Thursday, April 06, 2017

Exit, Stage Left

What makes a church a church?

The presence of Christ among his people? Yes, that’s surely critical. That we meet in his name, according to his will and doing the things that he himself would do if he were here with us? Yes, that is our assurance of his presence. That we follow the pattern of the early believers and commit ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer? Absolutely.

Question: What happens if we stop remembering the Lord in the breaking of bread? Are we still a church any sense that matters to God?

I can’t say for sure, but I can say this confidently, because it was an apostle of Jesus Christ that wrote it down for us: a church may work, toil, patiently endure, resist evil, test false teachers and even bear up under suffering for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus. It can deserve credit for all manner of good things. But when that church abandons its first love, it risks the removal of its lampstand. That’s what the glorified Head of the Church tells the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation, and I trust we all believe it.

First Love

The “first” in “first love” is the Greek word prōtos, which may suggest first in time; so the ESV gives us “the love you had at first”. But prōtos can also mean first in importance — in which case the Lord’s intended meaning is “the love that was your former number one priority”. Either way, something had changed in the hearts of the Ephesian believers about what they were doing, and it seems quite likely the change had affected their corporate practice.

It wasn’t that the Ephesians failed to hold to the truth. They still did that, and the Lord commends them for it: “You cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” No problem there.

It wasn’t that the Ephesians failed to care for those around them, their families or their fellow believers. The Lord commends them for their “work” and “toil”. Whatever visible effort was required to show Christian love to the world, these folks were making it.

Standing for the truth and doing good works may well be evidence of love, but they do not guarantee it. We can confront false teachers out of nothing more than a sense of duty. We can stand for the truth out of pedantry or a desire to throw our weight around. We can perform good works merely in order to be seen and applauded.

No, first love is more than hustle and bustle or even faithfulness in performing our assigned tasks.

Lampstand, Leaving

Incidentally, what does the removal of a lampstand involve exactly? Well, there’s the rub. If we liked, we could trace the image back to Israel’s tabernacle, where the light from the lampstand that burned there never went out and the priests tended it “from evening to morning before the Lord”. There were probably times on Israel’s wilderness journey during the hours before sunrise that the only light in the entire camp was the lampstand in the tabernacle. But that lamp was to stay lit, reminding everyone who saw its glow that where the light was, there the presence of God was to be found.

Without exploring the spiritual significance of the lampstand metaphor in detail, it is evident its removal is to be considered a disaster. No real church wants to go there. And that can happen when we leave our “first love”.

Bread and Circuses

How’s your first love doing exactly?

I’m back to my question about the breaking of bread. You see, it should be quite obvious that merely observing a time-honored ritual week after week for 15 minutes, 45 minutes or even an hour is no clear indication of love for Jesus Christ, let alone “first love”. Like any work, remembering Jesus Christ as he commanded us can be performed mechanically and without the genuine, overflowing affection that should properly characterize our gatherings. Just scheduling a weekly meeting and showing up to sit through it is no guarantee we are in the right place spiritually.

But when you deliberately STOP doing it? What exactly does that say?

When evangelicalism gets to the place where most of its churches almost never pause from their liturgical huffing and puffing to expend a few moments contemplating the single, solitary Person who is the fundamental reason for their existence, then perhaps — just PERHAPS — the words “left your first love” are applicable.

In which case, are such religious gatherings really churches at all in any meaningful sense?

You tell me.

1 comment :

  1. Well, obviously churches will all be different as shown in this example.

    There were four churches and a synagogue in a small town: a Presbyterian church, a Baptist church, a Methodist church, a Catholic church, and a synagogue.

    Each house of worship had a problem with squirrels.

    The Presbyterian church called a meeting to decide what to do about their squirrels.

    After much prayer and consideration, they concluded the squirrels were predestined to be there and they shouldn't interfere with God's divine will.

    At the Baptist church the squirrels had taken an interest in the baptistery.

    The deacons met and decided to put a water slide on the baptistery and let the squirrels drown themselves.

    The squirrels liked the slide and, unfortunately, knew instinctively how to swim so twice as many squirrels showed up the following week.

    The Methodist church decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God's creatures.

    So, they humanely trapped their squirrels and set them free near the Baptist Church.

    Two weeks later the squirrels were back when the Baptists took down the water slide.

    But the Catholic Church came up with a very creative strategy.

    They baptized all the squirrels and consecrated them as members of the church.

    Now they only see them on Christmas and Easter.

    Not much was heard from the Jewish synagogue; they took the first squirrel and circumcised him.