God’s Body {why the church.4}

The church is not an ideal to be striven for; she exists and they’re within her. 
{Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest}

In retrospect, I can say that I joined the church out of basic need; I was becoming a Christian, and as the religion can’t be practiced alone, I needed to try to align myself with a community of faith. {Kathleen Norris}

Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not the kingdom complete, but it is a witness to that kingdom.
{Eugene Peterson}

We are tempted to think of the church primarily as a human affair, our human arrangement to try to get religious stuff done. We believe God wants us to follow certain principles and directives, that God wants us to make our world better – but it’s up to us to figure out how exactly to go about it. Church, in this paradigm, is the way we organize our religious activity for the greatest efficiency and broadest impact. God gives us the goal (sometimes articulated as getting to heaven or raising healthy families or transforming society), but the energy, the strategy, the humph — well, that’s all us. It makes sense then that when the church isn’t “working,” when it doesn’t seem efficient (and it rarely is) or productive, we should take our leave. We cancel our membership in the club and go look for another, more productive stratagem. Or we just give up, dog-tired and disillusioned.

However, the church is not what we are making of the world. The church is something God is making in the world. The church is God’s creation, not ours. The church is first an expression of what God is doing (and has been doing since In the beginning…). The church exists as this physical mystery crafted from the raw material, the timber and stone, of God’s people — those people whom God is “fitting in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together.”(Eph 2:21)

And this imagery of God as a master craftsmen fashioning a strong, sturdy abode is pitch-perfect for how Scripture describes what God is up to in and among us. God does not meddle primarily in theories or abstractions. God’s core impulse is incarnation. God always goes physical. Christian faith is not ideals and principles and morals separated from the mortar and sinew of physicality and relationships. Christian faith is always embodied. This is why Paul would say, “we see [God’s people, the church] taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.” (Eph 2:22)

We see it. We touch it. We live in it, with others. We experience it. We love (and are loved) within it. We are frustrated by it. We hope for it to be more. We are surprised by the grace it offers. We find it clunky. We find it strange. And we know deep down that we are missing something true whenever we are distanced from it…And, in those distant spaces, we often sense a yearning within us to return home.

It almost sounds like, well, a family.

Family is about right. Paul uses precisely this picture to help us grasp a sense of the church’s essence (Eph 2:19). Scripture gives us multiple other images as well (one theologian counted ninety-six), all unique and varied, multi-faceted. However, what we will notice with almost every image is its physicality. It is something of substance, something tangible, something you can get your hands on, something you can live in or with. Something you see. The church is a city (Rev 21:2), a tribe/people (I Pet 2:9), fishermen (Mark 1:17), salt (Matt 5:13), branches on the tree (John 15:5), God’s farm (I Cor 3:9), God’s building (I Cor 3:9) and a letter (2 Cor 3:2-3), to name a few. The church is not a philosophy,  an ethical system, a warm, gooey sentimental feeling. The church is flesh and bones.

It’s popular to say we like Jesus but we don’t like the church. I understand; I’ve said it myself. However, Jesus and the church are inseparable. The church is Jesus’ body (I Cor 12:27). The church is how Jesus embodies himself in the world. The church is how God goes physical. To say we want Jesus but not the church is like saying we want love but not marriage. Or friendship without the tangible commitment of time and presence, desiring some vague notion attached to the concept of friendship without the hard work of actually being a friend.

My hunch is this: many of us give up on the church because we expect both too much and too little. We expect too much because we have been sold big jugs of grade C moonshine. It never tastes as good as promised. We’ve bought an ideal, what the church is supposed to be, a place where no one is lonely and everyone gets their God-fix and we are always fulfilled (or quickly moving that direction) — and we are certain to see tangible, immediate results of how our life is better, our kids are clean and keen, and our world is being transformed before our very eyes. But we aren’t an ideal. We are a family. And families have weird uncles and feuds and kids who get carted off to jail. Families have lots of love and rich stories, but there’s always pain and disappointment and seasons where it’s just plain vanilla, unexciting. Families need to forgive and to repent. And keep becoming more and more who God has in mind for them to be. However, there is something of profound beauty and value embodied in a family, even amid all its lunacy and disfunction.

At the same time, we expect too little of church. We miss the mysterious and everyday ways God takes on flesh and bone. We need eyes to see how we are being formed into a new kind of person, amid a new kind of community. These long stretches of commonness — living with others, hearing each other’s stories, discovering our vocations, working through the irritation of friendship with people who see the world differently than we do, raising our kids, loving (and being annoyed by) our neighbors, working through the joys and pains of our marriage (or singleness) — are the necessary, mundane ways God has chosen to take up residence it this world.

Every bit of this is physical, every bit necessary. There is no other way.

[further why the church? posts:part one,  twothreefive]

10 Replies to “God’s Body {why the church.4}”

  1. Creative creator indeed. But mainly, Ross, I just like being called "mate." Makes me feel cosmopolitan. Thanks!

  2. Good, very good…thanks for using the word 'family' instead of 'community'…families split and fracture…some even feud…

    Ah, the commonness…that's why, I believe, there'll always be a need for the pastor/poet, one who looks and sees, and 'gives the mundane its beautiful due' (Updike)…

  3. Winn I have loved this series, & this post has given me a new insight into exactly what "God's Body" implies – & it is… amazing!!

    I think when people say they like Jesus but not "The Church", they are talking about traditions, organisations, structures – all the man-made religious stuff – the Church you are talking about – God's body – is not the "church" most people have trouble with. It is something that, messily, honestly, and through its own imperfect openness to God, brings Heaven to earth – & as you have said, embodies Jesus.

    Thanks for this series – it has been so worth reading!! Peace.

  4. Hey, Kerry, thank you. I appreciate you interacting with me, makes this much more enjoyable. I think you are right – people are reacting to the mess we make of things. The funny thing is that it is inevitable that we will make some mess of things – I think I'm asking for us to recognize that this whole deal is inevitably inefficient, troublesome, goofy at times. I think we should always be repenting and reforming and becoming more who we are meant to be. But I also want us to give up the idea that we will we ever (before Jesus finished Jesus-work and makes all things right) have an idyllic church without any of the "man-made" stuff.

  5. Hey Winn – I'm with you that anything that involves people is going to be something quite other than idyllic – but I still have trouble seeing the heirarchical, tradition-bound structures we have created (& I am including so called "newer" movements in this) as actually *being* the Church of Jesus. That is something much more like family (something you also said). I don't think this makes it wrong to have organisations that serve parts of the body of God – but to feel that these *are* that body is a mistake.

    So yeah, there will always be mistakes and mess and grace breaking through it all – & to me that is the most glorious thing about God! But I do not think we are meant to accept oppressive systems (& we do tend to create them!) as part and parcel of God's beautiful bride!

    I know I tend to start sounding like a ranting reactionary when I talk about this stuff – but I think that as long as we are reaching out for real relationships and allowing ourselves to be open and available to one another, & to belong to and with those God puts beside us – the "structures" are far more likely to serve, rather than oppress the real body!!

  6. Kerry, you don't sound like a "ranting reactionary" at all, more like someone who cares a lot about all this – I'm with you.

    It seems like we may be talking about several things at the same time. If we are talking about oppressive, institutional systems, we are right to speak out – and to remove ourselves. When situations are unjust or harmful to our soul, we shouldn't go laissez faire. I've had to leave a couple such groups myself. The gospel required it, I'd say.

    Still, we all have varying forms of dysfunction. It becomes a tricky thing indeed to say who is and who is not the church (reminds me of Jesus' words about wheat and tares). I try to hold this with an open hand, allowing God to graciously birth in me and in my community all he hopes for us to be, willing to (in grace) call out those places that need to change, willing to change myself, and willing to pray for God's mercy that we will know how to walk through all this with the lightness that comes from being God's free people.

    I appreciate you pushing on this, Kerry. Thank you.

  7. I think we are on the same page, Winn! Yes I absolutely agree that we are on very shaky ground when we try to judge who does and does not belong to Jesus! I love that God is gracious enough to show up and meet with us if we seek Him – whatever our theological stance or situation in life. It's not about how "right" we get it (thank God!) – It's about Him!
    Thanks for hearing me out – looking forward to whatever comes next 🙂

  8. The disappointment keeps melting as I read this. Here I was, livid with the church for not serving my “God fix.” Then I learn I am the church . We are the church. There is no “God fix” in church just men and women being crafted by the head of the family: God.
    The temptation to forget that the crazy uncle also has the best jokes is alive and well in me. I am brat, like most of my brothers and sisters in my family. I want to live on a sugar high and get all the attention.
    Thank you for being the sober elder brother.

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