“I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”
—Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood,” by Flannery O’Connor
In the early 1950’s the writer Flannery O’Connor presciently wrote in her novel Wise Blood, of the deep hunger of modern men and women for meaning in their lives in a world where God is no longer perceived to be present or even real. The main character of her novel, Hazel Motes, having lost his faith, becomes an itinerant preacher and evangelist for the First Church of Christ Without Christ.
I was reminded of Hazel Motes and his despairing yet boisterously evangelical ‘church’ the other day. Driving into work I was listening to the news on public radio when a feature on a new social phenomenon, the Sunday Assembly came on the air.
Founded by two British comedians, the Sunday Assembly is intended to provide the experience of church for those who do not believe in God but who long for the fellowship, community, shared rituals, communal singing, and good works that are a traditional part of (Christian) worship and religious practice.
One of the founders, Sanderson Jones has been quoted as saying: “The Sunday Assembly has been called the atheist church, but we prefer to think of it as all the best bits of church but with no religion and awesome songs.”
The organizers invite participants to join them in order to “live better, help often, and wonder more.” Leaving aside the thorny problem of agreeing on a definition of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, not a bad program on the face of it. Would that we all, believers and unbelievers alike, take their invitation to heart.
However, the charter of the Sunday Assembly then continues on with a cheerful but nihilistic declaration: “The Sunday Assembly is 100% celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.”
Which reminded me of this quote from Flannery O’Connor “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”
Although O’Connor was writing in the 1950’s, her observation has contemporary relevance and describes the spiritual condition of many of our friends, family members and neighbors who have lost their faith or who have grown up as atheists or agnostics.
It seems to me that as Christian believers we should pay attention to the phenomenon of these Sunday Assemblies which have sprung up in the big cities of Europe, Australia, and North America. We should do so for what they tell us about the deepest longings of the human heart, about the need to proclaim the good news, and how we might better understand and cherish our own Sunday assemblies (aka Sunday Mass).
Clearly all human beings long for communion, companionship and community. We want to be loved and cherished and to find happiness. On the deepest level we desire to know what our lives mean. Since the beginning of human consciousness, men and women have pondered the fundamental questions about our existence: where do I come from? What is the purpose of my life? What is the meaning of suffering and death? What is my ultimate destiny?
These are fundamental spiritual and religious questions and it is natural that those who are unfortunate enough to be bereft of religious faith would nonetheless seek to participate in “the best bits of religion” even without God.
As Christians we believe that at the most profound level our deepest longing is spiritual, for communion with God. As St. Augustine has famously stated, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O Lord.” Nothing else, no one else, can possibly substitute for God’s merciful, compassionate, forgiving and loving presence in our lives. The God revealed to us fully in Jesus Christ, who loved us to the very end by taking upon himself the burden of sin and death, the burden of our despair and hopelessness, is the God who forgives sins, heals the lame, restores sight to the blind and raises the dead to new life.
Humanity, having come from God and then having turned away from communion with Him and each other because of sin, our destiny as men and women is to return to God through grace as His beloved sons and daughters.
Therefore our gathering each Sunday on the Lord’s Day is a continual celebration of life: our new life in Christ, who lived, died and rose from the dead for the life of the world. In Christ, the dead do not stay that way.
Each time we gather on Sunday for the Eucharist, it is not what we do, but what God does that is central. We assemble to thank and praise, adore and worship the God who has rescued us from the hell of despair and hopelessness. We gather each week in worship to renew our redemption from the futility and meaninglessness of suffering and death.
Everything that we do when we are called together by God as a Sunday assembly is centered on God’s living and saving presence among us. We are bound together in fellowship with each other because we are bound together in fellowship with Christ.
For me, the social phenomenon of non-believers gathering once a month for church in every sense except divine worship (and on a Sunday no less!) presents us with both a challenge and an opportunity. In an important sense, they do us the service of highlighting the significance and value of our weekly gathering on the Lord’s Day. They recognize (if for somewhat superficial reasons) the significance and the treasure of our Sunday gathering: so much so that they imitate it. Do we, who are believers, recognize and embrace the significance and value of our Sunday assembly for the Eucharist?
That’s our challenge.
Our unbelieving friends and neighbors who participate in gatherings such as the Sunday Assembly also highlight for us as disciples the deep hunger for meaning and transcendence in modern society. The movement’s invitation to “live better, help often, and wonder more” in a world they believe has no ultimate purpose or meaning, expresses, however inchoately, a hunger for the Good News, which it is our task and privilege to witness to as followers of Jesus.
That’s our opportunity.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org