“I sought to hear the voice of God and climbed the topmost steeple, but God declared: ‘Go down again – I dwell among the people.’” – John Henry Newman
The honour of New Zealand is reflected in the architecture of Government House (the dwelling place of the Governor General), as the honour of a city is portrayed by architecture of a city hall with columns and elaborate stone-work. Buildings around the world compete to best display the honour of heads of state, capital cities and the nations who commission them. God also has dwelt in many places, some more humble than most humans, and some with unobtainable grandeur. Heaven is God’s throne room, and the earth his footstool.
Yet, at times in history, God has made a point of dwelling among his people. The tabernacle that Israel made at Mt Sinai was an elaborate tent, yet a tent nonetheless. The stone temple that Solomon built was an elaborate house, yet a house nonetheless. The manger was an animal feed box, and it housed the presence of God made flesh. God is not opposed to humble dwellings, and his presence fills them with glory.
I remember clearly the first time I was taught about the days in which God moved into his new dwellings. The Shekinah Glory of the presence of God that led Israel out from Egypt by fire and smoke filled the Tabernacle and Temple on the day of their commissioning such that no priest was able to enter and serve (Exodus 40 and 1 Kings 8). The part of that thread that most captivated me was the similarity to Acts 2, where the presence of God takes residence in the early Church through the giving of the Holy Spirit.
God has taken up a new dwelling on earth, a new temple to house his presence in the nations – and it’s us! The church is the dwelling of God on earth. The people are the new house, the new temple, the new tent. The glory of the Lord dwells within a people who have been cleansed and commissioned by the sacrifice of Jesus. The Church is honoured by the presence of God, and we are assured of our worth by the Spirit who dwells in us and binds us together. The metaphorical building may not always look grand, but the owner/occupier assures us that the Church is loved by God and honoured by his presence.
In the cool interior of the large building, we all sit awkwardly in unaccustomed finery. We are painted and shaved and wearing jackets and ties and hats and flowers, the likes of which are worn only a few times each year. We wait in hushed expectation, glancing to the small party in tuxedos at the front; watching for their reaction, waiting to share that moment. A wedding brings together a group of people behaving in a manner foreign to most of them. All scrubbed up and on their best behaviour. But all of them wait on one. In a room full of people looking as beautiful as they can manage, the wedding has only one star. The Bride is the definition of beauty at her own wedding, the only one who makes all the assembled finery gasp, the only one who makes the men at the front shed tears of admiration.
This is the beauty that we are told the Church holds for her husband, Jesus. In all its foibles and idiosyncrasies, and chequered history, and variegated denominations that ooze suspicion of one another, Jesus sees the most beautiful Bride and the heavens rejoice with him.
Ephesians 5 teaches us that Christ left his home above and came to create for himself that perfect specimen of beauty. She is only perfect because his life-giving blood was shed to make her so; his righteousness shines through her wonderful adornment. The final day is a wedding feast, and the kingdom will finally be consummated in eternal covenant.
Do you find it hard to picture the Church this way? We are so accustomed to finding fault and experiencing distrust and shame when we think of the global Church. It is hard to imagine the Church as something this beautiful. Yet scripture tells us firmly that Christ has made a people for himself, to be his partner in all eternity, and that they share his perfect righteousness through his saving action at the cross.
However we view the Church, however we interpret its state, we must remember that God loves it. However well or poorly the church behaves in our field of view, we know that Christ stands waiting like a hopeful Groom to finally set his eyes on the only true star amongst all people. The Church is his Bride, and she is beautiful in his eyes.
Mike Summerfield is a pastor and TSCF staff worker in Dunedin.