In his book “Practicing Resurrection,” author Eugene Peterson makes the terse statement, “Church is difficult.” I say more, it is audacious. Only the with-God-nothing-is-impossible- God could attempt it or would attempt it. We look and often our eyes see more defeat than victory. We assess and see more strife than unity. And it weighs us down and weakens faith. But it need not. Facing conditions as they are we can return to the Word of Christ and the Father, praying to see once again what they saw and yet see in this initiative called the Church. It is here we will find the corrective to any loss of vision we may have suffered. I will ground my remarks in the passage in Matthew 16, verses 16-19. The passage contains both confession and affirmation. The confession is human, the affirmation is God's. I will begin with God's affirmation.
Three things are affirmed in what Jesus says and these things are foundational: confession is always and only a response to the action and movement of God in the world (verse 17); Christ is the one building (verse 18b); and victory is certain (verse 18c).
Confession always a response
The church contains both the human and divine elements. Take away either and you do not have the church. But it is the divine element that makes church. Apart from God's movement you could not have church though you tried for ages on end. Meet together, discuss, plan, reach out to those beyond the fellowship. If it is not done in response to the movement of God it is not church but something merely human. For this reason we should make every effort to keep the mighty acts of God ever before us and to pray for His movement in our own lives. This was powerfully illustrated to me this last weekend when at a meeting of believers I was introduced to a new version of the old hymn “I surrender all.” In the old hymn an important movement in the experience of the believer fills our horizon, that of surrender. But in the new version this surrender is placed in the context of God's great acts. For three verses we sang of Christ's surrender on mans behalf. And by the time we arrived at the fourth, in which we sang of our surrender, my heart was full to the brim with gratitude and wonder at His mercy and surrender became glad response instead of “meritorious” action. This is how it should always be. The more man fills our horizon (including ourselves) the weaker our capacity to be church becomes. The more we become consumed by the human element in the church and the resultant foibles and failings, the further we ourselves drift from real participation in the heavenly vision.
Jesus the Builder
It is not Jesus alone who builds. The work is shared. And yet all effective activity finds it source in Him. Paul summarizes this well in 1 Corinthians 3. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” God is at work in the church. It is His chosen context of activity. He is the founder. He is the one who is moving things towards His intended goal. And this has implications. We can't just throw church away if it has in our experience proved difficult. Spiritually speaking it is the only legitimate happening in town. But neither can we take it into our own hands, whether liberal or conservative, and make of it whatever we wish. It is not our building project. We are not the architects, not the designers, but servants. “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed.” 1 Cor. 3:5 And “let each man be careful how he builds upon it,” for God will ultimately “test the quality of each man's work.” 1 Cor. 3:10, 13
Christ the Victor
There is a great deal of dullness in the Christian camp: mediocrity, compromise, and limited vision. I cannot say I have been free of it myself. But as I have already argued this should not be our preoccupation. “Aslan is on the move” and our eyes should ever be searching for that movement however insignificant it at first may seem. Betsy from The Hiding Place is my hero in this regard. I remember laying in bed with my wife on a Friday evening reading the account of Corrie and Betsy's experiences in a German concentration camp. And when we came to the part where a guard was beating a woman in the roll call right in front of their eyes, and Betsy began praying and Corrie thought she was praying for the woman only to realize that she was praying for the guard, we laid in our bed and wept, overcome by what God had accomplished in Betsy's heart. “I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.”
How we get in on this as the basis for unity Before the affirmations of Christ, however, there came the questions of Christ and Peter's response. And it is in these questions and the answer that Peter gave to them that we find our doorway into the Church that Christ is building. The first question asked by Jesus, “Who do men say that I am?” is met with a litany of responses, none of them saving, even though religious in tone. The second question, however, “But who do you say that I am?” is met with the earnest confession, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” The confession implies a revelation of need. It also implies a conviction concerning how God has moved to meet that need. Humanity, when unwilling to face the reality and extremity of their spiritual need, will ever be ready to offer fresh assessments of Jesus of Nazareth, none of them saving. It is only when we embrace the presence of a Messiah-sized need in our lives that we can make the true confession. Only then can we say that He alone will do. By this we become living stones. But also by this do we learn unity. For we, to the extent we are bound to Christ, are bound to each other, bound by our common need, and bound even further by our common righteousness, that righteousness which is found in Him alone. In this way we see that unity is integral to the foundation.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6203