Thursday, September 28, 2006

bride and prejudiced week one: bridezilla

I’d like to start out our time together this morning with an announcement. There’s something very important I’d like us all to consider. Next week at eight o’clock on Sunday morning we’re going to begin a new class called Orthodoxy on Fire. The word orthodoxy for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term means right thinking or right doctrine. We’re going to talk for the next nine weeks about the core doctrines of the Christian faith—the non-negotiables, the essentials, the things that make being a Christian really about being a Christian.

What I love about 21st Century Christianity is the way it gives so many of us so much room to experience a difference of opinion. You really get a way to make a choice about how you’re going to live. You really get a choice about different theological issues and a lot of people argue different things back and forth, but they are some things, if you are going to be a biblical Christian, that are not up grabs or unshakeable. We are going to talk about those things. We’re going to a lot of discussion and we’re going to have a great time. I want you all to consider next Sunday morning and for the following eight Sunday mornings being a part of Orthodoxy on Fire, because what you believe matters. I think there is a way we can explore these central themes in a way that will truly change your whole life.

We’re going to spend the next three weeks talking about what it means to be the Church, about what a church is, about biblically what this community is supposed to be like. In numerous occasions throughout the Bible around about thirty different times—Old and New Testament, from a variety of different authors—the people of God are referred to as the Bride of God. Collectively, we are God’s wife; we’re Jesus’ wife.

I’m going to start by telling you a little parable here. I have these two friends; we’ll call them Brian and Samantha. I don’t know if you have people in your life who are like this, but when I first Brian fifteen years ago, he struck me as this incredible human being. He was just so good like right down to his socks; this was a good guy. He was the kind of guy who would help out people. If we were all going to hang out for a meal, he’s the kind of guy who would pick up the tab for someone who couldn’t afford to eat.

He was the kind of guy who would go out and buy gifts for people just to show his appreciation. At church, Brian was the kind of guy who would show up early to help set up and stay late to tear down chairs and put things away. He was the guy who volunteered to clean bathrooms. I think there are two people I want to be like in life. I want to be like Jesus Christ and then I want to be like Brian, usually in that order. He’s just incredible.

Brian married this gal, Samantha, who’s not like Brian. You know the old adage opposites attract. Well, in this case, they do. You’ve got Brian, who is amazing, and Samantha, who is a cow. She’s just terrible; she’s cranky, unkind, mean and says hurtful things all the time. She just does these things that all over the place you’re like, “Man, Brian, I love you. How did you marry this person?” It just doesn’t seem to fit.

Yet, because of my affection for Brian and believe it or not, I really do think he brings out the best, as far as it’s possible, from Samantha, I have a commitment to loving Samantha. They’re married; they’re going to be together forever, so it’s my issue to get over what Samantha’s like and learn to love her anyway, because I love Brian.

For many of us when we first were introduced to the person of Jesus Christ, whether that’s the historical Jesus where we see countless examples of Jesus shaping and moving history, where we think about the Jesus who performed miracles, where we think about the social Jesus, who in the Gospels always elevates those who are disenfranchised, always lifts up those who are poor, always comes with healing to love people, to equalize them, to look for those who are cast off and beat up and hated and scorned and to redeem those people, it’s really easy to fall in love with Jesus Christ.

You might come to church and you might experience the presence of Jesus as you’re around the people of Jesus. You might have all these good things associated with Jesus and so in our minds we starting thinking, “Wow, Jesus is so amazing. I can’t wait to meet his wife.” We think, “Wow, I bet Jesus’ wife is going to be just like Jesus. Jesus’ wife is going to be beautiful and funny and sweet and caring.” We get it into our minds the Church is going to be the perfect bride for Jesus, but the Church isn’t. The reality is the Church looks far more like this than it does like the beautiful blond we just had on the screen.

This is a hard thing for many of us to understand, because we are the Church. We are not just this church, but as followers of Jesus Christ, we participate in the Church stretched out all over time, in all kinds of different places, in all kinds of different collections and associations. It’s difficult for us to think of ourselves as something other than the beautiful blonde, perfect bride and instead to think of ourselves as the Bride of Frankenstein and yet that’s too often where we are.

Anyone who studied any amount of history knows the Church has been involved in a history of gross atrocities in the last several millennia.

· The Crusades, where we slaughtered people of other religions, because

they took some land that was important to us.

· The Spanish Inquisition, where if people didn’t have right doctrine, we

killed them.

· The Salem Witch Trials, where just under suspicion of witchcraft, we

burned people alive.

I’m using the pronoun “we,” because we share, in many ways, in the dark history of the Church. We share that guilt in many ways, because we are the Church today just as that Church was the Church of that day.

As popular as it is to talk about those things and you hear all that garbage so much about how corrupt the Church has been and how broken the Church has been, I think it’s very convenient sometimes for people to forget all of the good things the Church has done throughout history. You think about William Wilberforce in the U.K. or John Woolman in the United States putting an end to slavery. You think about Martin Luther King and his Christian vision for the United States, being a huge battering ram against racial prejudice. You think about Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. He was hated and distrusted by both sides of the conflict towards the end of apartheid and yet Tutu was instrumental in bringing about an almost bloodless end to apartheid. Apartheid was one of the gross injustices of the 20th Century, where a segregationist, white government suppressed the native South African people.

In all these places and in many, many more, we see the Church standing up against injustice. We see the Church as a source, a wellspring, of social good and reform. We see the Church truly acting like the beautiful Bride of Christ God calls us to be. In the next three weeks we’re going to look at who we are and whom we’re supposed to be in an effort to reclaim this broken image of ourselves into something more true and pure.

We’re going to start by reading a good chunk of Scripture here. One of the earliest references to the people of God being the Bride of God:

For your maker is your bridegroom, his name, GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies!

Your Redeemer is The Holy of Israel, known as God of the whole earth.

John, Chapter 3—John the Baptist refers to Christ as the Bridegroom or first to himself as the best man when he says:

You yourselves were there when I made it public that I was not

The Messiah but simply the one sent ahead of him to get things

ready. The one who gets the bride is, by definition, the bridegroom.

Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:

I promised your hand in marriage to Christ, presented you as a

pure virgin to her husband. And now I’m afraid that exactly as

the Snake seduced Eve with his smooth patter, you are being

lured away from the simple purity of your love for Christ.

What an awesome image we’ve been given as a virgin bride to our husband, God, to our husband, Jesus. I think that’s powerful and when we think about what the Church is, about what our identity is, so often we’re aware we come together as a collection of broken people. So often, we’re aware we’re full of flaws and we’re imperfect and we are, but we forget we have been called to something more than that. As much as we come here broken and as works-in-progress, God has also brought us together to elevate us to something more, to bring out the most beautiful and true and good parts of who we are.

Let’s look in Ephesians, Chapter 3. I’m going to be reading from The Message translation. This is a great piece of scripture here talking about the mystery of Christ.

As you read over what I have written to you…

This, of course, is Paul talking to the Church in Ephesus, a collection of local churches, by the way— churches just like Westwinds. He’s talking to a local congregation.

As you read over what I have written to you, you’ll be able to see

for Yourselves into the mystery of Christ. None of our ancestors

understand this. Only in our time has it been made clear by God’s

Spirit through his holy apostles and prophets of this new order. The

Mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who

have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and

Insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same

offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is

accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.

This is my life work: helping people understand and respond to this

Message. It came as a sheer gift to me, a real surprise, God handling

all the details. When it came to presenting the Message to people who

had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the

available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be

sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities.

And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over

my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. My task is

to bring out into the open and make plain what God, who created all this

in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all


Let me read that again, because I love it; it’s so great.

My task is to bring out into the open and make plain what God, who

created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind

the scenes all along. Through Christians like yourselves gathered in

churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and

talked about even among the angels!

Isn’t that cool, by the way, you’re like gossip for the angels’ water cooler? They’re all talking about what you wore to church today, just so you know.

The mystery of Christ is you or maybe better put, to piggyback on our talk last week about what it means for us to identify ourselves as “we,” we are the mystery of Christ, not just you as a solitary individual or not just me as an individual. I am not the mystery of Christ nor are you, each of you, the mystery of Christ, but we together are the mystery of Christ. Never mind our world, think about the world of 1st Century Palestine, where along racial and ethic divides or among the divisions of nationality and socio-economic status people literally hated and killed each other, because of where they were born. They could have even had the same color skin, but if you were from the wrong part of town, you’d be dead on the street. The mystery of Christ is Jesus elevates us beyond that. He brings us together—rich, poor, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different socio-economic status, different nationalities, different sets of values, different personalities. He brings us together.

The Bible talks primarily about three main ethnicities: Jew, Gentile and Christian. Jew, Gentile and those belonging to the Church. Those who belong to the Church are anyone that wants to. It’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive. If you choose Jesus, you get to be a part of the mystery of Christ. When you make a choice to embrace the person and work of Jesus, you are part of the mystery, because now, not only are you part of Jesus, you’re a part of the rest of us, a part of who we are together as the mystery.

The word mystery, by the way, is a word that was often referred to in pagan and heathen sacrificial rituals. Like in weird, underground cults where they did all kinds of spooky things. You have dudes living underground or in caves, standing around, weird stone blocks and killing things and they had mysteries that they called. These higher order mysteries that only the head guys knew how to order the cosmos to bring in some kind of metaphysical, alternate reality. Those are the mysteries.

The few people who knew what the mysteries were called stewards. They were stewards of the mysteries. Paul is stealing that language, stealing it and saying, “You are the mystery.” The mystery is how we’re here all together today putting aside differences. Do you want to know what a higher order of being is? Look around. It’s unity, it’s community, it’s Church, it’s what it means for us to be the Bride of Christ. That is the mystery. It’s not only the really important people that get access to that mystery, but Paul says in 2 Corinthians we are all stewards of that mystery. This is a great moment to talk about the fantastic reality of the Christian faith, which is it’s a faith for beginners. We all start with the mystery of how we come together and grow from there.

The word church, by the way, comes from a number of different Greek words: kurakon, which means fellowship, which has those two hard consonants, which etymologizes over time into church. The word we commonly get our understanding from church is the Greek word ekklesia, which means called-out ones. In 1st Century Palestine under the Roman government, they would have an Athenian ecclesia when there was some important matter of social policy to be decided or military tact. They’d call out all the important people into the middle of the city and they would have an ecclesia. They’d get together and they’d have a glorified town hall meeting. They’d make decisions that would form the direction of the community. The earliest Christians expropriated this idea and starting calling their gatherings ecclesia, because they believed they had been called out to set forth some kind of ethos for who they were.

The words called out have this great backwards-reaching Old Testament significance, because always the people of God have been called out. Abraham was called out to be used especially by God. The nation of Israel and the person Israel were both called out by God. The Tribe of Judah within the nation of Israel was called out by God. In the same way the New Testament Church is called out. It’s set aside and brought forward for some more noble purpose and identity, for something more. We were made for something more than brokenness or fragmentation. There is something better to which we get access; there is something better we can live in. We’ve been called out in this way.

When we talk about what the Church is, people often use these different words to describe what the Church is: local/visible and universal/invisible.

· The local church is churches like this—churches that meet all over the world, the church you go to, you serve in, you love in, you welcome in and you learn in. It’s important to note what we have here, as different as it is, still bears remarkable similarity to the way the first Christians worshiped. Early on, arguably, even within the writing of the New Testament, we have diagrams of church worship centers in the basements of people’s homes and in catacombs. They set up a pulpit and some rows, sang songs and then there was preaching. As different as things are two millennia latter, there are still so many similarities. It’s very popular to talk about how disorganized things were back then and how they were just free-form, but there was really much more structure than we would ever give it credit for very early on in the local church.

· The local church has visible effects. The visible church is the difference local churches make in their community. When we partner with Big Brother/Big Sister or with the Red Cross and we get involved and we get our hands dirty and people’s lives are visibly changed because of the efforts of the local church, that’s the visible church. You can see a difference the love of God makes in a community. When you look around the City of Jackson, you see something good happening by virtue of some Christian men and woman getting their hands dirty and desperately wanting to help other people, that is the visible church.

· The universal church is the family of Jesus Christ, the people who pick Jesus, forwards and backwards in time. It’s a church over every inch of the planet where people want to be called by the name of Christian. Not only today, but again, backwards through time, right to the time of Jesus’ death on the cross, and all the way forwards in future such even your unborn grandchildren or great, great grandchildren—are a part of this same universal church should they make those same choices.

· The invisible church is the effects of the universal church that cannot be seen, such as the way the universal church has affected history. The way the universal church has been a voice and a consonant for change throughout culture.

The amazing part of what it means for us to be the Church, for we, the Bride of Christ, is we are a part of all four of these churches. We are in a local church; we want to have a visible impact in our community. We also participate in the universal Church with those who will come after us; we share the same history. We’re a part of this invisible Church. Though we don’t always see it, though we despair sometimes about world trends, we know there is behind the scenes the mighty hand of God working his purposes.

The thing that breaks my heart is how often people want to opt out of these things. They want to pick and choose like it’s an essay question on a final exam—pick two of any four. More often than not, we find people opting out of being identified with something like the local church. They say, “I don’t want to be a part of that. It’s broken, corrupt and the Bride of Frankenstein.” Yes, it is, we are, but in my mind, the solution is not to run. That’s the solution of my two year old.

For the mature believer, for the person full of the Word, we look at the broken Church and we do get discouraged, because every Christian I’ve ever met gets discouraged at why the Bride isn’t a little bit prettier. That’s not the end, that’s not where we stay, that’s not where we set up camp and say, “I guess that’s the end of my journey. I just hate church, but I still love Jesus and that’s that.” No, the end is that we work like Jesus to redeem the Church. If the Church isn’t making a visible difference in the community, that’s not the Church’s problem, that’s our problem. You don’t fix that by condemning the Church. You fix that by fixing yourself in the Church.

If, over time, you look at the universal Church and you don’t see all the good places the Church has made a difference, then, friends, there is a problem with your historical reading. There’s a problem where we skip over the good things of the last two thousand years just to get to the juicy bad parts that make us feel guilty. If you don’t think the Church has had an invisible presence even in modern history, you ought to take a trip some day to Africa or Haiti or China or Cuba. Just talk to any Christian there and ask them those questions. As broken as we are, the more I learn, the more people I meet, the more I travel grows more full of conviction God is redeeming his Church. He’s making us whole into the Bride he wants us to be. Christ’s love makes the Church whole; his words evoke her beauty.

Let’s skip back to Isaiah, Chapter 54 and read the next couple of verses.

“You were like an abandoned wife, devastated with grief, and GOD

welcomed you back, like a woman married young and then left,” says

your God.

Your Redeemer GOD says”

“I left you, but only for a moment. Now, with enormous compassion,

I’m bringing you back.”

Way back to the beginning of God ever having people he called his own, we’ve been messing it up. We’ve been apostate, as the word goes; we’ve been walking away from God. He never has given up on us collectively or on you as an individual. Revelation 19 has this great passage that describes the wedding of us with Jesus—your wedding.

Hallelujah! The Master reigns, our God, the Sovereign-Strong!

Let us celebrate, let us rejoice, let us give him the glory! The

marriage of the Lamb has come; his Wife has made

herself ready.

She was given a bridal gown of bright and shining linen. The

linen is the righteousness of the saints.

There is more to the story of who we are than just the pieces of what you see around you. Lest you despair or loose focus, let me tell you a couple things. Many of you have traveled a long way to be here with us today and we’re grateful for that. Some people have a long commute to get to Westwinds and we’re truly glad you feel like it’s worth it.

For myself, I have made a long commute to be here about a year ago. My family and I drove thirty-six hundred miles to come here. We knew God was calling us on to something else. We looked at a number of different opportunities and God was very gracious to us in the number of those. We felt like this was the place for us.

I wonder sometimes if I’m in a unique position as a pastor. In fact, our whole staff really is like this, where I get to pick the church I most want to go to in the entire continent. I love that our staff all come from different places. John and Randy and Ben and Laurie, everybody is coming from somewhere else to come to Westwinds, because we love it here. As a church, we’re far from perfect, but we believe so strongly in what our imperfect church is becoming, we’re willing to leave our family, friends and whatever career opportunities we had and come here, because we love it here. This is where we want to be more than anywhere else in the world. When I look at our church and think about all the cool things God is doing in us, not just the fun stuff, but in how God is shaping and changing us as a community, I am more excited than ever to be a part of this church.

Westwinds is the only church I’ve ever been to that cares about how rapidly changing our world is and is willing to do what we have to stay in step with that changing culture without ever changing the message of the Gospel. You don’t know how rare that is. You don’t know how many churches I visited where churches prioritize their own rules over people caught without Jesus Christ. People need to experience Jesus, but they can’t understand what’s being taught, because it’s in a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. They fall asleep through church, because the music is so terrible and so boring; they don’t know what’s going on. My friends at home, in many ways, need a church like this.

We have pastors and church leaders come to visit Westwinds almost every month, because there’s a hole in all of America for places like this. This isn’t to say we’re the greatest church in the world or anything like that, because I truly, probably more than most, believe every church has an ability to reach some people, even churches I would never personally enjoy. I believe they are reaching people Westwinds never will reach. We bless them in that and honor them for that. At the same time, all the people I know and all the people who are like me and all the people our staff knows and who are like us, are looking around and going, “We need churches like Westwinds, churches that care about the people of this culture and want to share Jesus with the people of this culture.”

Next October we’re going to plant a church down the street in Ann Arbor, because we believe God has put that in us to reach out and share his love in a way people will understand. The future of Westwinds has never been in becoming a church of twenty thousand people where you don’t know anyone and where it’s totally depersonalized. Westwinds has always been described as a kind of boutique. It’s that little special shop where you go downtown to get that one special thing. We want to set up a chain of stores where people in different parts of Michigan can have access to that.

I want you to take confidence in this: We’re not going anywhere or leaving anything. Your leadership here isn’t going to change, but this is something we believe so strongly in that people need Jesus and there is a way we’re trying to about presenting it that’s connecting with people and we want to share that. That’s what it means to be the Church; that’s what it means for us and that’s what we need to do.

Lord Jesus, we love you, we truly do. God, we are so humbled by the incredible love of Christ. We know, Lord, as your Bride, God, we are broken and full of flaws. There is weakness in us, but we also know, Lord, you give us your strength. You call us to something more noble and more worthy. As your Bride, Lord, we say we want to be more—we want to be more beautiful, we want to be more worthy; we want to be more like you, a better fit for you. Help us to change, Jesus, to change truly into who you would have us be. These things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

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