Historic Perspective

Jesus Christ established the Holy Christian Church by his preaching, his ministry, and his authority. He selected apostles and sent them to proclaim his message of repentance and redemption through his sacrifice and his resurrection. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. After Jesus died and rose again, he sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, and his apostles began preaching in Jerusalem and Judea. Their mission expanded to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Traveling through the Roman Empire, the apostles founded congregations faithful to Jesus Christ and his message. Congregations were established even outside the Roman Empire in Ethiopia, India, and other places.

As the apostles wrote the books that were gathered as the New Testament, they countered distortions of their message. One distortion was that of the legalists or judaizers, who tried to include laws and regulations in the Church’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Another distortion was that of the Gnostics, who tried to blend Greek philosophy with the message of the Church. Platonists and Stoics thought that the ideal world consisted of mind or spirit. They saw the physical world as tainted and evil. Gnostics declared that the world had been made by an inferior god, but that sparks of divinity had fallen into the world, becoming people. They changed the message of Jesus and the apostles, denying that Jesus had taken on a human body, that he had suffered and died on a cross to redeem sinners, and that he rose again and promises resurrection to all his people. The apostles and later Christian writers rejected these false teachings.

For three hundred years, Christianity and various Gnostic movements coexisted with many other religions in the Roman Empire. The Romans were always happy to add another god, but they did not wish any god to claim exclusive power and authority. Christians were often ignored, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes persecuted for their rejection of other gods. When Constantine came to power, he made Christianity legal and respectable, even declaring himself to be a Christian. Church buildings were constructed and Christians preached openly. Constantine discovered, though, that two competing versions of Christianity were being proclaimed. One said that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternal and almighty, equal to the Father in every way. The other said that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by the Father and is not almighty and not equal to the Father. Constantine called for a council of Christian leaders to settle this dispute. They met, prayed, studied the Bible, discussed what it says, and issued a document which declares that Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds were made, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Being of one substance with the Father….” Anyone who claimed to be a Christian and denied these statements was labeled a heretic.

This council set a precedent for the Christian Church. Over the following centuries, additional councils gathered to consider other disputes within the Church, most of which concerned the two natures of Christ (the relationship of his divinity and his humanity). After prayer, Bible study, and discussion, Truth was distinguished from heresy, and statements were written to provide Christians a clearer understanding of Truth. In these councils, church leaders generally were treated as equals, but the greatest respect was given to the church leaders from five cities: Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome, and Constantinople.

Three hundred years after Constantine, a great challenge to Christianity arose in Arabia. Muhammad (according to Muslim tradition) was puzzled by the many versions of religion represented in the city of Mecca, including various groups of Christians who called one another heretics. Instead of studying the Bible for himself, he turned to prayer and meditation. One day a being of light appeared to Muhammad. Claiming to be the angel Gabriel, he promised Muhammad messages from God. For the rest of his life, Muhammad received and shared those messages, which are gathered together as the Quran. Like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, the Quran says that there is only one God, who is the Creator of all that exists. This God sends prophets to the world, telling people how to live their lives and threatening judgment and punishment on those who break his rules. The commandments of the Quran are much like those found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Even some historical accounts from those books are reported also in the Quran. Jesus, though, is labeled a prophet and no more than a prophet. The Quran declares that God has no Son. It requires every person to be his or her own savior rather than looking to Jesus as Savior.

This new religion emerged from Arabia with military power, conquering lands from India to Spain, including the cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Christians and Jews were tolerated in Muslim Lands as “peoples of the book,” but they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were ineligible for government jobs. Many Christians converted to Islam. Meanwhile, Christianity survived in Europe, in the Byzantine Empire, and in pockets elsewhere in Africa and Asia, even as far away as China, as well as a minority in the Muslim empire.

The two remaining centers of Christianity, Rome and Constantinople, grew increasingly suspicious of each other. They debated whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. They differed in determining when to celebrate Christmas and Easter. They differed over the place of religious artwork, or icons, in the Church. Most significantly, though, they debated about authority. The patriarch in Constantinople remained subject to the Byzantine emperor, but the pope in Rome even crowned emperors. Their debates peaked in 1054, when the pope declared that anyone who denies that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic, while the patriarch declared that anyone who calls the pope the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic. Those who agreed with the pope called themselves Catholic Christians, while those who agreed with the patriarch called themselves Orthodox Christians, labels which remain to this day.

Over the centuries, the Church endured times of corruption and scandal and times of reformation. In the 1200s, heresies were battled (such as the Albigensian, or Cathari, movement, which claimed that believers could stop sinning in this world and no longer needed the Church and its sacraments), while successful reforms were led by Dominic and Francis, among others. These reformers created new orders in the Church which established universities in the major cities of Europe. After a century of political turmoil—which at one point included three men claiming to be the true pope—the Church became less flexible, condemning as heretics such reformers as Jan Huss and Martin Luther.

The reformation that faced this hostility led to a fracturing of the Church. Later waves of reform created further divisions. By the twentieth century, hundreds of denominations had been created. They were labeled in various ways: some for individual reformers (Lutheran, Mennonite, Wesleyan), some for unique teachings or practices (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal), and some for their forms of organization (Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian). Many carried labels which rightly belong to all true Christians (Church of God, Church of Christ, Christian Church, Apostolic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic). Often those that are not called Catholic or Orthodox are lumped together as Protestant in spite of their many differences. Meanwhile, many of the heresies rejected by the early Church’s councils were revived. Russellites (now called Jehovah’s Witnesses) teach that Jesus, as the Son of God, is created, neither eternal nor almighty. Many Protestant groups teach new versions of Nestorianism and Pelagianism. Legalism is rampart among Christians. Newly rediscovered Gnostic writings are described as if they have equal weight to the apostolic writings of the New Testament.

Overlaying this history of the Church is the history of change regarding communication. Sets of scrolls used two thousand years ago were replaced by the codex, a set of flat sheets attached along one edge (commonly referred to as a book). Handwritten texts were superseded by printed texts when the Chinese technology of the printing press was adapted for European literature. Wood-pulp paper replaced cotton-rag paper, making books and other publications far less expensive. Electronic communication through computers and the internet, along with electronic books, are but the latest wave in the variety of ways that God’s Word is shared (as well as various interpretations of that Word).

Throughout the history of the Church, Christian leaders have spoken strongly against heresies. Paul wrote harsh words about the legalists. Martin Luther was highly critical of the pope and those who supported him. Written communication in any form is hindered by the lack of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice which assists in spoken communication. This is especially true in the present age of electronic communication. As a result, sometimes discussions of doctrine deteriorate into mutual rejection and insults.

All of this is simply context to my upcoming post about how we speak to one another—and to the rest of the world—about God’s Truth. J.

Novella

Last spring I started writing a short story. After a while, the characters took over the story. They changed their names, and they kept extending the action until the short story became a novella. I was curious to see how it would end, when suddenly they told me they were done. I allowed the story to rest for a while. This week I pulled it out again, dusted it off, and tweaked it one last time. You can now read this novella by clicking on the word “novella” near the top of this page.

Someone once said that the first words to every story are “what if?” In this case, the story began this way: what if a young pastor was asked by his old flame to give counseling to her and her husband? I could imagine any number of possibilities, and it was interesting to toy with them as the story developed. Please believe the disclaimer at the start of the novella: Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental. I would not want any reader to think either that this story is autobiographical or that it betrays confidences.

I hope you enjoy my novella. J.

“Your body is a temple of God”–part two

Last month I wrote this post to demonstrate that, when the apostle Paul wrote that “your body is a temple of God,” he was referring to the entire Church and not to individual Christians. The “you” of “your body” is plural, but he speaks of one temple, not many temples. But what does it mean to call the Church a temple of God?

People of many different religions have built temples. Ancient Sumer had temples; ancient Egypt had temples. These temples were built for gods so that believers in those gods would have a place to contact their gods. Temples were built, not because gods needed homes, but because people needed connections with the gods they trusted and worshipped.

When God spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave Moses the design for a tent which would be a moving temple. This tent (often called the Tabernacle) was to be in the center of the campground when Israel was at rest. The Tabernacle represented God’s presence among his people. Animals were sacrificed in the Tabernacle as part of Israel’s connection with God. The lives and blood of the animals were given to God, pictures of the sacrifice God’s Son would make on the cross to remove the sins of the world. Even the tent was a picture of Jesus. When John wrote “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), the verb translated by “made his dwelling” refers to the pitching of a tent.

King David wanted to build a temple for God in Jerusalem. Through the prophet Nathan, God declined David’s offer. He said that instead of letting David build a house for God, God would build a house for David. That house would be a son (or descendant) of David who would rule an eternal kingdom. David may have thought that the promised Son of David was his son Solomon, but Solomon did not match the terms of the Promised Son. Solomon began to rule before David died, but the Promised Son was to come after David died. Solomon sinned and was forgiven for his sins, but the Promised Son bore the burden of the world’s sins and atoned for those sins. Solomon ruled for forty years and then died, but the Promised Son was to rule forever. Solomon was an adopted son of God, as all believers are, but Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God.

David purchased land, gathered materials, and hired workmen to build the temple God had told him not to build. Solomon oversaw the construction of that temple, and God accepted his gift. The temple followed the pattern of the Tabernacle that God had designed. Sacrifices continued to be offered in the temple, drawing the power to forgive sins from the future sacrifice of the Promised Son. Yet God’s people strayed away from the Lord; even Solomon built temples for other gods, the gods worshipped by his wives. The unfaithfulness of God’s people made a mockery of the sacrifices to atone for sin. Therefore, God raised the Babylonian army and allowed it to sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple.

Under the Persian government, God’s people were allowed to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. Some of those who saw the new temple wept because they remembered the splendor of Solomon’s temple. Through the prophet Haggai, God promised that the second temple would be more glorious than the first temple, because God himself would visit that temple. This promise was fulfilled when Jesus entered the temple–first as a baby, forty days old; then as a boy, twelve years old; then as a man in his thirties. Jesus taught in the temple. He even cleared the temple of merchants who were defiling the temple. When asked by what authority he cleared the temple, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19)–“But the Temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). The Word made flesh was a temple, because it was the way God chose to be present among his people.

The tabernacle was a picture of the Word made flesh, promising the presence of God among his people. Solomon’s temple and the second temple were also pictures of Jesus, the presence of God among his people. God had the Babylonians destroy the first temple, and he had the Romans destroy the second temple, as pictures of his Son suffering and dying on the cross to atone for the world’s sins. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the promise to pay for the sins of the world, temples and animal sacrifices are no longer needed.

The body of Jesus, which is the true temple of God, rose from the dead. Forty days later that body ascended into heaven to fill the universe. Jesus, “seated at the right hand of the Father,” is present everywhere. Yet he is present in a special way whenever his people gather in his name. “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Since the Church is the body of Christ, it also is God’s Temple. The Church is the place where God’s people know that they are in the presence of God.

As God’s people, we need to be connected to God. God is everywhere, but as sinners in a sinful world we cannot always sense his presence. Therefore, Jesus promises to be present “where two or three gather in” his name (Matthew 18:20). One Christian alone is not a temple. Christians gathered to hear the Word of God and to receive his blessings are a temple. God reaches out to sinners from the Church. God cares for his people in the Church. The Good Shepherd provides for his flock in the Church. We are the body of Christ, diverse in many ways, yet functioning together to accomplish the will of our Head. As the body of Christ, we are his temple. We are the only temple God wants or needs in the world today. J.

Children’s sermons

I do not like children’s sermons. I find them distracting, annoying, meaningless, and insulting to children and to the congregation in general.

The service is flowing in its usual way until the preacher interrupts the flow to invite all the children to come to the front of the church for a children’s sermon. Children leave their families, walk down the aisles of the church, and gather around the speaker. Sometimes the preacher speaks to the children; sometimes another member of the congregation gives the talk. Often the lesson ends with a prayer. Sometimes the children are invited to put their money into a special offering plate. Then they are dismissed to return to their families—or, worse, they are ushered out of the church to a special play space where they will stay for the rest of the service, or at least during the preacher’s regular sermon.

My first objection to this practice is that it informs the children that the rest of the service is not for them. Rather than learning the hymns and traditional prayers of the church as they mature, children are encouraged to think of the service as an hour of pointless noise with just five or ten minutes focused on them. No wonder that a lot of children stop going to church as soon as they are college students or have a place of their own. They never felt invited to take part in the entire service.

Along with this, I am troubled by the interruption for all the worshipers who are not children. Some adults enjoy children’s sermons. I’ve even heard some say that they get more out of the children’s sermon than they get out of the rest of the service. They should be embarrassed even to say such things out loud. The entire service with its hymns and prayers, its Bible readings and sermon, communicates to the minds and also to the hearts of everyone who is present. Even when the preacher has had a bad week and the sermon is below par, the rest of the service still conveys the chief message of the Church: God’s love and mercy and forgiveness for sinners. A good children’s sermon (if there is such a thing) will reinforce the same message, but as such it is unnecessary, since the message is already present throughout the service.

Imagine this trend carried to its logical conclusion. After the children, up to age twelve, have come forward for a five-minute message targeted at them, the teens are then invited to come forward for a teen sermon. Then, decade by decade, the congregation travels to the front of the church to hear a message meant especially for them. By the time the worshipers aged seventy and above have held their golden-age sermon, every member of the congregation has endured seven five-minute messages that they knew were not meant for their ears to hear.

Children’s sermons are cute, which is part of their problem. Entering the presence of God should be awe-inspiring, not cute. Moreover, the typical children’s sermon is an analogy based on one of the Bible readings for the day. In human development, the mind does not understand or accept such analogies readily until approximately the age of ten to twelve—the very age at which children stop coming forward to hear the children’s sermon.

Many adults will disagree with me on this topic, which does not bother me at all. I would like to survey the children of the congregation to learn how many of them really like coming forward in the middle of the service for a talk directed only at them. I would also like to ask some leaders of the congregation: how many children were members of the congregation when we started this practice of children’s sermons? How many children are members of the congregation today? How many of the children who were in church every week when we started the practice of children’s sermons are faithful members today? I think we will find that children’s sermons have failed in their goal to make children feel that they are part of the Church, the body of Christ. The time has come to reverse direction and to teach children that they are part of the Church from the beginning of the service to its conclusion. J.

 

Augustine of Hippo

August 28 is the day Augustine of Hippo is remembered, since he died on that date in the year 430. Augustine was a pastor in North Africa who was also a prolific writer. His literary production helped to guide the thinking and history of Christianity during and after his lifetime.

Augustine’s mother was Christian, but first he did not follow her example of faith. He learned Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, and then he toyed with the religion called Manichaeism, a blend of Christian concepts and Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. Augustine wavered at the edge of Christian faith for several years, being encouraged by other Christian writers such as Ambrose to put his trust in Christ. When he finally did become a Christian, Augustine brought his learning from Latin philosophy and culture into the service of Christianity. His writings helped to shape medieval church thinking as well as later generations—both Martin Luther and John Calvin were heavily influenced by Augustine’s works.

In his Confessions, Augustine not only admits to his youthful indiscretions (among them, that he fathered a child without being married), but he also confesses his faith in God and in the teachings of the Christian Church. Instead of writing an autobiography, Augustine uses the events of his past life as an outline to proclaim the doctrines of Christianity and to celebrate the greatness of God. In his The City of God, Augustine discusses the dual citizenship held by every Christian. We are citizens of an earthly country, subject to an earthly government which we obey out of reverence for Christ, since that early authority represents his ultimate authority. At the same time, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. If we truly honor our heavenly citizenship, we will not despair over the troubles of our earthly city. (This was written at a time when German tribes were entering the Roman Empire and threatening even its strongest western cities.) God hears our prayers about earthly things and answers those prayers according to his good will. He is more concerned, though, about preserving our faith, which is our guarantee to a home in his eternal city.

Many of Augustine’s sermons, Bible commentaries, and letters have been preserved. Augustine firmly defended the inerrancy and reliability of the Bible. He clearly and repeatedly stressed the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ. He spent much of his time defending Christian truth against the attacks of Manicheans, Donatists, and Pelagians. (Spellcheck thinks those last two ought to be dentists and pelicans, but Augustine had no trouble with either of those.) We know more about these heresies from Augustine’s replies to them than from their own writings. This is true, not because of any conspiracy of church leaders to destroy all evidence of alternate forms of Christianity. It is true because Christians saw no need to copy and preserve documents whose errors had already been rejected through the application of Scripture by writers such as Augustine.

Manicheans, as stated earlier, tried to blend Christianity with Zoroastrianism. Both religions were monotheistic, believing in only one God. Both called for members to lead a moral and upright life. Both promised heavenly rewards for those who were good and a punishment of eternal fire for those who were evil. Yet, as Augustine showed, the Manicheans erred by depicting good and evil as roughly equal in power. They erred by teaching that each individual determined his own eternal destiny by good works or by evil works. Their errors limited the power of God, who is stronger than all evil, and who works the miracle of faith in the hearts of his people, calling him to them and moving them by his power rather than making them earn salvation through their own good works.

Donatists claimed to be the only true Christians, even though their movement only existed in parts of Africa. They rebaptized any Christian who joined them from another congregation. Augustine affirmed that the true Church is found wherever Christians gather around God’s Word, trusting in Christ for salvation. No splinter group can claim for itself the label of the only true Church on earth. He recognized that Baptism is valid even if performed by a heretic or unbeliever. The power of Baptism is not in the identity of the person performing the act, but in the promises of Christ himself.

Pelagians said that all human beings are basically good at heart, and that the goodness within us draws us to Christ and his salvation. They taught that even non-believers could please God by performing good works. Augustine used the Bible to show that no one can please God in any way other than salvation through Jesus Christ. No work is acceptable to God if it is not done through faith in Christ. Rather than trusting some internal goodness to draw one to God, a Christian celebrates the gift of God which grants saving faith and keeps him or her in that saving faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Augustine is a saint worth remembering and celebrating. His writing shaped Christianity, not by changing it into something new, but by preserving the message of the Bible and the historic teachings of the Church. On this day that commemorates Augustine, Christians thank God for his leadership and his wisdom. J.

The joy of liturgy

A few hours after I created a post about classical music, I came across this post by Truth and Tolerance, by way of InsanityBytes. The topic is also music, although it is focused more on music in the Christian Church and especially in worship. The topic is, in fact, the most classical of all music, the traditional music of the Christian liturgy.

I completely agree with everything T&T wrote (although I might have used gentler language). The central point of her post (and hence of this post) is that the Divine Service is not meant to be edited so that it appeals to younger people. The traditions of the Church have developed over time, not because of negotiations with the lowest common denominator or with the next generation, but because the power of those traditions communicates the message of Christ and his Church in a way that is tried, tested, and proven. Making changes because of the felt needs of the worshipers does not work for two reasons. First, the needs they feel are not their deepest needs. Christ knows their deepest needs, and his Church is designed to meet those needs. Second, once the elements of worship become negotiable, worship itself becomes negotiable for the worshipers. Worship attendance in the United States has dropped over the last fifty years, not because churches have not tried hard enough to give people what they want, but because churches have tried too hard to give people what they want.

Children instinctively distinguish between what is important and what is fun. Tell a child, “This is going to be fun,” and the child hears, “This is just to entertain you; it doesn’t really matter.” Sunday School has gradually changed from “bring up these children in the faith so that when they are older they will not depart from it” to “entertain these children and make church seem fun so they will want to keep coming when they are older.” As a result, the children learn nearly nothing about their faith in Sunday School; if their parents are not teaching them the faith at home, no one is telling them what it means to be a Christian.

A few years ago I was in a meeting of church workers. Running the meeting was a progressive church planter, the kind of minister who says that the last words of a congregation are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Several quotes were stenciled on the walls of the meeting room, and he noticed one that said, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” The church planter pointed to that saying and told us to take it to heart, that if we cling to our traditions, we are clinging to death instead of life. I responded, “I rather like the idea of democracy that includes the dead. It’s nice to know that, when we worship, we are joining with all the saints who have gone before us.” I reminded him of one of the phrase in our traditional liturgy: “that with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and praise thy glorious name…” “All the company of heaven” includes every believer who has died and is in Paradise with Jesus. Ancient heroes of the faith are there. My grandparents and other Christians I have loved are there. When I partake in the traditional divine service, the Lord hears my voice mingled with their voices in one vast Christian choir.

New music can enter the old traditions, provided that the new music does not refocus those traditions away from the Lord. Great hymns (no matter what century they were written) lead people to know Jesus, not only as the awesome God worshiped by all creation, but particularly as the Savior who has claimed his people, rescued them from their sins, and reconciled them to himself. I’m fine with Contemporary Christian Music on the radio and in my music collection. Very little of it is suitable for the divine service, because its focus is not the same as that of the traditional liturgy.

The liturgy is not culturally bound. It is not merely a European way of worshiping God; it developed from the Jewish worship of the synagogue, and its development happened largely in western Asia and northern Africa. The liturgy is not bound by time. It unites Christians of three or four generations during each service, and it unites Christians of dozens of generations spreading over two thousand years. The liturgy is not bound by the age of the worshipers. Children who have not yet begun to read can learn the liturgy by hearing it every week. Mothers of young children can speak and sing the liturgy without needing to balance a hymnal and a worship folder and a baby in the same two hands. Elderly people whose eyesight is not as good as it used to be can speak and sing the liturgy; it is engrained in their memories so thoroughly that it often survives intact even when those elderly people no longer recognize their own children.

When the preacher’s sermon is poor—and every preacher has a bad Sunday now and then—the liturgy still proclaims the message of the Church. When a worshiper’s mind is wandering, the liturgy brings him or her back again to the message of the Church. When a visitor is sitting in church for the first time, the liturgy tells that visitor what the congregation is doing. No, the liturgy will not be familiar to the visitor during the first visit, or even the tenth time he or she returns. But that unfamiliar liturgy will speak to the visitor more eloquently than any cheerful greeting, telling the visitor what the Church is doing in the service. (One of the most beautiful things I have seen happen in a church happened when a man in his seventies changed pews to share hymnals with a first-time visitor in her twenties.)

If a child is brought to church every Sunday for his or her first five years, that child will have heard the liturgy two hundred fifty times. The familiar pattern of worship will be more comforting to that child than the most entertaining praise song or film clip or (shudder!) puppet show. Families that worship together grow spiritually together. May this weekend’s services be, for each of us, a delight to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. J.

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.

Sunday morning mindfulness

When July began, I set seven goals for my life, seeking to develop a sense of Christian mindfulness. Three of those goals were:

“Worship services will be attended, not for me to be uplifted or entertained or educated, but for me to spend time in the house of my God and among the people of my God.

Personal devotional time, consisting of reading the Bible and of prayer, will be conducted, not as an intellectual exercise and not for self-improvement, but for bonding. The purpose of prayer and of Bible reading will be to spend time with the Lord, improving our relationship…

Because this is my personal experiment in Christian mindfulness, I will make regular reports by means of this blog to let you know how things are going. If any of you care to join in this experiment, please also make comments on this blog to let me know how things are going for you.”

Obviously I am trying to keep goal number seven, but I will do so by referring to the first two goals.

From time to time I visit a church where I used to work. Yesterday was one of those times. I sincerely like and love the people there, the building and artwork, the music, and so on. Otherwise, I would not return when I have the chance. Even so, Sunday mornings there can be difficult for me to endure. Members of this congregation brought (and still bring) a lot of resentment, frustration, and anger with them when they come to church, and they often aim it at one another. Under the surface veneer of a friendly and happy church lurks a powerful stream of vitriol that sooner or later emerges into the open. I feel the tension inside myself when I am there. As a result, I become petty in my own thoughts about the congregation and its members. I judge the preaching, both for what it contains (an occasional error) and for what it lacks (substance and significance). I judge the music, including the selection of hymns, the playing of the music, and the singing of the congregation. I judge the way people dress and the way they treat each other. When I do all this judging, I stand in the way of the Lord who wants to bless me in his house.

But not this time! When I went to bed Saturday night, I reminded myself that I would be going to a friend’s house in the morning, and I would not let anything there keep me from enjoying time spent with my friend. I said the same thing again when I got out of bed yesterday morning. It seems to have made a difference! It helps that two of my favorite hymns were included in the service. But I sang to honor Jesus, not to perform for others or to judge their singing. I picked up some good points in the sermon. And whenever my mind started to wonder, I let the artwork in the windows remind me whose house I was visiting and why I was there. For once, I left that building without anger and frustration churning inside of me.

I wish I could write as glowingly of my daily Bible reading and prayer, but the best I can say is that I have had good days and bad days. Since early childhood I have been a rapid reader with good retention, but some kinds of writing needs to be read slowly and thoughtfully. It needs to be savored, not merely read. Some days I have been able to remember this, but other days I have raced through my Bible reading and devotional reading, treating it more as a chore to check off the list than as time spent with a friend. I am still working to change this.

Along with the Bible reading, I have returned to some of the masterpieces of medieval Christianity. First I read The Cloud of Unknowing, limiting myself to ten pages a day so I could consider the flavor and the meaning of what I read. Now I am reading The Dark Night of the Soul, again sticking to ten pages a day. These texts are helping to remind me of the purpose of my devotional life, but at times I still read even them too quickly, too eager to get to the next task of the day.

Christian mindfulness does not develop overnight. It takes a long time to master the discipline of Christian mindfulness, just as Buddhist mindfulness or Hindu yoga take a long time to master. Any aspect of Christian living will take time to master, apart from salvation, which does not require any effort or practice on our part, because Jesus has done all the work for us. Thanks be to our Savior Jesus Christ!

J.

Seven goals, inspired by The Cloud of Unknowing

Now that I have begun learning about mindfulness, I have decided to read some of the classic Christian texts on meditation, starting with The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century European work. As I read, I am trying not to read from a historical perspective or as literature, but really to take to heart what is written. At the same time, the question keeps appearing in my mind: Why is American Christianity lacking this perspective?

Part of the answer to that question, I think, is that American Christianity is largely shaped by the Protestant movement. Even Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches in North America bear a Protestant flavor. From the beginning, the Protestant Reformation concerned itself with individual salvation—answering the question, “What must I do to be saved?”—rather than concerning itself with the relationships stressed in medieval mysticism. Although the Pietist movement had potential to return Protestant Christians to a mystical or mindful relationship with God, it gradually evolved into Methodism which again seeks to answer the question, “What must I do?”

American Christianity has several stands of tradition that are entwined with the various denominational and nondenominational labels. One is the Charismatic or Pentecostal movement, which emphasizes exercising various gifts received from the Holy Spirit. Another is the Social Gospel, which emphasizes Christian activism in the community and in politics, seeking to make the world better for all people, especially the poor and needy. A third is Evangelicalism, which continues to focus on individual salvation and on mission work to bring the Gospel to all people. A fourth is the Success Gospel, which promises health and wealth and comfort in the present world. None of these is open to the kind of quiet mystical meditation described in The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps this is why so many active Christians seek additional help for their lives from yoga, from mindfulness, and from other somewhat mystical practices inspired by religions of southern and eastern Asia.

I have no desire or intention to start a new Christian movement in the United States. (The Church of Salvageable? Ugh.) For my own personal practice of Christianity for the rest of the year, I have set seven goals.

1. Worship services will be attended, not for me to be uplifted or entertained or educated, but for me to spend time in the house of my God and among the people of my God.

2. Personal devotional time, consisting of reading the Bible and of prayer, will be conducted, not as an intellectual exercise and not for self-improvement, but for bonding. The purpose of prayer and of Bible reading will be to spend time with the Lord, improving our relationship.

3. I will seek to be mindful of the presence of Jesus in every part of my life, not just at church and in personal devotions. I will strive to remember that, when I drive, Jesus is with me; whether I am at work or at home, Jesus is with me; whether I am alone or among other people, Jesus is with me. My goal is not to improve my behavior out of fear of his disapproval and judgment; my goal is to assure myself that I am not alone, no matter how alone I often feel.

4. I will seek to be mindful that whatever I do for another person is also service to Jesus. Customer service is not something I do for a paycheck, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Courtesy on the streets or in the store is not merely good manners, but it also is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Kindness and honor to the members of my family is not just an obligation, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God.

5. Whenever I am anxious, troubled, or discouraged, I will breathe slowly and deeply while meditating on Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”). I will do this, not just to control or escape my feelings, but to use that unsettled time to draw closer to God.

6. Whenever I experience pain, whether it is physical pain or emotional pain, I will let that remind me of the pain Christ experienced on my behalf. When enduring physical pain, I will remember the physical tortures of the cross. When thinking of emotional pain (such as the memory of a broken relationship), I will remember Christ’s pain at the broken relationships that have separated the people he loves from him. Any temptation to dwell on my own problems, or to feel abandoned in my suffering, will be resisted by turning the suffering into an opportunity to share, if only in some small way, in Christ’s suffering.

7. Because this is my personal experiment in Christian mindfulness, I will make regular reports by means of this blog to let you know how things are going. If any of you care to join in this experiment, please also make comments on this blog to let me know how things are going for you.
God bless us, every one.

J.

My best friend’s rotten wife

I have a very good friend, the best friend I could ever have. I like him very much; in fact, I owe everything I have to him. I want to spend more time with him, but I’ve got a problem. I don’t get along with his wife.

My friend is great, but sometimes I cannot stand his wife. My friend tells me, though, that I have to take them as a team. If I want to be with him, I also have to be with her. I know that my friend likes me, but I’m not sure about his wife. Sometimes she ignores me, and sometimes she is even mean to me. She has many moods—she can be angry and accusing, she can be dry and boring, and she can be sappy and sentimental. Sometimes she tries to dress up and look awesomely beautiful and impressive, but other times it does not seem as though she cares how she appears.

If I give a gift to my friend, I know he is going to share it with his wife. He cannot seem to stop himself. His wife is the one who reminds me how much I owe my friend. She is always prepared to take the money I give to my friend and spend it on herself. In fact, I think she’s using him. He does not go a moment of any day without loving her, but sometimes she seems to forget that he even exists.

I’d like to spend time with my friend when his wife is not around, but he won’t let that happen. Whenever the two of us are together, she has to be there too. My friend expects me to accept her, even with all her faults, if I want to be with him.

My friend is Jesus of Nazareth, and his bride is the Holy Christian Church. I love Jesus, but I don’t always love the Church. Jesus is sinless and perfect, but the Church is filled with sinners. Jesus loves me and gave himself for me, but I don’t always feel loved when I am with the Church. If I could have Jesus as my friend without the Church, I think that would make me happy, but Jesus does not give me that option. He loves the Church, and he expects me to be with her if I want to be with him.

Jesus is not blind to the faults of his Church. Yet he loves the Church and willingly serves the Church. More than that, he forgives the Church and forgives every sinner in the Church. Sometimes I struggle to understand his love and his forgiveness, but they should make me happy. After all, if Jesus can love the Church and forgive it, in spite of all its flaws and imperfections, then I know that he loves me and forgives me too.

J.