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Church Beyond Walls

Believe Out Loud Fridays is a new series of spiritual reflections—pieces that connect our identities and lived experiences with sacred texts and spiritual guidance. This week’s reflection focuses on finding communities of belonging and the meaning of church.

Earlier this year, when shelter-at-home took effect, a debate arose about what constitutes a church. Both sides of the debate raised Matthew 18:20 to the fore: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (NIV). While some people placed weight on the word “gathering,” others argued for a more abstract form of gathering through practicing compassion, care and love for one another by sheltering in place.

Jesus’ saying regarding the gathering of the two or three references the Deuteronomic instructions—specifically, Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Scholars place Deuteronomy as originating in the 7th century BCE, about a century after the ancient Israelites had been subjugated under the powerful Assyrian empire.* These Deuteronomic laws follow the patterns of the vassal treaties, covenants that had been imposed upon the people dominated by the Assyrian empire. These Deuteronomic laws, however, now place the ancient Israelites in a covenant with God, rather than an empire with a formidable army. The instructions of Deuteronomy 19:15-21 pertain to how a community should deal with accusations against a person. A person cannot be convicted of a crime solely based on an accusation of one person. “You need two or three witnesses to make a case” (Dt. 19:15, The Message). Having at least one or two witnesses protects the accused of false accusations.

Jesus evokes Deuteronomy as a part of his answer to the query of his disciples, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18:1, NRSV). And just as the ancient Israelites were given instructions on how to build and maintain community, Jesus explains to his followers what community means in the Kingdom of God. In this Kingdom, God welcomes the ones without social power or authority, the vulnerable, those who stumble, and those who—like children—love unconditionally and believe and trust like they’ve never been hurt (Mt. 18:2-9). Every life counts. Every life matters—including the one out of the ninety-nine that does not get to enjoy community with the rest (Mt. 18:10-14). Jesus then speaks about how we should deal with our grievances as a community, hearkening back to the instructions of Deuteronomy 19:15-21. However, he then goes a step further in saying, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Mt. 18:18-20, NIV). Here, Jesus speaks of the ever-presence of God in our lives, especially as a community that comes together in love and common solidarity (Jn. 15:12-17). This was the formation of the very early church, where people adopted one another as siblings in Christ, forming a spiritual union, even amongst distant diasporas. These communities were rooted in love, consideration and compassion for each other and for the socially disadvantaged.

When the global church family today continues to contend with attempts to exclude, demonize and violate LGBT Christian siblings, what does that say about the spiritual health of the church? What is church without a commitment to its most fundamental principles of love and unconditional inclusion?

In a time when I was quietly and secretly grieving the growing distance between my church community and me, I soon found myself stumbling into holy space-time of spontaneous church in unexpected, queer spaces. One night, after having shared good teas and snacks, two of my friends and I huddled together on a creaking and swaying fire tower, passing a bottle of cheap red wine we had opened with shivering hands. Over us, the Milky Way arced across like sands on the shores of our galaxy. We took turns drinking from the bottle as we shared personal stories and theologized. Seeing I was cold, my friend insisted that I wear their sweater, although I was afraid I’d stretch it out. Hugged warmly by their sweater, I thought, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt. 18:20, NRSV). My friends are not Christian, but I felt Christ among us. It was the solidarity, warmth and love we shared with one another that made that time divine. With these friends and others, be they agnostic, atheist, or followers of alternative spiritual traditions, church would happen so spontaneously that I would be bewildered and in awe knowing that suddenly, I was standing on holy ground amidst saints who persevere society’s bigotry, who survive through low-wage paychecks, who stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalized of society.

Later, finding an actively LGBT-affirming Korean-American United Methodist Church in New York City helped me feel more at ease with the more formal idea of church again. The church’s mission statement, ‘To live out the healing and liberating message of Christ, queer the status quo, and confront all forms of injustice and oppression,” has helped me feel safe in a formal church space again, whether we are gathering in a building or meeting over Zoom. Our love and commitment to protect each other is what makes church a church in its original sense—a community of people in solidarity with shared values. This year has shown us that church doesn’t depend on a building, on pews and the ability to gather in person; in fact, it is our willingness to let go of these familiar structures that affirms our commitment to each other and strengthens our connection to the Divine.

My experience of church has been formal and informal. For wherever people gather together in love and solidarity, and wherever people treat one another as if they were made in the image of God, we see that the ground we are standing on has been holy all along. For if the two of us on earth agree about anything we ask for, it will be done for us by our Creator in heaven (Mt. 18:19).

*Coogan, Michael D., Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, Pheme Perkins, and Bernard M. Levinson. In The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: with the Apocrypha: an Ecumenical Study Bible, 247–49. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Sulkiro Song (she/they) is a seminarian engaging in Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and an intern with Believe Out Loud. On pre-pandemic days, Sulkiro could be found praying through mountain hikes or waterfall hikes near Asheville, NC, walking many blocks to find a free table at a coffee shop in New York City or Philadelphia, drinking good loose leaf teas in teahouses, or reading in loud bars. On pandemic days, Sulkiro can be found indoors drinking tea and eating home-cooked Korean food.

Photo credit: Josiah Weiss via Unsplash

 

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