It was surprising, even to me, the inspiration that came gushing out this morning. It was like the two disciples on the Emmaus Road who exclaimed, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us along the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” On Sunday, I had just preached the theme message for 2015, The Church: God’s Crown Jewel. By “coincidence” (can we really say that if the Lord directs our steps?) I was talking to another pastor in Tucson who, after a little conversation, said that this call was “God-ordained,” as he told me he had preached to his church “almost verbatim” what I was sharing! Well, like-minded conversation about God’s Word can get pretty intense with me at times. I’m not talking about just “going to church,” but the vision to be the church Christ died for and envisioned. It was sort of like a recrudescence (hey, dictionary.com sends me their word of the day) which means a breaking out afresh or a revival into renewed activity. Either way, the passion I felt was palpable.
The purpose of a theme for the year is not a gimmick, and it is not trafficking in mere sloganism. I am reminded of the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 12:10-11: “The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words, and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads; and as well-driven nails are the words of the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.” I’m not being presumptuous or saying this is the only thing God is saying, but rather, a theme is meant to have a distinct touch of heaven on it, and to become a good reference point for our faith journey throughout the year. That is my prayer: Lord, let this truth be like well-driven nails from You; something that we can hang our lives on.
How do you account for the fervor? I will confess that it comes from strong conviction, and that it has been growing for some time. Every year, millions of people visit the Tower of London to catch a glimpse of the Crown Jewels that are on display there. The importance of the crown jewels is they are ceremonial and symbolic representations of the English throne, known as the Regalia. They are used and meant to communicate the place, the power, and the purpose of the British monarchy. In the case of Jesus Christ and His kingdom, the crown jewel is the Church, which He purchased with His own blood. For brevity’s sake, I am not going to distinguish between every mention of the Church as the church local, the church universal, or the church eternal. And for clarity’s sake, I acknowledge that the Church is not the kingdom of God, but rather the kingdom of God includes the Church. In his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays wrote: “One cannot follow Jesus, according to Matthew, except by becoming part of the community that He trained to carry out His mission in the world.”
Another factor contributing to the depth of my feeling is Paul’s declaration: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery [or, a really big deal], but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” He’s telling us that at the center of God’s redemptive plan and workings in the earth is a marvelous divine love storybetween Christ and His Church. This is why I react strongly to the trend (much of it coming from within the professing church) of dismissing or diminishing the Church’s role and distinctive. Imagine the love of your best friend’s life, the person for whom he has been willing to give up everything to woo and to win. How would you feel if she was being constantly attacked or criticized or besmirched? You would feel this deeply, wouldn’t you?
The Disturbing Trend
One of the sayings that came out of the ’60s counter-culture was “Tune in, Turn On, And Drop Out.” One of the disturbing versions of this sentiment is the current trend among Christians to minimize, marginalize, and in some cases drop out of a vital connection to the Church as the Body of Christ. Anne Rice became famous as the author of the bestselling Vampire Chronicles, and some even credit her with starting the whole vampire (now zombie) craze. In 1998, she shocked her readers and the publishing world when she announced she would never write another vampire book. She said that her decision to abandon vampires was the result of committing her life to Christ. She stated, “My life is committed to Christ the Lord. My books will be a reflection of that commitment.” Well, in 2010 she again surprised folks by posting on her Facebook page: “Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being any part of Christianity.... In the name of Christ I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.” Phew! I don’t know what she’s been listening to or been a part of, but her story is an illustration of a distorted perception that the Church is incidental to a vital relationship with Christ. I’m concerned that, being a writer of fiction, she doesn’t end up with her own fictionalized version of who Jesus Christ really is. She does represent a segment of people who profess to believe in Christ, but who have low levels of commitment, if any at all, to any local congregation.
My concern is not so much statistical evidence (statistics can be skewed to fit the persuasion or the pre-conceived notion of the one using them), but the perception of the Church’s irrelevancy. This is especially so for those who are in a hurry to write the Church’s obituary, and who see these trends as Christianity’s last convulsions. For the past five years or so, it has become more and more popular to take shots at the Church, laying a good deal of society’s decline (some call it hope and change) at the door step of a completely out-of-touch Church. The titles speak for themselves: Quitting Church; Life After Church; So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore; They Like Jesus but Not the Church; and The American Church in Crisis. One author referred to this trend as a “vanishing ecclesiology” (the doctrine of the Church), where we feel free to view the Church as a human construct and not a divine organism.
Seeing What God Sees
Our theme of “The Church: God’s Crown Jewel” is intended to help us have the vision that Christ has for His Church. It’s seeing what God sees that helps counteract the false currents that we frequently encounter in our day. Yes, I’m talking about the same Church that has its obvious share of flaws, failures, and dysfunction. No, the Church isn’t perfect, for the simple fact that it is made up of human beings like you and me! To glimpse this vision, you must go to the Book of Ephesians, which displays the grandest scope of the truth of Christ and the Church in the Bible. In Ephesians 1:20-23, we have Paul’s prayer for our eyes to be opened, specifically to see Christ’s exalted position, especially in relationship to the Church:
“According to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”
The Church’s great distinctive is that there is no other entity that Christ claims as His own personal project, one over which He reigns as head. In the ministry of Jesus, this was a pivotal moment we find in Matthew 16:16-18: “Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The Church is built on the revelation and relationship to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. No matter what it may appear to others, if the Church is something God has chosen and God is pleased to dwell in and to use, then it is a big deal, indeed! Relevancy must be defined and determined by God’s viewpoint in the Scripture, and not by our surrounding culture.
Years ago, a London newspaper offered a prize for the best essay on the subject, “What is wrong with the church?” The prize was awarded to a minister from Wales who answered, “What is wrong with the Church is our failure to realize and wonder at the beauty, the mystery, the glory, and the greatness of the Church.” Lord, let what we see be influenced, shaped, and elevated by Your vision of the Church as Your Body and Bride. The call inherent in this is not to do more, but to focus on and grow in the distinctive of being the church.
The Essential Direction
Carnival Cruise Lines offers cruises out of Norfolk, Virginia, called “Cruises to Nowhere.” It seems you pay for a ticket, pack your bags, board a boat, and cruise to nowhere. Yes, you live on a boat that is going nowhere. The cruise exists for the sake of the cruise, not for the purpose of arriving at any destination visited. There is no itinerary. If we could think in terms of the Church’s purpose, it will become evident that it does not exist to propagate an institution (that is, in cruising to nowhere), but that its purpose is for us to be taking people somewhere: to maturity in Christ and the fulfillment of the mission from which it derives its existence. Matthew 28:18-20 tells us: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." The Church’s purpose is defined by the Great Commission. People must see that God is taking us someplace!
Again, we reference another grand, sweeping scheme of Scripture in Ephesians 4:17-13: “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, ‘When He ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.’(In saying, "He ascended," what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The resurrected and ascended Christ has given gifts to the Church in the form of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. This is done for a distinct purpose: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” When we hear the word ministry, what comes to mind? For many, what they hear is “church work.” But real ministry means something that is so much more. The word means “an act of service to God.” While that can happen and needs to happen in the Church gathered, the real focus is the Church equipped and released out into the world to serve as the body of Christ. The Church is a vessel that is going someplace.
Charles Colson, in his best-selling book Being the Body, told the story of Richard Halverson, who was a friend and mentor. Before becoming the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, he served as pastor of Washington, D.C.’s large Fourth Presbyterian Church. He was flying into Washington’s Reagan National Airport when they happened to pass directly over their church building. Halverson tried to locate his church but he couldn’t find it. As he leaned back in his seat, gazing at the impressive Washington skyline, he began mentally ticking off the names of various members of his congregation who lived and worked throughout the area. Disciples he had equipped to live their faith. And suddenly it hit him. “Of course! There it is! Fourth Presbyterian Church!” The church wasn’t marked by a sanctuary or a steeple. The church was spread throughout Washington, in the homes and neighborhoods and offices below him, thousands of points of light illuminating the darkness. This is one reason the great English Bible translator, William Tyndale, translated the word ekklesia to mean congregation instead of “church,” so that the reference to people was always preserved.
The Sustaining Vision
When God grants us the ability to love what He loves, it becomes a sustaining vision in our hearts. I was reading about an interview that Dallas Willard gave before he passed away, in which he discussed various trends, changes, and challenges facing the Church of Jesus Christ. At the end of a two-hour conversation he was asked, “When you look at how off track the church is, do you ever just throw up your hands in despair?” He smiled and said, “Never,” to which the interviewer responded, “How can you not?” He said, “Because I know Christ is the Head of His Church and He knows what He is doing!”
G.K. Chesterton, a legendary English writer, lay theologian, philosopher, journalist, biographer and Christian apologist, was asked about his view on the social and moral issues of his time. Chesterton responded with classic perception and humility to a question posed by the newspaper: “What’s wrong with the world?” He wrote the newspaper and said:
My prayer is we would all present our bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ as “living sacrifices,” realizing our shortcomings, but determined not to be conformed to the thinking of this world. Rather, let us be motivated and changed by a vision that Jesus is worthy of a beautiful Bride. Let it start in me, precious Lord.