“Ideal” Church

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Church
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The Exodus account is the event by which Israel is continuously shaped and formed.  It is through this deliverance that God reveals God’s self and when Israel is called.  Israel’s redemption from the chaotic destruction of Egypt was seen as a rebirth, a new creation.  Exodus 14 depicts the Israelites walking across the Dead Sea on dry land between separated waters.  The echoes of Genesis 1 are significant because it outlines God’s plan for Israel.  They are to be a new creation that portends the re-creation of the world.

Exodus 19 comes after this “baptism” to pronounce to Israel its mission.  God tells the Israelites, “Now 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” (Ex. 19:5-6).  They are called to represent and re-present God to the surrounding nations.

God also gives instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, a space for worship, which is also couched in creation language.  There is a separation of space; it is created in parallel ways with creation (including the number of days).  Salvation means “to make space.”  Because God is Creator God is Savior.  This new creation begins as a microcosm, a separated space for God’s saving action.  Israel is called to be a participant in, a steward of, and pronouncer for this new creation.  There is an overarching design for Israel: to reflect God’s character and nature back into the world.

Ultimately, Israel is unable to fully carry out this task.  Their tendency to rebel against God and follow other gods mars their history.  The Babylonian Exile is the resulting consequence.  When Jesus steps onto the scene, the kingdom of Israel still had not been restored.  Rome had become the new oppressor and God’s people awaited deliverance.

Matthew’s Gospel declares that Jesus the Messiah embodies and fulfills Israel’s mission.  Jesus is the new Moses to lead God’s people.  John’s Gospel paints Jesus as the One by whom all of creation was formed and who “tabernacled” among us.  And, it is Jesus who commissions his disciples for their task: to make disciples of all nations.  The task given to Israel in the Exodus is recapitulated to the Church through Jesus.

The Church, in the New Testament understanding, becomes the new Israel.  1 Peter 2:4-5, 9 reads, As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

With Jesus as the Head of the Body of Christ, the people of God are commissioned and empowered to once again represent and re-present God to the world.  We are called to reflect God’s character and nature to the nations.  The Church is the foretaste of the new creation, the microcosm of the Kingdom that is both here and still to come.

One way we begin to discuss this mystical union between Christ and us is through the sacraments.  A sacrament is a means of grace.  It is a way that we are oriented to God’s life giving gift of salvation by grace through faith.  The Church is an outward sign of an inward grace.  A sacrament is never an end in and of itself.  Rather, a sacrament points to a larger reality.

The Church, as the Body of Christ, is a tangible reality that speaks of a spiritual mystery.  Namely, because of God’s redemptive work in our lives we have been joined with Christ, who is our Head, and commissioned to serve God by declaring the good news of the Kingdom of God, making disciples of all nations.  The Church does not exist for itself.  Rather, we serve as a sign of God’s salvation and new creation that is at hand.

That is the essential story of the Church.  It is the narrative that we are shaped by and shaped toward.  The Church is fundamentally a reflection of the Triune God whose grace we have experienced and to whose salvation and work we testify.  We are called to be a part of this grand story of re-creation and newness and to bring the “outsider” into Table Fellowship.

The Apostle’s Creed asserts four essential characteristics of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.  These reflect the four foundational beliefs about the Church’s nature and purpose.  First, the Church is One.  There is a unity within the Body of Christ.  Ephesians 4:4-6 states, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  There is One God and One Church.  It is a quantitative reality.

Secondly, the Church is Holy.  1 Peter 1:15-16 records the Church’s call to holiness: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”  This reflects Israel’s call to holiness found in Leviticus 11:44, 19:2, and 20:26.  The Church is called to reflect God character and nature back into the world; God’s character and nature is holy.  God alone possesses Holy.  Our holiness is only derivative of God’s holiness.

Thus, holiness is only possible if there is a connection between us and God.  This has been our call since the beginning: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:4-6).

Third, the Church is Catholic.  This is simply another way to say that the Church is universal.  It is not relegated to a gender, nationality, age, race, or even historical epoch.  This is a qualitative unity or wholeness.  There is a unity-in-difference.  The Body of Christ, though One Body, has many parts.  Each part makes up the whole and each part is needed for the Body to function properly.  In other words, the Church is interdependent.  The variety of spiritual gifts implies that we need that variety operational within the Church so that the Church might be edified and equipped for its mission.

Finally, the Church is Apostolic.  The Church lives between the past and the future.  It is a faith that has been handed down from generation to generation.  It is a faith that we have received; it is a faith that we are called to give away.  Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples relates this fact.  We are called to disciple others in this faith.  Hebrews 12 also tells us that we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses.  Thus, we have motivation to run a good race and to finish the race.  The Church is “sent out” to run their race of faith, passing on the baton to the next generation of runners.  “The Church exists by missions like fire exists in burning”

The ideal church is in pursuit of this wondrous calling.  We are called to be holy, reflecting God’s character and nature.  We are called to be united in the essentials of the faith while granting charity to others in the matters of faith that are non-essential.  We are dependent upon one another to use their gifts to edify the Body, equipping it for every good work.  And, we are called to be disciple-makers of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them all that Jesus commanded us.

The ideal church is a microcosm of the Kingdom and New Creation.  We are a royal priesthood and a holy nation that have experienced God’s salvation.  As sons and daughters of the Living King, heirs and co-heirs with Christ, we declare the praises of the One who has called us out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.  The ideal church is a steward of this new creation.  And, it is a sacrament to the world.  It does not exist for its own purposes and self-satisfaction.  Rather, the Church exists to serve the needs of the world.  We are called to fulfill the Greatest Commandment: “Love God with all that we are and love our neighbors (even our enemies) as we love ourselves.”  Because the Church is a sacrament and because we are called to love our enemies, to care for the oppressed, and to welcome the outsider, it is quite possible that the ideal Church would look anything but ideal.

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