I Love Thy Church, O God
October 8 2017
Ephesians 5:25 ….even as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.”
A woman met her pastor at the door of the church, and said to him, “Your sermon today was so helpful to me.”
He said, “I’m glad it was helpful, but I hope it wasn’t as helpful as my last sermon, because that one lasted you three months.”
I grew up a Methodist; I went to a Methodist college and a Methodist seminary and had every intention of returning to my home state of N.C. to be a Methodist pastor. But along the way, an unexpected thing happened. I worked as an intern during seminary at a Presbyterian church in Old Greenwich, Ct. and they ultimately called me to be their associate pastor.
So I grew up a Methodist, and became a Presbyterian. I married a woman who had grown up first Roman Catholic and then later on became a Hard-Shell Baptist (I don’t know if there is a “real” denomination called “Hard-Shell Baptists” but that’s what they were; they were so exclusive that not only did they think that the Hard-Shall Baptists were the only ones who had a passport to heaven, but that their neighbors down the street in other Hard-Shall Baptist Churches probably wouldn’t qualify for admission through the Pearly Gates.). So in my own life and ministry and marriage I have experienced the universality of the church. I’m always reminded that the church is larger than the Presbyterian church, and that the kingdom of God is larger than the church.
In the 5th chapter of Ephesians there is a treatise on Christian marriage, and in this treatise Paul says, “Husbands, you must love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Most times when you hear people unpacking this verse the emphasis is on a husband’s duty toward his wife…..and that certainly is there. But I would to snip off that first part of this verse and isolate the second part and hold it up before your eyes today: “As Christ loved the church and gave himself UP for her.”
Chew on that for a second. Christ loves the church so much that he GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR HER. He gave himself up for her that the church might not flounder but flourish. He gave himself up for her that the church might not be petty but expansive. He gave himself up for her that the church might not be narrow but wide.
He loves the church. Our Lord and Savior loves the church. How can he do that? How can he love the church with all those exasperating people in it? (It was said about a woman, a prominent member of a church: She never swore but made everyone else want to.) He loves the church with all those tedious committee meetings. He loves the church with all those incessant stewardship campaigns.
Someone said that real love is always “in spite of.” We love our mates in spite of their obvious warts and flaws. Of course, we are spotless. We love our kids in spite of their exasperating habits. We love our friends, in spite of their obvious failings. I think that Christ’s love for the church is like that. It is “in spite of” love.
He loves the church in spite of its divisions. In Christ’s prayer for the church in John 17, he bows in prayer and asks, “Father, keep them safe by the power of your love…that that they all may be one” (John 17:20).
There was an ecumenical gathering in a large auditorium and during the meeting someone rushed in and shouted, “The building is on Fire!!”
The Methodists gathered in a corner and prayed.
The Baptists cried, “Where is the water?”
The Quakers quietly praised God for the blessings that fire brings.
The Lutherans posted a notice on the door with 95 reasons listing why fire is evil.
The Roman Catholics passed a collection plate to cover the damage.
The Jews painted symbols on the doors so the fire would pass over.
The Congregationalists shouted, “Every man for himself!”
The Fundamentalists proclaimed, “It is the vengeance of God!”
The Christian Scientists agreed among themselves that there was no fire.
The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out.
The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson who was to form a committee to look into the matter and submit a written report.
The janitor put the fire out and went back to work
Our divisions, both denominational and personal, are the continuing scandal of the church. “Keep them safe by the power of your name, so that they may be one just as you and I are one.
Now in the the beginning of the third millennium since Jesus’ time on earth, we know that his dream did not come true. The Church of Jesus Christ is broken, shattered, and scattered into countless traditions, denominations, sects, and cults. It started in New Testament times: the followers of Peter, vs. the followers of Paul, vs. the followers of some guy named Apollos. A major split came at the beginning of the second millennium when the Latin speaking Christians of western Europe split off from the Greek-speaking Christians of eastern Europe and Asia Minor. This split, which happened in 1054 AD, formed the Eastern Orthodox Church, headquartered in Constantinople, and the Roman Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome. Then came the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, started by Martin Luther’s protest against the corruption and infidelity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. After the Protestant Reformation, split-off groups, cults, and denominations sprung up everywhere. In the twentieth century we saw the rise of the ecumenical movement, with the formation of the National Council of Churches in the USA, and the founding of the World Council of Churches. Today, there is an organization called “Churches Uniting in Christ” of which our own church is a part. Churches Uniting in Christ is a consortion of ten denominations working together to end racism and injustice. But the truth of it is that all the ecumenical efforts, at least in my life time, have not gone very far. I I think it breaks Jesus’ heart.
So when we look at the church, we know there’s a lot wrong with it. Can we imagine that our Lord is less perceptive than we? Can we assume that he looks at the church with a naive optimism?
So lets be realistic about the church.. Those of us in the church sometimes are the poorest advertisements for the Gospel: petty, unforgiving, gossipy, mean-spirited. We insist on seeing things our own way, and having things our own way, as if there was no one else sitting in the pews next to us.
Then there’s the instititutional nature of the church. Institutions always petrify the idea they are supposed to preserve and spread. The church has its bureaucracies…it has its inefficiencies. If you’ve ever served on an eccelisiastical committee beyond your local church, you know what I mean. So there is a lot about the church which deserves honest criticism and serious reform.
But this is not the whole story and we know it. For all its fault, over the years, the church has preserved and spread the Gospel. It has been responsible for lifting the cause of the poor and marginalized. It has passed on the Bible into every culture. It has built hospitals and nursing homes and colleges and orphanages.
And then there is the second adjective the holy CATHOLIC church, that is to say, the universal church, the whole church, not just the Roman Catholic Church, although that’s a big part of the whole church, but the whole church, from Pentecostal who swing their shoulders to Orthodox who swing their in censers, from Lutherans who sing those old, ponderous
Germanic hymns to new evangelical churches who sing hymns written last week. We believe in all that, we trust in all that….we do that because we believe the church, although terribly human, is instituted by Christ, and is, would you believe, his body?
Yes, that’s the church…pockmarked, shopworn, but ordained by God to be the community who lives out the Gospel and loves with the same passionate intensity that our Lord loved….the church, whom God entrusted to show the power of the Cross to the world.
As I have come to know the congregations I have served, I realize that nearly every branch of Christendom has come together to form an individual church. Each local church is a microcosm of the wider church, the church the Apostle’s Creed calls the “holy catholic church.” To
prove my point, I’d like to take a survey. How many of you grew up in a
Presbyterian or Reformed background?
How about Roman Catholic?
How about Episcopalian?
Or one of the Orthodox traditions, such as Greek, Russian, or Armenian?
Are there any Pentecostal among us? Or Mennonites or Friends?
UCC or churches of Christ?
Pentecostals or Churches of God?
Community Churches, Interdenominational
So here we are thrown together in this delicious ecclesiastical stew in Peoria. Here we are living out each day the universality of the Christian Church.
Before we move on, I would like to ask all of you, right now, in a meditative way to pray for the whole church of Jesus Christ.
Pray for the whole church as it includes the church of your childhood; the church back there where you were married; the church from which your mother was buried; the church on your college campus; the church in the mountains or near the coast where you worship on vacation.
Some of us in this congregation have either worked or served in other lands. Think prayerfully now of that congregation gathered in Japan or Korea, in Lebanon or Iran, in Australia, or in one of the African nations. Think of nationals, fraternal workers, and missionaries still serving there. A few of us here today have friends or families in troubled lands. Think prayerfully of them now–Christian friends in Cuba, Christian friends in Northern Ireland, Christian friends in countries such as China, harassed, watched and even persecuted.
We all know about other churches in the metropolitan area. We aren’t alone in the ministry of Christ. Isn’t that heartening! Bring them to mind now in the spirit of Christ; the work of the St Vincent De Paul among the homeless. The work of Habitat for Humanity, Cathedral Center, hospital chapels and nursing homes now patients are being wheeled by volunteers to worship; chapel gatherings in jails and prisons; durable congregations in central Phoenix.
And we all have many friends and loved ones in the church in heaven. May God hear our prayers for them and for theirs, as well.
As we mature in the faith, my friends, we learn more and more not to live as an isolated part of the body of Christ, but to live rejoicing in the whole. Even as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it. And so it is, that…
It is the whole church we work for,
It is the whole church where we meet our Lord.
It is the whole church which is God’s gift to us.
Timothy Dwight Dwight was a man for all seasons: an ordained Congregational minister, grandson of preacher Jonathan Edwards, personal friend of American President George Washington, and Army chaplain. He was born in 1752 and began reading the Bible at age four, and secretly learned Latin despite his father’s prohibition. In 1785, he published the 11-volume Conquest of Canaan. In 1787, he received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Princeton University. In 1795, he became president of Yale University (where, like his grandfather Jonathan Edwards, he matriculated at age 13). He helped found the Andover Theological Seminarythe first seminary in New England i n 1809. Dwight died of cancer in 1817 after serving as president of Yale University for 22 years.
This is believed to be the oldest hymn by an American still in use….
I love Thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of Thine abode,
The church our blessed Redeemer saved
With His own precious blood.
I love Thy church, O God.
Her walls before Thee stand,
Dear as the apple of Thine eye,
And written on Thy hand.
If e’er to bless Thy sons
My voice or hands deny,
These hands let useful skills forsake,
This voice in silence die.
Should I with scoffers join
Her altars to abuse?
No! Better far my tongue were dumb,
My hand its skill should lose.
For her my tears shall fall
For her my prayers ascend,
To her my cares and toils be given
Till toils and cares shall end.
Beyond my highest joy
I prize her heavenly ways,
Her sweet communion, solemn vows,
Her hymns of love and praise.
Jesus, Thou Friend divine,
Our Savior and our King,
Thy hand from every snare and foe
Shall great deliverance bring.
Sure as Thy truth shall last,
To Zion shall be given
The brightest glories earth can yield
And brighter bliss of Heaven.