What’s Church For? Church as Pilgrim People

This week’s image of the church is one you won’t find in so many words anywhere in Scripture, and yet it is implied on virtually every page. The word ‘pilgrim’ and its relative terms do not occur in my NIV version at all. And yet from that fateful moment in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden God’s people have been people on the move. Another landmark of pilgrimage comes in Gen 12 when God tells Abraham to ‘leave’ all that he knows and to ‘go’ to the place yet to be revealed to him. This is the essence of pilgrimage, leaving, journeying and, eventually, arriving. It is interesting that in the Bible arrival is often synonymous with ‘rest’: Hebrews 4 talks about this particularly. So a good definition of church which works well for me is that we are a bunch of people on a journey to the new heavens and earth, and inviting others to join us as we go. As a model of church this one has a lot going for it: it is dynamic, not static; it is purposeful, and it is evangelistically focussed. For those with the right mindset it can be an exciting, exploratory journey, with new possibilities and no opportunity to get bored. Some however find this model a bit exhausting, perhaps those who prefer a holiday lying on the beach in the same place they go every year rather than cruising the Caribbean or climbing Kilimanjaro.

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I can remember years ago hearing a charismatic speaker talking about the frequent accusations of ‘triumphalism’ levelled again the renewal movement. ‘I don’t believe in “triumphalism”’, he commented, ‘but I do believe in triumph!’ Since then my definition of ‘triumphalism’ has been ‘wanting your triumph too early before it’s ready’. I think there is something similar going on in church circles: so often we want our rest too early. Next time I’ll be looking at church as ‘haven’, the idea that church is a safe place amid the storms and ravages of life. By definition pilgrims do not play it safe, do not settle down, do not retrace old ground, but keep moving forward, setting their faces towards the new Jerusalem whatever hardship might await them on the way. Perhaps the greatest definition of a pilgrim lifestyle is that of Paul in Phil 3:12-14:

Not that I have … already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

So what would a ‘pilgrim’ church look like? It would first and foremost be adventurous, never playing it safe. It would be, in the immortal words, ‘purpose-driven’, and it would have about it a sense of wonder and excitement. It would know how to celebrate, not just because of the ultimate destination but also because of the little staging posts safely reached along the way. It would attract younger people and men, and it would be gloriously life-affirming.

Sounds good to me!

OT Lectionary Mar 2nd Lent -1 Ex 24:12-18

So what was he up to for six-and-a-half weeks stuck up a mountain in a cloud? It’s easy to miss biblical timescales, but when you read the text carefully the whole Bible is just full of people hanging around waiting, sometimes for decades (it took 25 years for God’s promise to Abraham to come true). According to the internet (so it must be true then) we spend on average five years of our lives waiting for something or other. For most of us it’s highly frustrating, whether we’re stuck at red traffic lights of waiting for God to answer that prayer we’ve prayed so fervently and urgently.

We tend to think of Lent, which we enter this week, more in terms of giving stuff up than we do of waiting. But in the early church the six weeks before Easter were very much weeks of waiting, in preparation for the great festival of Christ’s resurrection. As well as waiting for the triumphant celebrations of the church, some were waiting for the baptism they had so eagerly sought for such a long time; others were waiting for their restoration into the church community after a period of discipline after a lapse or failure. Moses in today’s passage was waiting for the Law, not so much because it was going to tell everyone what to do from now on, but because it symbolised the covenant relationship which God has with his people Israel. For Moses the receiving of the Law must have been one of the highlights of his entire life, perhaps even eclipsing the dramatic deliverance on the shores of the Red Sea a year earlier.

But meanwhile back at ground level another bunch of people were finding waiting rather more difficult, and so to amuse themselves they got up to all kinds of idolatry and debauchery, inventing for themselves a new god who presumably didn’t mind that sort of thing. So as we approach Lent we have a choice: are we going to spend it up the mountain in the presence of God, or pleasing ourselves at ground level? The latter would of course be the path of least resistance: the former infinitely more rewarding. But to think in terms of Lent as a journey up the mountain into the presence of the Lord can be a very helpful way of seeing it.

Stanege Clouds

First of all it will assume some leaving behind: if you’re going mountaineering you can’t carry that much with you, and on this particular mountain there are no sherpas to help you. You have to travel light. It is also pretty hard work: I’m at the age nowadays where I look in my Peak District walk books for those which don’t involve too much going uphill. Climbing is hard physical effort: it makes us fitter but it can be uncomfortable at the time. It’s also my experience of mountains that they are generally pretty light on Kebab shops or Balti houses, so those kind of home comforts might have to give place to something altogether simpler. But the upside is that I’ll have all the time in the world to think, even to sing, and to wonder at the beautiful vistas which open up as I get higher. Sometimes our mountains are the opposite of Moses’: I remember a beautiful Boxing Day morning looking over Hope Valley from Stanage Edge, and seeing the valleys full of cloud whilst standing above it all in clear sunshine. That really does give you a new perspective. Maybe this journey of waiting isn’t just about the destination: it’s about what we see differently on the way.

Or we could just get ratted?

What ‘s Church for? Church as Bride

Having looked at the Greek and Hebrew words which refer to ‘church’ we move this week to look at another term in common usage: church as the ‘Bride of Christ’. How useful is this in the self-identification of a church community? And how biblical is it actually?

The references (and they are not very explicit) come only in the Gospels and at the end of Revelation. Nowhere is Paul’s clear statement that ‘you are the body of Christ’ made of us as bride. In the Gospels the emphasis is much more on Jesus as the bridegroom: this picks up on much Jewish imagery about the new age of the coming Messiah being described as a wedding. There are two key motifs here: waiting and urgency. ‘Why aren’t your disciples miserable like us?’ ask the Pharisees of Jesus. The answer is that at the moment the bridegroom is here: this is no time for fasting and mourning. But he is about to go, and ultimately come back. In the meantime we wait, but we wait with a sense of urgency, because he might come back literally at any moment, and we need to be ready. This is the thrust of several gospel passages.

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There are two isolated references in the epistles: in 2 Cor 11 Paul fears that the Christians to whom he is writing might have lost the plot. He promised them to Christ as a pure virginal bride, but they have instead ‘committed adultery’ by adopting false doctrine. This picks up an OT prophetic image of false religion as adulterous. And then in Ephesians 5 the point is made that wives are under the authority of their husbands as the church is to Christ. This idea may seem to us as quaint as the idea that brides are virgins, but we’ll tiptoe past that one.

But most of the references are from Revelation, and only really from chapter 19 when the battles have been fought and won, and God’s people are ready to enter the new creation. But if we look carefully the church is never here described as the ‘Bride of Christ’ – that title is reserved for the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. As is his wont John is setting up a contrast between the tarty woman of Rev 17, dressed up to the nines in all her seductive gaudiness, and the pure bride dressed in white linen. The prostitute, we discover, is the archetypal evil city, manifested at different times as Babel, Babylon and now Rome, so her purified counterpart is the new Jerusalem.

What does this mean for a church which thinks of itself as the Bride of Christ? It is both a call and a promise, with a bit of waiting in between. The call is basically to live with purity, not perversion. The promise is of a renewed creation, when all blemishes and wrinkles will be removed. And in the meantime we wait, living faithfully in a love relationship with Jesus.

The Bride is not the predominant model of church, and it certainly isn’t a very blokey one (we’ll be remedying that later in the series). But it does present us with that challenge and that promise. Next time we’ll go for a less sitting-and-waiting model as we consider church as pilgrimage.

OT Lectionary Feb 23 Lent -2 Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

Well, what do we make of this, particularly in the age of Dawkins et al? This chapter-and-a-bit sets out the traditional account of creation, or at least one of them, and it has been the interpretation of this passage which has caused so much argument in the church and so much ridicule outside it. How do we deal with it?

The easy answer is to read the passage not as one telling us how creation happened, which is the view of fundamentalists, both atheist and Christian, but as why it happened. In fact this passage is deeply theological, and more than just a day-by-day account of the creation.

But there is a less noddy way of approaching the creation narratives. In fact they tell us less about how it happened than about the people who told the story. Most cultures have some kind of a creation story, and in fact there are three of them mentioned in the Bible, and a fourth which has come to popularity since. The first is the Babylonian story, about a battle between Marduk, the God, and Tiamat, the sea monster. Tiamat ended up in two pieces, and Marduk made the heavens and the earth, one from each half. This story was told by a warlike people whose gods were always fighting each other, which is presumably why they enjoyed a good bundle so much. This story is alluded to many times in the OT, without them actually believing a word of it, rather as we might use the story of Pandora’s box to make a point without actually saying that we believe it happened.

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Then there is the story in Gen 2, which almost certainly dates from around the time of King David, and which was told by a nation at the top of their game. So the human race were at the peak, with the rest of creation under their domination. It was us who came first, and for whom the rest of creation was given to provide a backdrop. It was us who gave names to the animals, and who are to care for the land.

So to the Genesis 1 story, which probably dates from a much later period, probably during or just after the Babylonian exile. The people now are sadder and wiser. They have a bigger sense of God and a smaller sense of themselves, so they are part afterthought and part crown of creation. But there is also some anti-Babylonian polemic: the word for ‘deep’ in v 2 is the same root as ‘Tiamat’, and like Marduk God separates it to make earth and heaven. ‘It wasn’t your Marduk who cut the sea monster in half’ the Israelites are saying. ‘It was our capital-G God! And by the way, all those stars you worship – he made them too, and the trees and plants: everything, in fact’. This story comes from a people who know their place, but have also learnt God’s place too – supreme over everything.

Understand this and you get a new insight into the fourth creation story: evolution by natural selection. Whether or not it’s true (and personally I have serious doubts, but that’s another blog) it tells us a tremendous amount about the culture which created it: a culture which believes in science as the ultimate answer to every question, an enlightenment worldview where everything is slowly evolving towards perfection, and where information is power. We have unlearnt the lessons of the exile about the supremacy of God, and so we tell a story which doesn’t need him. The question is less about whether the stories are ‘true’ or not,  but about whether the people who told them are right.

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Qahal’

Called together

Last time we looked at the NT word ‘ekklesia’ which we said suggested a bunch of people ‘called out’ from one lifestyle into another, very different one. So it’s only fair that we look at the OT equivalent word. Immediately, of course, we have a problem, since the Christian church doesn’t actually feature in a big way in the Old Testament. But we can do a bit of detective work by using the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek dating from the 2nd century). One word is overwhelming translated into Greek as ‘ekklesia’, the Hebrew word Qahal. Most of our English versions translate Qahal as ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly’, hence its common application to the ‘church’ in the OT. The term ‘Qahal Yahweh’ describes the gathering of the people of God, often for worship and/or instruction.

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But there is a subtle difference between Qahal and ekklesia: while the latter has the sense of referring to a congregation of people who have been called ‘out’, Qahal is much more about being called ‘together’, hence its translation as ‘assembly’. Of course the one implies the other, but in the OT the sense is much more about a gathered assembly. The cognate Arabic word has the meaning of ‘to speak’, so the ‘assembly’ might be people gathered to listen to a sermon or speech. The term ‘Qoheleth’ related closely to Qahal, the name for the ‘Teacher’ of the book of Ecclesiastes (interesting name!) may refer to one who addresses assemblies of people, as a preacher or teacher would. But the unmistakeable sense, which is complementary to that of the NT term, is of a crowd of people who have been called together to assemble. The Christian church could appropriately be described as people who have been called out to be called together.

We noted last week the moral dimension of having been ‘called out’, and the tendency of some Christians to want to keep a foot in both camps, rather than making a clean break with the past behind them and the world around them. But the term Qahal also challenges some contemporary thinking about church. Firstly it makes us think very hard about so-called ‘communities’ where people don’t actually meet. Various attempts at ‘virtual church’ and ‘online church’ have been attempted, but I’m not sure how convinced I am. Of course those much younger than I am would protest that e-communities are every bit as real and valid, and they certainly do have value, as I discovered when I was recovering from serious surgery and felt so encouraged by well-wishers on social media. But can they really replace the face-to-face gathering of people for worship and teaching? Discuss!

Secondly, though, the term challenges, I believe, the growing trend for what Alan Jamieson’s famous book called ‘Churchless Faith’ (2002). I can understand only too well how more and more people find that they have better things to do with their precious lives than to sit in cold and musty buildings singing dreary songs and hymns, listening to irrelevant drivel from the front, and drinking awful coffee. It used to be non-Christians who used to say ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’: now more and more it’s ex-committed churchgoers. It does, of course, behove the Qahal and its Qoheleths to be worth the bother of assembling for, but at the same time I am as concerned as I have ever been about Christians who believe that they can go it alone and still grow and thrive. We need one another, and I believe we need one another face to face.

OT Lectionary 16th Feb Lent -3 Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Choose Life!

‘I chose not to choose life. I chose something else.’ Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton off of Trainspotting deliberately chooses the self-destructive lifestyle of heroin addiction, counting that a better way than middle-class conformity. The choice the Israelites are called to make is even less complex than that. Obey God, and you’ll thrive, oppose him and you’ll be destroyed. Bit of a no-brainer, isn’t it? Yet those who are supposed to be God’s people constantly make bad choices, you and I included. History tells us that rather than enjoying God’s blessing and many more years in the land God had promised and given to them, a land which they were about to enter for the first time, they constantly rebelled against God and were eventually exiled and scattered among the other nations. Still today the ‘land’ is a matter of major international dispute and warfare.

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This stark passage raises two questions worthy of our consideration: the first is ‘Why are we so stupid?’, but the second is deeper: ‘Is it really that clear cut?’

The answer to the first is quite simply that sin is enjoyable. It has to be, or else no-one would bother with it. Right back in Genesis 3 the fruit ‘was good for food and pleasing to the eye’: I guess it would have been much less tempting had it looked and smelt like tripe or mussels or something. When the C of E was revising its Baptism liturgy for Common Worship the original draft of the promises asked:

‘Do you reject the glamour, deceit and corruption of evil?

Do you renounce all proud rebellion against God?’

The text which was finally authorised had lost the words ‘glamour’ and ‘proud’: I consider that this is a tragic weakening of the biblical picture of sin and arrogance, and I still keep them in when I baptise. If we are not interested in something, it will have no power over us, but it is precisely that ‘glamour’ which feels so attractive, although of course there is always a sting in the tail, which is why the word ‘deceit’ is so vital too. It is worth considering which sinful things attract us, and what we might do to see through their deceit, see them as they really are and so find it easier to avoid them. I guess sanctification is a life-long journey of discovery in this area, as sin appeals less and less the more time we’ve spent with God.

But is it really as simple as Deuteronomy makes out? Obviously not, or why the eternal agonised questioning of the human race as to why good people suffer, a debate into which I have myself have dipped my toes? https://revjohnleach.com/category/godingrimtimes-2/ #godingrimtimes.  The fact is that those who honour God often find themselves in deep trouble, whilst those who ignore him appear to prosper. But what the Bible does say, I believe, that to refuse to choose God won’t ultimately get you anywhere. And to those who do choose him, there is the promise of eternal reward eventually. Pie in the sky when you die? Of course! As we said last week, the Bible is unashamed in its promises of reward for God’s faithful people. Our mistake is that we want that reward now, rather than later.

What’s Church For? Church as Ekklesia

We’ve looked at a recent bit of church history through my highly selective and biased eyes, and now we’ve begun to explore some of the biblical pictures with which the church is described. Today I want to look at the predominant NT word, ekklesia the word from which we get terms such as ‘ecclesiastical’ and indeed ‘ecclesiology’ which is what we’re doing right now. What does this word tell us about what Church is for?

Word studies are, of course, highly dangerous. In my Liturgy and Liberty (MARC, 1986) I attempt to use the word ‘green’ to explain to alien readers what the English word really means, which is that it describes jealous, inexperienced and nauseous ETs who live in houses made of glass. We know this is nonsense, but it is no worse than many sermons we’ve all heard which explain what the Greek and Hebrew terms really mean. But I don’t think we’ll be committing hermeneutical murder if we think of the word’s root meaning of ‘calling out’, not in the sense of heckling but of being called to leave one place or lifestyle and go to another. I find it helpful to think of the church as a bunch of people who have heard God’s call to leave and to travel.

This picture has good OT precedent, as far back as Abraham, who was called in Gen 12:1 to ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you’. Since then God’s people have been people on the move, and a static church seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. But there are two different but complementary interpretations of this journey, both of which are important for the Church to take seriously.

The first is more to do with leaving, in the sense of repentance. Again and again the NT calls Christians out of previous lifestyles and standards of behaviour and into something better. Jesus launched himself into ministry in Mk 1:14 with the word ‘Repent!’ and it became a constant refrain of his teaching. ‘Unless you change’, he told his would-be followers, ‘you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. The epistles are full of this stuff, and the most notable example is where the author of Ephesians insists in 4:17 that his readers ‘no longer live as the Gentiles do’, a phrase all the more telling, of course, as those to whom he was writing were Gentiles. So 21st century British disciples must no longer live as 21st century British people do. A church which seems constantly to be accommodating itself to the spirit and the behaviour of the age, in order that it might appeal more to those outside its walls, has lost the plot big-time. The Liberal movement of the last century had this explicit aim, to make the gospel more believable and the church more accessible. I’m not convinced it hasn’t been counter-productive.

 

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But the second application of the meaning of being ‘called out’ has more to do with destination than life-style. In Gen 12 God was highly specific about what Abraham had to leave (his country, his people, his father’s household) but gloriously vague about where he was headed (‘to the land I will show you’). We are not called from sitting in one place to sitting in a different place: we’re called to pilgrimage, journey, uncertainty and insecurity. The call of God to Abraham comes more than once, and the call of God to his church is a constant one. Whenever we think we’ve made it and can settle, that call comes again. All we know is that will be a final destination, and a rest for those who have travelled long and hard. But in the meantime we keep on walking.