24 May Church: Grounded in Christ’s Love
Church: Grounded in Christ’s Love
Revelation 2:1-5a and Ephesians 3:5-21
May 20, 2018—Pentecost
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Growing up in Christ. That’s what Paul has been encouraging us to do in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul sees spiritual maturity as being integrally related to the church which is integrally related to Christ. Two truths are fundamental to this relationship, says Paul. First, God is involved in everything that is going on in the cosmos. And, second, Jesus and church are organically joined as head and body: Christ is the head of the church; the church is the body of Christ. You can’t have a head without a body, and you can’t have a body without a head. It is essential that this head-and-body metaphor be taken seriously, because the most frequent misunderstandings of both Christ and church come when the two are split apart and then viewed in isolation from the other.
From its opening lines, Ephesians has saturated us in the primacy of God’s presence in everything. The culture sees the Christian life as an extra, as something we get involved in after we have the basic needs of life met and sense that something is still missing. But the truth is that no matter when we become aware of our need for God, God has been present all along. There is no “before Christ” for any of us because there is no time when Christ has not been with us. Just because we have no awareness of the presence and action of God does not mean God has been absent. The Christian life does not begin with us. It begins with God.
Parallel with the way people often wrongly think of “Christian” as an extra tacked on to life, so “church” is often wrongly viewed as an extra tacked on to “Christian.” But Paul insists that church is no add-on. It’s not a program or a weekly pitstop to help us be better people. Our culture has largely succeeded in getting us to think about everything—relationships, jobs, activities, even church—in terms of what they do for us and what we can do for them, but Paul strenuously objects to this way of thinking. Church is not to be evaluated based on how it meets our self-identified needs or even in terms of how it needs us and how we can help out.
Church begins and ends with Christ, not us. Christ creates the church and we enter it, not as outsiders but as participants, as those who belong to Jesus. What we enter here is not just a building and not just history. We enter the life of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, the plan of God. There are a lot of things about church that can be defined and described—creeds and leaders, conflicts and persecutions, architecture and polity. But the pieces don’t add up to church. There is something interior to all that that the church is and is about. To describe that deeper reality, Paul uses the phrase, “through the church the manifold wisdom of God is made known.” The word “manifold” in Greek contains a picture of an intricately embroidered pattern in a tapestry, and wisdom carries the sense of lived knowledge. Church, then, is where this wisdom, this embodied tapestry of the knowledge and revelation of God takes place. Church is the workshop for turning knowledge into wisdom, of becoming what we know.
Because of the unique relationship between church and Jesus, the church, like Jesus is both human and divine. Not one or the other, but both simultaneously. Our humanity is easy to see but our divinity? What is divine about the church does not come from us but is derived from Christ’s divinity, because we are inseparably linked to him as his body.
Keeping these two parts together is critical. When the divinity of the church is diminished, the human side fills the vacuum and we end up with a religion cobbled together from our own indulgences in which God is pushed to the periphery. It can be magnificent religion: splendid music, dramatic liturgy, emotionally charged rhetoric, breathtaking architecture, intellectually astute, but it is prayerless and Spiritless. Judy’s brother, Danny Byram, released a book earlier this month entitled, Wallpaper Worship. That’s a good description of worship that has become all about the human actors involved, because it has lost any sense of its divine origins.
When the humanity of the church is diminished, the result can be a “faux divinity” that is mostly about saving souls for eternity. The spirituality of such a church can be impressive with intense Bible studies, prayer and fasting, programs and causes, crusades and inspirational appeals to move mountains. But there is often a curious deficit in human relationships. Men and women are depersonalized and abstracted into causes to be pursued or problems to be fixed. Church becomes an impersonal project, all in the name of Jesus, of course, but there doesn’t appear to be much of Jesus’ humanity in the details.
When church fails to embrace the divinity of Jesus as its own imputed divinity—God’s forgiveness and salvation, God’s love and sanctification—it betrays its core identity as Christ’s body. And when it fails to embrace the humanity of Jesus as its own humanity—personal, local, earthy, humble—it betrays its core identity as a dwelling place for God. And that’s why we need to take seriously Paul’s bold and intense yoking of the identity of church as derived from the identity of Jesus. We are not looking for perfection but for marks of maturity however imperfectly realized.
It takes constant vigilance to hold our humanity and divinity together. You might think that the church at Ephesus, the recipients of Paul’s clear call to practice resurrection life and grow up in Christ would not be as susceptible as others to losing their way, but you’d be wrong. Thirty years after this letter was written, John is pastor of seven churches including the one at Ephesus. John’s vision on Patmos, delivered to his churches, is a sobering warning against making the church in our own image at any time or in any form. Now a generation after Paul, the Ephesian church is the first of the seven to be indicted by John on the grounds that they abandoned their first love, their love of the gospel of Jesus Christ and living Christ’s resurrection life.
Threats to the church, both from within and without, are always present, and John counters those threats with a vision of Jesus alive, in action and present in the midst of the church. That vision is as real and relevant today as it has ever been.
Before Ephesians chapter three ends Paul is back at prayer which is probably no surprise. To maintain our identity as Christ’s body, prayer is vital. The physical act of “bowing my knees before the Father,” as Paul puts it, is an act of reverence. It is also an act of voluntary vulnerability. While on my knees, I can’t run away, I cannot assert myself. I place myself in a position of willed submission, yielding my will to the will of the person before whom I am bowing. It is an act of retreating from the action so that I can see what the action is without me in it, without me taking up space and speaking my piece. On my knees I am no longer in a position to flex my muscles, strut or cower, hide in the shadows or show off in the limelight. I become less so that I can be aware of more. I take a posture that lets me see what reality looks like without the distorting lens of either my timid avoidance or my aggressive domination. On his knees before God, Paul prays.
Paul’s prayer for his congregation is nothing if not exuberant. There is nothing cautious or restrained here. His intercessions exude generosity: “riches of his glory…power through the Spirit…rooted and grounded in love…power to comprehend…breadth and length and height and depth…the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…filled with all fullness…abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine…” The church at prayer is a household of extravagance. Paul can pray like this because his intercession flows out of the plenty and abundance of God. Paul is not unaware of the neediness of his congregation, but his prayers do not arise out of pity or desperation over the human condition. His prayers are shaped and energized by God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and it is in God’s presence that we are given eyes to see and ears to hear what is going on in the world—what is really going on, the “really real.”
While we are on our knees before God, Christ is praying for us and in us, strengthening us with power through the Holy Spirit. Even in prayer, there is so much more than what we bring to the experience. All of God is also involved—Father, Son, and Spirit. We are not by ourselves before God—Jesus and the Spirit are partners in our praying, forming an intimate relationship with us, shifting us out of our preoccupation with self toward attentiveness and responsiveness to God. In prayer there is a deliberate turning from a me-centered way of life to a Christ-centered way of life.
This is what Paul means by church. This is what the Holy Spirit breathed into being on that first Pentecost and what the Spirit continues to give life to today—the body of Christ that begins and ends with Jesus. We are not our own; we do not create church. We are called, as the Church, to participate in the life of the risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit which is blowing anew in us as surely as it did on the disciples in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Thanks be to God. Amen.