November 18, 2017

Practice Resurrection, part two

Today’s post is by guest blogger Chaplain Mike.

In the first part of Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes about the church at Ephesus and the overall message that Paul communicated to them through his epistle.

“Growing up in Christ,” the big theme of the book, is not something we do alone. And so, Peterson begins with a consideration of “the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity”—the church.

At the outset, he acknowledges that “church” is one of the most difficult aspects of being a Christian for many believers. Nevertheless, it is in and with the church that God has called his children to grow up into the full stature of Christ.

I like his definition of the church and the description of how its members should live:

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines…

…The practice of resurrection is not an attack on the world of death; it is a nonviolent embrace of life in the country of death. It is an open invitation to live eternity in time.

We all have our complaints about the church, and it certainly falls short of what most of us think it should be. In Peterson’s understanding, Ephesians differs from the other NT letters that deal with the real, human problems churches face. Instead, Ephesians

…is a revelation of the church we never see. It shows us the healthy soil and root system of all the operations of the Trinity out of which the church that we do see grows.

…the dominant concern in this Ephesian letter is not to deal with the human problems that inevitably develop in the church—no church is exempt—but to explore God’s glory that gives the church its unique identity.

…Ephesians provides us with an understanding of church from the inside, the hidden foundations and structural elements that provide grounding and form to the people, whoever they are, and the place, wherever it is. Ephesians documents the Trinitarian realities from which congregations are formed, however incomplete or fragmented the formation. We have the Ephesian letter before us so that even though we are surrounded with immature and deficient and incomplete churches, we can acquire a feel for what maturity is, what growing up in Christ consists of. By means of Ephesians we get an accurate account of what God is doing and the way the Spirit is working at the heart of every congregation. As such, it is a great gift of revelation. Without Ephesians we would be left to guesswork, making up “church” as we went along, and we’d be easy prey to every church fad that comes along.

These words could lead to misunderstanding. The author is not saying that the church at Ephesus represents an ideal church that all others should copy. The NT portrays this congregation as messed up, just like other churches. There are no “successful” churches, Peterson affirms. They are, at the observational level, just what they appear to be—congregations of fallen, broken, flawed people who often act poorly toward each other and their neighbors. Church at Ephesus included.

We do not have an example of an ideal congregation, in the Bible or in history. What we do have is Ephesians, an inspired behind-the-scenes look at what God has done and is doing to provide a context out of which his people may grow to maturity.

Comments

  1. Perhaps, Paul does paint his best picture of what the “ideal” church would look like even tho, in reality, it played out when flawed, sinful people just as today. But it is a better place to aim, to pray and practice than much of what we focus on these days – good or bad.

  2. Thanks for this post, Mike. You inspired me to re-read Ephesians this evening. I had forgotten what a wonderful letter it is and what a precious and vital gift it is to the church of all ages — in large part because it reveals those essential elements and means by which the members of Christ’s body can grow together toward maturity in Jesus.
    At the end of chapter one, Paul points out that Jesus has been appointed “to be head over everything for the church.” He doesn’t say that Christ has been set up as a historical figurehead in whose name we do a bunch of religious stuff — nor does he say that Christ acts as head over only the big stuff, while leaving all the minor details to us. Rather, Paul speaks as if Jesus’s headship is a real, literal thing that occurs in real time and is knowable and recognizable as coming from Him through the conduit of the Holy Spirit. I often wonder how much of what we do and are as churches still flows from His direct, literal, present-tense leadership when compared to other competing elements, such as traditions, doctrinal constructs, exalted offices, and charismatic personalities.
    In chapter four, Paul makes it clear that the role of leaders and teachers in the church is to train its members for the work of service with the ultimate goals of establishing unity in faith and maturity in Christ. Is this still the primary focus and function of leadership in modern Western churchianity? And, if not, how have changes in focus and function influenced the overall level of maturity within the church?
    One other thing that caught my attention is how Paul takes care to explain how theological truths about the church find their truest expression in the day-to-day lives and relationships of believers. Just from the way Paul lays it out, It seems pretty clear to me that genuine maturity in Christ cannot exist merely on the levels of theology or ecclesiology — but rather it is inseperably tied to the evidence of Christ and His love in the quality and depth of our relationships with each other. In my opinion, the relational aspect of the church (and how that fits in with God’s plan to build us together into a suitable dwelling place for Himself) has been moved too far toward the back of the bus in comparison to organizational concerns and building projects of a more physical nature.
    Like Peterson, I don’t see Ephesians as Paul’s presentation of the ideal church situation so much as a hopeful and practical guide for any church body that aspires to be a more genuine and mature representation of Christ and to be more completely submissive and obedient to His literal headship. The key, I think, is to keep our primary focus where Paul and the other NT writers placed theirs — and be careful not to get distracted or obsessed with less essential matters.