Church in the Middle of People
There is a saying in the Finnish language according to which the “church stands in the middle of the village”. I am not sure whether such a saying is known in many languages, but I am convinced that the phenomenon is typical to all European countries. A church is a monumental building, quite different from other buildings, impressive and easy to recognize to be a house of worship. The location of a church is carefully selected, not only to make it easy to access but because as a building, it is meant to represent the presence of God among the people. This is the theological reasoning underpinning the parochial structure many of our national churches have organized themselves in. Consequently, it also is the vantage point for their understanding of their mission and membership.
To be in the middle of the village also means that the church stands as close to everyone. The church is a space of equality as sure as all human beings are equal in the eyes of God. A church shall not be far from those living in the area because God not distant to anyone. A church in the middle of the village proclaims that it is there for all people because God is there for all people.
But there is a difference in whether the church is to represent the power of God, superimposed on human beings, reminding on the divine will and justice, or whether it is to represent the love of God, supporting humans and compassionately sharing in their sufferings. When Christ says, You are the light of the world, he gives a mission and a mandate to the disciples. Being the light of the world means on one hand that the church is to represent truth that brings all injustice into daylight. The light of God reveals all evil that is hidden, removes all disguises and uncovers all lies. On the other hand, the light of the church must be like that of the warm and radiant sun, removing all fear, making one feel being loved, embraced and accepted.
Inevitably this means, that the church cannot always stand on the middle ground. As a phrase, “to put the church in the middle of the village”, the middle point denotes making a compromise; to come halfway to meet the other. But this is not always possible, if the church is to stand for justice against all injustice and to fight all oppression and violation of human dignity. The church has a mandate that stems from the authority of Jesus the Son of God. The church is to courageously reflect the light of God, but in the form it shines in the loving face of Jesus in his solidarity with the weak, the poor, the sinners, and the marginalized.
To be the light of the world means that the church has to be visible, audible and tangible among the people. Its place is in the public square, in the middle of the village. The church must be transparent itself, it can’t bear anything hidden or fake in its work or in its structures, finances or its governance. The mission of the church demands credibility, but the mandate of the church grants it the credibility. The presence of Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel makes the church an authorized witness of the Lord.
The reading we heard from the Book of Acts told the story of St. Paul in a storm. We know all too well that the restless waters of the Mediterranean Sea are dangerous, as they were to the sailors of those days as much as they are today. Lately, we have heard all too many testimonies of the Mediterranean being the last rest of hundreds of desperate people longing for a better life in security. Only this year, up to October, as many as one thousand people have drowned on they voyage in unsuitable boats. On top of that, those luckily on more safe vessels are presently not being received by European states into their safe havens. In the past years the European churches have many times reminded their governments and their peoples on the very friendly welcome St. Paul and others on their shipwrecked boat were received with by the local islanders. It has been very important to highlight the compassion and hospitality towards the foreigners in need. But let us consider this time what happened on the boat before it wrecked on the shore of Malta. Let us consider the boat as an image of the church of Christ in her mission.
The church has a missionary vocation to celebrate the liturgy. There is a transforming power embedded in the Eucharistic mandate of the church. It concerns those who take part in it, and on top of that, even those who just witness the church celebrating her liturgy. And thus, this narrative becomes not only an image of the church but also an image of the humankind in need and the role of the church in the public square.
The ship was carrying crops from Egypt to Rome and had different groups of people on board: St. Paul with his companions together with other convicts, sailors and soldiers. One can imagine it was a multicultural mixture of various ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious inheritance, a sample of all humanity on the waves of history. As the storm starts hitting, the sailors do what they can: they bind ropes around the ship to prevent it from disassembling in the waves, they drop anchors in order to keep the ship from not drifting, and they throw exceed cargo over board to make the ship lighter so that it would not hit on the rocks beneath the surface. But in the end, the voyagers are all completely at the mercy of the sea, seeing neither sun nor stars for days. On the ship, the soldiers keep order, but in the end of the day, they almost kill the convicts, thinking that their life at least does not matter anymore.
For a bishop in a majority church in a secularized society like mine, all this looks like an image of what we are living through. We are struggling to keep the church together, not by force like binding ropes but taking all effort to exercise at least some control over what is happening to it. We try to slow the speed of the ship in the rapidly changing society by anchoring it in the traditions we are carrying along, not knowing where or when or how will all this end. But maybe this is not just an image of the church, maybe it is also a miniature of the humankind, facing the nature hitting back in the form of climate change? The storm looks too heavy for the sailors to tackle with and even they plan to leave the ship. The waters are rising beyond the measure even the specialists thought they might handle. All hope seems to vanish.
What is the mission of St. Paul on the ship? He encourages his fellow voyagers with the promises from God: we shall be saved. And in the darkest moment, as the Book of Acts tells, he took bread, gave thanks to God, broke it and ate in front of everybody. These words echo the Gospel narrative of Jesus feeding miraculously thousands, or the narrative of Jesus having his last supper with the disciples. Both ways it has a liturgical undertone in repeating the keywords “took, gave thanks, broke”. Some manuscripts even add the words “gave us” in order to achieve the fourfold pattern of the Eucharistic action.
The situation on the ship is calmed as all people aboard eat. We are not told, what they ate and how. Maybe they all took their own bread, maybe the sailors gave them, maybe at least some received bread from St. Paul. But did they really get new hope merely by eating? Was that the secret? If that were the case, why did those hungry people not eat earlier? Why was it needed for the apostle to tell them to eat? Be it as it might, in the end, soon after their eating, they are all saved even though the ship is wrecked.
The wording of the narrative makes it clear that the reader of the Book of Acts or the hearer of the story is assumed to remember Jesus feeding his own. One is assumed to think about his life-giving food. One is to think about the transforming power of the Eucharist. It is a sacrament of communion, of belonging together, of mutual sharing and of common hope in times of anxiety.
The church in her mission has a calling to celebrate her liturgy in the eyes of all, even in the middle of all plurality. Among all cultures and religions, the church has a mandate to proclaim the great promises of God in Jesus Christ. In her sacramental liturgy she has a secretly powerful tool to transform societies and to unite people facing common challenges, and finally, help them being saved.