Beautiful, Messy Church


There has never been a perfect church. If messiness was the reality of the early church, it’s probably the reality of our church. So where is the hope in it all?

Christians spend a lot of energy trying to find the perfect church.  It’s not a bad thing–how great is it that our country has such a plethora of churches that we can actually afford to be picky with the children’s ministry or style of worship or whatever?  To be honest, I don’t really care where you go as long as the gospel is preached and your kids can develop a relationship with God there.  Just be aware, the temptation will creep in, wherever you are, whatever kind of church you call home, to get really focused on the things you don’t like and want to find greener grass.

I’ve been studying the letters to the Corinthians recently, and it’s been such a great reminder that church has been messy from the very beginning.  There has never been a perfect church.  You think Chicago is a tough place to do ministry?  Forget it.  Corinth makes Chicago look like Mayberry.

Corinth was a place of wealth and commerce.  It provided every sensual desire you could ever imagine.  Corinth had temples where the people could do ‘spiritual’ rituals to feel close to a god.  At the temple of Aphrodite (sex goddess), one ancient source tells us that there were 1,000 women consecrated to perform sexual acts associated with the temple.

Actually, Corinth was such a mess that the ancient world had a phrase they used to describe the act of sexual immorality. No joke.  To “Corinthize” (English translation) meant to perform sexually immoral acts.  I don’t know if the ad campaign for Corinth was “What happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth” or not – but you get the idea.

This is the context of 1 Corinthians.  Paul established the Church at Corinth in Acts 18.  When Paul came the first time to Corinth he brought the good news of the Gospel to a lot of people who had been trying to find salvation in a lot of unfulfilling ways.  He spent eighteen months with the Corinthians, but eventually he had to leave and go start other churches.

So now they are messy again.

Rather than sharing their possessions, the Corinthians would sue each other to get more stuff.

Rather than eating meals together, the Corinthians would cut in line during communion to get drunk off the wine.

And rather than communal singing, the Corinthians had communal sex.

So Paul has to write them not one letter but two.  Actually scholars think because of the way it says “In my former letter” in 1 Corinthians, there might have actually been 3 or 4 letters to the Corinthians.   My guess is that if that’s true, we haven’t seen the others because Paul used some really bad words in them.

The point here is that this letter is a scathing rebuke to a messy church.  Sure the Love Chapter is in here – which we all use inappropriately at weddings – but the context for 1 Corinthians 13 is the middle of a mess.   (So maybe it’s appropriate for weddings after all!)  You’ve heard of the compliment sandwich?  Well, in between two slices of “grace bread,” Paul gives a pretty meaty smack-down.  The Corinthians needed it.

If messiness was the reality of the early church, it’s probably the reality of our church.  It’s probably the reality of your church.

So where is the hope in all of this?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not programming or style or finding the preacher with the best hipster glasses.  If you and I look at ourselves or we look at the state of the American church or even churches that are doing a lot of good, we will still find things to nit-pick about and get discouraged by, or feel like we’ve been slighted by, or complain about.  So where does the hope lie?  Not surprisingly, Paul focuses the Corinthians on Jesus. Nine times in the first nine verses of 1 Corinthains, Paul says, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.” Nine times, nine verses, “Jesus Christ.”

The problem with the Corinthians is they’re thinking about getting drunk.  They’re thinking about having sex.  They’re thinking about making money.  They’re thinking about being cool.  They’re thinking about speaking in tongues.  They’re thinking about being super-fly.  They’re thinking about being married.  They’re thinking about being single.  They’re thinking about being successful.  They’re thinking about being powerful.  They’re thinking about everything but Jesus, and this happens in the church.  So nine times in nine verses Paul says, “Jesus Christ.”  The whole church has to look at Jesus.  The whole church has to focus on Jesus.  The whole church has to follow Jesus.  The whole church has to live like Jesus.

Jesus is the only hope for the Church, and he’s not giving up on us.  He sees his bride as nothing but beautiful.

My wife would tell you that she has some things she doesn’t like about herself.   But when I see her, all I see is that knockout 18-year-old who walked through the door of the college café in September of 1982.  She took my breath away.  Actually, I see her that way PLUS all the love of 30 years together and three kids and partnership in ministry.  I see nothing but amazing!

That’s how Jesus sees us!

And when we get to heaven, he’s going to present us to his Father – my church – your church – Drunk communion people – Cubs fans – all of us – and say -

‘Here’s my wife, Father – isn’t she beautiful?”

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.  My love to all of you in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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