A little church rented a building that had once been a brothel. On the first Sunday of services, the deacons were coming in the front door and saw that the former inhabitants had left a parrot behind. As they laughed at the parrot, the bird looked them all over and squawked: “same old crowd, same old crowd!”
Well, hopefully not! However, undeniably every church is a collection of sinners; who, called to live a different sort of life, gather to receive grace and strength to do so.
Our church is reading through the One Year Bible, so we are presently in the Book of Judges. It is an interesting book, full of some of the Bible’s most memorable stories. It is also a disturbing book since the characters depicted as heroes of the faith act in ways that we would not tolerate in a heathen. They visit prostitutes, cut off members of their enemies’ bodies, and sacrifice their daughters to win wars.
Sounds like the same old crowd!
I like the book of Judges though. It reassures me that God will work among a people, even if they have a woefully deficient understanding of His ways. And that is what is happening here. The generations after Joshua do not learn the ways of God. They sink into the ways of their heathen neighbors, the very thing Joshua had warned them against.
By the end of the era of the Judges, we are entering the time of Samuel. He is the prophet who heard God’s voice as a little boy and led Israel back into a fuller awareness of covenant. After Samuel came David, Solomon and, in time to come, the prophets.
Covenant information and the wisdom to apply it to life, accumulates over time. It takes generations before the full force of redemption makes a visible impact upon a family or a nation. It also takes generations before a backsliding from covenant reveals its full impact.
Many nations that wallowed for centuries in poverty and ignorance are now enjoying rising levels of education and economic prosperity. I have lived long enough now to have witnessed their transformation and understand its cause. It is the single factor that the world’s economists miss: the effect of the gospel on the poor masses.
When I was a teenager in Ecuador, the masses of the nation were desperately poor and illiterate. Cars were few and roads were bad. We still used many of the of the old Inca highway system from the days of the Empire; cobblestone washboards that made thin ribbons across the Andes and down into the jungles. After a few hours creeping on these roads, one was thoroughly exhausted.
Today, the nation is full of energy and intelligence. A beautiful mass transit system effectively carries the people of Quito from one end of the city to the other. Good roads connect the cities of the mountains with those of the coast. Markets are full and the people are healthy.
This is the story of many of the countries of Latin America.
What did all of this? It wasn’t politics, that’s for sure. Neither theirs nor ours understood the suffering of the masses – or cared, for that matter. Politicians on both the right and the left botched numerous opportunities to improve the lives of the people. Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum ping-ponged the poor from one extreme to the next.
Meanwhile, something had entered the backdoor of Latin culture. In the hovels and barrios of our great Latin cities – in the rural huts of the starving people living in something akin to slavery on the massive plantations – very flawed and simple people were teaching the scriptures. Often barely literate and poorly educated themselves, Christian workers taught a new kind of life and laid down their own relatively comfortable existence to awaken the people of Latin America to new possibilities.
While politicians strutted across the stage before their middle class audience, while those who could listened to the speeches and read the newspapers; while the left and the right battled it out in the streets with Molotov cocktails and tear gas; while revolutions came and went; the poor memorized scripture and spent nights in prayer.
Their grandchildren are no longer poor. They are the nation’s teachers and judges. They own the new businesses and run the clinics and hospitals.
It took a while and the ones who made it happen didn’t get to see it. The leaders of nations and universities still don’t see it. They paddle on and on about theories that never worked and don’t work now. Their grandfathers missed the point and so do they.
In an earlier blog, I talked at length about how the early church fathers borrowed the Latin word "persona” from the theater. To the ancient Romans, a persona (from the Latin prefix “per” meaning “through” + the word “sona,” meaning sound; thus “to sound through”) was a mask used by actors in drama. The persona allowed the audience to understand the actor’s role in the play. When the audience saw the persona, they knew what character the actor was wishing to express.
We have already seen how the early church used the word persona in their development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Now I would like to use the word persona in another context. I would like for us to consider that the local church is the persona through which the church catholic, the body of Christ, is seen and experienced in this world.
We cannot see the mystical body of Christ. We can only see the shape it takes in a particular time and place, upon this fallen planet, peopled by fallen men and women.
Although believers know that the spiritual body of Christ exists, although to believers that eternal body is more real than the earth itself, it is nonetheless, invisible to most of the world. Most of the times, it is invisible even to believers. Naturally then, when we hear the word “church,” we usually think of that face of the church that we can touch, see and experience. We call this part of the body of Christ, the local church.
While the local church may seem so much less that than the mystical body of Christ, it is the place where the rubber really meets the road. The local church has a quality about it called community, a characteristic of corporate existence that nurtures believers while they are making their journey to eternity. Believers do not make their spiritual journey alone. In the Old Testament, believers belonged to a real country, a nation called Israel. New Testament believers belong to a real community too, as should we. It is called the local church.
The writers of the New Testament stress the importance of belonging to a local church. The writer of the Hebrews (10: 24,25 NKJV) says,
"let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching."
I have been fortunate to live long enough to witness the power that is hidden within the local churches. The world ignores the most powerful of these assemblies because they seem so ordinary – so much like the same old crowd. Even Christians cannot be proud of everything done in the churches, especially when the gospel is poorly understood and so inadequately practiced.
Still, the parrot is wrong. It just looks like the same old crowd. In all the mess, a nation is being born in the home of one of those people so badly living out the faith they profess. A little boy will soon hear a voice and answer “behold, your servant heareth.”