“The Church Upstairs”
All Saints’ Day
November 4, 2018
Text: Ephesians 2:19-22
When I was on my Vicarage I spent a lot of time in the church basement, because that’s where our confirmation class was on Wednesday nights and that’s where a lot of our youth activities were. Most of the basement was a large room, a little smaller than the sanctuary upstairs, and it was divided up into different areas by old partitions. There was an area that the ladies used for making quilts, and another area where items were collected that were to be given away. It was nice, but it was a little beat-up. You know how church basements can get after 100 years. It had served its purpose, but it had seen better days, and it was never anything fancy even when it was brand-new.
Of course, what was upstairs, that you couldn’t see from the basement, was beautiful. The congregation had been very faithful in renovating and updating the sanctuary every 25 years or so from the time the church had first been built not too long after the Civil War. And it was a beautiful sanctuary, with lovely stained-glass windows and an ornate altar and a large baptismal font and great pews and wonderful combinations of colors on the walls. It was everything that you would want a Lutheran church to be. But none of that was visible from the basement. If you lived in the basement, if you never saw the upstairs but were only told about it, all that you could do was believe what someone else told you about it, try to imagine what it was like, and hope for the day that you could see it for yourself.
How much being part of the church militant here on earth is like living in the church basement. What do we see when we see the Church? We see division and argument. We have to explain to our kids why there is Roman Catholic church and a Baptist church and a Presbyterian church and why we go to the church that we go to. We hear people of the world say, “I don’t go to church because the church is full of hypocrites. Jesus was okay, but none of you seem to be very good at living the way He said you should live.” And we have to admit to them, “Yes, you are right, the church is full of hypocrites, and I am the biggest one. I don’t live the way Jesus lived, or the way that Jesus tells me to, but all of that is precisely why I have to go to church.”
The Church is the bride of Christ, but it is also an organization comprised of human beings, and like any human organization 70 percent of the members do not show up, 5 percent of the people do all the work, half of that small group doesn’t always get along with the other half of that small group, and half of you who are here this morning spend some time during the hour thinking, “I don’t agree with Pastor about this, and I don’t agree with Pastor about that, and I don’t like the way this or that is being done, and maybe I just need to stay home or even go somewhere else for worship next week.” It’s not a pretty picture that we have here this morning. But it’s like that everywhere the church is. Jesus said that it would be so. The wheat and the tares will grow together until the final harvest, and you often won’t be able to tell the difference. It’s like living in the church basement with paint peeling off the walls here and there, carpet that needs to be replaced, and a small bit of stubborn mold over in that corner that we can’t get out.
And then there is the problem within each of our own hearts. I can’t explain what happened this week – my short temper with the other drivers, my complaining and lack of gratitude when the smallest things go wrong in my life, my gut reaction to be selfish when I wish my first instinct had been to help someone else who needed it. I really do believe all this stuff. And I want to do what Jesus says and be who Jesus wants me to be. And yet, I’m not three feet out that door at the end of church on Sunday morning and it all starts again, week after week after week. I don’t live like a saint, I don’t feel like a saint, I wish I was a saint, but there is nothing in me except sin and corruption and death. To be a member of the Church on earth is to crave holiness, to want to live a beautiful and sacred life, and to be denied on a daily basis. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. We are living in the church basement.
St. Paul in the 2nd chapter of Ephesians reminds us of the Church upstairs. He proclaims to us that we are no longer the strangers and aliens to the Kingdom of God that we often see when we look in the mirror. In other places Paul puts it like this – once you were dead in your sins, but now you are baptized. Take a long, hard look at that baptismal font. It is where it is, in the most visible of places, almost as a gate to the Lord’s Supper, for a reason. What happened to you there is the single greatest thing that ever has or ever could happen to you. There you were united with Christ in His death. There your sins were washed away. You want holiness? There it is, given to you there. And there you rose again with Christ as a fellow citizen with all the saints of God in His kingdom.
It is a kingdom built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets, who bear witness of the deeds of God among men back to the very beginning of time. And it is a kingdom whose cornerstone is the One who existed before time, the eternal One, the One Who is now incarnate as one of us, our Lord Jesus Christ. And upon this Cornerstone, upon this Rock, all of us are being knit together into the holy temple of the Lord. Temple is just a fancy word in the Old Testament that means the merciful dwelling place of God among men. The Holy Spirit of God dwells among us, and He dwells among us simply because He wants to. God is Love, and He loves us, and His great delight is to call us to Himself and dwell among us in mercy.
It is important to note here the verbs that are used in telling us that the temple is being fit together as it is growing into a holy temple. Everything is present passive tense and voice, which means that Someone else is doing it to us and He is continuing to do so even as we speak. We are being fit together like stones that are carefully chosen and chiseled to fit together into a building just a certain way by the master craftsman. Someone has a plan for us, He has a place chosen just for each of us, and He has to form us and shape us so that we fit together the right way. He literally has to take me and you and hit us together to knock off the rough edges until we fit together in the way that He has chosen for us. No wonder it’s not always fun being around the other people in church. And our Lord continues to do this to us, we are all a work in progress, which means that we all have room to grow and potential for change and work to do. That goes for the preschool student in Sunday School and that goes for the pastor with all the degrees and Bible study under his belt and that goes for the oldest person sitting in this sanctuary right now.
I have to admit that I find this very exciting. I’m getting to the age where the aches and pains are starting to be a fact of life and it would be easy to just decide that all my best days are behind me. I don’t mind the aging and even the dying so much. Those are facts of life down here, and I’m ready to go right now if the Lord calls me. But what bothers me is the idea that there is no potential left, no more mountains and not even hills to climb, no more room for growth and change. St. Paul proclaims to us that nothing could be further from the truth. As long as we are still down here, we are forever young in the sense that Christ is still working to fit us into His Holy Temple. He is still working on His Church and we are in His toolbox. If that wasn’t so, we wouldn’t still be here. There is always something new to learn, something new to do, something to try and maybe fail at, but that’s okay.
How many of the problems that we have in our own church exist because so many of us have decided that we have nothing left to learn and we would never try and do something in the church that we’ve never done before? How many of us are only willing to serve if we can only do so by doing this or that thing that we have done before a million times and we must do so in exactly the same way that we always have? Conversely, how many of us are willing to go the leaders of the church and say, “I’d like to help where I am needed most. Please tell me what you need me to do. My only request is that you give me something to do that I’ve never done before, because I want to stay young forever and I’d like to learn something new?”
It can be uncomfortable to go to a Bible study for the first time, or to show up the first time to serve on a project that you’ve never been involved with before. But that lack of comfort is precisely what makes it exciting. That is what keeps you young forever. That first time doing that thing is what you will remember with a smile on your face years from now. If you want to grow old, go ahead and keep doing the same old thing and talking to the same old people and assume that you’ve got nothing left to learn. You’ll calcify faster than the limestone water that comes out of our plumbing. Or … you could yield yourself to Jesus, let yourself be literally putty in His hands, as He forms you into the special place that He has in His Holy Temple just for you.
Do something new, do something different, do something that you’ve never done before. Now might be the time to say, “You know, I’ve never done it before, but this week I’m going to go home and spend time reading and praying all the hymns we sang in church today.” You can find the text for all the hymns online, even if you don’t have a hymnal at home. Better yet, put a hymnal in your house and use it, especially if you’ve never done so before. Now might be the time to go over and say hello to that person that you’ve been holding a small grudge against for 3 years, or for 20 years. Forgive them and say hello to them. Be kind to each other. Now might be the time to do something as small as sit over here if all you’ve ever done is sit over there.
And all of this is just in church. You can change out there, too. Maybe you kids can bring your sister a cookie instead of just pestering her all the time. Maybe you adults can find some new way of encouraging someone else who needs it. You are a work in progress. Christ is not done with you yet. Don’t resist or grieve the Holy Spirit. Look for opportunities to change and to grow. To take an attitude that no change is required begins to smack of, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, especially this sinner over here.” To seek change, to crave something different, goes along with, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That is your homework this week. Find one thing to do that you’ve never done before that will either explore your relationship with Christ or help someone else.
We sin and we struggle and we see sin and struggle all around us. We are in the basement and we can forget that there is a beautiful Church upstairs. St. Paul reminds us to look up, to remember our end, to look to our destination. We confess, “I believe in the Holy Christian Church, in the resurrection of the body, and in the life everlasting.” We are saints, and because of the work of Christ for sinners we are going to the holy place where saints will dwell forever with our Lord. Behold a host, arrayed in white. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And on this day we especially remember that we join with all the saints of the Church upstairs in their worship. Last year I had the opportunity to listen to two widows who were members of a Lutheran Church who said that they just couldn’t go to church anymore because being there reminded them of their husbands too much. And I understand that pain and those thoughts. But they were missing one absolutely crucial truth: when we enter into worship here on earth, we are worshipping with all the saints in heaven and we are never closer to them. The Eastern Orthodox especially stress the truth that the Christian sanctuary is just an extension of heaven into earth. That’s why we don’t have clocks in church – because time does not exist here. Here the eternal has kissed the earth. Here are you with your lost loved ones in Christ.
We have several wonderful orders of Divine Service in our hymnals, but Divine Service 3 will always be my favorite. That’s the page 5 & 15 from the old red hymnal and every time we use that service, and especially when we sing the “Glory to God in the Highest,” I remember sitting right between my parents and singing that every week in church. And I know that they are with me, and that I am worshipping with them. You are never closer to your loved ones who have gone to the Church upstairs than when you come and worship with them here. And because of the gifts that Christ bestows here, someday you will be in the Church upstairs with them.
A couple of weeks ago we lost our dear sister Juanita. I have never known anyone who, week after week after week, came out of church with a brighter glow. Juanita loved worshipping her Lord. She would especially practically float out of church on Christmas and Easter saying, “That was a beautiful service. Wasn’t that a beautiful service?” And at her funeral I couldn’t help but keep thinking that now, in the Church upstairs, she gets to take part in a really beautiful worship service. She is with us and we are with her and we are with all our loved ones who have gone on to the Church upstairs because we are all together in Christ.
Don’t get bogged down in all the problems down here. Remember that you belong to the Church upstairs. All of the problems are just the things that Christ allows in your life to form you into where you fit in that Church. Christ is faithful, He will complete the good work that He has begun in you, and He will bring you home to the Church upstairs, where all the saints will rest from their labors forever. Amen.
Rev. Richard Bellas, St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL