“If you could dream up the perfect church, what would it look like?” asks a recent book. The author then goes on to describe his ideal church: located in a major city in an environmentally sensitive building with a great urban design. It would include a coffee shop, roastery, and event space for the community. The church would be active in justice, mercy, and outreach. It would hold to the best of conservative theological tradition while learning from the best of other traditions too. It would be gospel-centered, Spirit-led, and mission-minded. It would plant other churches, take church membership seriously, and engage its members in active service. It would also offer engaging courses on a variety of topics to the community. It would also own several homes and apartments in the community and rent them out as a way of building intentional community.
Sounds good to me! I think we can all dream of the perfect church in our minds. We all have ideas of what it would look like, and how it would embody our ideals and values.
The author then says:
I am a bit disgusted with how easy it is to describe in such detail my hypothetical “dream church.” It’s easy because this is how we’ve been conditioned to think. “Have it your way” consumerism is the air we breathe…
Here’s the kicker:
What we think we want from a church is almost never what we need. However challenging it may be to embrace, God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure. It’s not about finding a church that perfectly fits my theological, architectural, or political preferences. It’s about becoming like “living stones” that are “being built up as a spiritual house” focused on and held together by Jesus, the stone the builders rejected who became the cornerstone (1 Pet. 2: 4–7).
I love this.
We’re accustomed to being the customer in almost every relationship. We can shop around and find what we like in almost every category. It’s so easy to bring this same attitude to church. And yet God’s idea for church is much better than anything we could come up with.
Instead of driving twenty miles away to attend a church that “fits my needs,” what if we committed to the nearest nonheretical, Bible-believing church where we could grow and serve— and where Jesus is the hero— however uncomfortable it may be?
Commitment even amidst discomfort, faithfulness even amidst disappointment: this is what being the people of God has always been about.
We’re in the middle of a short series on the church. We are implementing, for the first time, membership. We’re asking you to sign up, to commit to being part of this church.
Normally when someone is trying to get you to join and become a member of something — a gym, Costco, whatever — you get a list of all the benefits. I’m going to do the very opposite today. I’m going to tell you that joining a church is uncomfortable, sacrificial, and costly. I’m also going to tell you that it’s awesome — not because it’s easy, but because it’s both what God designed and what we need.
For just a few minutes, I want to look at the passage we just read to see how God designed us to live. And then I want to spend a few minutes talking practically about what this looks like in a church like Liberty Grace Church.
How God Designed Us to Live
Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, writes to a group of churches located in what is now modern Turkey. He’s writing to Christians who hadn’t always been Christians. They were mostly Gentiles. They had worshiped idols. And now they were followers of Jesus Christ right around the time that Christians were starting to be persecuted for their faith.
One of my friends — a man I really respect — says we ought to pay a lot more attention to this letter than we do. We’re in a very similar position. We’re a church full of people who haven’t always followed Jesus. We’re trying to figure out what it means to follow him in a culture that’s increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. How do you live for Jesus when it goes against the current of culture? That’s what Peter writes about, and we can learn a lot from what he writes.
In chapter 2, he addresses the Christians. He does something interesting. He addresses them not as a collection of individuals, which is how we tend to think. Instead, he uses a couple of images that amaze me when I think about them.
Who We Are
It doesn’t mean much to say that we’re God’s temple, does it? Temple is one of those words that’s lost its meaning. It no longer carries the freight that it used to.
In the Bible, though, temple is full of meaning. When Adam and Eve sinned, God kicked them out of the Garden of Eden. There was no way that sinful humans could live in God’s presence. God is so holy that he can’t live in the presence of sin. But as you read the Bible, you discover that God chooses to still live with his people — first in a tabernacle, and then in a more permanent structure called the temple. The temple is where a holy God lives with imperfect people. It’s only made possible by sacrifices which somehow deal with the problem of our sin. The temple is where God lives with his people. It’s where God shows his glory. It’s where God’s people worship. It’s where he deals with their sin.
As Peter writes these verses, the temple still stands in Jerusalem. It’s in its last years before being completely destroyed in 70AD. But something’s happened. The temple is no longer where God lives with his people anymore. It’s changed. Peter speaks of the church — the ordinary company of followers of Jesus who are bound together in Christ — as the new place where God lives with his people. Peter mixes metaphors, actually. We’re not just stones in his temple, but we’re priests in the temple doing God’s work.
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)
Okay, let’s unpack this a little.
The temple of Peter’s day is now gone. You can visit Jerusalem, as some of us have, and you’ll find a mosque where the temple used to stand. It’s gone.
It’s no accident that this happened. God is building a new temple now. The cornerstone is Jesus, and this is a cornerstone that will never be removed or destroyed. Jesus is cornerstone because he stands at the center of history. He gave his life for his. He has made it possible for us to be right with God. Everything can and must be built around him and what he’s done for us.
And now God is building his church using us — living stones into the new temple where God lives and shows his glory. The church is where God shows his glory in the world, and we’re God’s mediating agents — his priests — in this wicked world.
Okay, that’s who we are. In a minute we’re going to look at what we do. But let’s just pause here for a minute. This is a big deal! As our lives interlock together as a group of believers, God inhabits us. We can’t expect this if we’re isolated and alone. God inhabits us collectively. His glory and his presence show up as we’re being built together.
We, together, are at the very heart and center of God’s activity in the world. We are God’s building. In Christ, we are being built up for God’s presence.
You’ve probably driven past Toronto’s east waterfront. Google’s urban innovation offshoot Sidewalk Labs is going to transform it into a pilot project to try new ideas including self-driving buses and mass-production modular homes to solve major problems of urban living such as high housing costs, commute times, social inequality, climate change and even cold weather keeping people indoors. “We looked all over the world for the perfect place to bring this vision to life and we found it here in Toronto,” the CEO said. “We’re creating a new type of place to accelerate urban innovation and serve as a beacon for cities around the world.”
I think they stole that idea from the church! That’s exactly what the church is. Instead of Google moving in, God is moving in. He’s building the church into a pilot project to show what restored humanity looks like. It’s where God has chosen to live and make his glory known. That’s who we are together.
What We Do
Then there’s what we do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
That’s our job description. In the original temple, priests offered sacrifices. We don’t have to do that anymore, because the final sacrifice has been offered. We don’t need any more sacrifices after Jesus. Our job as a kingdom of priests is to offer a sacrifice of praise.
Peter isn’t just talking about what happens on Sundays. He’s talking about our lives together as a church. Everything we do as a church as we gather on Sundays, as we pray together in our potluck and prayer meetings, as we gather in Grace Groups, and as we reach out to the community is about one thing: proclaiming the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
We are where God lives. We are where God shows his glory. We have a very clear job description: to bring glory to Jesus. That’s what church is all about.
What This Looks Like
Let’s talk about what this looks like in a church like Liberty Grace.
First, we need to be together. I am horribly guilty — and maybe you are too — of thinking individualistically. We tend to think of our relationship with God in terms of him and me. We miss how the Bible hardly ever talks about this. It’s always talking about God has his people, God and his church.
In her opening address to the Episcopal Church's recent General Convention, the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the church's presiding bishop, made a special point of denouncing what she labeled “the great Western heresy” —the teaching, in her words, “that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.” This “individualist focus,” she declared, “is a form of idolatry.” She’s exactly right.
The reason we’re asking you to commit to being part of the church is that this type of commitment is implicit everywhere you look in Scripture. We tend to miss it. Although the New Testament doesn’t mention church membership, it assumes it.
Church membership is a biblically defensible doctrine … The NT demonstrates that this membership is not merely in the universal church but is also comprised of belonging to and being in covenant with a local assembly of believers. God calls for believers to gather locally, administer ordinances, exercise the authority of the keys of the kingdom, fulfill the “one another” commands, hold one another accountable, and exercise church discipline. Thus, while church membership is not explicitly mentioned in numerous places in the NT, one can see that all of the items listed previously assume and demand that people gathered locally and living out and overseeing one’s discipleship in specific ways. The Bible, therefore, calls us to submit to local church membership. (40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline)
Just look at this passage. A dwelling place is not one solitary stone. Each stone retains its identity, but it’s only as it’s joined to others that it becomes something bigger than itself. It’s only together that we achieve the structural purpose of becoming the household of God. We need to be together.
Second, some things only happen by being together, by being committed to each other. Peter reminds us who we are: God’s temple and God’s priesthood. He then reminds us what we do: proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. We can only do this — and a bunch of things — together. We can’t do them alone.
Say you’re really loving. Somebody meets you. You hope that by loving them that you show what it’s like to follow Jesus. The problem? You being loving could just be part of your personality. Some people are cranky. Some people are loving. You just happen to be one of the loving people.
But say that people encounter not just one person who’s loving, but a whole community. All of a sudden it’s not a personality quirk. All of a sudden you have people with very different personalities and makeups and backgrounds, all reoriented in radical new ways by what Jesus has done from them.
God has called us to do a lot of things, and we can’t do any of them by ourselves. You con’t encourage, build up, strengthen, serve, rebuke, and love other Christians by yourself. You can’t covenant to watch over and be watched over by yourself. You can’t experience the care and protection of elders by yourself. You can’t receive the assurance of faith that comes from the involvement of others in your life, who see and recognize God’s work in your life, by yourself.
Finally, we must remember our purpose together as God’s church. At the beginning of this message I talked about the church of our dreams. It’s easy to approach church as a consumer. What if, instead, we focused not on what we want as a church, but what God wants? What if we came, not with a focus on what we can get, but on who we are as the church and what God has called us to do?
That’s what it means to be the church — to turn away from isolation and even wishlists of what we want life to be. It means joining up with others — messy, frustrating, people — with nothing in common except for Jesus. It means that we become part of the church — an ordinary group of Christians who band together to be God’s temple and to do God’s work.
Give up isolation and your ideas of the perfect church. Join a real church — the dwelling place of God, and the people who do his work in the world.
So let me close with a question from the book I quoted at the beginning:
Are you willing to lay aside your “dream church” consumer fantasies and accept the hard-to-stomach truths and awkward requirements of locking arms with weird people in common pursuit of Jesus? Are you willing to relinquish your freedom to do and be whatever you want? Are you willing to embrace persecution when it comes, to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3: 8)?
That’s the invitation we have in front of us. We’ll probably mess it up. But, by God’s grace, let’s lean into becoming that kind of church.