Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter five: the mystery of the Church

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, just as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body…This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5: 28-30, 32).

In the beginning of the world, when God created everything that exists (aside from himself), everything that God made was good. God created the first man and placed him in a garden. Then something was not good. “It is not good,” God said, “that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God created a teammate for the man and brought her to the man, performing the first marriage.

The Bible frequently describes the Church as the Bride of Christ. In Moses and the prophets, the nation Israel was called God’s Bride, and the apostles declared that the Church is Christ’s Bride. Old Testament believers and New Testament believers are the same Bride of Christ, the same Church, because they are saved by the same promises. Before Jesus was born, people were saved through faith that a Savior would come; after Jesus died and rose from the dead, people are saved through faith that a Savior has come.

When God speaks of the Church, and generally when his people speak of the Church, they are not talking about a building. They are not talking about an administrative structure. They are not talking about a private club or a business. Instead, they are talking about the people who are saved through trusting God’s promise of a Savior. The mystery of the Church is that all these people, living in different times and different places, speaking different languages, diverse in income and political importance and education, should all be united in one body that is called the body of Christ as well as the Bride of Christ.

Phone books are becoming as obsolete as rotary telephones. Now most people look for churches on the internet. Look anywhere for a listing of churches, though, and you will find many different labels. Congregations describe themselves as Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, Pentecostal, Methodist, and many other labels. Some are Lutheran, some Baptist, some nondenominational. They can be Congregational, Episcopal, or Presbyterian. The Church is divided into many different groups, and these groups are as diverse in beliefs and practices as they are diverse in languages and cultures.

Ask God how many churches he sees in your hometown, and he answers, “one.” Ask him how many churches he sees in your state or your country, and he answers, “one.” Ask him how many churches he sees on the planet Earth, and for good measure throw in the saints with God in Paradise, and God still sees only one Church. Anyone who believes the promises fulfilled by Jesus Christ is a member of that one Church. Anyone who refuses to believe those promises is not a member of the one Church.

Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again from the dead to keep his promise of redemption and also to establish his Church. Seven weeks after his death and resurrection, Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to the apostles to establish that Church on earth. One hundred twenty people were gathered together in the name of Jesus at the beginning of that day; by sunset three thousand more had heard the message about Jesus the Redeemer, had been baptized, and were members of the Church.

God’s Word has power to change lives, and the day of Pentecost is not the first day that people were drawn to faith by the work of the Holy Spirit. Moses and the prophets spoke as they were guided by the Spirit of God, and people were saved through faith in the promises that came from God. The first sermon preached to sinners was spoken by God shortly after the first sin. God called those sinners to repentance, and they both confessed that they had done what God told them not to do. Speaking then to the serpent through whom they were tempted, God spoke about the Redeemer who would repair what sin has broken. “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God said, “and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Believing that this promise was true, the promise of an Incarnate Redeemer who would crush the serpent’s head, Adam and Eve were redeemed and became the first members of the Church.

Part of the mystery of the Church is that it is both visible and invisible. There are not two churches, one visible and the other invisible. There is one Church which is visible in some ways and invisible in others. The Church is invisible because no one other than God truly knows who is a member of the Church. You cannot walk down the street and distinguish people, saying, “That one is a Christian; that one is not a Christian.” Faith does not show in people’s faces or bodies or in the sounds of their voices. Faith shows in the words that people say, but even then you cannot know who means the words of faith that they speak and who does not mean what they say.

The Church becomes visible through the Means of Grace. God’s Word has power to change lives. Wherever the forgiveness of sins is announced at a gathering of God’s people, believers are present and the Church is present. Wherever the Bible is read and studied and its message is shared, believers are present and the Church is present. Wherever people are baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, believers are present and the Church is present. Wherever people eat and drink the ceremony established by Jesus Christ, believers are present and the Church is present.

If all the buildings were taken away from the Church, and all the labels and signs were removed, and all the administrative structures were stripped away from the Church, and its non-profit status was revoked, the Church would not cease to exist. Believers would still be alive on the earth, and whenever they gathered together, Jesus would be with them, as he has promised (Matthew 18:20). Wherever on earth the Means of Grace are found, Jesus Christ and his Church are also present. The Church will not cease to exist on this world until the Day Jesus appears in glory to claim his people and to begin his new creation.

When the Church gathers, though, all the people present are not necessarily part of the Church. They might be in the same building as the members of the Church, and their names might be written on the same administrative lists, but some people who are among the believers are not believers. If they do not believe in Jesus Christ and his promises, they are not members of the Church. The Church is called the Body of Christ. Some writers have crassly written that, as the human body has things in it that do not belong to the body, so the Church has people in it that do not belong to the Church. Whenever you blow your nose or use a toilet, you demonstrate the point those writers are making. Jesus had a gentler and more elegant metaphor, comparing the Church (the kingdom of God) to a large bush in which the birds can perch and make their nests. The birds are in the bush, but they are not part of the bush (Mark 4:30-32).

The Church appears to be divided into many warring factions, but God still sees only one Church, containing all the redeemed who ever lived, including those still alive today. The Church appears to be broken into many pieces that are at war with one another, but God sees every Christian through his Son and therefore sees them all united and at peace with one another. The Church appears to be weak, unable to survive the many challenges of a sinful world, but God sees the Church victorious, rising with Christ and living forever with him in his new creation. What God sees, Christians must accept by faith. When the Church seems to disappoint Christians, they call upon their faith to remind them that what they have seen is not the real Church, but God still sees the real Church and sees individual Christians as members of that Church.

The Bible calls the Church a temple built out of living stones (I Peter 2:4-5). The buildings where Christians learn about God and are served by him are also called churches, and they can be vivid reminders of the one true Church. A church building must rest on its foundation, or it will fall. A brick sitting out in the parking lot is not part of the building. In the same way, the Church must rest on the foundation of Jesus Christ and of his prophets and apostles. It must rest on the spoken and written Word of God, as delivered by God’s prophets and apostles. Any person who resists the Word of God is not among those built on the true foundation. Any person who rejects the redemption offered by Jesus Christ is not part of the Church. Like a brick sitting out in the parking lot, such a person does not belong to the Church. As a brick can be moved, though, and added to a wall, so God sometimes moves people and makes them part of his Church. He moves them by the means of grace so that, through faith in the promise of redemption, they can become part of Christ’s eternal kingdom.

The Bible also calls the Church the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:12-31). All the bricks in a wall are pretty much the same, but the parts of the body can be very different. Together they are a healthy body. They do different things in different ways, but the parts all work for the benefit of the entire body. Eyes see, ears hear, hands grasp, feet walk, but each part does what it does for the good of the entire body. In the same way, the members of the Church have different abilities, different resources, and different opportunities. Some can support the work of the Church with generous gifts, while others can contribute very little material support to the Church. Some are talented musically, while others are not. Some are good teachers, while others are not. Some are good cooks, while others are not. When Christians gather around the means of grace, Jesus is with them. He guides his people to work together like a healthy body, each doing what he or she can for the glory of God and for the benefit of the whole Church.

The Bible calls the Church the Bride of Christ.  The love a husband has for his wife is a picture of the love Christ has for his Church and for each member of the Church. It seems at times that the Church is an unfaithful Bride. The unfaithfulness of Israel was acted out by the prophet Hosea and his bride Gomer. Hosea was told to forgive her wife and accept her again, just as God forgives sinners and accepts them even when they are unfaithful to him. Sinners are redeemed, not because they earn redemption or deserve it, but because God loves sinners enough to pay the price for their redemption.

Every marriage is a picture of Christ and his Bride, the Church. If that is true of every marriage, it must be true of the first marriage. God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” How does the Triune God know how it feels to be alone? The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are always together, loving each other, and doing things for one another.

On one occasion, though, one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity was alone. On a Friday afternoon, Jesus, the Son of God, took upon himself the world’s sins to redeem the world. Those sins came between Jesus and his Father so he could pay the price to remove those sins. In the darkness, Jesus was alone, and he called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

After Jesus died on the cross, one of the Roman soldiers poked him with a spear—perhaps to see if Jesus had died or had only fainted—and from the wound in his side flowed blood and water. Medically, that indicated that Jesus had died and that fluid had collected in his chest. Early Christians found deeper meaning in the blood and water that flowed from his side. They saw the blood and water as pictures of two of the Means of Grace—the water of baptism and the blood of Christ in Communion. These early Christians remembered another Friday when another man slept—not the sleep of death, but still a deep sleep—and God opened his side, took out a rib, and from that rib made a wife, a teammate, for Adam. As the bride of Adam came from his side, so the Bride of Christ comes from the cross where Jesus died, and from the Means of Grace which bring people to faith in Jesus and in the power of his sacrifice.

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