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The Perfect Church

August 10, 2015

“The Perfect Church” Ephesians 4:1-16 © 8.9.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Suppose for a moment that you or I could design the ideal community of faith. That’s not so far-fetched, really. I suspect all of us have done such an exercise at one time or another. If we haven’t, our neighbors certainly have as they look for a church. People shop for churches and make lists of features just like they do for electronics or a car or a house.

So, let’s play with that concept for a moment. It doesn’t really work this way, but suppose the presbytery were starting a new congregation, and the Evangelism and Church Development Committee I serve on hired a marketing firm to do some research. They gather a group of people in a room and ask them “What qualities do you want in a church”? One might say: “I like a church that reminds me of the one where I grew up.” Another has something similar: “I want a congregation that fits me and makes me feel comfortable, like an old pair of shoes.” Someone else chimes in: “It has to be warm and friendly; everybody knows each other.” The emphasis then shifts a bit to worship: “I’m pleased when they sing the old gospel hymns and read the King James Bible (the old version, not the new-fangled 21st century one).” “I think worship should just be a some singin’ and some preachin’; nothing too formal with all those wordy printed prayers.” A different opinion comes in response: “I want liturgy that follows the ancient four-fold order and has plenty of sensory appeal. I especially need the Eucharist celebrated frequently.” Other voices: “What’s important to me is mission. We have to back up our talk with prophetic action for the disenfranchised and voiceless in our community.” Or “I want the right to elect our leaders. None of this appointment stuff for me.”

Maybe there are some folks born between 1982 and 2002 in attendance. That’s the generation called “Millennials,” because the firstborn came of age at 18 at the turn of the millennium. When they speak in the forum, they emphasize authenticity and openness, a church that welcomes all and reflects the diversity of the culture and community, one that has a visible public ministry of advocacy and justice. Plus they say they are more likely to meet in homes or bars or coffee shops than in a building whose only function is to serve a congregation’s needs.

On and on it goes. There are as many opinions as there are people in the room—these calling for strong preaching, those for praise and worship music, others for tender care of the sick and grieving or a church school that helps everyone from the smallest infant to the oldest saint know the love of God.

I posed the question to a group of teenaged boys, all Millennials, in a confirmation class at the beginning of this century. “What would your perfect church look like? What would it do? How would it be organized? How would they worship?” Their responses were astounding, energizing, challenging.

First, they said that the church should offer services 24/7/365. They wanted it recognized that everybody has a different schedule and needs and styles vary. Impossible! we say. Well, yes, if we think of the church as a building. But not if we regard the church properly as a community of faith scattered and serving. Technology makes possible literally what the boys wanted. Think of the possibilities today, 15 years later, with websites, social media, blogs, and podcasts. Anyone with a capable phone can upload video from worship to the Internet. Someone can read this sermon online anytime after I post it to my blog tomorrow morning.

But even without technology, the church has been offering services in a different sense 24/7/365 for centuries. Like the caregiver who is up at 3:00 in the morning comforting an elderly man who has had a nightmare. Or the friend who tells you “call me day or night if you need anything.” The pastor or youth leader who gives up her Saturday day off to go on a middle school rafting trip.

The confirmands also wanted recliners instead of pews in the sanctuary. You could wear what you wanted to worship. I should note here that I was pastor of an snooty, affluent, dressy church, where men were expected to wear at least ties and preferably dark suits to serve Communion and some women even still wore hats on Sunday. The boys were saying: “We don’t like that.” And there would be dictionaries readily at hand for words you didn’t know. That was a slap at me, since then, as now, I used big words and long sentences. Again, today anybody with Google can check a word in the middle of a service. All that was to say that the church would offer a homey and inviting atmosphere.

Next, there would be an feeling of mystery, with lots of candles and darkness. Not everything would be explained. There would be room for imagination. Apparently we had managed the mystery out of faith, even trying to understand the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Finally, following the principle of BWBB—boys will be boys—they wanted to have water balloon fights with the remainder of the water following baptisms. We had a deep font that was typically filled up, in case you’re wondering how there could be enough water for balloons. And you could turn the sanctuary into a gym by rolling out the recliners. I think I could sum up by saying that the guys wanted the church to be flexible, adaptable, accessible, sensitive to needs, and maybe just a bit of fun.

Paul isn’t quite ready to fill up balloons at the font or even choose a style of worship. But something like our reflection on the ideal church is going on in the morning’s reading from Ephesians. There’s something here I find tremendously attractive. Paul’s vision is as big as the cosmos, yet as personal as our greatest need and most secret thought.

So what does this writer have on his list? How would he describe the perfect church?

One theme we hear loud and clear is wholeness. To be whole and complete is really what the Bible means by “perfect.” The church is whole in one way because it’s united by the affirmation of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” We’re held together by the glue of God’s peace: joined, intertwined, interdependent. We’re one because God is one, uniting everything in the Divine. This is a given of our life together, not a result of human effort. Not even the best Presbyterian task force can or could achieve it. We don’t attain unity the way we do everything else in the church, forging it out of heated debates, fervent arguments, and passionate negotiations. It’s a gift of God.

Yet this good gift suffers from our neglect and abuse. We often don’t live up to who we or whose we are. We fail to maintain the bond of unity in the spirit of peace. I’m not talking about big hot button social and denominational issues, though I’m sure those are to be included. Let’s get down instead to where we live every day. It’s hard to love when we want more than anything not to talk to him again. When that same person harps on the same old tired theme, and we want to ask how many times she can beat that poor dead horse. When he, perhaps on purpose, does not understand what are trying so desperately to communicate. We’re anything but eager to maintain connections with such folk.

Yet that’s precisely what the author insists on. Love means relating to specific people with particular concerns and problems and habits and behaviors. It’s bearing the burden one more mile with or of someone who lives across the street or is sitting in the pew with you right now. Claiming our identity is one thing; living out our unity in church is another. As someone has said: “I love the church; it’s the people I can’t stand.” But there is no church apart from the people. Christ is fleshed out in our lives, as flawed as we are.

Still, the apostle is convinced we can become who we are. We can lead lives worthy of our calling. In this, he pays his readers in every age a high compliment. The church is whole because we are united, but also because we are treated as mature adults in faith. The call to righteous living here isn’t given by tirade or badgering. The author trusts us, indeed God trusts us, to live the noble and full lives we’ve been given. The call to perfection is the call to maturity, completeness, to acting like grown-ups. We image him who was and is the Perfect Human. We’re reminded of our privilege and position and asked to live up to it. It’s through us that people see what Christ is like! And, amazing as it seems, Paul trusts that we are able to give the world an accurate picture, a winning example, a beautiful portrait.

One of the most influential books in my spiritual development is a volume from 1972 by Walter Brueggemann entitled In Man We Trust. Reflecting on the wisdom tradition and the portrait of David in the Bible, the great scholar says: “We do not have to do with a God who simply keeps us warm and suckles us without asking any questions, nor with a harsh taskmaster who nags us continually. This strange combination of perversions has produced an American church which is largely irrelevant and immobilized…. The resources of the David tradition affirm the centrality of graciousness—a graciousness which cares and asks and expects much from us.

Brueggemann observes that mature faith is not expressed by what he terms “under-living,” but in “the human, social, intoxicated life of celebration and responsibility.” We don’t “bask in our untrustworthiness” but rather “embrace the trust given us” and live as people who are “able to risk, decide, and celebrate.” We are “trusted creatures,” turned loose like David to “make what we can” of the great gift given to us (46-47, 39).

Paul’s perfect church, then, is one striving toward wholeness by the grace of Christ in a number of ways. But it’s also a speaking church. The confession of one Lord, one faith is lived out, but it’s also proclaimed. The functionaries given the church are mainly people who speak: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastoral teachers. They are to help God’s people particularly to recognize error and lead them to a solid knowledge of the truth. And to each of us is given the task of “speaking the truth in love.” It’s important for our own growth and the growth of the church that in this world of empty promises and twisted words we speak with integrity and forthrightness, tempered with compassion. And we need to know what we believe and say it in a gentle way.

No doubt all of us have experienced well-meaning but misguided people who insist on “sharing their faith” with us, as if they are in possession of the only saving truth and knowledge. Like the young evangelical guys from a Starkville congregation who several years ago visited George, a Greek Orthodox friend of mine. They came by to “witness.” When George wanted to tell them in turn about his church and its rituals and doctrines, they beat a hasty exit. These kinds of believers have sincerely held religious beliefs, but in the end they’re simply rude and annoying, like one of those telemarketers I always hang up on, who won’t take “no” for an answer.

You and I may be reluctant to tell our faith story sometimes because we think others might lump us in with those over-zealous guys who visited my friend. But let’s take our cue from the text, and not from some arrogant so-called “evangelist.” If we want to talk about our faith, in Ephesians we can find a model for proclaiming the gospel that is winsome and full of respect for our neighbors. We’re not to be obnoxious, imperialistic or condescending. In fact, quite the opposite. All our speaking is full of love that bears burdens with patience, gentleness, and meekness. We care about what we say and how and when we say it. Speaking the truth in love is following the ancient wisdom teacher’s advice that there’s a time for everything. A time to speak. A time to sit down, shut up, and listen. We share an appropriate word when what we say will bring peace and healing and help. Or challenge and judgment if that’s what’s needed. We have our convictions, and because we’re secure, we can genuinely respect what someone else says and believes; we can learn from them. Speaking the truth in the biblical way is not using the Bible or faith as a weapon to dominate or shame as so many do today, but as a tool to serve and care. Remember, as Paul said in Romans, love does no evil, wrong, harm or injury to a neighbor (13:10). (Note: the Greek word Paul uses can be translated any of these four ways.)

So, the perfect church is a united church. A speaking church. And finally, a praising church. There is in and among such a people of God a deep sense of giftedness and humility, an awareness of the presence of the Spirit that imparts an undeserved bounty. This is a church over and in which Christ is Lord and Donor, Source and Destiny, Head and Heart. The whole purpose of a church is to be a living hymn of praise to God. As Paul put it: “He destined us in love to be his children…to the praise of his glorious grace.” The old catechism was right. We are indeed here to glorify God and enjoy him forever. As one writer put it some years ago: “Our life is fundamentally lived in praise of God and in thanksgiving. Doxology is our reason for being—and joy is the final outcome of God’s way with us” (Patrick Miller, Theology Today, July 1988). Our praise and thanksgiving give rise to our morality and ethics and inform and shape our relationships. We live and speak and act out of gratitude! We reach out and involve others, bidding them also to glorify God. Our joy is so great that it can’t be contained. It overflows into every part of our lives. It’s contagious, and it’s the kind of thing other people want to catch!

The praise of God by the perfect church testifies that God is real, that God matters, that God is moving toward the day when he will be all, in all. Praise is an act of hope.

And praise is an act of ultimate allegiance. No other person or place, cause or commodity can claim our ultimate and deepest praise or finally shape and guide our lives because there is no Other like our God. No Other who does wonders without ceasing. No Other who gives gifts beyond imagining. No Other who fills us with hope for a day when pain and sorrow and war and hatred and all the other ills of humanity will be no more. No Other. For it is only God who gives the perfect church, one body in one Spirit, perfected and whole, joined with Christ, our Head. To whom be glory in the church forever and ever. Amen.

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