God's Plan...The Church

Before coming here, I served as a youth minister for several years in the southern suburbs of Houston, TX. Toward the beginning of my youth ministry down there, I was preparing for a Fall Retreat that would take place at the beach. However, I needed to find two large beach houses next to each other to rent for the weekend. After doing considerable research on the internet, I narrowed my choices down to two sets of beach houses on the gulf coast – but I decided that I needed to see them in person in order to make my decision. So, I looked at the map on Google to find my way and took off. One thing you need to know about roads in TX – they have a lot of roads titled “F.M. followed by some numbers” The F.M. stands for Farm to Market. The problem is, sometimes those numbers get a bit fuzzy when they are not written down. So, on my way to the beach houses, I took the wrong road and ended up in the completely wrong place. Being male, I refused to stop and ask for directions and drove around until I ran out of road and into the gulf – just a different part of the gulf than I had intended to go to. However, as I was driving along the coast, I noticed a set of three beach houses that looked like they would serve my purpose. I drove up to them, wrote down the information from the rental signs, turned around, went back home and rented the beach houses I found when I was lost.

A lot has been written in recent years that would have us think that the institution of the Church came about in a similar manner. The line of thinking is that God had a plan for his Kingdom, but somewhere along the way those plans were misunderstood or never materialized properly, and what resulted was this thing we call the Church. So, God, instead of flooding the earth and starting over, decided to make the best of a bad situation.

This morning I would like to take a short journey through the book of Ephesians, in which Paul will clearly reveal that the church was not and is not a mistake, but rather that it was God’s plan and intention from the creation of the world. Let’s start in Ephesians chapter 1, vs. 19:

“I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself.”

There is a line in there, I do not want you to miss it, because I believe it is significant and provides the key for understanding the rest of the letter to the Ephesians. Vs. 22-23 “God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things…” That makes sense to us – Jesus Christ, the son of God is exalted and everything is placed under him. This verse supports the current concept of Christ and the Church – the one that says – Jesus: yes; Church: no. But do not miss the reason Paul gives for Jesus’ exaltation: Paul says it is “for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body…” So, are we talking about the local church – like this one here? Or is Paul speaking in broader, more universal terms? The answer to that question is yes. The broader understanding of the church – the “whole” church cannot exist apart from its local context and conversely, the local church must be more than local, but embody the universal purpose for those in Christ – or it cannot be the church. The Church exists only in a church.

The Church exists within the context of relationships. The Church is a vibrant and active fellowship of Christ followers who live out their faith together by submitting first to Christ and then to one another. As a church, we help lift each other’s burdens; we are united in worship to the same LORD and are baptized into the same Spirit. We partake of the same communion and submit to the common discipline. We know each other; help each other; walk together, talk together and in doing so we are church. This relational fellowship is the core of the church and whenever the structure or the institution is identified as the church, a terrible misunderstanding has occurred. We – are the church. Church is one another, and Ephesians will give us three images for the church that will bring greater understanding to this concept.

First, I want us to look at image of the Church as the bride of Christ. In a text most often used for marriage, Paul gives some words concerning the Church as the bride of Christ starting in ch. 5 vs. 25: “For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault. In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church. And we are members of his body. As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.”

The image of Christ and the Church from Ephesians 5 is of husband and wife. In this text, Christ can be seen as a loving and doting husband, who has given his life for his wife – he cares for her, saves her, cleanses her. This image of a loving husband portrays the connection that exists between the Church and Christ – a communion of the two Christ/Church and Husband/Wife becoming one. Christ is seen as the man who leaves his Father to be united with his Bride (the Church) to become one body. What is apparent in the imagery of the Church as the Bride of Christ is that Christ loves the Church. The Church is not some mistake or old, dusty, ritualistic institution – the Church is the Bride that Christ’s heart loves above all.

When Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 at the end of Ephesians 5, he says in vs. 26 “this is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church.” The great mystery is Gen. 2:24 that says “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” Paul’s application of Gen. 2:24 to Christ and the Church makes clear that the two are united as one and so reveals the second image of the Church I want to look at in Ephesians – The Church is the Body of Christ.

The most significant use of the "body" figure in all of Ephesians is in ch. 2:14-18: “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.” The breaking down of “the wall of hostility” and the bringing together of both Jew and Gentile under God “as one body…[through] the cross” has been brought about because the blood of Christ has been offered as the point of reconciliation, and Christ has created in himself one new body – the Church – in place of the two (Jew and Gentile). It is certain that the term “one body” is a term used for the church because Paul goes on later in chapter 2, to call them “saints and members of the household of God” in vs. 19; “a holy temple in the Lord” in vs. 21; and “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” in vs. 22.

Throughout Ephesians, the key component to Paul’s body metaphor is unity. A Christian is united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Because all believers partake of the one loaf of the Lord's Supper, they who are many are united as one body. The many spiritual gifts come from one Spirit and serve the one body. In every usage of the term "body," Paul is emphasizing some kind of unity, wholeness, solidarity, or interrelatedness.

Unity is a vital piece of the puzzle to the final image I want to look at for the Church from Ephesians – the Church is the Family of God.

In two instances, Paul proclaims the Church as the family of God, first in 1:5: “God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.” And again in 2:19: “So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.”

The Family metaphor is important for the function of the Church. As we understand the Church to be the people and the relationship between us, rather than the structure or institution – the image of Family gives insight as to how we are to live together and treat one another. Because we are members, together, of the Family of God – we ought to treat fellow believers in Christ as members of our own family – treating them with love, respect, consideration and care. Why? Because we are family and we stand together through thick and thin.

When relationships are strained in a family, we seek to restore the relationship – because we are family and we are stuck with one another – warts and all. This is true of the Church family as well. If a relationship is strained, family seeks reconciliation. We are a community of reconciliation, a fellowship of those who have entered into a new relationship to God, and thereby, new relationships with one another, through Christ. For this reason, strife, estrangement, and divisions are the most devastating sins imaginable in the Church.

Being a part of the Family of God means to live as part of a family. The Church cannot be treated as a pretty girl or handsome guy to flirt with and see once a month. To follow Christ means being a part of His Church – His Family, and it requires participation in family activities. We have to stop playing at church. We have to stop dating the church and truly fall in love with the Family of God.  We must place the same priority on the Church that Christ does.  When we treat the Church as 2nd rate, we cheapen Christ's love for the Church and his sacrifice for the Church.

In the context of family, people find identity, support, security, comfort, acceptance, expectations, forgiveness and encouragement. The Church, as God’s Family, must be a place where each member of the family finds these things. We are a family that takes its cue from the Head of the House – which is Christ.

What is true in Christ is being realized in his bride, his body, his family – the Church. The Church was not some cosmic mistake, nor is it flawed institution God is making the best of. The whole argument of Ephesians is that all of the divine powers are embodied in Christ; and through Christ those divine powers are to become progressively embodied in the church. And we are the Church. We are the bride that Christ died for, saves, cleanses and makes holy. We are members of his body, and we are children in His Family. Let us live as if the Church is as important to us as it is to Christ.

Today, if you would like to make a commitment to become a part of the Body of Christ and put our Lord on in Baptism, or if you simply need prayers and support from your Church Family, I would invite you to come forward now as we stand and sing.