A sermon by Margaret Hall
Allegations of sexual abuse and of attempts made to hide it raise many questions about the kind of society we live in. Naturally the victims of such abuse are profoundly affected. For society as a whole, the allegations are unsettling, to say the least. For the many thousands of people across Sydney preparing, as I speak, to go to church today, it’s very disturbing that among the alleged abusers are people in positions of leadership in churches. Some of their leaders are suspected of ignoring the allegations.
One very angry woman I saw on television claimed that such abuse had been going on in the church for centuries. It’s impossible to substantiate such a claim, even though, given the age-old sinfulness of the human heart, we might guess it could be so. But that someone finds it feasible to make that claim indicates the degree of feeling this issue rightly arouses.
So how are we to think about the church – about what it’s done and not done, and about what it’s supposed to do?
The apostle Paul called the church ‘God’s household,’ in a letter he wrote to Timothy telling him how to care for the church in Ephesus, which Paul had put him in charge of.
‘Household’ implies family – God’s family being everyone who, in Jesus’ words, has been spiritually reborn. Spiritual rebirth is what happens when we turn away from living for ourselves, ask for God’s forgiveness and receive the gift of his Holy Spirit. God gives both to everyone who trusts in Jesus, as the one God sent to deal on our behalf with the sin and suffering and death we’re all subject to.
As members of God’s family, Christians are meant to bring honour to the family name.
I remember the time when the teenage daughter of a Tanzanian bishop was behaving in a way her father found unacceptable. She made some remark about being old enough to do what she liked, and he said, “You can’t do whatever you like, because you bear my name.” That’s not quite our kid-glove approach to bringing up children, but it was a very good point to make. The members of God’s family can’t do whatever they like, because they have been given the supreme honour of bearing the name of the Christ. They have been entrusted with his reputation.
Paul goes on to describe God’s family – the church – as ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’ – the truth being the truth about God as Jesus revealed it. That calls to mind another building-type image Paul used, when he said Christians are God’s Temple, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The original Temple Solomon built in Jerusalem was meant to convey the truth about God – to be a glorious reminder of his presence – his holiness and mercy. On the day it was opened a cloud filled it, as the sign God was present with his people.
But isn’t it a bit upside down to say that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth? Is Paul saying the truth is founded on the church? Surely the church was founded on the truth – since the church came into existence only after people believed the truth Jesus had made known.
We take it Paul’s saying the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, because it’s meant to uphold the truth. As Christ’s body on earth, Christians are to embody his truth – to reveal it in the way they conduct themselves – as individuals, and together. They are to live as Christ lived. That’s an impossible task, made possible by God giving his Holy Spirit to everyone who truly believes in Jesus. The Holy Spirit unites us in a community that spans the world – the earthly branch of the great gathering already in heaven.
The church is also to uphold the truth by passing it on intact – to its own generation, and the generations that follow. In the beginning, all that is exactly what Christians did.
The people who were convinced Jesus was the true King, through whom they became members of God’s family, rapidly grew into a community. They met together from the day the Holy Spirit came, as Jesus had promised he would. They’d gather every day in Solomon’s Colonnade, among the pillars of the Temple in Jerusalem. Luke described their meetings:
[The believers] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to prayer. …. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as they had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the Temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Everyone who believed in Jesus drank in what he’d taught his disciples; they loved being together; they broke bread to remember his death; they prayed – and people watching and listening were drawn to them. They weren’t able to sustain the system of regarding their possessions as belonging to everyone and not just to individuals – and we don’t do that either. But we know from all Jesus’ teaching about money and greed that we’re not to cling on to everything we can get – that we’re to share it, to give it away, to celebrate God’s generosity to us by being generous to others. To live that way is attractive, in a society where we’re almost encouraged to keep getting more for ourselves. It shines light on the One who gave his whole self, as he bore for us the separation from God we’ve brought about.
If we compare the church in our day with that first community of Christians, we may feel disheartened, particularly if we think of it in terms of its leaders now under investigation. But of course for Paul the church wasn’t a hierarchy of priests, or an institution – certainly not an actual building. None of those things existed in his day. For Paul the church was the body of people committed to following Jesus as their Saviour and only Lord – Christ’s body – Christ’s hands serving the world, Christ’s voice speaking the truth he spoke.
But even by that definition, is the church really ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’? It’s often portrayed, especially by media in the western world, as a spent force, well past its use-by date. Sometimes the media are seen to be the pillar and foundation of the truth – and they are influential in shaping how people think.
What claim can the church lay to be ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’? How can such a collection of frail and fallible creatures conduct itself in a way that reveals what Jesus revealed of God’s character?
Tragically, there are those who’ve used the name of Christ, and the institutional church, as a cover for the evil they do. There are those who’ve thought they could preserve the church’s reputation by trying to conceal the evil. The bad things people do in the name of Christ, along with the church’s blunders, are the risk God took, when he paid the human race the ultimate compliment of leaving his reputation in human hands.
Christ himself was unsparing in denouncing powerful people, who claimed to be on God’s side, but were on about themselves – who used the power they had to serve themselves. Ultimately, he will consign to the end they deserve everyone who’s harmed, in whatever way, people God loves. He will execute his judgement on everyone who’s besmirched the name above all names, so that the great good done in Christ’s name goes unacknowledged.
Because of course the risen Christ has been seen through the community we call the church. Whatever its mistakes, it’s still upheld the truth. For example, the church was the first community we know of to successfully demonstrate the truth that all people are to be treated as equal. People like Onesimo, the runaway slave, were valued as much as his owner, Philemon. For all our human weakness, that kind of thing still works. In churches round the world today, you’ll find people of different races and social classes, men and women, sitting together, praying together, side by side at the communion rail.
Christians were the first to set up places to look after the suffering – the first hospitals were run by monks in monasteries. Universities followed. Originally set up to train the clergy, for centuries their main area of study was God. The first scientists they produced attributed to God the order they observed in the natural world, as many scientists still do. The public school system, as opposed to schools you pay for, had its beginning in Sunday Schools, set up by Christians to teach children to read and write, on the only day they weren’t in the mines or factories.
It was Christians who agitated for the abolition of child labour, and who spread concern for the needy across the world. For instance, the first, and for many years the only, hospitals and schools in the third world were built by Christian missionaries.
God’s power can be seen even more clearly through our weakness and apparent defeat. From the very first, the church was persecuted for what it believed, and today it’s more persecuted than ever – in unsubtle ways like the bombing of church buildings and the killing of church leaders, and in subtle ways like portraying Christians as weird or deluded. Happily, many Christians don’t fight back, and the church continues to outlive every power that’s tried to destroy it.
The alternative to being in Christ’s body, the church, is getting along without him. The Soviet Union was a classic example of a society that tried that. Karl Marx said, “Christianity will disappear. The emergence of the New Socialist Man will make such quaint beliefs obsolete.” What emerged was Stalin, whose brutal reign caused the deaths of thirty million people. Christianity has now re-emerged in Russia.
This is how the church is described in a book called Wheat That Springs Green: “The church is a big old ship. She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up. But she gets where she’s going. Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.”
God of all grace, thank you for forming through Jesus an ongoing community of forgiven sinners. By the power of your Spirit, cleanse your church, that it might truly be the pillar and foundation of the truth. Amen.