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God’s last word on the church

There are so many books being published today with titles that basically dismiss the Church, but welcome Christ. It is a commonplace among a certain age that there can be no disagreement about it – the Church is awful, it is dull and boring, and God doesn’t think much of it either. Emergent and emerging (what’s the difference?) church leaders are so ‘cool’ in their right-on certain attitude that the Church is finished. And if you say, ‘hold on, not so fast’ you are obviously an unspiritual dinosaur locked into some Victorian empire building. Things have changed, they say, ‘go this way or it’s no way that you can succeed’ – however they define success. But I am not so sure. I read the New Testament and I get a different picture.

The Church in those pages is not some perfect institution; it is not some glamorised picture of an awesome ideal. It reminds me of this...sometimes you can visit people, unannounced and unexpected, and you find that your host is constantly apologising for the state of the house, that it’s not more tidy or clean, that clothes, toys and books are liberally strewn around, and that even there’s some washing up still to be done. That reminds me of the Church: it’s not some parlour, which is only used once a year. No, it’s a living room – full of finger smudges on the glass-topped table, with the place in need of a good dust, and maybe even the odd crisp wrapper pushed behind the sofa. The Church is where normal life takes place, and sometimes normal life is wonderful; and sometimes it is messy and not so nice; and perhaps lots of it is mundane and ordinary, but it’s life, and we prefer it to death. It seems significant to me that the New Testament calls the Church the Body of Christ. Think about bodies for a moment: we can’t do without them (it would be awful uncomfortable and not a little disconcerting if we were all sitting here in our skeletons!) but no one thinks that our bodily life on earth is perfect. We can pamper them, train them, dress them, and even do amazing things with them, using them for exceptional feats of heroism or adventure or sporting achievement. But, let’s be honest, we can also do stupid things with our bodies. They can become drug addicted, over-indulged – and all of them ‘run down’ and creak, and develop deafness, or blindness, or ....whatever. So our bodies are necessary, but they are not perfect.

That’s a bit like the Church: the Church as a body can do stunning things, can be places of the greatest integrity and passion, can embody God’s great good news. But they can also be places of petty jealousy, of hatred and malice; they are places which develop ‘hardening of the oughteries’. So take any 7 churches in history, take any 7 churches in a geographical locality and you will find that they are much the same as the 7 churches listed in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. And I think that’s the point. But where is Jesus to be found? STANDING BANG IN THE MIDDLE OF THEM!

Let’s see what God’s word written says about the Church then in this last book of the Bible....

The Living Christ stands amongst the churches. This is so important: many think that it’s good enough to meet with Christ walking the moors, sitting around your kitchen table, or just ‘hanging out’ instead of meeting with God’s people, which is regarded as carcinogenic, a pollutant of the pure rivers of individual belief. But that’s not what the NT teaches: this individualistic ascetic kind of religion is rejected wholesale. John is told to “write to the 7 churches.” And if we take the scheme of Revelation, we may wish to go straight from the glories of Revelation 4 and 5 to the triumphant return of Christ in 19-21. But the book doesn’t allow us to: we have to go through the church, for it is the church which enforces the victories over the dragon and his foul partners. These 7 churches share a common geography. That’s important. Christians who belong to a local church live in a particular place, shop at the same supermarkets, contribute to the local economy, and share local ‘colour’. All of that contributes to our mission. But the churches are not so much defined by their geography, as by their theology – or better, their Christology. In other words, the church is comprised of something other than ethnicity, than money, than class, than even denominational loyalty. No, it is Christ who defines the church. It is Christ who makes the living church. It is Christ who brings unity to disparate bodies. It is Christ who brings Christians together to form his body. And that is why we are not to neglect “meeting together” – because salvation, though inherited personally, is fully formed bodily. We need each other, and we relate corporeally to Christ as Lord and Saviour.

So see how the churches are defined: Ephesus acquires identity from the One “who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands”; Smyrna’s identity is with the “the first and the last, who died and came to life;” Pergamum is addressed by he who “has the sharp two- edged sword”; Thyatira majors its distinction on the Christ who “has eyes like a flame of fire, whose feet are like burnished bronze”; Sardis is defined by he who “has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars;” Philadelphia has Christ “the holy one, the true one who has the keys of David”; and Laodicea’s identity is bound up with the “Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.”

I remember sitting in John Wimber’s study and he pointing out several churches that could be seen from his window: what still sticks in my memory is the fact that as he pointed out a Catholic church, a Presbyterian church, a Pentecostal church and an independent church he was moved to tears, because he loved them all – because all of them were defined by the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ. And this was no show for my benefit: he famously used to say that the Vineyard was just vegetables in a meat casserole that is like the church. It is a lesson that I covet we all learn: to love what Christ loves, and he loves his church, his body.

The other thing that is common to these 7 is that Christ (generally) affirms, corrects and motivates. If you take the affirmation first, then we see Ephesus is commended for its doctrinal vigilance and endurance; Smyrna for being spiritually rich, having to endure persecution; Pergamum was affirmed for holding fast to Christ’s name, refusing to deny their faith; Thyatira was blessed by Christ for having a growing love, evidenced in growing deeds of service; Philadelphia was affirmed for patiently enduring, keeping to God’s word. Now get this: the church is not evaluated by our contribution to society, or our potential. Rather the church is a community of people who CHRIST RECOGNISES. Forget fads, or fame, or fantastic achievements. No Christ our Lord and Saviour is the one who, in defining what Church is, also takes note of our quiet, unnoticed lives, our ordinary efforts at living his way. Christ loves the quality of steadfastness, of ‘stickability’. In other words, he isn’t impressed by our jumping on the latest bandwagon that rolls into town; or that we do mighty things for him; or that our churches are full. He likes his people faithful and obedient.

If there is affirmation, there is also correction. He is not impressed at all by Sardis (their works are dead) or by Laodicea (who are spiritually blind, bankrupt, naked and lukewarm). So churches can be distressing places and few escape Christ’s censure – except Smyrna and Philadelphia. Ephesus has to repent and do what it did at first, having lost its first love; Smyrna must stay faithful – even unto death; Pergamum has embraced false teaching; and Thyatira is way too tolerant of heresy and lacks discernment. Every church has sinners within it. Or as somebody once said, ‘the fleas come with the dog’. It is not an accident that often Christ’s correction is tied in with churches having a form of religion, but they are denying the power of a transformed life, lived in obedience to Christ.

The church once formed by the Spirit’s power, birthed through the fresh impulse of God’s initiative, becomes moribund. Too often churches go through religious motions when they should be being moved by the Spirit. And having affirmed, and corrected, notice too Christ motivates with promises. Here is the prophetic power of the Spirit manifest. How vital it is that we hear the Lord on a regular prophetic basis! Again and again, Jesus says to his church, “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus would use that phrase when he taught parables – and there is something similarly prophetic about their nature. Each church gathers in Christ, and each church is to listen. It is a clarion call to the church. Indeed as Isaiah 35:5 says, hearing restored is a mark of the Messianic age. It is surely significant that while we have eyelids, we have no ‘earlids’! See Isaiah 50:4-5. God’s word needs to be heard. And the Spirit has things to say to each church which distinguishes the one from the other. There is no need for us to ape churches which have been used by God, to copy their way of doing things. No, the Spirit has things to say to us, which are just for us. We must listen.

I could say much more – there is lots on the Church in this book. But I do want to address why folk get disillusioned with the Church.

And I want to say that chief of the reasons is failed expectations. We come to church and want men and women, who excel in courage in dismantling demonic powers; we want heroic witnesses who overflow with love, mercy and forgiveness; we long to encounter minds which have been informed and shaped by the profound realities of Scripture; and we have a passion to see works of power and works of kindness that the sick may be healed, the bound set free and the poor cared for.

The reality is far different, and “hope deferred makes the heart sick.” So far from seeing people imbued with Scripture

we find folk more interested in the sports’ pages; instead of encountering mercy and forgiveness, we fall against the sharp razors of gossip and resentments; instead of power, we find nostalgia for the old days of revival; instead of meeting with God moment by moment, we become locked into dull boring ineptitude.

So what do we do to resist this spiritual death, this cynicism?

Give up trying to change the church, and change your focus instead. You see, the church is not what we organize BUT WHAT GOD GIVES US. The church is filled with folk GIVEN TO US BY GOD. And that body of Church, that group of Christians are always being affirmed, corrected and motivated by the Lord of the Church, whose Spirit moves upon his people, fashioning and forming us into the image of Christ. So don’t eulogise or idealise the church; and don’t go into mournful lamentable dirges about it either.

It is God’s will that we have the Church. And the evidence of history is that the Church has never been better or worse that it is now. Which is not to say that one day it won’t be “terrible as an army with banners”, a purified church free of stain, blemish or wrinkle. That day will come. But in the meantime: we submit to Christ who stands in our midst and we listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.

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