Thinking about the Church (December 12, 2018)
Dear VICC family,
I picked up a new devotional for myself the other day. Normally my daily reading regimen comes from the psalms, as you know, but once in a while I look around for a different way of going about my daily worship. For a time I was using what is called a “daily lectionary,” which is basically just a Bible reading plan except it is structured a little more around themes and around the church calendar. One way of using the daily lectionary is to do a practice called “praying the hours.” Praying the hours means spreading your devotional time out over the day (morning, midday, evening, bed), doing a portion of the reading each time and focusing your prayers on different things (bedtime: gratitude, midday: praying for others, etc.). It was a blessing to me in many ways, but a little challenging for a working parent to maintain.
This new devotional I picked up has been kind of fun, but I’m sure it’s not for everybody. It is called The Ancient Christian Devotional and is based on the weekly lectionary readings more traditional churches use for their Sunday worship. We get a taste of these readings in our Advent services every year, and especially this year with me preaching from the Gospel texts. There are fifty-two sets of readings, one for each week of the year, which I have been breaking into daily portions. Between the Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament Letter, and Gospel readings are passages taken from commentaries or sermons by early Christian leaders. Each set of readings also includes an opening and a closing prayer from the ancient church.
Reading the thoughts and prayers of the early church fathers, and using Scripture passages from the Revised Common Lectionary in my daily worship, has brought alive to me both the unity and the diversity of the Christian church. There is a lot that divides the visible church these days. We disagree on too many things to name. And some of these things really do matter. As I once said to my Roman Catholic friend, Andrew, “I was born into the evangelical church, but as an adult I am evangelical on purpose.” What I meant was, though my journey with Jesus began in a church that focused on the Bible above tradition and avoided the accoutrements of Roman Catholicism, my journey has stayed in that part of the Christian world as an adult because I believe it is basically right. (And, of course, as a good Roman Catholic, my friend said he felt the same way about his own branch of the Christian tree!). But these readings, full as they are of Scripture quotes and reverence for Jesus, have also made alive to me in a new way the unity of the Body of Christ. During the Protestant Reformation, when churches were breaking away from Rome over issues like the Bible versus tradition, it was a real crisis for these new Protestant Christians to figure out what exactly makes a church a church now that the Church across Europe was divided. One of the most important thinkers of the Reformation, John Calvin, explained it this way: The Christian church is both visible and invisible. The church is visible in the sense that you can see people who sing songs on Sundays and who get baptized and call themselves Christians, but often these people are divided from one another and have very different beliefs about God. But, said Calvin, the church is also invisible. That is, there is an invisible, spiritual reality to the church. The church we see is divided, but spiritually all those who truly believe in Jesus are united despite their differences. The church we see is a mixed bag of people who really do love God and people who are just playing religious games. But the invisible reality is that the Body of Christ is the community of those who trust in Jesus and are thus redeemed. The visible church may or may not be a people who own their sin and admit their need of a savior, but invisibly, spiritually, the church is a community of sinners saved by grace.
So for me, as I think about my friends in other parts of the Christian tree (or even Christians from my own branch with whom I have major disagreements!), what I am learning to look for is what is going on between them and Jesus. If it appears they just don’t seem to know him, then I treat them as my neighbors who I am called to love for Christ’s sake. But if I see in them a living, vital relationship with the same Savior whom I have come to know and love, then for all our differences I count myself among family.
Your partner on the journey,