I wonder about the Apostle Paul sometimes. Right in the middle of a beautiful explanation about how marriage works, he veers off in another direction and writes, “…Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27) Then we think we get it. Life in our marriages is to be a slice of Christian community! Love each other in the same way as Jesus loves us and when the church gathers its constituent families, there’s a growing richness and radiance because Jesus’ influence has been released in our relationships at home.
Yet, might there be more in what is pictured but left unsaid? To give us a way of thinking about God’s relationship with the Church, the Apostle Paul has taken up a metaphor that is also found in other places in the Old and New Testaments – the metaphor of God’s people being His deeply cherished Bride who has made a covenant to love Him back and to live life with Him wherever He is going.
It’s an interesting metaphor that the Bible chooses; and while the metaphor has limits, we cannot get past the reality that major choices made by one marriage partner deeply impacts the life of the other. For example, when Donna and I were married in May 1973, we thought we were going to a youth pastorate in St. Petersburg, Florida. We never got there. The adventure led us instead to be bivocational members of a church planting team in a village of high-rises in North York here in Toronto.
Once settled there, we thought we would be urban people for the rest of our lives, but the adventure led us to the suburbs of Whitby, the wheat lands of Saskatchewan, the foothills of the Rockies, and back to the urban sprawl of Mississauga from where we now travel to many parts of Canada and other parts of the world. Neither of us could have imagined where life has taken us. But married love says that we will love each and we will live life with the other wherever it takes us.
So, in our discussions these days about the nature of the Church, we cannot talk about the Church without talking about Jesus. “Christ loved the Church,” the Ephesians passage tells us and the context tells us that the Church lives with Him in a covenant relationship of love.
My point is that we cannot talk about the Church without talking about Jesus; and we cannot talk about Jesus without embracing His passion for His creation as it stood originally (with pride, He stood back and looked at it and said, “This is very good!”); and His creation as it is presently-distorted and disfigured by the impact of sinful choices (and with mercy He says, “This is worth saving.”). He emptied Himself to give Himself, not because He was ordered to, but the picture of our passage says He made passionate, self-giving, sacrificial choices (we get a glimpse of this on Thursday night in Gethsemane, but these choices are there in every major move) – in His incarnation (He left heaven); in His death (He left life among those He loved); in His resurrection (He returned from death rather than going on into eternity); and in His ascension (He made the choice to hand over His mission to some very ordinary people).
Here is what we have to “get”. The Church cannot think in a detached way about Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. We are married into an ongoing life of incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension.
In the ascension, we have a future hope in heaven that is real, where we will see Him face to face in the middle of a triumphant community of fully abandoned disciples!
In the resurrection, we have the promise of Romans 8:11, “If that same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is living in you.…” The rest of the verse talks about the resurrection of our mortal bodies, but the first part of the verse talks about the present reality. The spirit of the resurrected Christ is living in us now!
We are tied to Jesus’ cross, Paul says, in daily crucifixion of our self-centeredness.
Finally, we have covenanted to love Him back and to live life with Him in an incarnational lifestyle of walking out of healthy, holy huddles into the world where we live as salt and light among people, bringing love and holiness to bear upon sin, hurts, and needs.
When one ponders the choices in the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, one understands there is a deep passionate throb behind each of these intense experiences. His mission is to woo, win, and heal the community of people that he calls His Church so that they can walk with Him, and together be a dynamic, transformational influence in the world.
There is a deep bond between Jesus and His Church – so deep that people are idiots who think that they can detach and love Jesus but not love His Bride. Of course, you say, that is what one would expect a Bishop to say and believe because he is so enmeshed in the Church, but show me this in the Scriptures. Instead of finding a proof text for you, I would simply say, replay the story of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. It is a story filled with passion and devotion. Though Jesus loves us person by person, He is not seduced by the offer of individualistic, private affairs. He is in covenant relationship with His Bride and they are on a mission of holy love to bring wholeness to creation, culture and communities. Forget about inviting Him to your house and telling Him to leave His bride at home.
So, if He won’t come without His Bride, what’s it like to live life at home with Him? The Church cannot live in a harmonious covenant relationship with Jesus and ignore His incarnational mission to woo the stained, distraught, disfigured persons yet-to-be-fully-embraced as His Bride. Listen, He still sees His yet-to-be-embraced Bride as he moves around the neighbourhoods of the world. He is clear. He came to give Himself up for her…. to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word and to present her to Himself radiant without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Now don’t let Paul throw you as he morphs his metaphor from talking about the fiber of marriage to talking about the fiber of expensive cloth. Jesus dreams of those He sees soiled and disfigured…. as radiant, without stain or wrinkle.
To follow Paul’s morph, let’s go to the dry cleaners and ask the question, “What is the difference between a stain and a wrinkle?” In the instance of a stain, there has been an invasion by a foreign substance that has changed the chemical composition of the cloth. The mustard and ketchup have penetrated the fabric and the only solution is a deep, cleansing treatment.
A wrinkle is different. There is no chemical invasion. Wrinkles come when fibers are forced out of their natural position and bent and disfigured. Warm steam will moisten them and release them back to fit and flow as intended by their creator.
The stain left by sin on lives, families, and whole cultures is very deep and pervasive. Only the cleansing power released through the shed blood of Jesus can deal with its ultimate ugliness. And only the deep healing power of the warm, gracious love of His Spirit can release and heal the disfigurement of the twistedness that entered the whole created order after the Fall.
None of us can ever guess where life will take us once we enter covenant relationship with Jesus. His first disciples could never have imagined the paths that they would travel with Him, the experiences they would have, and the place where each found himself at the time of death. Neither can you or I; but this we know for sure: we experience the fullness of our relationship with Jesus only when we embrace the future hope promised by His ascension; the daily power released through His resurrection; the essential refocusing in daily dying; and the adventure of living incarnationally in our local and global neighborhoods.
Rev. Keith Elford is the Bishop of The Free Methodist Church in Canada.