Church is not just anywhere you want it to be, is not just a system of belief, is not something trivial one may put on or off according to the fashion of the moment. Some full buildings are empty of church. Some near-empty buildings are filled with church.
Church (and churches) exist in the heart of God. Church can only die, then, if God dies, while a church can die if it routinely breaks the heart of God.
And, while Church is in the heart of God, Church must also be in the heart, feet, mouths, hands and eyes of the church on earth. We are here for awhile. All of us are to be like John Wesley: itinerant preachers who tell the story wherever they go.
In his journal, the wry Wesley tells a story of riding his horse one day on his lonely course of preaching. He came upon a fellow horseman, with whom he conversed for a time. When Wesley got to the heart of his speech, which was ever the salvation of Christ and the organization into the Church, the other fellow spurred his horse and tried to get away.
Wesley recounts, “He urged his mount to greater ever exertion to avoid me but I was the better mounted and so prevailed.”
Better mounted and so prevailed; the church on earth must be better mounted and so prevail. Whatever you are riding, get after the unbeliever and deny him the security of his flight.
A church must over and over decide to be of the Church in the same way a church decides every four years if it minister to youth or to children. Ministries can flourish for awhile on spiritual adrenalin but sooner or later reality sets in and the work begins.
A church is of the Church when the church resolves that its entrance requirements are set in the Bible. There is no voting on skin color, or education, or socio-economics. The entrance requirements are faith in the Christ, submission to the Father and the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Some large church groups may have no Church members, for they do not demand faith, submission or filling. There is nothing of the divine in the church and so those who come and go may freely do so without ever becoming more than the damned.
A church is of the Church (the divine, the heavenly, the Christian) when it seeks to make decisions with God in its heart and the Scripture as its guide. Therefore, the church is not free, if it is of the Church. Are you in a church? Then, you are not free to attend when it is convenient, or deny entrance on material grounds or vote to deny God’s will. There is no democracy in the Church. You cannot vote God out of the Church. He owns the Property. You have no franchise to remove God from the Preaching. He owns the pulpit. You cannot decide to remove His book. He owns the copyrights.
A church is of the Church (the godly, the straight and narrow Way) when it knows better than to entertain sin routinely. Sin is evident in a church when the church gives in easily to distraction. So many church groups seem to suffer from a congregational ADD. They seem to have members who believe their spiritual gift is division and their spiritual office is that of Distracter. Their god is their belly; he fills them with criticisms of the spiritual leadership, their heart with dissembling, their mouths with outrages.
Preachers come and go in the churches of routine sin, where evil is more welcome than saintliness, but the Distracters remain. They work at division, excel at dissolution, give nothing, demand much. They often express their desires, which reveal their heart, but seldom, if ever, speak of the God of Heaven, where the Church is complete.
When they can find nothing to lay at the feet of the God called leadership as a real accusation, they spread their arms in despair and demand, “What else can we do?”
A world famous minister was a layman when thrust into denominational leadership. He later decided to seek ordination as a minister. He was asked if he thought this would help him in his work.
“I seek ordination so I may better identify with the wretchedness of the church,” he replied.
The church on earth is a wretched, tawdry thing at best. It is ever so. Once we met in sewers. We have long been out of the sewers of Rome but we often seem determined to let filth be our cover.
A church is of the Church when it accepts the Cross. I do not mean the little crosses we whine about in daily life. Oh, the times I have heard the fellow sigh and talk of the great burden he carries. He might as well not mention the Cross because he does not mean the actual Cross of Christ, only some natural burden that comes to all in one form or the other. He is not special, nor am I, nor are you. Anything that can happen to flesh and blood can happen to you, to me, to the bearer of the self-made onus. We are not immune to illness, devoid of aging or able to leap tall buildings at a single bound.
The Cross of Jesus is singular in this one way. When all the people who cheered Him one day set Him for death the next, Jesus said, “No, I will go on loving you.” There is nothing more frustrating than to be loved by someone whose love you do not want. The Romans would have liked Christ’s submission to them but this would have doomed them for all time. The Jews wanted Him to throw off the Romans to make Israel powerful but Jesus had a Christian power in mind. Jesus would not do for them what they wanted, so they stopped loving Him, but He kept loving them.
The love of Christ frustrates because it means he will not stop looking at us. I have a little grand-daughter who is now eighteen months old. She is lovely. Everybody says so. I think she is beautiful. I cannot take my eyes off her. She gets so tired of it. She wants me to play with her not just sit and look. I cannot help it. I love her. I cannot stop looking at her.
Since Christ loves us, He watches us. This means He sees what we do all the time. He knows our pretenses. He sees us try to go outside without adult supervision. He watches us try every door to see if we can get outside to the swingset. He listens to us cry when we are hungry or tired and just want attention. He goes on loving us.
This is the hardest thing about Christianity. Jesus insists on loving us. This is the Cross of Christ. He loves us maddeningly, fearfully, abundantly, carefully. This is the Cross; frustrating love.
And it is finally the Cross that makes the church to be of the Church. Think of the man Jesus called a fool in Luke 12. Why was he a fool? He had everything and got it honestly. He did not cheat man or deny the church. He was set for life, so long as life here lasted forever. He would have been a welcome addition to any church but Jesus called him a fool.
Why? Simply put, the man was a fool because he could routinely sin as he put himself in the place of God. This is the root of all sin. He was a fool because he acted like he made crops grow, unfolded the seasons, made the rain to fall. Naturally, this fellow had frustrations when things did not go his way, for he was used to getting his way.
Undoubtedly, he would ask along the way, “What else could I do?”
He could follow God. He could announce his dependence on others and realize his need of God. He could follow the Scripture. He could commune with the saintly people he knows, rather than give in to the ungodly. He could be a Christian of the Church but, instead, he walks in the company of the scornful, calls them god, makes sin his habit and loses his soul.
If a church is just a club it may change its rules according to its felt needs of the moment, enunciated by a cabal of carnivores. If the church is a part of the Church, it is not free. It is maddeningly loved but it is not free. It is led by sinful saints but not by routine sinners. It knows what a fool looks like by inspection of his spiritual life not by the size of his car. A church is of the Church if it does not trouble the overseer, acts with courage, behaves with purity of heart, loves the Truth so much it cannot twist the facts.
Is your church of the Church?
Are you maddeningly pursued by a love-crazed God who cannot take His eyes off you? Are you more than a club, other than a social organization run for the amusement of a few? Are you godly, hating sin, loving the Son, content with the Bible, contemptuous of fashion? Are you of the Holy Father or just in line with the high priest?
Is your church of the Church?