Recently, I've had cause to think a lot about church. This is for the best of reasons - I'm really enjoying church right now. Moving to a new city and starting a new job has its hardships and a consistent high point of my week is attending Christ Church Bradford.
There are many reasons for this: the warmth, love and hospitality of other Christians, the solid preaching and teaching from the Bible, the richness of the prayers, the enthusiastic, if sometimes off kilter, singing (not that I can talk!). Mainly though, it is because I go to church and come away refreshed, feeling that Christ has ministered to my soul, that God was, in a very real way, present at the service. In a time and an age where the church gets a lot of bad press I think it necessary to stand up and say that church is often beautiful.
Naturally, I immediately worry that it cannot last. And in this last week two separate thoughts have joined together on this worry. The first occured mid-week at home group where we looked at the parable of the mustard seed.
"Again he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.’" Mark 4 v 30 v 32.
There is something profoundly reassuring about this picture. I imagine a vast and spreading tree, rooted firm in the ground, solid and secure, filling the earth, covering every country, unshakable. And as it flourishes so does it shelter and protect the birds nesting in it. Not just Christians but those with any faith and none, benefiting simply by being close to it. For what is the nature of Christianity but to bring peace, love and goodwill to all people? And what is the nature of church but as God's plan to redeem a world?
Such is the kingdom of God as a whole. And so I imagined Christ Church, a smaller tree yet nevertheless, it grows in Bradford, branches spreading out, while all these birds flourish by being connected to it in some way. And while I may long for it to be a larger tree still that does not detract from its beauty. As the church is at large so the church is in small.
The parable conveys the richness of spiritual blessing, the beauty of a church being what a church should be, the security and blessing of a local fellowship. In a world beset with insecurity and with my own life still not settled such a place to nest is a welcome necessity.
The second thought occurred this evening. My minister was preaching on Hebrews 13 and talking about the insignificance of the visible. "Look at us," he said, "An argument between God's people, a few providences here, some changes of employment, a couple of deaths, and all of this would be blown away in an instant."
It struck home because in my home church in Edinburgh I have seen first hand what a few providences and changes of employment can bring about. What seems so secure is actually not.
"All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them." Isaiah 40 v 6 - 7.
Such is the fleeting insignificance of the visible. My church, which I thought a spreading tree, now appears in starker light. So how do I reconcile these two contradicting pictures? My church is insignificant, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. The church is that rock, cut without human hands, which grew to fill the whole earth and it could be blown away in an instant.
As a start there is a difference between the church and my church. The Church will endure forever, through all ages and any attempt to wipe it out cannot help but fail. This we can hold as a principle of faith, for Jesus is Head of the church and he will not suffer to see it defeated. My church, my local fellowship, is a tiny part of this. A part that will serve its function and then pass away. Are not our lives the same? We are born, we live, we serve God and when our service is done God brings us home.
But I want to think about it deeper than that. It is more than a difference between the greater whole and a small part. There is also a difference between the visible insignificance and the invisible significance.
What is visible about church - the building, the number of people, the financial statement, the cars parked out side, the activities it runs, these are fleeting and temporary. Looking at myself and the congregation I see the foolish things of the world which God has chosen. Fifty people gathering together to worship the unseen. When prayers are made for peace in this world an outside observer might well fall over laughing! For no one among us can claim any human power or significance.
We took communion this evening and what is in that? A little grape juice, a white roll, fleeting insignificance. Such is the theme of Christianity - our good news is of a man dying on a cross, mocked, beaten and silenced. From the visible perspective it is nothing, foolishness!
Yet the visible, the bread and wine, the minister preaching, the reading from the Bible, a crucified man, a church building, the prayers of Christians, these fleeting things, of such visible insignificance point us to the invisible reality of all surpassing and abundant significance.
The bread and wine point us to the death and resurrection of the Son of God, his forgiveness of sins and his reconciling of sinners to God. A church building points towards a greater temple, the Most Holy Place, now freely entered because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The gathering of Christians on a Sunday looks ahead to the day of eternal rest when Christians shall gather in Heaven to offer praises to God forever more. The crucified man is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
And so the foolish things of the world, the weak things of the world: our fleeting churches, our fleeting selves, our insignificance in human terms, takes on a whole new meaning.
From a visible perspective my church could be blown away in an instant. But if we consider the invisible, if we consider Jesus Christ as Head of his Church, if we consider the Holy Spirit ministering to us through the preached Word, if we by faith grasp this invisible reality, we can see church as a spreading tree and growing mountain.
It is easy to look at Christianity and despise it for its visible weakness. But faith paints a truer picture for faith paints us a picture of Jesus Christ.
"Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 1 v 26 - 31
At the risk of making this long post longer Spotify just played me this hymn and it seems so appropriate.
"I have placed all my hope in a crucified man
In the wounds in his side, his feet and his hands
I have traded my pride for a share in his shame
And the glory that one-day will burst from his pain
I’ve abandoned my trust in the wise and the proud
For this fragile, mysterious weakness of God
And I dare to believe in his scandalous claim
That his blood cleanses sin for who ever
Will call on his name
Live or die here I stand
I’ve placed my hope in a crucified man
When the purest and best took the force of our curse
Death’s victory armada juddered into reverse…
And either we bow or we stumble and fall
For the wisdom of a suffering God
Has made fools of us all
I gladly admit that I am
But I’ve placed my hope in a crucified man
When I stand at the judgement
I have no other plan
I’ve placed my hope in a crucified man
Like the thief nailed beside him
I have no other plan
I’ve placed my hope in a crucified man."