This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32).
William Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Ministry at Duke Divinity School, once quipped that “the church may be the bride of Christ . . . but he married beneath himself.” You may respond with a hearty ‘Amen.’ Spend any time around a church and you do begin to wonder if Jesus couldn’t have done better.
Whenever we speak the words of the Apostles’ Creed we affirm our belief in the ‘holy catholic Church.’ Often we trip up over the adjectives ‘holy’ and ‘catholic.’ That’s not a hard obstacle to overcome. A good dictionary and a few moments’ thought can pretty well take care of our questions about holiness and Catholicism.
There is another reason why the words of the creed about the church get stuck in our throats. This reason is widespread and it is very hard to eradicate.
The Burned and the Bummed
Many people cannot say they believe in the church because the church has repeatedly disappointed them. Its flaws are too glaring and the wounds it inflicts are too deep. Far from believing in the church, they no longer have anything to do with it. Some might say that distancing themselves from the church was the only way to save their faith.
There’s only one problem: Jesus doesn’t offer that as an option. The kind of faith that gets saved by rejecting the church isn’t much of a faith. We may not like that, but that’s the truth.
I’m not unsympathetic to the burned and the bummed. I’ve spent my entire life in close affiliation with the church. I’ve spent more than two decades serving the church as a pastor. I cannot recall many instances of being vilified by the non-believing, un-churched pagan world. They may ignore me, but that world has never actively sought to harm me. However, I can make a list of hurts suffered at the hands of other devout people. The church can be brutal.
To say “I believe in the church” is not to say “I find it fun, comfortable, and consistently uplifting.” Too often the church is not that. What the church is – always – is the bride of Christ. We are in a covenant relationship. We don’t stay with it because it is comfortable. We stay with it because of a covenant.
“I Don’t Like Your Wife”
The church isn’t our idea and it isn’t our project. God has willed that his presence in this world be made real in a community of people. Those communities may be deeply flawed, fractured, and sometimes raucous. But those communities are the means of God’s redemptive work in this world. That’s a staggering claim – but that’s what we’re saying when we say “I believe in the church.”
I like to imagine that perhaps someone receives these daily reflections who doesn’t belong to a church. There may be good reason for that. A church is not always easy to belong to. But if you’re one of those people, today I’d like to appeal to you to once again take your place among the community of God’s people. The reason is simple: It is not really possible to have Jesus while rejecting his bride. It’s a little awkward to tell a man “I like you but I can’t stand your wife.”
There’s a wonderful hymn text that speaks of Jesus as “The Church’s One Foundation.” In the first verse of the hymn we sing these words about the Church: “From heaven he came and sought her to be his Holy Bride.” Plenty of people can find plenty of reasons to be down on the church. But let’s never forget this: Jesus loves the Church. Jesus loves your church.
To honor Jesus is to honor his bride. To belong to him is to belong to his people.
We give you thanks, O God, for your covenant faithfulness and steadfast love. Teach us to honor you and love you as you have loved us. Grant us grace that we might love your people, your bride, the church. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.