I remember once sitting in a worship service and hearing some verses being read that described the Church as a ‘peculiar people’. Those words were from Peter’s first letter, and I recall thinking as I looked around, ‘Well, whatever else Peter thought, he sure got that right.’ You too might think of the Church as ‘peculiar’, as kind of weird, something like an eccentric aunt with a strange smell, odd manners, dated dress, and slightly deaf and blind to what’s really going on around her. Its also true that you may not think of Jesus’ Church very often, or that when you do, depressing images of oppression, deception, violence, and manipulation might hang in the gallery of your imagination rather than images of grace, courage, and beauty. I understand and sympathize. But bear with me in suggesting a fresh assessment of things.
Jesus said he would build his Church, and the people he began with 2000 years ago were as much in need of grace as we are today. He started with very imperfect people for a reason, and the Church has remained a very sinful community of people for all these years. We don’t hide from that reality. Yet it remains true that Jesus’ Apostles gathered into organized, structured communities those who believed their message about his saving work on the cross and resurrection. They were tiny colonies of the Kingdom of God comprising an amazing world-wide movement of love, mercy, and truth, together with an open acknowledgement that this side of eternity the Church we see is not all it will one day be. The ancient Christian communities had some terrible weaknesses and problems, which is also true of today’s churches. But that didn’t stop the Apostles from summoning believers to move past those terrible problems by appealing to them through images of what God had always designed the Church to be. They called them to become what God said they already were by his grace and would one day surely be.
The Apostles used a wide variety of imagery to describe these communities in order to help them grow in grace, help us better understand the high calling we’ve been given, together with the great destiny towards which we all are moving. Here are just a few notable examples of those very moving snapshots of hope:
A Temple of Living Stones (1 Peter 2:5-9): each of us are uniquely shaped by God and then joined to one another in a beautiful glorious House of Praise and Worship where each of us are also serving as Priests, offering up sacrifices of worship and service. The Church isn’t constructed of bricks – manmade blocks that are all shaped the same. The Church is made up of living stones, unique individuals fashioned by God’s hand through a variety of high pressure circumstances, and joined together by a master craftsman. The Church is a hard-hat area, a place always ‘under construction’ (as we all are!). The Church we experience is not
A Growing Body (Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 12-14): each of us are a specially gifted by the Spirit and joined to one another in service so that together our shared contributions show the world the love of Jesus Christ. To be a ‘member’ means we are united to Christ and to one another in the same way that hands and feet and elbows and knees are all together in one body. We’re not a crowd of disparate people gathering in a room, but a community of forgiven former enemies united in mutual friendship, a shared vision and mission, and a common history and destiny. Its a miracle we’re together, and its Jesus’ own life pulsating through our relationships that keep us together.
A Beautiful Bride (Ephesians 5; 2 Corinthians 11): together we are Christ’s Beloved and Betrothed. By his grace he is preparing us for the Wedding Day when we will see him face to face. Weddings can be extravagant and costly, or simple and inexpensive, but they are always causes for joy. We sense this anticipatory gladness when we gather, especially when we celebrate communion. Its a foretaste of the great ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’, the eternal feast to which God’s grace invites us all.
A Great Harvest Field (1 Corinthians 3): the Apostles planted and watered the seed of God’s truth in the Church looking for a great and joyous harvest of the Gospel. The Church is where God’s truth grows and is also distributed to the hungry. What we learn we share with others, and we also understand that like any growing seed we have a long way to go before we reach maturity and the fruit is ripe. The fruit of our lives can still taste a bit sour right now, but we know that eventually the sweetness of God’s grace will permeate the fabric of our lives.
A City of Light (Matthew 5; Revelation 21-22): The City of God is a theme running throughout the Bible, and its important to note that when Scripture reaches the apex of history the final outcome of God’s grace is pictured as a great and beautiful city of light. Cities are places of deep density, profound skill and artistry, learning, and governance. In the ancient world, cities, in contrast with the countryside, were also places of safety and security too: they were the places you knew you’d be safe from the bandits and invading marauders. God has promised to express his bountiful mercy by building us into a beautiful city, a place of peace, provision, and security that shows the world the splendor of his love.
Despite those astonishingly beautiful images, some people speak rather disparagingly of the Church today, tending to view it at best as an optional extra on a menu of products offered for spiritual growth, or at its worst as a danger to be avoided. Given our weaknesses and less than stellar track record at times one can understand why this is so. Yet Christ came to shed his blood for his Church (Acts 20:28), to die for her (Ephesians 5:25ff), and so his love for the Church – which includes even the Christians who don’t like the Church so much! – must be our guide to its importance. John Stott wrote, “if the Church was worthy of Christ’s blood then the Church is worthy of our service.” The Church is central to Jesus mission, and is the way in which he makes his glory shine in the earth, despite our sinfulness. We don’t replace Jesus with the Church but we also know that Jesus has created and called us to live as his Church. At Christ Community we worship only God, but that also means we do love the Church.
One of the great hymns we sing captures the Church’s significance in very Biblical terms:
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word:
From heav’n He came and sought her
To be His holy Bride;
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
’Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.
Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly,
In love may dwell with Thee.
There are many lessons in that hymn, but let me note just a few.
First, the Church is Founded on Jesus Christ. He is our life and the reason we exist at all. The Church is not founded on a Pastor or Elders or Deacons or on any of its members; the Church finds its life and meaning in Jesus Christ.
Second, the Church is far bigger than we might imagine. It is ‘centuries deep and continents wide’, and the international flavor of the Church is something we greatly treasure here. Look around and you will see people from many nations gathered to give thanks to God for his grace – not unlike a preview of heaven actually! This amazing diversity, however, finds a unity in the Spirit’s work of grace and love among us, binding us together in Christ. We also support the spread of Christ’s message in many lands: by deeds of love, mercy, and justice, as well as worship, discipleship, and teaching we do all we can to reach as many as we can with the Love and Grace of Jesus.
Thirdly, we are in the middle of a great conflict. The Church is on a mission to bring the Gospel to the world and we have a terrible opponent to that work: Satan and his assistants. They work from outside the Church by means of persecution and anti-christian thought, but they also work within the Church seeking to cause division, spiritual lethargy, while inspiring false teaching to lead God’s people astray. Don’t think for a second that joining a congregation as a member means an ‘easy road’ – quite the contrary! We are in a conflict, but we are in it together. That’s why as soon as the Bible speaks of the Church as Christ’s Bride (Ephesians 5) it immediately speaks to the issue of Spiritual Warfare and doing battle against our great foe (Ephesians 6).
Lastly, our union with Christ in his Church is unshakable. Despite all the pressures we may face personally and as a community, we will in the end be brought safely to our destiny by the same grace in Christ that brought us to God in the first place. The Church is imperishable because God’s eternal life flows through every fiber of her being.
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