By Paul Koch –
Without a doubt, churches are strange and beautiful things. They come in all shapes and sizes; they reflect the vast differences of our culture and the preferences of certain subgroups within it. They can fill stadiums on a Sunday morning and, at times, simply be found in the living room in someone’s home. Sometimes their worship service is akin to a rock concert with stage lighting and all the special effects to make sure that you are moved. Other times they are stripped of all adornment with no musical accompaniment at all, striving to make sure that God alone receives praise and adoration. Churches can have well defined governance structures or loosely formed affiliations that bind them together. And in between each extreme there are an infinite number of variations made up of ancient traditions, local customs and personal preferences.
And yet with all the differences, all the options available to us on this great smorgasbord of American Christianity, there is something that we all have in common; something that all churches have lurking in their midst, whether it is overt or hidden, whether it is systematized and embraced or shoved in the back corner where everyone pretends that it doesn’t exist. All those who gather in a church have a desire to move closer to God. People come to church because they are seeking something more: more meaning to their daily living, more assurance that they are not alone, and more confidence about the future. They long for comfort and confidence that they are not alone or abandoned by God. So they gather to do what they can to get closer, to draw near to God. And each church on the landscape offers its own understanding on how to best do that.
In fact this commonality is not new or particular to the current experience of the faith, it has always been there: it accompanied the missionary zeal of first settlers in America, it laid at the heart of the Reformation struggles, and it was the constant concern of St. Paul as he wrote his letters to the young churches that he had helped establish. In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus we find him addressing man’s desire to move closer to God. Instead of dealing with the differences between Lutherans and Baptists or contemporary worship and traditional, Paul is addressing the Gentile and Jewish believers.
You may think that we have division today; just imagine the divisions between those who stood in the lineage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob against those who just came over from their pagan temples of worship. Gentiles came without any of the marks of the faith, without any of the traditions or understanding of Jewish history. The center of their problem was that they each group had their own way of striving to move closer to God. They each knew full well of their sinfulness, of their need for improvement, and each felt the longing desire to be faithful and to do it right. But, they went about it in different ways.
The descendants of Israel knew they were God’s people. They knew that they were chosen by God and they had His Law as a standard of their faithfulness, a Law that would aid them to remain part of his church and endure till the end. On the other hand, the Gentiles came from their houses of worship with their understanding of moving closer to God through their ritual practices and quests for knowledge. One group would fight to hold fast to the ancient traditions, for in them they knew they would remain in the household of faith. The other group was just trying to get in the door, but their efforts would look strangely different from the Israelites.
And this desire to move toward God lingers in our midst today. One church embraces deeply rooted traditions. Traditions are good: they attach us to the ancient church of God, they keep us from wandering too far from the faith that has been handed down to us by the blood of the martyrs. And yet, even our good traditions can become tools that we believe we can use to gain access to God. Another church can hold out the hope that the attainment of happiness is the way to be close to God. Surely, if you are not suffering, if you are not in fear and agony in your life then you are on the right path, and thus drawing near to God.
So, one group will present a list of ordinances that must be kept if you are to draw near to God. The other group will guide you with a list of steps that need to be taken if we are to remove doubt and fear form our lives for assurance that you are near to Him. One may focus on our knowledge and good deeds, the other on our emotions and mental wellbeing. One may hold firm to old customs, while the other seeks to be more relevant and impactful. And we choose sides; we believe that one path is better than the other. We, too, long for assurance: long for happiness, long for a sense of purpose to our actions. Once we have made our choice we find it easy to belittle any other choice, any other way of drawing near to God. Through our chosen way we establish a law for our future work. But this law doesn’t bring unity or hope and confidence, it brings fear.
How many within the church are afraid to speak their mind, afraid to be wrong, afraid to confess that in fact they are confused and worried and doubtful?
And to it all: to our argument about how we draw near to our God, to the arguments made by the Gentiles of antiquity, to those of the ancient people of God, St. Paul pulls the rug out from beneath us all. He declares, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace… abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” (Eph. 2:13-15) Paul laughs at our desire to draw near to God; he sees it for what it is, for he has been down that road himself. He sees our desire as nothing short of idolatry. We want to trust in our form of worship or our traditions or our pursuit of happiness but there is only one thing in which we can trust. The only means by which we are drawn near to God is the blood of Christ alone!
True unity is not found in our work or the schemes of mankind, no matter how ancient they are. Unity is found in the blood of the one who has gathered us together. For it is His blood, alone, that draws you near to your Father in heaven. Paul says that because of this blood, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, I whom the whole structure is being joined together, grows in to a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:19-21)
Look around my friends. Really, look around! Look at the wonderful thing He is doing in our midst. He is doing it despite our love of the Law, despite our desire to make rules and ordinances. He is here in our midst building His house. He, himself, is the cornerstone of our gathering; He, himself, is our hope and life. Not the traditions, not the emotions, not the knowledge and morality of our gathering, but Christ alone is our heart and soul. And where He is, there is unity: unity in His blood, unity not in rules but in forgiveness. For where His blood rests there is life and hope and freedom. You, then, are free this day. You are given hope today. You are promised life in Christ alone.