Why Bother With The Church? or: ‘God’s New Humanity’

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This article appears as a revised version of a sermon preached at Otumoetai Baptist Church which can be found here.

If you’ve been around a Christian church before—my experience has always been in a typical, charismatic-ish, evangelical, low-church—you’ll likely have mixed feelings. If you’ve been around a church for a while, then you’ll almost definitely have incredible stories, testimonies of remarkable events and the power of community which can so marvellously wrap themselves around people who are going through hard times. Yet, if you have been around the church for a while, you will also have your fair share of not-so-great stories: stories of dysfunction, hurtful behaviour, bureaucracy, power trips, and burnt out souls. Huh, not quite as fun.

Who and what exactly is ‘the church’? There are many answers one could give. In the most of Western society, the church is seen as this strange group of people, something which resembles a weird, religious club. Government, media—society at large struggle perhaps to define exactly what we are, although it usually holds mostly negative connotations. Church is a ‘place’ you ‘go to’ on your best behaviour. It’s the place you must put on your best manners, best outfit, and be quiet.

In the church, the perception sometimes the same! But also we hope, a little different. For some, or at least certainly in the way people use the word ‘church,’ the church is a building, an auditorium, located at an address. For others the church is a social thing, a place to see friends and keep up with community news. For others it’s the people who were there for them in times of illness, grief, and great tragedy. For others it’s the place where their lives were transformed and totally turned around, once lost but now found. No doubt many of you have your own stories and definitions to add here.

Well, in the Christian scriptures, there is a passage written about the church. It comes as part of a letter written to ancient Christian church in the city of Ephesus, a major cultural and religious centre of Greek and Roman society. (You can read this passage here.)

What exactly does Paul, the author of this letter, in this text define the church as? He says something quite radical, something quite different from all those things. Paul here in the letter to the Ephesians actually makes the claim that the church is in fact an entirely new humanity, a totally remade and totally different group of people who have been brought together by the power of Christ and the cross. Instead of being a place to go or club to be involved in, Paul tells us that we are instead a new humanity united under the New Human, a gathering by sheer miracle. Though once this group was not even a possibility, through the sending the Son and the life of Jesus, all are to be part of God’s people.

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I. First Paul talks about the circumcised and the uncircumcised, strange and bizarre categories to place people in to us modern readers, but really signifying one thing: the old covenant of YHWH made to the people of Israel. Revelation begins to a humble people group of the ancient near east, beginning at God’s revelation to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God makes promises to these people, growing them in size and holiness to be his people, redeeming them the Exodus and giving them the Law at Sinai. In these monuments salvation events, YHWH promises to remain faithful to them, to enter a relationship with them. At Sinai he clarifies their purpose: “if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 5-6a). Israel as God’s people were to be his treasured possession and display to the world, a shining light and example to what humankind is like when rightly ordered under the Creator God. Israel is now God’s masterpiece; his show and tell, his pride and joy, yet entirely free-willed within their covenant to the Sovereign LORD.

Through the Messiah, the Christ, God flips this reality on its head in the most remarkable way. While once this only Israel was God’s salvation community, now by Jesus all are welcome into his family. While there is no way any man or woman is worthy to be God’s child, through the one and only Son we are adopted, grafted into our true family. Adoption is a wonderful choice, not a natural right but a miraculous choice made of us by the triune God. Those who were once far have been brought near as the God who was once far has come close, “moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1:14, MSG).

II. Yet, Christ’s work does not stop at simply opening up membership to Israel to a wider audience, but actually does something entirely new, bringing two into one like the miracle of marriage, richer and brighter than before, more colourful and multi-variegated, a new humanity and peace.

This is a new place of racial, cultural, social, gendered diversity. The groups who can’t get along out there; the one’s the media love to separate and politics wage war upon; the lines of black and white, immigrant and home-grown, male and female, are melted away by the sacrifice of Jesus, washed by the slow agony of the cross and now bound by the Spirit of God. Here is a place where things are upside down, where people from different classes, ages, backgrounds, who simply shouldn’t get along can. This is a place of their unity. Unity is not uniformity; if everyone was the same what would they need to be unified for? This unified group of radiant people are to be the shining light, the trailer to the movie, still called to be “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9).

III. Paul’s claim grows in its staggering boldness; this new marriage, this new covenant set by Christ creates an entirely new people. And then, not only this, this new humanity is revealed to be God’s new household, his holy temple in fact, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). The God of the old covenant whose mighty presence could only pass by Moses, the Holy One who Isaiah shrivels in fear to be in front of, the Sovereign Lord whose presence so deadly it requires an entire priesthood and temple system now makes his house among us: ordinary, broken, terrible sinners. Though we are nothing in light of the Creator God, though we struggle and strain to keep our promises, love our enemy, and act justly and kindly, the faithful, loving, kind, and just Lord of all creation dwells within us, building his church to be the place he lives by the Spirit.

It’s perhaps hard to be blown away as much by these cosmic claims until we bring them in our ordinary reality. What the inspired apostle is saying, is that the same group of people who gather every Sunday in a rather rundown building to sing questionably-in-tune songs; the same group of people who argue at partnership meetings about the colour of the carpet; the same group of people who struggle to acquire finances for fancy equipment or worldly glitz and glam; the same group of people who sometimes hurt and attack each other, burning deep scars in their tracks and splitting communities are actually by the Spirit and through the Son the temple of the Eternal God, the who is and was and is to come, the Alpha and the Omega, Beginning and End, and now are his light to the world, the trailer to the film; if you want to see what the movie’s like watch the trailer.

Yet we remember that it is not by our own righteousness or goodness that this miracle is possible, that the only access to the Father is through the Son. Nevertheless, God has chosen his community, his church, to be this new humanity.

Where have we missed this astonishing fact about who we are and are to be? Listen the words of the great evangelical leader John Stott writing in the late 1970s, as poignant as ever:

One of our chief evangelical blind spots has been to overlook the central importance of the church. We tend to proclaim individual salvation without moving on to the saved community. We emphasize that Christ died for us “to redeem us from all iniquity” rather than “to purify for himself a people of his own.” We think of ourselves more as “Christians” than as “church[people],” and our message is more good news of a new life than of a new society.

I concur. Another Australian theologian satirically writes about the evangelical attitude, “Why bother wasting time communities when there are souls to save? Why bother painting cathedrals when you can preach to the folks at Walmart?” Why indeed? Why bother with a community that can be frustrating, hurtful, and tiring; a place that can seem so ordinary, so unremarkable when put through a certain lens? Simply because that by the earth-shattering event of the cross, the humble groups of people who met for worship on a Sunday each week around the world are the temple of the Creator God, not by any of our own merit but by his, redeemed and saved away from death for community, worship, and witness together that all may enter this new humanity. That is certainly something worth persevering for.

This article appears as a revised version preached to Otumoetai Baptist. The full messages can be found on their site here or on this site here. This is a blog interested in theology, church, pastoral ministry, and the gospel of Jesus in post-Christian, 21st century, Aotearoa New Zealand. Comment and korero below, or get in touch with the author at andrewclarkhoward@gmail.com.