The following is the first sermon in our series on the church. At Sherston we had an All Age talk at the baptism on the 8th September, so this paper script aims to give the background to the series – Christopher Bryan
Over the past few years we’ve had a lot of baptisms and weddings here. They’re great occasions and I always look forward to them – it’s a lovely celebration as people make their promises before God in a beautiful historic building such as this. It’s an important part of our ministry.
At those occasions, the church is the building where we go, isn’t it? Well, actually, the reading we had today from Ephesians turns that idea on its head. In the reading, the church is not a place or a building. In Ephesians 5, the church is the bride!
We’re beginning a sermon series today on the church. Over the next few weeks several of our sermons will be on the church. What is it? What is it for? How do we serve our village today? Our epistle reading tells us that the church is people – those who have faith in Jesus, everywhere and throughout eternity, and that the church exists for Christ and because of Christ.
It’s a complex reading, because St Paul is speaking about two things at once. He’s talking about marriage. And he’s also talking about the church: ‘Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church.’ He’s using one to illustrate the other, he’s saying the two things are similar. A marriage should be built on love, just as Christ loves the Church. Any marriage will involve give and take, self sacrifice, just as Christ gave himself up for the church – he loves us so much that he was willing to die on the cross to set us free from sin. The church exists for Christ, similar to the partners in marriage being there for one another.
But it doesn’t stop at the cross. Our Christian life is a journey. In v.26. Jesus makes the church holy by washing her with water and the word – this probably means baptism and Christian teaching. What that means for us is recognising we don’t stand still in our faith. We need to keep on growing, which is why we do things like the Foundations course, so we can answer questions and develop in our faith.
Giving some thought to how we grow in our faith helps us to become ready for Jesus, more what he wants us to be. Any bride wants to be ready for her husband; she wants to look her best. The morning before a wedding is a busy event – woe betide any man who gets in the way at the bride’s house! Full attention is given to getting everything right.
In a similar way the church is devoted to Christ. Now this marriage imagery can be difficult. Paul’s ideas about marriage may sound old fashioned, even patriarchal by our standards and passages like this can be problematic for some. Do remember however that the Christian approach was radical and showed equality for its time.
In Roman society, marriages were arranged for status or financial reasons. The wife’s role was to manage the household and to bear children who would be the official heirs. That did not stop the husband fathering children outside of marriage, but the wife was expected to be faithful. Slaves were just seen as property and were used and abused at will. So the Pauline emphasis on equal love faithfulness and respect, and a husband caring for his wife is truly revolutionary, and with the spread of Christianity it changed the Roman world. The Christian teaching on equality in Christ sowed the seeds for future reform.
Christianity transformed marriage, based on the idea that the church is the bride of Christ. That is why the church exists – Jesus gave himself for her and now she is in relationship with him. The focal point of the church is Jesus himself. We meet here together to praise God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That fundamentally is why the church exists. We’re not part of the heritage industry, existing to keep up old buildings. Although these wonderful hallowed places of prayer can minister to many, they are not the church nor the point of the church. The church is the people – if the building wasn’t here we would meet in the village hall. Nor is the church a community club, although growing community and serving our village is important.
We are here to build the Kingdom of God, by loving and serving and sharing the good news. But even that’s not the ultimate point of the church – the ultimate purpose of the church is to be, to be the bride of Christ, to know and love him. We look forward to the day when that relationship is complete.
That fulfilment is the final part of St. Paul’s overview. Jesus gave himself for the church, he gets her ready for him, and one day they shall be united. What we see here, the church here on earth, is only half the story. One day in heaven, the church will be complete, all Christ’s followers from around the world and across time.
I find that an amazing thought. People meeting in banana thatched huts in Africa, ancient cathedrals in Rome, threatened house churches in Syria are all part of the same family. And through time too. If you go to the Ashmolean Museum, there is an ancient Anglo Saxon artefact called the Alfred Jewel. It portrays Christ in majesty. When I first saw it I was struck by how different life was for the person who made it – and yet he and I share the same fundamental beliefs. That artist is now in glory, and you and I will one day be there. We will meet again those we have loved who have trusted in Christ. It’s wonderful!
Yet we’re also all too aware that the church we see now on earth is very different from the church in heaven. Heaven is perfect but on earth the church is affected by the brokenness of our world. Here the church is imperfect, incomplete. In some places it appears strong, in others it is weak or persecuted. Sometimes the church is united, but sadly often we see the church divided into denominations, squabbling groups or parishes that have no sense of life beyond their borders.
Christ loves that church, he loves us as we are, and we must love the church too. Jesus does not give up on the church, neither should we. If you are ever frustrated by a Christian community, if you’re ever tempted to walk away, remember that Jesus loves the church, gave himself for her, and call us to love her too. Yet he also loves the church too much to allow it to stay that way. He gives his Spirit to lead us on.
Jesus calls us closer to one another, and one day those barriers will no longer exist. One day in heaven the divisions will be healed and God’s church will be one. That should give us hope – if people in a church have let you down in the past or if the church doesn’t meet the standards you would hope for, remember we are all human, forgive. And be encouraged that one day the church will be completely as God wants it to be, that we shall be with Christ forever.
We have a sense of that already. Even here ‘we are members of Christ’s body’, in v.30. Being spiritually united with Christ, we share in his life, and this has lots of implications we shall explore later in our sermon series. But at the moment, our foundation is this: that the church is the people; that the church exists for Christ; that the Church will be one in heaven. Let us see the Church as Christ sees her, and let us love him and one another. Amen.