October 6, 2019

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity:

(The BCP Readings for today can be found here).

What comes to mind for you when someone begins to speak about the Church? Do you think of a joyous experience of spiritual community? Or are you reminded of the fragmentation and confusion that seem so common in the Christian world? Perhaps both are true for you. They are both certainly true for me.

I think you’ll agree that the collect for Trinity 16 is as relevant and meaningful in our day as it has been in generations past:

O Lord, we beseech thee,
let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church;
and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour,
preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The church visible and the church invisible

Theologians sometimes speak about the “church visible” versus the “Church invisible,” and over the years I’ve found the distinction to be a helpful one. Throughout the world there are both powerful institutions and modest local buildings which bear the name “church.” These are places where believing people worship and work together towards faith-inspired goals. But these tangible realities are not the whole story. They are merely “the church visible.”

The parables that Jesus told about the kingdom of God give us a glimpse of a greater mystery. They tell us that in this world “the wheat and the tares” are hopelessly mixed up (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). That is, those who genuinely belong to God and those who only look the part, mingle together in confusion.

If the church as you’ve experienced it is a mess, there are several reasons to account for it. One is that it is entirely made up of sinners. Another is that some of these folks are what the parable calls “tares” – or less politely put, noxious weeds. The whole truth will only be revealed at the harvest. And it’s not our job to go around pointing out who we think is who, and trying to uproot those weeds. The parable refers to a weed and crop plant which are virtually identical to the naked eye. We’d be likely to make mistakes, to the detriment of the wheat. But though this is a mystery to us, it is no mystery to God.

“When we talk about Church-with-a-capital-C, we’re talking about an invisible reality that transcends time and space and that encompasses all those who truly belong to Jesus.” (“622”, Year 2, Lesson 23)

So be encouraged. Though the church visible may disappoint you, there is something greater to which you belong.

The love of the bridegroom

The New Testament is filled with poetic imagery describing the Church, but one of the most evocative is that of the bride of Christ.

Now, the epistle reading for Trinity 16 is taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and it includes this prayer for the Church:

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19 NIV)

But the letter to the Ephesians goes on to say this:

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27 ESV)

The Church, the beloved of Christ, is precious to him. If we find ourselves longing for the Church to be holy and strong and faithful, we know that our longing is but a pale reflection of Christ’s own. But our Lord has sacrificed more than we can fully understand, and continues to be actively at work to bring this about.

With him, all things are possible

The Gospel reading for Trinity 16 is the story of Jesus raising a dead man to life. Though this is a narrative and not an allegory, it invites us to consider the fact that nothing is beyond our Lord. If he could raise a dead man, he can certainly revive and restore a messed-up Church.

Listen to what the Gospel reading tell us about how Jesus regards the widow-mother whose son had just died: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not” (BCP Luke 7:13).

You and I may well look at the state of the church with sorrow. But after we have remembered that the Lord loves his Church more than we do, we must also remember that with him all things are possible.

Keep calm and carry on

Where does this leave us? Well, it leaves us holding onto the fact that God is in control and we’ve got a job to do. So, as the famous phrase says, “Keep calm and carry on.” Or perhaps a better phrasing for us would be, “Trust the Lord and serve with a whole heart.” He has given us the privilege of participating in, building up, and praying for his Church.

So, let’s set aside our hand-wringing, but commit to faithfulness in bringing before our Lord his beloved Church:

O Lord, we beseech thee,
let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church;
and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour,
preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

“Jesus the Bridegroom:
The Greatest Love Story Ever Told”
by Brant Pitre


October 6, 2019

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