The Church’s True Beauty
The Church’s True Beauty
Seriously? The church is “beautiful”?
We know all too well the church’s ugliness. Its shortcomings. Its divisions. Its judgmentalism. Its hypocrisies. Its preoccupations with trivial things, while ignoring weightier matters. Its human face is just as flawed as humanity is elsewhere.
Yet it is beautiful, because it is the body of Christ. The beauty of the church is the beauty of Jesus.
As we walk the Lenten road with Jesus, we already know that it’s going to lead to Jesus being physically tortured to death. Perhaps we feel like Thomas, who gets only a few lines in the entire story of Jesus; when it becomes clear that Jesus is hell-bent on going to Jerusalem, he sighs, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
It will get ugly. Jesus will be beaten and left for dead, with no good Samaritan to save him. The beauty of Jesus lies not in what the eye sees.
Before I came to Pittsburgh, I worked as a grant-maker to pastors seeking funding for sabbaticals. One of the final grants we made during my tenure was to a pastor seeking funding for a sabbatical project he called “Beholding the Beauty of Jesus.” Over the three months of his sabbatical he proposed worshiping with twelve highly diverse congregations – Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Anabaptist, Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Black, White, Brown. From far right to far left and every point in between. He believed that he would see more fully the face of Jesus if he worshiped with as wide of a spectrum of congregations as possible.
It was in no small measure a mystical journey. The beauty he would see would certainly be in the eye of the beholder. He chose to see beauty even when his visits took him to communities that proclaimed anathemas against each other. He believed that in each of them he could and would see Jesus. And he did.
Before it is or does anything, the church is the Body of Christ. Over the past few months we have been considering basic claims about the church as set forth in the Foundations section of our Book of Order: The Great Ends of the Church. The Reformed Notes of the Church. The Marks of the Church. Finally we get to the first foundation stone: The church is the Body of Christ. (Book of Order F-1.0201)
Whatever forms the church may take in our post-pandemic world, it will be the Body of Christ. It lives into that reality by intentionally joining Jesus in his mission. The church has no mission of its own, only that of Jesus. “The Church’s life and mission are a joyful participation in the Christ’s ongoing life and work.” (Ibid)
Theologically, wherever Jesus goes, the church must go. Practically, wherever the church goes, Jesus goes. He has bound himself to us. Even when it is anything but pretty. His road to Calvary underscores that having everything look pristine and work in good order is not his highest priority.
In my work, I deal with the church mainly when it is in trouble. Congregations don’t call on the presbytery when everything is humming along nicely. Only when that happy place gets disrupted do we get called upon. This is no big revelation; everyone knows that the presbytery office is more like the fire department than the parks department.
This leads people often to express to me how much they sympathize with my difficult lot in life. They pity me and promise to pray for me – I tell them I covet the prayers, but to hold back on the pity.
Because there is something beautiful about my work. Like my sabbatical applicant, I get to see more of the face of Jesus than most are privileged to see, as I worship with congregations across every spectrum imaginable. Wherever I go, I see people praying diligently, studying and proclaiming Scripture sincerely, praising God joyfully, confessing their sin humbly, and joining in Christ’s mission passionately. The emphases differ, but the Spirit is the same.
I get to see the breadth of the beauty of Jesus in ways that one can never see in a single congregation. What a privilege and joy that is!
Jesus at the center. This is the church’s superpower. Without Jesus, the church is nothing. And without the church, Jesus is incomplete. In the words of Paul, the church is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Breathtaking, isn’t it?
Yours in the journey,