The Church, The Mystery, The History

CityPres_service_082Paul writes, “and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (Ephesians 3:9–13)

He’s got something else that will enlighten us. Paul says that this is not euangelizo, the good news, but it is photizo, to enlighten. We live in the darkness of ignorance, my friends. We need the Bible to help us truly see things as they are. We need the Light of the World.

What does Paul want us to see? That there has been a plan hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the wisdom of God might be made know to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

What does that mean? Paul is talking about the history of the world.

Henry Ford has two famous quotes about history: “All history is bunk” and “History is the succession of one damned thing after another.” Woody Allen has a rather gloomy view: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a cross-roads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Thomas Carlyle I think best summarizes what Paul is trying to say to us: “All history . . . is an inarticulate Bible.”

You see, to live in a world without meaning is to live a life without meaning. We’re all trying to do this all the time. We’re synthesizing things. Systemizing them. Analyzing them. This is so natural to us we don’t even think about it.

When my kids were growing up, they attended a school that valued memorization as the classical approach of learning. So we worked with flash cards to memorize facts. Phonograms, grammar facts, multiplication tables, and history cards. I distinctly remember going through the history cards, and I was always learning or re-learning these facts right along with my kids.

In grad school, I took an English History class, which covers the Tudor dynasty of the 1500s. There are a thousand facts involved in this time period: Henry VII defeated Richard III on Bosworth field on August 22, 1485… fact after fact after fact.

However, eventually we need to move past the facts to a fuller understand of how things work and why. We need those facts in order to piece together a fuller narrative and find our place in hit.

Why did that happen? What factors went into it? Why did Lord Stanley change sides on the field of battle? Why did only 9 of the 36 lords even show up to battle? Why was England so ready to get rid of Richard III and take a king who had less than stellar credentials?

We’re trying to bring meaning to a chaos of events. Paul does that for us right here. He says that the church is the focal point of world history. He says that to understand the true nature of things, you have to understand the church.

“Secular history concentrates its attention on kings, queens, and presidents, on politicians and generals, in fact, on ‘VIPs.’ The Bible concentrates rather on a group it calls ‘the saints,’ often little people, insignificant people, unimportant people, who are however at the same time God’s people – and for that reason are both ‘unknown (to the world) and yet well-known to God.”[1]

This is the answer to the question, “What is God Doing?” God is bringing together otherwise divided individuals in Christ. God is a creator, and he is creating harmony between himself and people, and between people and people.

Think about how every Christian then is a part of revealing the will and mystery of God to the world and to even the angels. The angels are watching. They’re amazed to find out the way God works out his plan. They’re both baffled and ecstatic to see people come into the church by the ministry of Jesus.

That means we all need Jesus, and we need each other. Paul writes that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known.” (3:10) That word “manifold” is really “many-colored” like in Joseph’s coat of many colors.

The mystery of Christ is that God is bringing people from every tribe, nation, people and language into his body, to be his bride. It’s multi-cultural. It’s multi-racial. It’s multi-lingual. We’re now sharing the geography of Jesus, who has drawn us all into himself. That means we need each other to see this fully and make this happen. There is and should be a unity.

The Jews weren’t supposed to just tolerate the Gentiles. They needed the Gentiles in order to fulfill this. This is a witness to God’s glory.

The church is the focal point of history only because it is the focal point of Christ’s work. We reckon history this way. We don’t start at the creation of the world and number our years from there. In the west, our history has a center from which we look back and forward. That center is the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The glory of this is the displaying of Christ by Christian people in the world throughout time.

One of the stories of Hurricane Katrina definitely flew under every radar, but I want you to know about it. Beal Heights Presbyterian Church in Lawton, Oklahoma, had its basement classroom space turned into a Red Cross shelter. For months, 51 people crammed into this tiny area with no showers and only two bathrooms. Rev. John Butler told me that the session of this small church decided to treat the people there like family. They would not be managed, nor inconvenienced, but would be made to feel like this was their home.

New spaces in Lawton would come open time and again. Better beds were available. Better housing with showers and nicer facilities. But no one wanted to move. They liked it there. They felt at home. They were loved. They went to church. The session had been given some money through an inheritance, and they had been praying what to do with it. Beal Heights felt that God called them, as a church, to give each person $2000 from the church.

These people bought homes in the area. The church changed. They found a true home. That was the church in Lawton. It’s not vague or historic or esoteric. It’s specific and remarkable.

There are riches in Christ, though there is still physical, financial, emotional and locational suffering. There is proof, given by Paul himself of the principle that suffering for truth and righteousness is the way to glory and the secret of true happiness, that the way of Jesus is the way of suffering, that John 15:19-20 might be true: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.

This is an incredibly high view of the church, isn’t it? The church in Paul’s day was not really worthy of this, at least not practically speaking. They didn’t have cathedrals or power. They met in homes, perhaps in secret. They were persecuted. They might have had 100 people not churches in a whole city.

But Paul calls them to this lofty position. He’s saying the church is central to history, to the gospel and to Christian living.

You can be a Christian and not in the church, but that isn’t good for you at all. You can also be married without living at home. We need to practice our commitments to Jesus and each other in the context of our relationship with Jesus and each other. Worship then is a part of the unity with Christ and each other. We’re aligning ourselves with those who confess Christ, gathering again and again on Sundays and throughout the week in homes, coffee shops, pubs, businesses, parks as we bear witness to Christ and his church, as we proclaim the good news as his light-bearing evangelists, the ministers of the gospel.

The church is imperfect to be sure. Paul knows that. Look at his letters to the church in Corinth.

I think of my marriage to Julie. We stood in front of people on March 5, 1994, and we said vows to each other even though we had no idea what we were talking about. We still committed to each other. I’ve let her down on those vows many, many times. If you had frozen our marriage at my points in time or after many disappointments, you might have wondered if we ever meant it or if we’d ever make it. And yet here we are, to God be the glory.

Or think of the United States of America. Our forefathers were right to talk in the ideals of justice, freedom and liberty for all. These same men owned slaves and made sure only white property owners could vote. That persisted for a long, long time. Things very slowly loosened up through great trials and difficulties. There were fits and starts with literacy requirements, poll taxes and a host of other barriers to this most basic freedom. Women couldn’t vote until 1920. The Voting Right Act passed in 1965.[2]

Wow, that is super discouraging. We have not and still don’t live up to our ideals. Yet we press on. I grieve how we treated people so poorly, how we still do. And I’m glad the church has a supernatural calling instead of a governmental one. I’m thankful that Jesus is the king instead of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the President.

So we can rest in Jesus in our high calling as his church. But that mystery requires our ministry. We have work to do. I have work to do in marriage, that it can even more and better reflect the love of Christ, his grace and mercy for me and us. We have work to do in our nation, so that it can even more and better reflect justice and liberty for all. And we have more work to do in our church, that we can proclaim as ministers the good news of Jesus and the mystery of God’s love in the church.

There are mysteries in the church. There are things too grand to be knowable. But they aren’t hidden from you. I’ll tell what the vows, the oath, the initiation rites are for my church.

Church Membership Vows (from the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order, 57-5)

  1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
  2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
  3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
  4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?

The initiation rite is baptism, to be administered upon profession or on an infant upon profession of his or her parents. There you go. If you want to, you can come to our chapter meetings. We meet every Sunday morning at 9 and 11am. All you have to do is to come. You don’t even have to be a member to come. There are songs, but they aren’t secret. There are rituals, but they are open for all who are sinners. You don’t have to go through a lengthy process of joining our society; you have to call on the name of Christ. There are no academic requirements, no dress codes, no beautiful-people quotients, no big bros and little sisters, no mandatory philanthropy meetings. There may be some things you can’t do, but we explain those to you (and there are only a few, but you don’t have to leave).

But there is a true society, one that will last absolutely forever. There is a brotherhood, a sisterhood, an accountability, a membership, that will shake you to the core. It is all there for you, a mystery that has been revealed. The church is where God is at work the most. You should be investing there. When we come into relationship with God through faith in Jesus, we have boldness, access and confidence. We don’t have to cower. We don’t stroll in like we own the place. We’re humble servants, but we’re beloved children. We know God’s love for us. We’ve experienced it in a deep way, so we don’t lose heart in our suffering. Even in prison, we’re free.

The church is where the action is. You would never guess it, but it’s true. There is no more rivalry. Not in the church, the greatest institution in the world. That’s a part of the mystery. Are you a part of this mystery?

Doug in library

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Stott, 127-128

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_suffrage