Of all the myths that launched a thousand church plants it is the exuberant, albeit false, myth that says “If only we could get back to the pure church”, that causes me most consternation. By “pure” people mean the church of those nascent decades/centuries (take your pick) in which things were just a little more holy, a little more loving, a little more real and a little more radical, than anything on offer today (more meals were eaten together/more miracles performed/more money given/more gospel proclaimed – also take your pick). Nothing comes close to it today!
Except of course my new household church plant/megachurch plant/radical church plant etc etc. It will be what everything else in the past (“past” meaning the last 1700 years) has failed to be. “And then the end” as Paul said, because Jesus will be compelled to return since, having fulfilled all the preconditions of the Parousia that his death/resurrection/ascension/giving of the Spirit simply didn’t manage, my church tips the delicately balanced fulcrum in its favour.
And therein lies the rub. Many a Christian relationship has been broken by many a zealous ideologue whose main aim is to return the church to “what it was like in the early days”; an ecclesiastical version of Romanticism searching for the primal purity now sullied by grubby humanity. For some that means “household”, for others than means “doctrinal purity”, for yet others it means “radical community” or “the new monasticism”, “getting rid of the baggage of the past”, “a new Reformation”, or whatever. What it cannot mean, however, is a return to the church of the New Testament, because as we all well know – or at least we should – things got pretty grubby pretty early on.
Hence the pure church of Acts is sullied once Ananais and Sapphira deceive the apostles about how much money they got from their land sale (Acts 5:1-11), culminating in Peter’s charge that they were in fact trying to “lie to the Holy Spirit.” And from there the spirit of deception kicks along its merry way, aping and shaping the early church to varying degrees. So we have a Corinthian church in love with this age rather than the age to come, a Galatian church heeding another Gospel, a Hebrews church hankering for shadow not reality, all accompanied by a band of merry (circumcised) men doing the rounds of Christian communities, sharp of blade and dull of heart. Oh, and how could I forget? Nicolatians and Jezebels!
Recently we have been exploring the letters of 1-3 John and it is astonishing just how quickly things went pear shaped. It goes all “anti-christ” pretty quickly, whilst the words “deceive” and the term “deceiver” keep popping their heads up. It’s as if once salvation time has come and the new creation begins, the seeds of sin start to find their way into the purity all over again – just like that! Which is exactly what is happening. Just as Noah, – now safely on dry ground and having received the re-stated blessing to fill the new earth once more -, decides to get plastered, naked and available for public viewings, so the seeds of sin demonstrate their staying power right on into the New Testament. So by the time you get to 3 John and dodgy Diotrophes, who in a case of mistaken self-identity “likes to put himself first” – (he also likes to put his name to lots of books/podcasts/Vimeos) -, you really do begin to wonder if there is any hope.
Where to begin?
And then you get to the end of the story. And what do you find? Surprise, surprise. The pure church was not behind you at all. it never was. No, the pure church was actually in front of you all along, and you missed it. There, right at the end is a consummated new age to which we are headed. And what does it contain? A pure church in the midst of a pure everything else:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Rev21:1-2
The sermon series we have been studying on the letters of Peter and John is called the Rise of the Guardians. Who will look after the church as the churches push out and the apostles push daisies? How in the midst of all the chaos and sin and deception can we ever arrive at Revelation 21:1-2? The key is not the emergence or submergence of anything. The key is not a new orthodoxy, a new missional house church movement, a church on the other side, a total/radical/deep – you name it – version of church. No, the key is a loving, all powerful Guardian called Jesus, who funnily enough, has done the real work of fitting the church out for her wedding day. Hence Ephesians 5:
Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such that, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Church leaders/planters must first and foremost understand that, just as they are not “building the kingdom”, but are in fact, along with all of God’s people, “receiving the kingdom” (Hebrews 12:28), so too they were incapable of making the church pure initially, and hence are incapable of making it pure ultimately.