“Redemption stories sing…”
Sometime during my childhood I read a novel about a boy who survived as a pickpocket on the streets of London. He is adopted by a new family. He is bathed—his first bath. The account of this bath has always stuck with me. His clothing has never been removed—a wad of items worn web thin, layered like a decrepit pass the parcel. Trousers are pulled back like slices of ham. A colony of fleas requires massacring. And his skin, blackened by waste and imprinted like linen, is mistaken for cloth and attempt made to remove it. He is put in a tub and scrubbed of dirt for hours. Underneath—a child! Redemption stories sing so sweetly to our hearts, perhaps they are like comfort food, soothing our new creation homesickness.
John Hudson was one of the youngest convicts on the First Fleet. An orphan and a chimney sweep, he was nine when sentenced to transportation for a minor theft. No one spoke for him at his trial. A decade later, records from Norfolk Island state he received fifty lashes for breaking curfew. Then he disappears from history. Who was John Hudson? He was judged a public danger, vermin to be rid from London’s streets. But surely he was just an unloved child in a dark world trying his best to live. If offered adoption rather than incarceration, would he have grasped it with two hands or sunk back into his miserable past?
“A public danger…”
A recent Ipsos poll has suggested that 63% of Australians agree that “religion does more harm than good in the world.” These findings ring true with a shift in culture being noted in the West. Respect for Christianity’s heritage, rituals, institutions, and morality is falling from public grace. The church now finds itself typecast as a villain not a saint, no longer a vessel of God’s light and blessing, but a depository of lack and a perpetrator of pain.
Have you felt this weight? When a sentence begins ‘The church…’ in mainstream media, reason would presume good news to follow. Instead we expect horror stories, such as the church covering up sexual abuse, or the church’s complicity in domestic violence and toxic masculinity. Or perhaps you have watched aghast as church representatives flexed their muscles to support political causes you find counter-gospel, or remained silent and inactive when faced with great injustice. And add to this the vast and varied accusations that spill from our mouths when we are grumbling about our churches within our close circles—our church is woeful at welcoming new people, our church has no women on staff, our church cares not for mission. And the preaching, the music, the morning tea, the new chairs, the allocation of funds—all deficient. We’ve all said too much and heard everything.
And at a deeper level brews our own wounds. The church who body shamed us as young girls rather than teach their men not to objectify women, the church who didn’t visit when we were sick, the church who treated our depression as a failure of faith, the church who refused to see us as they had no box our shape, the church that mismanaged or embezzled our tithe, the church who deemed us broken beyond redemption, the church who took our gifts and burnt us down to a crumbling wick before tossing us in the bin. The church, the church…
It is any surprise that in the comments section of any news articles and social media post in which the church is under fire is an outpouring of people proclaiming from places of deep pain—this is why I left the church… this is why I walked away… I love Jesus but church is not for me. And how could anyone stay? Are you starting to despair at this? Are you standing amongst the rot and ruin wondering why you are still here? The church in such garb is at best a dinosaur to be hurried to extinction, and at worst a beast in need of lynching.
Is the church a public danger? Has the moment come to cut and run from these broken gatherings, let them disintegrate into relics of the past, and pursue our love of Jesus within the privacy of our own hearts, uncorrupted by organised religion? Do you feel like you are halted wounded and exhausted at a junction in your faith and this is the path that calls?
If this is you, I ache to give you a Disney moment, the one where the protagonist is about to abandon their quest, until someone sings of their true identity and intrinsic worth—think Moana and the spirit of Gramma Tala singing ‘I Am Moana” or Moana singing “Know Who You Are” to Te Fiti—except I can’t sing to save myself or muster up magic happenings. But can I sit with you awhile and remind you of a few eternal truths? The baby isn’t the blackened bathwater. And you, you are glorious beyond all comprehension.
“Know who you are…”
Who is the church? The word originates from the Greek kuriakos, ‘belonging to the Lord’ yet we use ‘church’ in our English translations of the Bible to substitute for the Greek ekklesia, an assembly of people called out for a purpose. ‘On this rock I will build my ekklesian,’ Jesus says to Peter. In Revelation, Jesus speaks to the ekklesias in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia. Paul writes to ‘the ekklesia of God which is in Corinth’ yet also uses the word broadly to describe all God’s people, calling Jesus “the head over everything for the ekklesia, which is his body.” Who is the church? Jesus followers are the church—those who say yes to Jesus as king and so are given justification, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. The church is the community of God’s kingdom, a resurrected, spirit-filled people called to be a glowing, growing, outpost of the promised new creation.
And this came as great surprise to God’s people who had long awaited the coming of the Messiah who would restore God’s kingdom, that this didn’t mean a physical rebuilding of old Israel, but a spiritual rebirthing, a stepping inside the Messiah to share in his death (he takes our sin) and so sharing in his resurrection to new life (we take his righteousness).
“Inside the Messiah…”
When God wants to teach something so glory swaddled that it will always remain in part unfathomable to us mortals, he often gives us several images to hold at once, accentuating different parts of a big truth. God’s people are described through many different images, including the body, the temple, the lost son found, and the orphan child adopted.
The church is Christ’s body. This is more than a metaphor, but a multilayered spiritual reality. The church is inside Jesus and his Spirit dwells inside the church. This blends into the image of Jesus as the new temple, the place where God meets his people, the holy-of-holies opened up to all who welcome Jesus as saviour and king. And as we step inside Jesus he steps inside us. God’s people become temples of his Spirit, and not millions of independent temples, but each given gifts which shape us into vital body parts in local gatherings, so we can fill each other and the world with God’s light, and all join in the global body in which everything God lovingly desires for his world is in the process of being birthed, or, in other words, through us God’s kingdom is unfolding and the new creation breaking forth.
The church is not our enemy, it is God’s chosen dwelling place, and it is our flesh. Yes, bodies get sick and need doctoring, and temple courts fill with money sellers that need turning out, but while God’s people grapple with sin and the constant need for reformation, our spiritual reality as Jesus’ body and temple cannot change, because Jesus cannot change.
The church is the prodigal son. We wanted God’s blessings but we did not want God. We told this to his face. We left. We came back, filth covered and desperate to taste again but a scrap of love. God ran the road in tears and welcomed us back with open arms. Yes, the church is a stinking mess, but God hold us in our brokenness, a father holding his child.
The church is an orphan child — redeemed from slavery at great cost, adopted, scrubbed clean, reclothed, loved beyond measure, given an inheritance, given a forever home. Yes, we will need more than one bath, but our status as sons and daughters remains unchanged.
Who is the church to our triune God—his body, his dwelling place, his child. How can a Christ-follower forsake church? It is intrinsically impossible. The church is not our salvation, Christ is, but church is what we are once saved. To be saved is to be church. Church is us and God in restored relationship and all this manifests. Church is the playing-field where God and humanity meet. Church is where once again we begin to walk with God.
“We walk with God...”
This walk is a personal — the Spirit renewing our hearts to match Christ’s and moving our hands to his eternal purposes. It is congregational — us participating in a gathering of believers who know and love each other as kin, seeing God’s Spirit at work in them, infusing them with our gifts, being filled by theirs, and together witnessing God to the world. It is global — us in mysterious oneness with all God’s people, the kingdom of God in glorious whole, already united in spirit and already worshiping God in the heavenly realm. Personal, congregational, global—these dimensions are interwoven, and there is no one-size-fits-all for how God has designed each of us live our resurrection within them, yet none can be subtracted; each must be somehow embraced if we are to be who we are.
“Live our resurrection…”
Is it not church congregational that causes us the most headache and heartache? We have assembled so many frameworks to help make these gatherings fruitful — buildings, institutions, systems of governance, liturgy, statements of faith, programs — a jumble of brilliance, beauty, banality, misguided befuddlement, and noxious contamination. Is this not what we should expect? God’s people are sinners who will keep sinning. Although Christ guarantees the war is won, a battle still continues between the Spirit in our hearts and the zombie of our former selves. We return to sleeping with the pigs, we put back on our old clothes — we come home and are rewashed again and again. Our adoption in Christ was a onetime event, but our growth as child made in his image is ongoing, and part of this growth is a commitment to diagnosing and treating the sin that infects us. Dirt will need washing, wounds tending, parasites irradiating, tumours removing. Yet incredibly, despite our grubbiness, through us God is seeding the new creation. We are the resistance. We live with our hearts set on the world as it should be not as it is. And somehow congregations of ordinary, awkward, messed-up people are the soil which God has filled with the nutrients we need to together grow this impossible fruit. As Eugene Peterson reminds us “Church as the body of Christ is not obvious. But neither is Jesus as saviour of the world obvious.”
“Despite our grubbiness…”
Our structures, leadership, and people, cannot be perfect but they should be ever reforming to image Christ. Participating in church congregationally under a denominational hat is to acknowledge that its heritage and structures provide countless good, such as ensuring our pastors are theologically educated, accountable, and paid. It isn’t a passive event where we slot wordlessly into a system. It isn’t to agree mindlessly to all their actions. At times we may need to leave a toxic gathering or reject harmful leadership, but not with mind to forsake church, but to seek out a community who are leaning in to the tug of the Spirit. And we may be called to pursue justice for hurt done by people wearing Christ’s name. For as God calls out to his rebellious people in Isaiah, “Wash and make yourself clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plea the cause of the widow.”
You may have heard the Polish proverb ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’. Unfortunately to be part of the people of God is to embrace the opposite. To start a sentence with “The church…” and end it with criticism is to wear its weight. Let’s make a habit of making our next words “So I will…” as we consider how to change ourselves or shape the culture of our gatherings to image Jesus Christ. This nearly always involves a movement towards the mess, not away. (This is not true for situations of abuse; victims should be supported to flee harm and seek help. No one should be expected to reform their abuser; we are a body, others can act here).
Paul’s letters are evidence that false teachers, toxic people, and toxic cultures are age old companions to church life. We need to have open eyes in this regard, but also never lose sight of ourselves as one of God’s gathered people, a remade vessel of God’s light but also a broken child tucked safe in the healing arms of our father God. And be held.
Redemption stories play music to our heart because our aching holes are Jesus shaped. Redemption through Jesus is our journey, our purpose, our identity. The church is not our enemy. It is God’s temple on earth. It is the field in which our restored connection to God is to be lived this side of the final new creation. It is Christ’s body. It is you. It is us.
Moana’s journey does not end when she embraces who she is, it begins. So does ours. Let the Bible be our map and guidebook. Let our congregations be our faithful tribe battling with us against the dark. Our mission—resurrect the world. And Jesus has our heart.
Source material: Bible verses come from Matthew 16:18, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:22-23, and Isaiah 1:17, New International Version. Information on John Hudson is sourced from https://firstfleetfellowship.org.au/convicts/john-hudson/. The Ipsos poll can be found at https://www.ipsos.com/en/global-study-shows-half-think-religion-does-more-harm-good.
* If a congregation of God’s people has hurt you in the past, yet you desire to seek out a gathered tribe, Sarah Bessey writes beautifully about her own experience of returning to church, and being church. http://sarahbessey.com/in-which-god-has-restored-church-to-me/, http://sarahbessey.com/happy-clappy/, http://sarahbessey.com/story-all-of-us/
* I have spotlighted God’s people at their worst in this article; this is of course a narrowed view. God’s people across the globe are up to their elbows in the work of spreading God’s light and love in a myriad of wondrous ways. From parents engaged in the relentless work of loving their children, to those pushing against godless culture within their workplaces, to missionaries in the worst of slums—all is glory work. And it won’t be of interest to the press, unlike our mistakes. But Jesus told us to expect this irrational bias. Recently I’ve noticed a fair bit of doomsday talk in Christian circles concerning the church shifting to the fringes of society, but while we should be aware of this shift and savvy in response, need we be panic merchants? This gives no witness to God’s power. Thankfully I have also heard voices giving gentle reminder that the church sprouted in the fringes, yet filled the globe. Historically when the church is centred with the dominant culture and power, our light tends to be diluted and dulled by the very world it is meant to contrast and draw people out of. Being affirmed by society is not our power or our mission; we are called to shine God into the dark.
*“there is no one-size-fits-all for how God has designed each of us live our resurrection” This is true for us all, but I said this particularly for my beautiful friends with chronic illness who cannot make it to their congregations every week or commit to ‘ministry’ as we narrowly understand it. Yet they shine Jesus so brightly to those around them through their magnificent witness of love and enduring faith. Let us be mindful of how we can bring the wonder of gathered church to those that for difficult circumstances gathering is hard. Hannah Boland has written an excellent article on seeing and supporting those with chronic illness: http://www.fixinghereyes.org/single-post/2017/05/11/Invisible-Illness-and-The-Church-%E2%80%93-What-Lies-Beneath .
*If you are to read one book in aid of rekindling your love for the gathered church, I cannot recommend enough Eugene Peterson’s ‘Practice Resurrection’. My image of the church as the soil we are planted in to grow is pilfered from his words “This is the holy soil in which we have been planted, the conditions that make is possible for us to grow up in Christ, to become mature, “healthy in God, robust in love.”” It is a wonderful book. Do read it!
Hello, I’m Laura Tharion, and I am passionate about spreading the joy and wonder to be found in living a resurrected life inside Jesus Christ. I enjoy tea, cake, history, hammocks, wild bushland, gardening, reading, and gifting my favourite books into the hands of others. I had the pleasure of studying at Sydney Missionary and Bible College before my three lovely little boys arrived to fill my days. Here I picked up the pet soap-boxes of mission advocacy and teaching the Bible as one unified story. I have a heart to write—sermons, studies, articles, meditations, poetry, and epic novels, all which aim to explore theology and encourage everyone to fully realise all they have been given and commissioned in Christ. I can be found writing at lauratharion.com or Facebook