Today, is national “Back to Church Sunday.” This is the Sunday in which the most summer routines have been completed, school routines have been started, and church comes back in play for many people. I thought as we came to this date, it would be profitable for us if we spent a few weeks together exploring the significance of Christ’s church. What did Christ mean when he established church? Why does church exist? What does God expectation for His Church and, more specifically, for this church?
To start us off, I want to frame our conversation about church in the Biblical terms. To do, I ask that bear with me as I share with you some work I did in seminary on the topic of pre-marital counseling.
While in seminary, I took pastoral counseling class that included a study of marital counseling. We had a final project in that course of presenting a research paper and accompanying set of slides detailing the topics and content of a premarital counseling plan. I decided at that time to provide counseling to prospective marital candidates on five topics all beginning with the letter “C.” The topics were Commitment, Communication, Conflict Resolution, Children, and Church. I would later add a six topic, Cake, after witnessing some painful moments of new husband’s smashing cake into the face of their wife at the reception. I really dislike that practice.
I chose the original five topics because they seemed most important to the marriage setting. Marriage has been and remains the foundational of human society. In fact, marriage is the first institution of the human experience. The Book of Genesis, Chapter 2, tells us, “24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:24-25).
Biblical marriage is, therefore, presented to us as an intimate bond, a weaving together, of lives. In that unity, there virtues emerge of proximity, affection, loyalty, and a sense of “staying with” as circumstances of life shift. These virtues are to be a continual and active exchange between the participants of the marriage. There are not supposed to be any spectators in a marriage. Both the woman and man are members of the same active living body. This is how God chose to describe marriage at the very beginning of humanity’s existence.
As we continue to look at the Biblical account of marriage, we find later, in the gospel of Matthew, that Jesus affirmed Genesis’ picture of marriage saying, “’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:5-6). Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God, confirmed for us the image of marriage as a active living body.
Later in the Bible, the Apostle Paul would speak to this same verse from Genesis, affirmed by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, in Paul’s letter to the believers in the city of Ephesus. Paul wrote, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’” (Ephesians 5:31). The image is affirmed again.
But Paul then added a very important new meaning to these words that makes those words from Genesis apply to each of us, whether we are or not presently married. Paul said, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Paul’s words in verse 32, makes clear that the Christ and the church must be seen through the image of marriage, of two become one.
Marriage then, whether the institution comprised of husband and wife, or the institution Christ and the church, is union. Neither institution, marriage or church, can be viewed as a contract with an expiration date or having an escape clause. Neither institution can be entered into by keeping one’s fingers crossed and hoping things will somehow work out. The union of marriage or of church there are to be the virtues of proximity, affection, loyalty, and a sense of “staying with” as circumstances shift. These virtues are to be continual and actively exchanged between the participants of the union. There can be no spectators in a union. Both are members of the same body.
If we were to condense the foundation of the union that Paul was spoke about to a single word, that word would be commitment. Therefore, both institutions of union, marriage and church, require a commitment without reservation with an attitude for better or worse.
This is why I found in premarital counseling the first and most important “C” among the now six topics that I share with an engaged couple is Commitment. Using the parallels from the Apostle Paul, it would follow that the first and most important “C” for each of us as participants in the marriage of Christ through the church is Commitment; a commitment without reservation with a “for better or worse” attitude. Our commitment to Christ through the church ought to be one expressed by the words, “to have and to hold from this day forward” coupled with a vow to “forsake all others.” We could go on with other marital phrases to describe our demeanor toward church, but I think we can get the sense that our commitment to Christ through the church parallels solemn vows people use when uniting with a spouse.
Let’s look at how commitment plays out in the New Testament. First, Jesus and others spoke about Jesus as a groom.
- John the Baptist said, “29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend (speaking of himself) who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” (John 3:29). John the Baptist recognized Jesus was preparing himself for a marriage to his church and that in that union there would be joy.
- “14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him (Jesus), ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ 15 Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast’” (Matthew 9:14-15). Jesus acknowledged that his relationship with his followers was likened to a marriage and that would be reason to celebrate.
Jesus equated that marital relationship to the union of himself and his disciples through the institution of church. Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:17-18a). Jesus here describes his groom and bride relationship as being between him (the groom) and the church (his bride).
The Apostle Paul saw this union relationship established by Jesus and offered these words, “25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27). The Christ and the church are a marriage in which Jesus’ goal as an active participant is a perfect union. Paul saw Jesus’ commitment to this goal expressed by Jesus, coming as a man, and giving everything to the marriage. Paul said, “8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8). Jesus, the perfect groom, expressed his commitment to the church and gave everything to his imperfect bride, the church, so that she, those of the church, could become perfect through him.
Second, let’s look at Christ’s bride, the church, and see how commitment to the marriage of Christ and the church is to be expressed. Again, from the marriage symbol, in Genesis, in the Gospels, and in Paul’s letter, marriage is described as the union of two into one. Paul begins by giving us an illustration. Paul wrote, “18 And he (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18a). Christ and the church are a union forming one complete body. The church, Jesus’ disciples, are to be in union with Jesus as a single body active and engaged.
Paul continued in a letter to the church in Corinth explaining, “12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27).
Paul’s message is clear that the two, Christ and his church, the divine groom and earthly bride, comprised of many individual members, have formed a marital union in which the two become one body.
So, the church, made up of many members, like a body, is in a marital relationship with Christ, who serves as the head of the body. This means that we must be committed to Christ through the church. So how committed to that relationship must the individual members be? There are three points we could examine.
First, let’s talk about the most obvious element of commitment. Commitment, for it to be genuine, must evidence an excited presence. It is plain to see that two cannot become one if they are never together with each other. To become one there must be a commitment to spend time together, not occasionally but frequently. In the New Testament Book of Hebrews we read, “23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he [Jesus, the groom] who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we [parts of the body] may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:23-25a). For the body to be a body the parts must commit to be present.
Think about this way by considering a silly illustration about the union of the body. Suppose you wake up tomorrow morning and you begin to make your way out of bed. Suddenly, you realize that your left foot is not there. Not only that but your right knee, left elbow, right hand, and left lung are all missing. How well do you think your body is going to function that day? It is going to be hard for your body to do what it was intended to do. In this silly illustration, you manage to struggle through the day, lay down again at night and go to sleep. The next morning you wake up and find with great relief that your left foot, right knee, left elbow, right hand, and left lung are all back in place. Praise God! But then you discover your right foot, left knee, right hip, left kidney, and right shoulder are all missing. Again, the body suffers just like the church suffers when its members are absent.
Paul’s descriptor of church as being like the body is easy to understand. The parts of the body work together because they are all needed, they are committed, and connected unconditionally to each other. Each person serves as a part of the body of a church and is needed to make the body complete and functional. So, commitment is not an abstract intellectual assent to the idea of church. Commitment involves an active continual presence and participation in the body of Christ. This is why we should dismiss the idea that an otherwise healthy person can say, “I don’t need to be part of a church to be a faithful Christian.” There is no part of a body that can function as intended when separated from the body.
The second part of commitment to the Christ and church relationship is the willingness to take the plunge. What do I mean by that? To take the plunge has been an expression used when two people decide to get married. To take the plunge is to take on a momentous and challenging decision. But here is the thing. To take the plunge means we are willing to put everything we have into the experience. We are trusting and immersing ourselves fully.
In the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, we read that many of the people who were following Jesus left him. When Jesus said to be a disciple you must be willing to eat of his body and drink of his blood, they left. John wrote, “66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 67 ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. 68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:66-68a).
The disciples who had left Jesus had not taken the plunge. They had been dipping their toes in the water. They were ready to step back out when it suited them. The disciples on the other hand had taken the plunge. They were committed to following Jesus even if what he said was hard to understand. Commitment to faith, like commitment to marriage, means you are willing to take the plunge. We cannot be just dipping our toes in the experience.
Finally, commitment to the Christ and church relationship is a willingness to be concerned for the whole body and each part of that same body. Think again this again through a silly illustration. You are working in the kitchen cutting some vegetables. The knife slips and you slice open the index finger of your left hand. Your finger begins to bleed. Under normal circumstances, your right hand would grab a towel and wrap the left index finger to stop the bleeding. Only this time, the right-hand refuses, saying, “I do not like the left index finger. Let the left elbow handle the problem!” I admit, it is a silly illustration, but the point is that each part of the body must honor the other parts for the body to be healthy and be willing to do the work that it has been gifted to do .
Jesus said it this way, 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). The body of Christ must love itself. It cannot be a war with itself. The Apostle Paul said it this way, “29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:29-30). Commitment to the Christ and church relationship means we love each part of the body simply because it is part of the body.
Our relationship with Christ must be based upon a commitment to become part of one body with him through his church. But do we see our commitment toward Christ through the church that way? Are we committed to Christ through the church for one hour a week on Sunday and then committed to other things for the remaining 167 hours of the week? Or do we have so many commitments that practically speaking we are committed to nothing, including Christ through the church?
I invite you to take the plunge into the Christ and Church relationship. Be as committed to the body of Christ as your hands are committed to your own body. Be excited in this venture of faith as together we make our membership in the body of Christ mean something; something to treasure and something to share. Welcome back to church. I am glad you are here. Amen and Amen.