A sermon by Harry Goodhew
Have you ever had the experience of reading or seeing something you’ve seen a hundred times before but suddenly it catches your attention with something fresh and revealing?
It happened to me just recently.
I was reading the opening verses of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the bit called the Introduction or Greeting. Such sections can be something you skip over, keen to get on to the substance of what the great Apostle has to say. I tend to do that with other books.
Nevertheless, I must have read Paul’s initial greeting a hundred times in the course of a life-time. But on this occasion, four little the words within it suddenly gripped my attention: “the ekklesia of God”, “God’s assembly”, “the people God has called to Himself”, “the church of God”, there in the city of Corinth.
“The church of God” – now that is really something worth thinking about for a few minutes.
As I read the words “the church of God” over to myself a picture sprang to mind. It was a picture of the people with whom my wife and I worship on a Sunday morning.
There are about a hundred or so of us. There are older couples like us. There are unmarried and no-longer-married people both men and women, there are young parents with small children. Some people are working, others retired. Some are healthy, others are coping with serious illnesses in themselves or their spouse and others are simply coping with the complications associated with ageing. You would righty say, “an ordinary group of people”. That would be true, but not the whole truth.
A description of that gathered company would be, in Paul’s language, “the Church of God in this place”.
The ‘ordinariness’ of all of us gathering around the Lord’s Table is plain – we are just that, ‘ordinary people’ but we have an extraordinary designation, an extraordinary character, we are, by the grace of God, “the Church of God” in this place.
What is true of us is; of course, true of all whom, again using Paul’s words, “in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ both their Lord and ours”. It includes those who by reason of age or illness can no longer join with their fellow believers.
The wonder, and the proper sense of joy and pleasure, associated with this designation “the church of God”, is not something we should ever overlook or treat casually.
In the first place, the Church of God has a long and oftentimes tortuous history behind it. Its origins lie in the earliest history of the Bible. As God gathered a people in Abraham, delivered them from Egypt, dealt graciously but firmly with them at Sinai and in the wilderness (where Stephen calls them the “church in the wilderness”), then placed them in their own land. After almost a thousand years they were exiled to Babylon and finally returned only to suffer further under foreign domination.
Then came the crucial moment when God came back to his people entering his chosen City riding upon a donkey as Israel’s King. The King of Israel was crucified and buried but on the third day God raised him from the dead. In the power of his risen and ascended life as King of all creation he sent his Spirit upon the infant church gathered in Jerusalem with the commission to witness to him in all the world.
Beyond that, for two thousand years, and now virtually in every nation on earth, the church of God gathers around its Lord in the life which his Spirit gives.
That is no mean history. As I look at my friends on a Sunday morning I want to celebrate the grace of God in that long, yet unfinished story, and say to myself, “these are not ordinary people”.
There is yet another obvious but important element to be observed in Paul’s Introduction. He says that the men and women in Corinth who call on the Name of Christ are God’s church in that city.
The fact is, that every church has a place name; Sydney, Hong Kong, Belfast, Timbuktu. The place name recognises that God calls his people in real time and in real places. Along with that comes the recognition that in each location and at every time in which the church is present, there are particular circumstances in which church members need to learn to live as the people of God.
Roman Corinth when Paul wrote was a bustling commercial centre. It had more than an average share of people making money and experiencing the flush that comes with newly acquired wealth. There were people who, for their support, dispensed philosophy in the public square and others who sought recognition by benefactions to the life of the City and its people and were not beyond boasting about their generous actions. There was an array of religious cults and practices shipped in from various parts of the world as well as from Rome itself. Nor did it lack for those who offered satisfaction for the sexual needs of both travellers and residents.
Not all who had been baptised into Christ had fully escaped the influences of the city in which they lived. As a consequence they were not always moral, often seriously divided, and, in some cases, still involved in the life of the local pagan temples. Some maintained an antipathy to Paul for what they saw as his unwillingness to speak and behave like the admired speakers and teachers who visited or resided in Corinth.
We are all saved out of some situation for the purpose of becoming something different, namely God’s people where we are. It is hard to discern just how much the culture in which we live as the people of God shapes our values and aspirations and our daily behaviour.
Throughout this first letter of his, in his second one, by the visits he paid to the City, and in the additional letters he wrote copies of which have not survived, he was striving to bring the light of God’s Word to the life of this young church so it would look more and more like the Master who was their Saviour.
Paul did not approve of their less than truly Christian thinking and behaviour but he did not abandon them; he prayed and pleaded for their repentance and obedience that they might truly be the people of God in Corinth. He wanted them to be what they had been called to be; “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation”, as he said to the Christian in Philippi.
Now you and I live where and when we live. How do we rise above the unhelpful influences of our own place and time and live in a way that pleases God? How do we function as the church of God when we live amongst “kingdoms” that are not the kingdom of God
The pastor/scholar Eugene Peterson, in his reflections on chapters 12-14 of the Bible’s last book, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, discerns three activities that were offered to the churches for which John had pastoral responsibility.
The first is worship. Peterson writes: “Worship is our response to the Lamb’s action among us, the action that redeems us from our plight. Our voices are augmented into song as we join creation’s praise of the creator, Israel’s thanks for salvation. Worship is the act in which our misunderstood and misspoken words are corrected and arranged into an expression of the whole truth of ourselves and our God; it is the act in which we find our fragmented lives corrected and arranged in a whole and perfect offering to God – by the action of the Lamb, we become” spotless””.
The second is preaching. Again he says: “Preaching is the act in which the word of God is proclaimed in awe and adoration among those who worship … it is the discourse by which guidance is given for holy living. This many-dimensioned, world-making, salvation-shaping, reality-orienting word of God is always under threat of being silenced or muffled. It is silenced by closing the book in which it is written. It is silenced by the sound and fury of the daily traffic. It is silenced by the buzzing of ambition and covetousness in our own brains. Preaching gives the silenced word sound again ..,”
The third is Holy Living. He writes: Holy living is the action by which we express in our behaviour and speech the love and presence of our Christ. Holy living is posited on the conviction that everything we do, no matter what we do, however common and little noticed our lives, is connected with the action of God and is seed that becomes either a harvest of holiness or a vintage of wrath.
He sees John’s churches set between the ‘politics of the Lamb’ and the ‘politics of the dragon’ as those figures appear in John’s visions. There is a way that God functions, and there is the way the world functions under the influence of the dragon.
Challengingly Peterson says: “The parish is the microcosm of this conflict. Politics is the management of power, whether in marriage and family, business and trade, congregation and committee, legislature and convention, school classroom and executive boardroom. We are in politics whether we want to be or not, whether anybody votes for us or not. It is essential that we discern the lines of influence as we practice politics in these shifting forums”
As the ‘church of God’ wherever we are we have been called to be; “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation”. In Peterson’s application of the figures appearing in Revelation, we are called in every life situation to practice the ‘politics of the Lamb’ and not those of the dragon.