Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Woman Jesus is in Love With

In this spiritually hungry age, interest in the person of Jesus is unmistakable and enduring; at the same time, the popular image of the church that bears his name is less than flattering. I heard one writer sum up the church as “hard pews, unsingable tunes, enforced silence and excruciating boredom.” In Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, Mack is a man whose view of the church is skewed by the memory of his alcoholic father who would beat his mother and then take after him with a belt and Bible verses. At the same time, he has felt a measure of strength from his wife Nan and her faith in the goodness of "Papa," as they have endured the tragedy of their daughter's murder. In the novel, Jesus explains to Mack that the church is much more than a cold institution…she is his Bride, the woman he is in love with.

In a conversation with Jesus, Mack has this to say: “You talk about the church as this woman you’re in love with. I’m pretty sure I haven’t met her….She’s not the place I go on Sundays,” Jesus replies gently: "Mack, that’s because you’re seeing only the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living, breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs….” I want to look at two aspects of the church today: the church as institution; and the church as Christ's 'beloved'. Let me begin by saying that Scripture agrees that the church Jesus loves is more than an institution. But before I go any further with that point, I want to acknowledge that the church is an institution; and it would be hard to argue from Scripture that God is against institutions or organization, per se!

Think about it! The universe is fantastically organized from the subatomic world…to the motion of the planets and stars. And if I could sit down with Mack, I might remind him that ancient Israel’s worship was carefully organized and instituted by God. There is a wonderful passage at the end of the Book of Exodus, after Moses and the people have carefully constructed the tabernacle, organized the Aaronic priesthood, and assembled the people to pray, that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40: 34). In the New Testament Paul reminds us that when it comes to worship “God is not a God of disorder but of peace…and that all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14: 33, 40). If one takes a look at the descripton of the early church in Acts 2: 43-47 you will find the major priorities that drive the church's structure to this day -- things like worship, disicpleship, building community, Spirit-empowered ministry and mission. So, God's gathered people have always gathered in an organized fashion...but it is far more than an organization or an institution - more than services, clergy, denominations or buildings....

The church is more than services. We often talk about “going to church” on Sunday, when we really ought to say, “I’m going to worship.” Although it can certainly help, sitting down in a worship service does not necessarily make one a follower of Christ…especially if we spend it counting bricks, or the minutes before it’s over.
The church is more than clergy. Many associate “church” with clergy. It’s humbling to think that Jesus reserved his strongest criticism for religious professionals. The word “clergy” has come to mean, “the people who do the ministry” and the congregation? Well, they're “the people who pay for it.” In truth, pastors/teachers only one part of the church…and their job is to equip the church for its ministry (Eph. 4: 11-12).
The church is more than denominations. Many associate “the church” with groups of churches – from Roman Catholic, to Orthodox, to Reformed churches like our own…to “Non-Denominational” churches that look increasingly “denominational.” In John 17: 21, Jesus prays that we might be truly one which means one in him -- not one organizationally. I know several catholic priests, and count among my friends and colleagues several so called "non-denominational" pastors. My own brother is an independent church pastor and my cousin is a Russian Orthodox priest in San Francisco! We come from different “denominations” but we serve the same Lord.
The church is more than buildings. For so many the church has come to mean bricks and mortar. While walking through Herod’s Temple, Jesus reminded his disciples that “something greater than the temple is here.” He was speaking of God's very person made visible in him. Buildings facilitate ministry, but buildings are not the church. The word “church” (Scottish “kirk”) is derived from the Greek word kyriakon, which means, “belonging to the Lord.” We don’t drive or walk to church, we are the church, because we belong to the Lord.

Thus far we’ve seen that the church Jesus loves is an institution, but that it is more. God’s people are described in a variety of ways in the Bible (e.g., a temple, an army, a family, a body) but the most beautiful image likens the intimate union between God and his people to that of a Groom and his Bride. Here are 3 marks of the Bride that Jesus is in love with: beauty, faithfulness, and love.

The church Jesus loves is reflecting, more and more, the beauty of God’s holiness. Paul writes: “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5: 25-27). One of the things that people should see when they observe God’s people is what Psalm 29:2 (KJV) calls “the beauty of holiness.” When Moses returned from meeting the LORD on Sinai, the people noticed that his face shined with the glory of God, the holiness of God. When people see you and me, they should see something of the beauty of God’s holiness on our faces. Now, don’t confuse the beauty of holiness with the ugliness of holier-than-thou religiosity. The face that reflects the beauty of his holiness is a face that knows it has been washed clean, as Paul says, by the water of the Word. It is a face filled with gratitude to Jesus for what he has done by his grace and power.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was drawn to God by the beauty of the holiness of Jesus. Born a slave in New York, she emancipated in 1827, and traveled America as a powerful preacher for Christ against slavery. In her autobiography she wrote than when she first drew near to God a sense of her own sinfulness kept her at a distance; feeling that she needed someone to stand between her and God and plead on her behalf. Suddenly, she says that she saw ‘a friend’ standing between her and God. “Who are you?” the woman asked. In her words, “The figure brightened into a form distinct, beaming with the beauty of holiness, and radiant with love.” She strained to see who it was…and the answer came. “It is Jesus.” At that moment, God was no longer an avenging judge to her…but in Jesus became “altogether lovely.” Her life went on to become a powerful and radiant reflection of the beauty of his holiness (Gerald R., McDermott, Seeing God, p.110).

Second, the church Jesus loves encourages faithfulness to his message and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Cor. 11: 2-4, Paul says, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband….But I am afraid that…your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted you submit to it readily enough.”

The church that Jesus loves is faithful to him…like a bride is faithful to her husband; not running around with another Jesus (“another god who claims to save: or seeks our allegiance), a different spirit (for it is his Spirit of grace, love, and truth that we want to emulate) or a different gospel (for there are many messages and books, but for us there is only one Messenger, and one Holy Book). When we call one another to faith in Jesus over against "another Jesus...spirit...or gospel" we must not confuse this with Jesus' attitude toward "another culture, a different people, or a different nation." One of the biggest fears that people have about following Jesus is that they we will have to walk away from their unique culture and background. Remember that Paul ministered as a Jew to Greek speaking Gentiles. His whole ministry was based on the premise that Jesus’ message transcends (it does not obliterate) culture and tradition: For “There is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).

The followers of Christ are from every culture on earth. One can just as easily be an American as a Korean, a Russian as a Filipino, an Israeli as an Iranian, an Austrian as an Indian and follow Christ, for his faithful followers come from every continent and nearly every people group on earth. As Jesus says in The Shack, “I will travel any road to find you,” which he has done and continues to do. Every year, the Church of Scotland celebrates what they call the “The kirkin’ of the tartans.” All the various Scottish clans (represented by their tartan/plait) enter the kirk and lay their tartens on the communion table in a symbolic act of their “belonging” to Christ; their new identity, and their allegiance to him above all others.

Finally, the church Jesus loves shows a deep love for God and for one another. David Watson asks this question: “What does a bridegroom look for most of all in his bride? Beauty and faithfulness are important, but above all he looks for love.” In the message to the church at Ephesus, the risen Christ commends the church for its hard work, its patient endurance and doctrinal purity, “But, I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first (Revelation 2: 1-7). To be faithful to Christ without loving Christ is like a husband who never cheats on his wife, but never invests in his marriage either. Jesus said that it is love, above all, that will be the mark of those who follow him: not orderly worship, not sound doctrine, not impressive buildings, not well-trained clergy, not denominational labels, but love for him, and love for one another… love that is more than words, love that gives itself away as Christ gave himself up for us.

I want to end by saying that perhaps you heaven’t seen the church reflect the beauty of holiness, or faithfulness to Jesus’ message, or love for God and other people. If God’s people have let you down let me say that we’ve all been there! We can testify that Jesus shines infinitely brighter than any of us who take the name of "Christian". After all, we are the bruised and broken sinners for whom he gave his life…and because of him we can also say that we’re now part of the living, breathing community of all those who love him and who would love you to join his forever family.

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