Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Great and Glorious Thing

Every congregation I have been a member of since my baptism in 1983 has had its problems and foibles: DeGaulle Ave. in New Orleans, Memorial in Houston, University Ave. and then Westover Hills in Austin, Liberty St. in Trenton and Garretson Rd. in Bridgewater, NJ, New Milford in CT, Culver Palms in L.A., and yes, West Houston. Some had worse problems than others, and in three (as preacher) I was perhaps one of the problems! I have learned over twenty-three years that there are no ideal churches.

As I began a series today from First Corinthians I am struck by the apostle Paul’s thanksgiving for the church in Corinth. Now friends, this is a messed up church! There is open sexual immorality, people suing each other, two celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (one for the wealthy and one for the rest). They can’t agree what kind of meat is okay to eat; the worship assembly is a chaotic mess (you think singing new songs is exasperating? Try hearing multiple prophetic utterances at once!), and many don’t believe in the resurrection. But other than that it’s all good.

And yet here’s Paul in his greeting, telling them “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” and “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you.” (1:4, 6). Is Paul in denial? Is he trying to be reassuring? No, and yes. But Paul is also exhibiting the character of Christ, practicing what he preaches to the Philippians when he writes “Beloved, whatever is honorable, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” and “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (4:8-9).

Early in my preaching ministry I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book “Life Together.” The primary lesson that stuck with me was his admonition to preachers to “never be your congregation’s accuser before God” (that’s the way I remembered it anyway). In other words, advocate and intercede for your congregation before God instead of complaining about them to God. Recently I came across the context of this admonition, which speaks to all Christians, and is worth sharing with you.

“If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ. … What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God… The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. Christian community is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (p. 29-30).

Here’s the challenge: Strive for more, while giving thanks for what we have. So much in the church is “weak and trifling” compared to the ideal, yet God longs to take our feeble fellowship and leaven it with the redemptive and transforming work of his Spirit. Which is a great and glorious thing.


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