Convention 2019 Four of Four
by Layton Friesen
To be simply Christian is to belong to the Church of Jesus Christ. This is a great mystery. Your congregation is the Church. The EMC is the Church. The Church is the global body of believers. The Church includes both the earthly Church and the heavenly Church worshipping God as one in Christ. Let’s look at the Church from two views: the Church wide and the Church narrow.
The Church Wide
For the Church wide we come to Hebrews 12:24. Yes, the Church may look weak and bedraggled right now, “but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” There may be few folks in the house church where you meet, “but we have come to innumerable angels in festal gathering.” Sanders snores in the third pew, and we envy him—what with the preaching we get around here—“but we have come to the assembly of the first born who are enrolled in heaven.” Now our pastor has run off and no one knows where he is; maybe in Acapulco with someone he met online. And we feel so beat up and betrayed, “but we have come to God the judge of all.”
This congregation has always been ruled by the Penner family and they are the only ones who get to make important decisions and it’s awful, “but we have come to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” The praise band pretends to be some California pop band, and no one knows the songs, and the bass drum is messing with my pacemaker, but we here, nonetheless, come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” So many of our men can’t get seem to give up porn, but “we have come to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the word of Abel.”
When we gather to worship Jesus together we sing here with trembling voices, often wrung with pain. Yet the descant soars in from Heaven where vast myriads thunder their hallelujah around the throne of God. It’s one worship happening in real time.
In Exodus 20:4-6, in the Ten Commandments, God says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol. . . for the Lord your God is a jealous God punishing the children for the iniquity of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commands.”
What does it mean for God to show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love Him? That’s 20,000 years later! Somehow in the long memory of God the fruit of one generation’s sanctity comes back and blesses a generation thousands of years removed.
A Made-Up Story
Here’s a made-up story of how this might work. In the fifth century in a village in Lebanon lived an old woman, who was poor with no children. She was a Christian and lived a quiet faith that few noticed. Her husband was sick and she tended him. He was delusional in old age and could be a nasty brute and made her life a misery.
There was little she could do but suffer and care for him every day. Each morning she would walk to the village church and say her prayers and receive the Eucharist from the priest. In sleepless nights she would pour out her pain to the Lord. No one knew the depths of holiness this woman offered to the Lord in the darkness. When she died, she was buried and no one much thought of her again. Except her Lord, who shows love for a thousand generations.
Go forward to 2019. Jerry and Marion have just retired and are looking forward to relaxing. Jerry is a Christian, but people have often found him a little self-centred. One day he notices that Marion is telling a story that she told him yesterday. She is eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and they are set on a long hard path together.
Yet friends are now amazed. Something’s changed in Jerry. Marion becomes his tender devotion. His friends do golf tours all winter, but Jerry is at home caring for Marion, each day visiting her in the home she is staying in. He loves her to the end.
No one knows how Jerry became such a patient, tender husband. No one knows except his Lord.
The Economy of the Holy Spirit
Could you imagine that in the great economy of the Holy Spirit, across the span of the body of Christ, where God shows steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love him, these two stories might be connected as plain as day? When God saw the holy love of this nameless woman in Lebanon quietly praying her way to the grave, God took the seed of her life and planted it down in the soil of the Church and said, “Someday I will breath on this seed and it will bear fruit.” That seed began to sprout in Jerry’s heart just as Marion was telling her story the second time.
The Church is wide, connected by the arms of Jesus, a great, teeming beehive spread across thousands of generations in real, live fellowship. Never secularize the Church into a merely here-and-now organization for the spiritual uplift of the religious.
The Church Narrow
Now look at the Church narrow. This too is the Church of Jesus Christ.
Here’s a true story I heard from John Roth, a Mennonite historian: The year was 1948 and it was a tense time for Mennonite churches in Europe. World War II had frayed the fellowship. It came out that the German Mennonite churches had supported the Nazis and there were Mennonites in the German army fighting against their brothers in the Netherlands and Poland. Mennonites in the Netherlands had signed up to fight against Germany. Nationalism had strained the fellowship of the churches.
In 1948 some American Mennonites invited the European churches to come to Kansas for a Mennonite World Conference assembly. Yet no one was sure how all these enemies were supposed to be together in Kansas. The Europeans shuffled and hummed and hawed and finally MCC stepped in and negotiated for these churches to get together. The European churches each decided to send leaders to attend the assembly in Kansas.
And what do you know, it happened that these European Mennonite leaders found themselves together in the hold of the same ship crossing the Atlantic for two weeks. Maybe this was God’s sense of humour. They could not escape each other and they had some hard conversations down there in the ship. By the time they reached America, they had come to a reckoning with each other. On shore, they had a public worship service in which they confessed their sins and asked forgiveness.
Sailing for Heaven
The Mennonite “enemies,” down in the hold of the ship together by the providence of God, are a parable of the Church narrow. We each come to Christ and then find ourselves together on the same ship sailing for Heaven. God has given us these days at sea in the hold to reckon with each other.
We find ourselves in a congregation. A narrow place if there ever is one. Our congregation finds itself in a conference, another narrow place. Someone with a divine sense of humour said, “Here, sail with these people. That’ll be good for you. Work it out.”
The Church narrow is immediate, concrete and there. It is held together by budgets, casseroles, drummers and bulletins in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest). It continues as a sustained rhythm of decency and cooperation between folks who meet together to work, worship, marry and bury. This reckoning with each other can be both afflicting and tantalizing. It’s training for the Heavenly Table.
The Church is both wide and narrow; neither of these without the other. The local, the global, the ancient, the present, the earthly, the heavenly, the personal, the communal—all these at once in real time bound together by the arms of Christ and the fire of the Spirit, nourished by the Scriptures, confessing the faith of the apostles, living the life of Jesus. This is the great mystery of the Church.
Layton Friesen, PhD, is the EMC’s conference pastor and was the 2019 convention speaker in Picture Butte, Alta. This series is based on his convention sermons. Layton lives in Winnipeg, Man., with his wife Glenda and their two young adult children.