Just what, exactly, is the church for? I have been pondering this question a lot recently, mainly because it seems that whilst a huge amount of energy is poured into thinking about what we do, how we reach out, how we meet together, how we serve one another, it seems to me that the lack of a unifying “big picture” can often cause us to limp and lose confidence as Christians when it comes to mission and to living out our daily lives as disciples.
The question also stems from my dissatisfaction generally with church leadership not engaging with its ordinary members that are serving Jesus in their workplaces, and therefore often not seeing (never mind appreciating and supporting) the work of the gospel through the lives of those who may not do much in church but are pouring themselves out in the mission in businesses, hospitals and other areas of service that are not directly “supported” by the church. This sounds really harsh, and I don’t mean it to suggest that the church is not functioning well, worshipping well, evangelising well in many parts of the UK and the world. However, I think that many of us have forgotten, or never been told, what it is that the church is for – not who it is for, which is clear as anything in the gospels, not its nature, which is demonstrated in manifold metaphors (bride, body, building, rock etc) in the New Testament – but its purpose, the intent for which it was created, the role it is to play in the world in which it is placed. Early Christians, who by their persistence, faith and love brought the church from an obscure Palestinian sect to being the dominant cultural force in the Mediterranean area within 250 years, knew this, and knew it intimately.
The New Testament is full of detailed information about how to function and serve within the church as disciples. However, information about the church’s purpose in the world is almost taken for granted, and energy given to other areas of exposition – how actually to live in this church that God has planted. The information on purpose is there, as we shall see, but it is not front and centre. This means that while the actions and activities of the church are well known, the big picture of why we are doing what we are doing is less well known, either to Christians themselves, or to the world into which we are placed.
I think about this a lot, because to me it is a vital corollary to the resurrection of Jesus and his proclamation of a new kingdom, with death defeated and a new way of being in the world – what Dallas Willard liked to call living the “eternal kind of life.” I don’t want to be too programmatic about this; we need everyday to rely on Jesus and his strength and on the Holy Spirit’s revelation and insight to do the work we are called to. However, seeing ourselves empowered for mission by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us is of much greater meaning, and strengthens our intent if we can see ourselves as part of God’s greater narrative purpose for the church. As Walt Disney says to PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks “That is what we storytellers do: we restore order with imagination. We instill hope gain and again and again.” Knowing the story, seeing our place in it, will give us the hope for its eventual completion.
So, I want here to revisit an old scripture and posit a new metaphor for our work as a church in the world.
The scripture is from Ephesians 3:
10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
The New English Translation has “the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed…” which is lovely. The word for multi-faceted is polupoikilos, much varied, and gives huge scope for action. It is not used anywhere else in the NT, and the poikilos bit of the word itself means multicoloured, dappled, spotty or variegated. Thus Paul is using the polu- prefix simply to overegg the description. God’s wisdom is so varied, Paul argues, that the church’s mission to reveal it to the rulers and principalities encompasses all it does and is the motivating “big picture” of our purpose in the kingdom. We do this through all the various (multi-coloured?) aspects of our discipleship in the world, but always with the intent of demonstrating the wisdom of God to those in power, whether political, economic, commercial (the “rulers”) or “in the heavenly places.”
The large part of Ephesians 3 (verses 2 to 13) is a parenthesis in which Paul somewhat reluctantly gives some credentials and testimony about his work, so you do wonder that if he had not been provoked, this gem would not have come to us.
The metaphors we choose to see the church through are vital, and tell us much about who we are – just the mention of being the bride of Christ or the body of Christ opens to us an immediate way of thinking, being and serving. It changes the paradigm in which we function; it alters, even, the way we think about the experience of “going to church.” We do not use them enough. I remember years ago reading an article which said that the church ought to think of itself less as a hospital than a warship. This stayed with me for a while and changed the way I thought about worship, teaching and the purpose of the church. I don’t know, now, whether this was helpful, but to us visual thinkers, it shifted the way we talked about the church.
So now, when we come back to the polupoikiolos church, a new metaphor presents itself, that of a carpet of flowers of hundreds of species that comes to life when the rains fall in the desert. There is little that is as breathtaking or surprising or as welcome. It is a useful metaphor because it is so dependent upon grace, upon the life of the Spirit, and because it posits the church right in the middle of where she should be, blooming in the desert.
In 1980, in the most influential sermon that I have probably ever heard, David Pawson quoted a contemporary of the Wesleys who said that their church was like a fragrant rose growing on a foul dungheap (or something like that – it’s been a while). But this has real power, this metaphor, and helps push the mission of the church outside the walls (where unfortunately, the bride, the body and the hospital all tend to congregate) into the world that Jesus loves and where we are all – all – called to serve, to the display of his multi-faceted wisdom and glory.
Earth laughs in flowers, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he is right. They are seasonal, temporary, fleeting in glory, but speak of a long dormant root, that even in the places where flowers are not often seen. This year, spectacularly, the bloom of flowers in the western USA has reached “superbloom” proportions and can be seen perfectly well by satellites. Nothing is more certain than that the flowers will come when the rain does. But for a combination of the glorious, the humbling and the beautiful, these things, however short-lived, are some of the most wonderful things on earth. This is not as substantial a metaphor as a bride or a body, and better ones will emerge, but I think it is useful in our work as Christians in the world, showing in as many different colours and sizes as we are created in, the multi-faceted wisdom of God.