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April 2019

There’s no good time for a church fire, but Holy Week has got to be the worst time of all. Millions watched in horror yesterday as the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire and burned. Construction on the Cathedral began in 1163. Even though the building remains structurally sound, much of what was lost in the fire is irreplaceable, including the Cathedral’s wood-and-lead roof and lacy spire. It truly is a sad day for the church, for all Christians everywhere. Yet, this immensely heartbreaking event offers us an opportunity to reflect on the true nature of the church.

The church is not a place; it’s a people and a movement.

Believe it or not, a recent superhero movie reminded me of this. As Thor watched his homeworld being destroyed, his father reminded him, “Asgard is not a place. Never was. Asgard is where our people stand.” This is an almost perfect picture of the church. The church is not a place. Never was. The church is where God’s people stand. The New Testament word for church is ecclesia, and Jesus deliberately chose this word. For starters, it literally means the called-out ones.” The earliest Christians were “called out” to follow Christ. Secondly, ecclesia always refers to a group of people, not a place. Two other words were available. Kyriakon (from which we get the English word “church”) means “house of the Lord,” was available, but it refers strictly to a place, not to people. Synagogue was another viable option.

It referred to the place where people met or to the meeting itself, but it didn’t refer to the people. Jesus deliberately chose the word ecclesia because, from the very beginning, Jesus wanted everyone to realize church is not a place or a meeting or a worship service. If you had asked a Christian in the first century, “Where is your church?” he or she wouldn’t know how to answer. They could’ve answered, “Where does your church meet?” or “Who makes up your church?” or “What does your church do?” But they couldn’t have answered “Where is your church?” because the church is wherever God’s people stand. Yet, God’s people don’t stand idly. One of my colleagues said, “Jesus launched the church as a movement intended to attack the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18). The church is not a location but an army that marches on its knees as it makes disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).”

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral is, indeed, a tragedy, but it’s also a reminder. Although buildings may burn to the ground, the church still stands … because the church is not a place. Never was. The church is wherever God’s people stand. Furthermore, Easter Sunday is our reminder that we—the church—stand in victory. By his death and resurrection, Jesus has defeated our greatest enemies: sin, Satan, and death. We stand in victory today because we stand with Jesus. Thanks be to God!

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