Category Archives: church

church…a work in progress?

So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly , which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand..Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord. The Levites..instructed the people..making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.

(Neh 8.2,6-8)

Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.

(Ps 149.1-4)

It was he[Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.

(Eph 4.11-13)

…Christ is the head of the church, his body of which he is the Saviour…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless

(Eph 5.23, 25-27)

Have you ever wondered at the gulf between the passionate, potent love we see in Jesus, and the qualities of the church which is his body in the world? Why does the community which is commissioned to witness to divine love, and incredible grace have such a record of intolerance, bigotry of every kind, division, coldness, selfishness and worldliness? Why do so many people outside the church view Jesus as someone admirable, and then reject the gospel because of those who claim to know and love him?

Our record as a people called to bear God’s name fruitfully, making disciples of all nations, rejoicing in our salvation and provoking the unsaved to envy of our peace, unity and hope is woeful. Our record as a people able to pick quarrels, hold grudges, mistreat, suspect, withhold forgiveness, abuse, lie, conceal and hoard on the other hand is quite impressive. How shameful, how heart-breaking, that the body of Christ in the world should be a source of such grief, pain and rejection of the gospel.

We have the incalculable riches of the word of Almighty God – his personal revelation of himself, his great purposes in creation and redemption. We have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, whose task is our daily transformation and enabling for the work of mission – whatever that may look like in our unique calling. We have Jesus, our salvation, our glory, joy and crown, by whom we stand in the the immediate presence of a holy God, with a guaranteed eternity in which to finally and fully live. What happens to us, that our lives fall so short of our calling, our identity?

From earliest records, we see that the body of Christ has been flawed, there was no golden age when everything went well. We are a community of sinners who have been saved, and who – this side of death – remain prone to every temptation known to humanity. The result is that the bride for whom Jesus died is far from pure, united and holy, and her continued existence is itself a cause for wonder and humble thanksgiving. Only God could have preserved a witness for himself in the face of so much weakness and failing. The larger our institutional churches get, the more they become like worldly institutions, with the same flaws. The tragedy is that Christ’s body in the world ought to be different. Unbelievers know this, and mock our faith; we know it, and grieve for the trap from which we seem unable to escape.

We have to take responsibility for our own personal witness, and pray for the reform of our institutions, pray for our leaders and confess our failures and sins. We also have to continue to work at being a community of believers. Each of us has a role to play in the body, in addition to our own willingness to give reason for the hope we have. We look to love, to build up, to encourage. We look to unite in praise and in learning from the word – reverencing the revelation and hungry to learn for ourselves what it means for us.

Lord of the church, for whom you died, have mercy on us. Fill us afresh by your Spirit, so that we shine for you – as individuals and as a body. Cleanse us from our persistent sins so that we honour you, and show how we treasure the blood shed to make us clean. Do not give up the work of building your church in our day, in our land, but in your mercy let us see your power poured out and a new generation of people coming to new life in Christ.

Not our will, but yours O Lord….

Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is not breath in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. …Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.

(Hab 2.18-3.2)

“What about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you..for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

(Matt.16.15-18)

..You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord…His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Eph 2.19-21, 3.10&11)

One of the hardest lessons in the great narrative of the bible is that God consistently acts in ways which bewilder his people; they stumble and falter as time and again, he works through gross evil and hostility to accomplish his purposes. We consider the role which Pharaoh played in the great redemption story of the Exodus – how the adamant resistance and pride of that ruler played directly into God’s plan to reveal the full magnificence of his power to deliver the people of Israel. 

Perhaps most shockingly, and hardest to keep in focus for those like me who have known the story all their lives, is the role of the Jewish establishment and Roman authorities in crucifying Jesus and thus bringing about the salvation which God had ordained from the very beginning. The injustice, malice, and concentrated evil which was at work to overcome Jesus acted instead to achieve exactly what had been intended, and from apparent defeat, God drew absolute victory. 

What happened next? The sustained persecution of the new believers in Jerusalem sent them far across the known world, spreading the gospel as they went and bringing hope to every people whom they met. Our God IS working out his purposes – but how ready we are to assume that those must be the same as our own, and how wrong we may be!

The ‘church’ is the people of God – those privileged to be citizens of heaven, members of God’s family – and our ultimate purpose is to demonstrate to the heavenly powers that God is good and wise and powerful, not that we are! It is God who is building, not us. It is God who sustains and inspires, and his Spirit which breathes life into those who are dead in their sins – not our strategies, or missions, or institutional magnificence. We are being built up together in Christ – not into a human organisation – and our purpose is to be the place where God’s presence dwells in the new heavens and the new earth. 

We are not there yet….by a long way, and I am just wondering whether part of God’s purpose in these days of global turmoil is to shake us as believers completely out of the complacency which continues to trust in human institutions. Is it possible that all the trappings of Christianity which we still cling to – buildings, hierarchies of clergy, denominations, ritual and pomp – all these have been hindering us from seeing and obeying God’s call? As we are forbidden to meet together, and are forced to take responsibility for our own spiritual lives in unprecedented ways, is God pruning off dead wood? This trial is revealing whether people are putting their faith in God, or in the human institution which we call the church, but which perhaps never really merited the name…

Let us pray in these days that God will find us ready to listen to his direction; to obey his call; to put away those things which are hindrances to gospel living and loving. Let us cry to him for direction and above all for encouragement that through this trial, he will reveal his power at work in building his church – in spite of all the obstacles which our ‘church’ has put in his way.