Playground of Grace

The church is full of . . . (do you know what comes next?)

hypocrites.

Have you heard this complaint? Maybe you’ve uttered it after being discouraged by a church members sin.

It’s true, in one sense. People sin. Unsaved people, and saved people. We can’t get away from sin, even in the Church. None of us can be that perfect example of ourselves we like to think we can be. We’ve all acted hypocritically.

That’s why being part of a church body requires grace–grace poured on others for their sinfulness, and grace received for our own mistakes. The spiritual life is a journey, and a journey, by nature, is movement from one point to another. We are all moving from imperfect to perfect, and we’ll not arrive until Perfection comes again.

The local congregation should be the playground of grace. Having been saved (passive tense), we offer grace (active tense). We recognize that who we have become in Christ has not been of our own doing, but his.

Let’s get ourselves to the playground of grace and swing on God’s mercy, slide on his love. Let’s move beyond the excuse that the church is full of hypocrites.

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25

When the Church Sins

Sometimes sin is corporate. It’s not hypocrites in the Church; it’s a hypocritical Church. We present ourselves in one way—we tout a religion of love, joy, and peace—but act in another.

First, let’s clarify: God has always had a remnant, a group of people, no matter how small, who remain true to him. Even when Israel rejected Yahweh and chased after other gods, a remnant remained faithful. So when I say, “The Church sins”, I speak of a corporate failure of the body of Christ, not the failure of every individual within that body.

How has the Church sinned?

On the large-scale, I immediately think of the Crusades—the period in Medieval times where Christianity became state-driven (referred to as Christendom, the start of which being Charlemagne in 800). I also think of times when the Church has failed to stand up for truth. Nazi Germany, for example.

On the small-scale, I think of members of churches I’ve been in who have been wronged by the majority of their home church body, their family—gossiped about, rejected unfairly, blamed unjustly, not stood up for when they were victims. Or what about when churches refuse to partner with other denominations because of theological differences or prejudices? Perhaps a group within the church slanders another group because of worship style preference.

When God’s people sinned and remained unrepentant, they suffered consequences. But God had a prescription:

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14

Heal their land. The sin of God’s people was ruining their livelihood, their very existence. And after failing to humble themselves and return to Yahweh, God’s people were subjected to the consequences of their sin, just as God had warned.

But God pursued his people. This time, after war and deportation, his people answered the call.

“They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God.” Nehemiah 9:3

God’s call to his Church remains: humble yourself and pray.

Unity in the Church: Hard, but Not Optional

Ever heard the phrase, “No pain, no gain”?

It’s easily applied to unity. We’re all one body, joined in Christ, and unity is beyond essential. It’s commanded. It’s part of the defition of Church.

But what makes it so hard? Pride. Unforgiveness. Theological differences. Prejudices. Selfishness. Laziness. You can add your own stumbling block to the list. Unity is hard, but it’s not optional.

My daughter is fond of saying, “This is no fun,” when she has to do something she doesn’t want to. I usually quip something like, “Life’s not about having fun.” Really, it isn’t. If we never clean up our house and clutter and germs pile up like flies on a . . .oh, that’s gross.

We do things because we need to, because they’re necessary, and in the case of church unity, because God commands it of us.

What’s hard for you today? What pulls you back from unity? Buckle your boot straps. We’ve got work to do.

One Body

Church is a singular noun. Despite the schisms, fractions, and multiple expressions of the institutional church, the driving image for the Church in the New Testament is one body.

 “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body– whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free– and we were all given the one Spirit to drink,” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

One Jesus, Lord of the Church. One baptism makes us part of that Church. One Spirit, given to empower the Church.

All who are in the Church have the same Spirit and have been given a gift. It doesn’t make sense to say that only some of those who came into the Church through the one baptism, one death and resurrection of the one Lord, would not have the one Spirit that marks the identity of the Church. It doesn’t make sense to say so, but some do, and by doing so, defy that the Church is one body.

Perhaps the most foundational (and overlooked) gift given to the Church, through the Spirit, is the gift of unity. The members of the Church are to express its quintessential oneness. Unity is to be more than a theological reality, more than a characteristic, more than a God-ordained wish. Unity must take on flesh among us and move beyond a charter of essentials that members agree on. The source of unity must be living, active, and breathing among us.

The flesh of this unity—its expression among us—is none other than Jesus himself.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Romans 15:5-6).

Following Jesus is the medium through which the spirit of unity is poured into the Church. The “whole measure of the fullness of Christ” is experienced as the Church is built up into the unity of the Son of God. Spiritual gifts were given for this very purpose:

“. . . 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 fullness of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:13).

The Spirit manifests among the Church the oneness of the body as it stems from Jesus Christ.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called– one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

God’s umbrella of grace spans over the entire Church, and we exist beneath it as one body. We do not stand under this umbrella separated from one another, but as one body. We do not experience unity individually, but as one body. And one day, in heaven, we will worship as one body in perfect unity.

A Quick Distinction: The Visible and Invisible Church

The Church is the people of God, the body of Christ. All who trust in Christ for salvation automatically become part of the Church, whether they like it or not.

However, not all who go to church services, who become members of a church, are part of the Church. This is an important distinction. John Calvin referred to the public, institutional church as the visible church. We can see who attends services. We can proclaim our membership of a particular flock or denomination.

The invisible church is known only to God. It is “His prerogative”, using Calvin’s words, to know who is the elect, from beginning to end of creation. And in light of this, we are to withhold judgment. We can, however, recognize members of this invisible church by their confession of faith, partaking of the sacraments, and their profession of Christ. We know a tree by its fruit.

Recognizing this distinction between the visible and invisible Church breeds humility. Authority over the Church is God’s. No man can be the gatekeeper to the body of Christ, letting those he deems worthy in or out. Some people are content to do the religion thing, but not surrender to Christ. God will judge their hearts. It is our job to serve within the Church. We are aware that those who seem far from God may be called to him at some point in their lives. God will call those he’s elected.

We are also aware that God has placed upon man the important task of shepherding his Church. We are to disciple and to encourage the visible church. We are to guard the visible church, and by guard, I mean we are not to open membership to anyone and everyone, but to set forth the requirements of scripture for salvation: namely, confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

The early church was extremely particular in its membership requirements. During the startup of the visible church, in the first several hundred years after Jesus lived on earth, heresies were rampant, and the church fathers were correct in being protective of the Gospel. Requirements for church membership included a discipleship period of several years and a renunciation of former ways of living. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was closed to church members only, whereas the teaching and singing components of worship were open to the public.

The Church’s One Foundation

My senior year of college I did an internship with the pastor of visitation at my church. We served communion to elderly members who could not leave their homes. We visited those in the hospital. We conducted services in nursing homes and visited those there whose families were far away. And all the time we sang hymns. The pastor with whom I served carried copied hymn sheets around and we’d whip them out in a hospital room and start singing. One of my favorite hymns we sang, which I also grew up singing, was The Church’s One Foundation. It’s a good place to begin our month of discussion on the Church.

words by Samuel Stone, 1866

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 ev’ry 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  ev’ry grace endued.

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore  oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed,
Yet saints  their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night  of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.

The church shall never  perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain and cherish
Is with  her to the end;
Though there be those that hate her,
And false sons in her  pale,
Against or foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.

‘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 the 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,
On high may dwell with thee.

First and Second Things on the Third of May

First things first:

Congratulations to Joi Converse

April winner of Valley of Vision

Second things second:

April showers bring May flowers

…And a new word:

Church

What is the church? How is the church part of God’s kingdom? What did John Calvin mean by the visible and invisible church? How should we think about the church? What is the church to be about? What is it not to be about?

Hmmm.