A Place to See Salvation
Epiphany II; January 14, 2018
With our building project nearing completion and expecting to dedicate the building in February, today I'm starting a series on what a church building is for. Scripture lessons will be the stories we would typically expect to hear this time of year, the season after Epiphany.
What did Simeon and Anna see? They saw a forty day-old boy, the son of a peasant family. Luke places this event at the time when the Law required an offering for purification, which is forty days after giving birth. Since we celebrate Jesus' birth on December 25, the day when many Christians observe this experience in the Temple is February 2. Take off your shoes and socks if you have to in order to count that high; forty days from December 25 is February 2. That day is not only about a groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania; it's also about the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
Anyway, Mary and Joseph brought their offering and they brought the baby with them, too, and Simeon and Anna saw the baby and they both began to prophesy amazing things about him. Luke calls Anna a prophet and says that Simeon spoke under the power of the Holy Spirit. They saw what no one else saw: everyone else saw a baby, the son of a peasant family; Simeon and Anna saw the salvation of God. "My eyes have seen your salvation," Simeon said. He looked at a baby and he saw salvation. Anna did too and she spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
So, in the series on what a church building is for, we're starting here: it is a place to see salvation. For the most part, you are not going to see it in the building itself. Simeon spent a lot of time around the Temple and Anna had been hanging out there for decades, but they didn't see salvation when they looked at the Temple; they saw it when they looked at Jesus. So, when people come to the church building to see salvation, they are not going to see it in the building itself. They will see it in anything that shows them Jesus.
I was contemplating suggesting that we buy a huge painting for our new Commons of Santa kneeling at the Manger, but I was afraid someone would think I was serious. If you think I really meant that, you would either go out and buy it or you would lock me up. Tacky art-work will not show people Jesus. And our new, powerful Cross out front doesn't really do it, either. The Cross out front lets people know there's a church up here, but you also find crosses on veterans' graves and on chains around the neck of rock stars.
People see Jesus, they see salvation, at the church building when the people of the church are doing the things of Jesus. I love that our deacons make dinner for Rainbow House once a month; when I served the Presbyterian Church of Wyoming, Ohio our deacons there made dinner for a soup kitchen once a month. They always made the soup in the church kitchen and they would start it early on Sunday morning. When I would walk into the church building to get ready for the 8:30 service and would smell chicken soup cooking, I would say, "It smells like mission." For those involved in Habitat for Humanity, mission smells like fresh lumber and paint. For those who work with the Benson Area Refugee Task Force, mission smells like soap and fresh linens. Whatever mission smells like to you, to me it smells like chicken soup. When people serve in the name of Jesus and make no secret of the fact that we are doing it in the name of Jesus, then people see salvation in the church building.
Of course, we do many other things here which make it possible for people to see salvation. They see it when we read and preach the Scripture. They see it in the bread and wine of the Holy Table. They may see salvation when the choir sings, or when we all sing. They may see it in the way they are treated by the people of the Church. But two important comments.
One comment: we have to remember to keep the main thing the main thing. We ourselves have to remember that the salvation of Jesus is what we are about here. It's too easy to forget that in the midst of controversy or in the midst of pleasure. We may be enjoying ourselves so much that we forget that we are here for the salvation of Jesus; we may be so invested in our side in a fight that we forget that we are here for the salvation of Jesus.
A theme that has been waving at me frequently these last weeks is the theme of hospitality, of welcome. If we are focused inward, on our opinion or our side in a fight or our own enjoyment of worship and each other then we forget to welcome people in the name of Jesus Christ. Hospitality was a way of life for Jesus, both as host and as guest. He knew how to welcome others and he knew how to accept their welcome. I'm convinced that any community that truly knows the salvation of Jesus Christ will naturally be a welcoming community.
And in our day that is almost a political act. I was in a Catholic Church recently that had a large banner posted: Immigrants and Refugees Welcome. Now, read the Bible: giving welcome to immigrants and refugees is natural for people who know the salvation of Jesus, but recently it has become a political act. Folks, we don't have to be overtly political in order to appear it; we need only to try to welcome people who the powers in our society tell us should not be welcomed. You and I may think we are a welcoming community, but unless we try to see it from the point of view of someone who isn't like the majority of us, we don't really know.
Here's the other important comment and then I'll stop: we can do our best, but it's still up to the Holy Spirit to open people's eyes to see salvation here. For many, chicken soup will smell only of chicken soup, not of mission. This will never be more than some bread and a bit of grape juice to many people. We cannot engineer faith; we can only create the right circumstances. We can have worship that is focused on Jesus and that is open to all; we can create a welcoming environment. But only the Holy Spirit will open people's eyes to see salvation.
There were a lot of people in the Temple that day; there were always a lot of people in the Temple. Two of them looked at Jesus and saw salvation: Simeon and Anna. Pray, brothers and sisters, pray that the Holy Spirit will use us to make this a place where people see salvation.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master