brothers and sisters. There is sacrificial praise, giving, and investment. There is your activity - the usage of spiritual gifts, edification, and "re-membrance" around the Lord's Supper.
You may find fault with the framework of the meeting, but the substance of it is priceless!
Better to sit on a pew in the back of church and sip coffee alone in a church than to sit on your sofa and sip coffee in the electronic church.
Why? Because you're back in the embassy. And its essence will rub off on you.
Others say, "But, Fr. Bill, you don't understand. The institutional church is a drag. It's completely dead and filled with hypocrites who used to have life but are only going through the motions. Jesus is everywhere. That place if filled with idols of yesterday."
I know all about that. I used to call that "taxidermy church," where the last remaining memories of life were like hanging pictures on the walls of the foyer, stuff like old priests, succor trophies, and cookbooks from fundraisers to by a new bell for the tower. And I get that. (I'm a boomer and have an instant disdain for anything institutional.) Moreso, I've been ordained for nearly 25 years and, before that, worked another 15 years as a lay person. So I get it. It's imperfect. People do stupid things in the Name of Jesus. Others are abused. Theology can get screwy and a lot of money is wasted on just trying to keep the lights on.
BUT - as imperfect as - it's all we got. There is no "plan B" here. It is indeed a mystery how the essence of God can leak into this rusty framework of mis-guided motives and non-stop mindless activities. But he does. The local church, amidst its every-changing array of foibles and defects, at the end of the day, is the place to be.
More than songs, more than prayers, more than hearing a good sermon, or more than collecting and counting money the local church is an essential place for us. It's a place where the Spirit of God moves mysteriously through the assembly, under and through it all, to bless, restore, shelter, convert, and heal when we least expect it.
And for those outside the church, those who - like we were one day - seeking to know something of the living presence of God, those seeking identity, refreshment, and affirmation in God they won't find it anywhere else than in the communion of saints. God may reveal himself in the stars (Romans 1) but he matures us in the church.
And God placed all things under Jesus' feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.